Sunday, October 17, 2010

Opus, Where Have You Gone?

Is it me, or are people becoming nastier?  Less patient, more paranoid.   Where is their lust for life?  Doesn't anyone remember the kumbaya of "Our Time in Eden" by Mother Earth herself, Natalie Merchant?  Or the little books urging us to not sweat the small stuff, to learn from our Kindergarten experiences and embrace the Eckhart Tolle that is supposed to reside in all of us??

When you go through a cycle of surreal circus news like we've had the last few weeks- celibate, creationist witches for Congress, bullying teens turn suicide tragedy, modern-day Red Scare politics, gay-bashing, and a general paranoia among people- you long for an island of sanity to escape to.  (Although I confess a little grumpiness of my own; e.g. I can't even enjoy my Phillies in the playoffs because FOX and TBS manage to turn the great Fall Classic into a gimicky, dumbed down, American League-leading Yank-fest, with vapid commentary.)  It all calls for a steady and consistent IV drip of common sense, sarcasm, irony and wisdom. A tonic to help the masses look less like asses.  For me, the daily and Sunday comic, Bloom County used to be that bromide.  No- religion.  Opus, where have you gone?

This isn't your ordinary pine-for-the-days-of-old kind of post.  I don't need the "that was then this is now speech".  Bloom County was timeless- like the Beatles or Roald Dahl books.  

Each delicately crafted character held a collection of human hopes, dreams, frailties, and flaws.  And, yes- anxieties!  Who can forget Michael Binkley's closet?  Spawned from normal kid fears of things that go bump in the night, Binkley's closet became a hilarious stage for the freakiest of pop culture icons to strut and fret upon.  Tammy Faye Baker, Jesse Helms, Richard Simmons and Milton Friedman were some of the more memorable fodder to hit the strip.  Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov (how long did he live as president?) and Cuban Leader Fidel Castro showed up one night to haunt Binkley, but it turned out they had the wrong closet- it was supposed to be Ronald Reagan's. 

Bloom County held a cast of mini-eggheads (both human and woodsy animal-type) who knew more about philosophy, politics, etiquette, love and hardship than their adult counterparts.  The womanizing Steve Dallas was getting dumped on more regularly than a daisy in a cow pasture, that is, until he was captured by aliens and turned into a feminist.  Binkley's single dad showed all the hardships and frustrations of being a single parent during toddlerhood.  Cutter John, the soft-hearted but passionate wheelchair bound friend of the Bloomies led high-speed excursions on his wheel chair through the meadow on the USS Enterpoop.  Any reference or connection to Star Trek, it seems, is guaranteed acceptance among the general comic reading public (see: Comicon for proof). Because we can all laugh.

We all understood the constantly frazzled Bill the Cat: we've been there.  It is uncertain whether he was left that way by some drug experiment (or experimental drug!) or whether he was simply toting an extra chromosome around.  He's been a televangelist, a cult leader, a presidential candidate and a rock star, all supporting the theory that crazy is as crazy does.  Just look at the aforementioned week of news topics.  Either way, his trademark "ACK!" has many a day summed up my feelings of life as a cat in an adult world. 

But perhaps the one we could all fondly relate to was the neurotic, bowtie wearing penguin, Opus.  Often mistaken for an iguana, he was given to fits of shouting loud declarations calling for fairness, common sense and acceptance of the absurd.  His late night habit of ordering from infomercials and an addiction to herring showed the imperfect side of us all.  His frequent chats with "the sky", from the safe haven of Bloom Meadow, mirrored American existentialist feelings in a rapidly developing world of technology and rapidly declining morals.  Searching for something he couldn't have or long lost (in his case, his mother) was the common thread through the strips' years, though he did achieve satisfaction in the end.  Opus was more than the underdog.  He was "someone" we could lean on in uncertain times (which seemed to be ever present).  He was a panacea. 

Just like other rebirths, spin-offs and imitations (even if by the original creator), Bloom County was more than the sum of its parts.  And, now more than ever, we could use a daily dose or two of the silliness.  Quoted in the late 70s about his newly minted comic, creator Berkely Breathed said, "As I see it, the world is getting more dangerous. But of course it's getting funnier proportionately, hence a mixed blessing. Clearly this decade is in need of some serious analysis on the comic pages."  

Timeless, I say.  Timeless.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ferragamo or Laurent Perrier? A Chef Chooses

I must admit, it's a glorious feeling reading an interview with one of the greatest living chefs and finding out how wonderfully down to earth he is, and dare I say, just like you.

Ferran Adria is one such chef.  He recently gave a talk in New York City as part of a promotion of a new biography that both canonizes him and demystifies him at once, even if in the process a little man-crush gives way from author Colman Andrews, formerly of Saveur magazine, my most cherished food porn rag.

Chef Didier Oudill
In my years of working under chefs of a certain stature, when a down-time arrives and you have time to watch the rare and beautiful beast in his own habitat, you learn as much about his methods as you do the man behind the cuisine .  One such chef, Didier Oudill, was my chef during an externship at the Hotel Cafe de Paris in Biarritz, France.  He was disturbingly introverted and often gave to fits of pacing the kitchen while staring at the floor with knitted brow, as if solving an intricate theorem.  So, the other cooks and I would titter when he took a call in his office from one of his many friends around the globe, as he shouted in exuberance to hear their voice, while somehow seeming to make up for the distance with his elevated tone.  "Hah-looooooooooooo!"

And, it was that dichotomy that was both unplanned and revealing.  An "aha!" moment, but certainly not at the time.  I imagine I've had more than a few cooks think I was a patient off his meds in the past when doing the very same thing- trying to solve a problem completely unrelated to all that was in play at that moment, but no less important. 

When Chef Oudill would let his dog, Lipp, roam freely through the kitchens, it instantly humanized this mystery man.  When his kids visited and stepped inside the sacred laboratory (and he didn't freak), you knew there was a real man inside.  And, when, upon heading home I presented him with a "thank you" gift of a unique Laguiole knife whose soul purpose is for slicing lobes of foie gras, he seemed genuinely grateful and elated.  Not every stagiare is so fortunate to have a picture completed; no, some spend the rest of their career in kitchens trying to put an early experience with a "culinary madman" into perspective.

Or, you could come out of a high-profile interview like Adria did this week and appear downright playful, humble and inspirational in the process.  Andrews commented that Chef "dresses simply" because he'd rather spend his money on fine champagne than shoes because he'll remember the bubbly.  (If I had this guy's bank roll, I think I'd find room for both- just sayin'.)  But, perhaps the comment that resonated with me so much was one that captures my whole philosophy on food:  it's “very complicated and complex. I don’t know anything about food...maybe, a bit more than most.”
Then, offering an example, "it would take a lifetime to know about tomatoes. It’s not a joke. Multiply that by all the ingredients you can.  If you don’t have a humble attitude about food, then you’ll be dead.”

Thank you to Patricia Talorico for reporting this exciting and unique talk.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On Sharing Good Wine, Part II

A "blue moon" is one of those over-used superlatives indicating something so rare and so fancy-pants that everyone should take note.  I admit it's both fun, but trite to use, but then my friends and I didn't really consider that when we dubbed what we thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity to taste uber-rare wines, while attempting to pair lofty cuisine worthy of their pedigree, would be the first of...more?

While a true lunar blue moon occurs when there is a second full moon in a calendar month (that's about 7 times every 19 years), we truly thought our opportunity was more akin to the mythical type (you know- like almost never?) than the literal.  Yet, math was on our side.

Last year, I blogged a dinner amongst these same friends that documented the very scenario above.  Given the enormity of it's rareness, we thought we were not likely to see one again, any time soon.  It featured some of the most precious and sought after wines in the world- including a 1975 Chateau d'Yquem, multiple first growth bordeaux, a 1963 Vintage Taylor Port and a 1919 Chateau Haut Brion, all provided by a passionate food and wine lover simply because he saw the enthusiasm with which we produced the first menu.  It was, like the first time 10 years earlier, a night to remember. 

Two months ago I got the call that our benefactor was coming back to town for business, and he wanted to do it all again, just 14 months later.  As with the first two times, he chose 12 wines from his expansive and impressive cellar, emailed us the selections, and then shipped them overnight with painstaking care.  Except this time, we had not six weeks to prepare a menu and line up our game plan, but three.   

When faced with the prospect of pairing world-class wines from first-rate vintages, you don't think about busting out the molecular gastronomy and culinary bells and whistles.  It's all about the classics.  Example:  a pairing from the first dinner 10 years earlier, which will forever be indelled in my memory, was as simple as it was brilliant.  A 1962 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti "La Tache" was paired with a locally raised, braised rabbit leg with parsnips and local mushrooms.  Simple.  The rabbit was simmered until "confit tender". 

It wasn't until days before our seafood purveyor, of all sources, queried whether we'd be interested in taking some fresh Maine wild blueberries that were being brought in by the same guys who were shipping day-boat halibut.  The answer was a resounding, "DUH?".  And so, to bridge that all important gap between what could be a white wine course or a red wine course, we added the berries to our braising juices and let them simmer.  The result defines the term "sublime" (there was another impressive Burgundy paired with the dish from an equally impressive producer and vintage- but, the la Tache was so incredibly on point, and our elementary rabbit dish was so wonderfully complementary, that it silenced our group).  Its extraordinary complexity and delicateness commanded a moment for us to regroup our thoughts before continuing.  The perfect balance of components, married with a harmony of fruitiness, acidity and earthiness leaves me swooning to this day.  Such is the power of the classics.

Sticking with that formula, a forward team that consisted of just myself and my surrogate "chef brother" Paul met one steamy, humid Sunday eve last month to handle the latest challenge.  We gathered our notes on the latest round of wines, and, to lend some inspiration, we opened and reverently sipped a 1990 Chateau Latour.  As is common, we aligned the wines in order of likely service and fleshed out an outline of the basics:  main component and main flavor profile.  With 12 wines slated for consumption, we decided to pour two per course, with the dinner lasting at least six courses (supplementary wines are often added by equally passionate attendees).  But, we knew the crux of how it would all go down.  We had only three days after that to consult a couple other possible chef friends who would participate to fine tune and finalize the menu, order our special ingredients and prep.  All this while working our full-time jobs, managing our personal lives and performing our duties as Pere de la Maison.  Challenging? Yes.  Fun? Of course!  Nerve racking?  Well... you answer.  The previous two dinners had consisted of no more than 10 attendees, and the most recent was looking more like 7 or 8.  No matter, it like the others, had to be perfect.

Why does great wine command such respect and awe?  Like architecture, it's man's greatest achievement of harnessing nature to produce a product solely for the purpose of his pleasure.  

The menu was finalized and the pieces fit into place, as they so often do.  Pairing food and wine is an art, yes- but, it also becomes an exercise in common sense.  Delicate wines require delicate preparations, aggressive ones need a little push.  Never repeat ingredients.  Create diversity of textures and temperatures.  Contrast and complement.  Multiple courses should build in intensity then back down- begin gentle, finish gently.  Leave the table sated, not stuffed.

Despite how it may read, the following menu and wines were the final choices, and they followed all the guidelines above.  The pictures, of course, tell the real story.

Warm up: A little pre-game with Charles Gardet & Co.

1st Course
Ragout of Veal Sweetbreads “Blanquette”- with beech mushroom, local sweet corn, tarragon and veal jus (not pictured)

2000 Chevalier Montrachet~ Bouchard Pere et Fils
2000 Montrachet Marquis de la Guiche~ Joseph Drouhin

2nd Course
Braised Oxtail over quinoa and Doctor Martin lima beans - with thyme infused braising juices

1989 Chateau Mouton Rothschild~ Paulliac
1989 Chateau Lafite Rothschild~ Paulliac
A little "fuzzy", I know- but trust me. 

3rd Course
Crispy Colorado Lamb Rillettes – risotto style “potatoes” and hen of the woods mushrooms 
(Rillettes in prep stage)

1990 Chateau Latour~ Paulliac
1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose~ St. Julien (not pictured)

Fourth Course

Pink Peppercorn Crusted New Zealand Veal Rack - truffle scented heirloom eggplant and lingonberry demi glace

1995 Colgin~ Cabernet Sauvignon
2000 Inflagrante SQN~ Syrah

5th Course
Coconut Milk and Rum Braised Short Rib
With mole sauce and savory baked ricotta

2003 Harlan Estate~ Cabernet Sauvignon  
2006 Erna Schein “Fat Boy”

6th Course
Roasted Black Mission Fig – gorgonzola dolce, pulverized prosciutto, pistachio and honey

1971 Chateau d'Yquem~ Sauternes

7th Course
Chocolate Espresso Pot d’crème with blackberry

1963 Graham's Vintage Porto

Chef Contributors: 

Paul Bouchard, Matt Crist and Robert Lhulier
Wine Inspiration:
D. Paige and Ron Bouchard

Monday, October 4, 2010

Chef Quote of the Week: Alain Ducasse

"Cuisine has become too complicated -- this is about subject, verb, adjective: duck, turnips, sauce." 
Alain Ducasse

They don't call them The Masters for nothing.  The great living chefs of French cuisine aren't just about French cuisine.  They just happen to live and practice their craft in the country that all classical cooking is routed in.  Their set of standards and practices are held dear by the most revered chefs in the world.  Alain Ducasse holds the most Michelin stars of any chef (now or ever) in the world.  And, so when he (or any of the others) steps up to the plate (ahem) to say something, we listen. 

Yet, his world class commitment to excellence has humble beginnings; the home.  Our earliest (and often fondest) memories of food come from the hearth of la famille.  Our mothers, our grandmothers- our family.   In another quote from the same interview, Ducasse adds, "I want to remind people of the taste of bread and butter... the best bread, toasted just so, and served with butter at exactly the right temperature," he enthused, wolfing down slice after fragrant slice of the thick, crusty bread sourced from one of Paris' best boulangeries.

The new trend, les cuisine simple?  I am SO on board with you, Chef. 


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