Friday, January 14, 2011

Sugar and spice and everything nice...

“In retrospect, they’re disgusting, many of the things we used to do—too much fat and too much sugar, and a series of clichés taught while being rationalized,” he said. “The key thing now for a cook is to develop a library of flavors that you can recall. If I say to you, ‘Apple and cinnamon,’ you would click in immediately. ‘Yes, apple! Yes, cinnamon!’ The library of your mind contains that. But what if I say ‘Apple, asafetida’? Nothing! You have nothing stored there.” He added slyly, “Now, this is a benefit to the chef, because if I do apple and cinnamon and you don’t like it you think there’s something wrong with me, but if I do apple and asafetida and you don’t like it there’s something wrong with you.” He laughed briefly, professionally. “The development of a pastry chef is not the development of techniques. It is the slow, careful development of a catalogue of savors and flavors, which you can develop the way you develop muscles. There is a logic in every dessert worth eating. Consider the logic of white peach and rich cheese. We must be conditioned not by sight but only by flavor, the tongue, the nose, and the feel in the mouth.” He went on placidly, “It is to avoid these errors that we do so much of our teaching and learning blindfolded.”
“Blindfolded!” I said, wondering if I had misunderstood.
“Yes, blindfolded,” he repeated. He went to a drawer and took out a handful of silken eye masks, which he threw on the desk. “It is important to be able to work with the sensations of the nose and mouth alone, so we spend hours in the dark, tasting. Of course, appearance matters, but it is the last part of the equation. Taste, taste, taste—that is what matters. So I keep people blindfolded for much of the work, which is devoted to the marriages of taste.”
Then he opened the door to an immense, pristine kitchen, dominated by a great length of polished black stone. Here, he said, “as many as fourteen young chefs can work, blindfolded, to discover the taste and enlarge their flavor libraries.”[...]
We sat down for dinner in the nearby restaurant, and had a meal of five courses, all sweet, or at least sweetish, yet all beginning with a savory theme. First, there was cucumber-ginger-pineapple-tarragon sherbet, then olive-oil cake with San Simón cheese and a perfect white-peach sorbet. “The combination is a classic conception of the savory kitchen: cheese and olive oil,” Jordi observed. Then came an Idiazábal-stout-beet-cherry cake, too various to make much sense. Then a green-apple granita with bay leaf, as fresh and acid as a winter morning, and, finally, truffle-hazelnut-toast cream pudding. The genius showed in the details: a curry-and-salt cookie, thrown in as an extra but a study in itself. There was something perfectly modulated in the transition from savory herbs (tarragon and bay) and savory tastes (salt and curry, particularly) into sweet dishes.
“This is kind of amazing,” I said to Lisa, as I scraped the plate of truffle-toast pudding and grabbed another curry-and-salt biscuit. Lisa gave me a seraphic, you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet smile, and said, “You’ll meet Albert tomorrow.”

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