Tuesday, November 28th, 2006
I repeat: this is not a food blog.
When it comes to food, blogs are the domain of the fanatical restaurant groupies, the gourmet jetsetters, the gastronomic literati and the occasional Julia Child obsessed secretary. Blogs are home to boring recipes, long debates about overpriced cookware, and gossip about whether Rachel Ray looks chubby in her most recent episodes or not.
Professional cooks don’t write blogs. We write powerful vignettes about the rigor and stress of our jobs. We write how-to guides so the people who write blogs can better emulate our mastery. Sometimes, if we’re feeling introspective, we even write autobiographical accounts of our outrageous personal lives.
Or, if we’re Anthony Bourdain, we do all of the above. Writing about professional cooking in the Bourdain era is difficult—much more difficult than I ever imagined. Bourdain—for those not familiar with him—is a professional chef, a product of the gastronomic reaches of Reagan era excesses and now a widely celebrated author and television host. In 1995 he turned a New Yorker article into a book deal and published the wildly successful Kitchen Confidential. Never before had the world of haute cuisine been so thoroughly and totally exposed. The book left few stones unturned, few feathers unruffled. Between infamous bashings of television super-chef Emeril Lagasse, Bourdain sketched an accurate, if somewhat exaggerated, picture of what life is like in an upscale restaurant kitchen.
If it weren’t for Bourdain—from here on out, I’m calling him Tony—I’d probably have to spend the next several paragraphs going over just what its like to work in a professional kitchen. But because of Kitchen Confidential, Tony’s subsequent writings and the works of his many imitators, you probably have at least a vague idea.
If you don’t, you’ll find out. That’s the point here, after all, right?
I am supposed to be writing this from Delaware. That was the plan. When this diary was first proposed I was unhappily employed at a hotel in a small but wealthy city in upstate New York. You’ve been to towns like this before. Hopefully you haven’t had to stay in hotels like ours. Our guests were worse than pretentious; they were stupid, too. While their interests would have probably been better served at the Holiday Inn down the street, these were the sorts of folks who wouldn’t be caught dead at any roadside establishment run by immigrants. They were happy to pay four or five times the Holiday Inn rate for rooms, food and service that merely pretended to be better than the Holiday Inn.
This hotel was my first job after graduating from culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in 2005, when I was 23. The contrast between school and the hotel couldn’t have been greater. The C.I.A. was the training ground of some of our nation’s best chefs. Tony went there. So did chefs like Todd English, Roy Yamaguchi and Harold, that guy who won the first season of the reality show Top Chef. Leaving the pearly gates of the C.I.A. and descending into the mess that was this hotel was somewhat like climbing the wrong direction over the Berlin Wall.
The executive chef who headed up our kitchens was the definition of a restaurant industry burnout. Content spending his days forwarding funny or pornographic emails, Chef avoided cooking at all costs. His resume positively gleamed; in past decades he’d headed up some of Europe’s best hotel kitchens, but by the time I first encountered him he was nothing but a shell of his former self.
The first time we met—I had actually been hired by one of Chef’s secretarial assistants—I found Chef in his office picking his nose and staring blankly at his computer. I knocked gently on the frame of the door. Chef turned around on his swivel chair and examining the dried mucus under his fingernail, shrugged, flicked it onto the ground, and reached out to shake my hand.
I set to work that morning on what was perhaps the most absurd, most out of place, most poorly thought out dish I have ever been a part of. In the middle of a cold winter in the depths of upstate New York I was putting all of the knowledge and skills that had been developed in me at the C.I.A. into making tomato tartare.
Tartare is a raw dish, a preparation most often associated with Steak Tartare, a classic French bistro item made with raw beef and flavored with Dijon mustard, capers and lemon juice. The dish is all about freshness, about bright and vibrant flavors. Tomato tartare would be a creative chef’s play on the classic steak version. In an ideal situation it would be a gazpacho like mix of late summer vegetables featuring the brightest, ripest tomatoes available. It is a dish you can imagine eating among grape vines and lavender fields in Provence or in a café on a hot summer day during the California summer.
It is not a dish that is appropriate to the chilly winters of New York State. The tomatoes you get during the winter are awful. They are picked green and then gassed with chemicals that turn them a weak, sad shade of red. Their flavor and texture, at its best, resembles wet cardboard. In fact, most chefs only use fresh tomatoes during the months of August and September. During the rest of the year any tomato product is coming right out of the can. Sure, its undergone pasteurization, but at least it was ripe when it was picked.
Yet, there I was—a devotee of Alice Waters, a young cook thoroughly awash in the dogma of seasonal cooking—cutting shameful January tomatoes into neat piles of brunoise (1/16 of an inch squares). My tomatoes were combined with awkwardly cut zucchini and squash, then showered with low-grade, fake balsamic vinegar (red wine vinegar colored with caramel, I presume), and cheaply plated in ring molds. The tartare was topped with some cheerless arugula and the whole plate then doused with so much second-rate truffle oil the whole kitchen was enveloped with its painfully noxious aroma. In a moment of pitiful melodrama, I began to picture myself on a World War I battlefield gasping for air amid clouds of vaguely truffle smelling mustard gas.
This was the first of many food crimes I would witness at this hotel. On the bright side, I did quickly befriend one of the hotel’s sous chefs, Gianni, a fellow C.I.A. alumni, and he and I spent the next six months fighting an uphill battle against the out of season, cheap, carelessly prepared crap we saw around us. Ultimately, we both gave up. Gianni headed to New York, I to Delaware, both looking for the culinary greatness that had missed us so far.