Monday, August 19, 2013

The Whole Beast


The photo above captures a suspected Boletus species mushrooms, otherwise known as porchini or cepes. This is the species of mushrooms that my Polish mother-in-law, along with her family, once harvested as a child in the state-controlled forests of communist Poland in the 1950's. It is also the mushroom that Polish relatives of my wife will dry and stash in any secretive location they can to smuggle into Canada. I am glad for their clandestine importation given how delicious these strange and beautiful life forms are.  Now I use the the term 'suspected' because even with the help of a text message discussion with a pretty solid forager, I'm not taking my life in my hands for something tasty. I discovered these along with an absolute riot of other colourful mushrooms and fungi during some contemplative morning walks through the forests near Port Carling.

As it is, I just got back from a week in Muskoka, a last sort of vacation before the big haul of self-employment. Whilst away I learned that Kafka-esque machinations are afoot and necessary paper work and legal considerations have yet again put my bricks-and-mortar endevours on hold. How long? I can't even answer that question. Do I own a restaurant at this moment? Well, sort of, in a strange twilight between having some signatures and not others. It's the Schrodinger's Cat paradox of paper work.

So, in the mean time, I sit here considering food, restaurants and the notion of risk. For example, those mushrooms, if verified as edible Boletus species would have likely yielded the freshest, most sublime mushroom experience to me beyond finding a black truffle under an oak tree, but also could have resulted in a painful, lingering death. I think there are some risks that are better than others.

Another interesting footnote to my trip up north is that I actually caught an eating-size fish - something that I have frankly never been able to do. This fish, a two pound bass, was a minor revelation to me. I have never personally dispatched any animal larger or more biologically sophisticated than shellfish (I believe the oysters are still alive when they're sliding down my throat). This bass represented a very important gastronomic graduation for me. Perhaps to seasoned chefs (and anglers), this may sound a bit silly, but there are plenty of chefs that have never done the dirty work, so I certainly feel validated in discussing the issue. When I pulled that fish out of the water, I knew that I was going to have to kill it, clean it and eat every possible part of that I could. 

My youngest daughter wanted to watch. This made me happy. I took the fish down to the shoreline to sort it out. Lake fish have a mineral spring water smell to them with something else, almost like an organic, sandy aroma; it sticks to your hands. The first whiff and I was instantly washed over with an overwhelming memory of fishing with my dad as a kid. I rendered the fish senseless with a decisive bonk to the head with an empty wine bottle. This settled it's desperate flopping. I made a long incision into the belly and rather messily gutted it, then off with the fins, and a bad attempt at scaling. Half way through I realized my blade just wasn't sharp enough. And why did I gut it if I wasn't roasting it whole? My approach made no sense.  I was angry at myself, sweating and a little bit embarrassed at my lack of experience. I started to rethink the whole thing and wished I had just kept it whole and grilled it - allowing for a better yield of meat. On the other hand, I really wanted to hone my filleting skills which were obviously not up to standard. Anyway,  I managed to hack off two reasonable-sized fillets. After a moment of thought, I gave my fillet knife a serious realignment on my steele, and proceeded to gingerly carved off every other edible looking morsel from the bones along with the cheeks. I did not want to waste a thing on this fish. I killed it. I had to eat it. Eat all of it. The mortal remains of my fish were dusted in flour (even the wee little bits that I carved from the rib cage), I added a tiny bit of smoked paprika, salt and pepper. It was briefly seared in some butter in a skillet (just like when I was a kid) and accompanied some grilled steaks: a sort of lake country 'surf and turf'. I have to say, it was delicious. I felt a little bit proud of this accomplishment.

It all made me think about a blog entry at Toronto Life Magazine by chef Teo Paul, owner of Union restaurant. His restaurant opening was a slow and painful process that he describe in a semi-regularly writing gig for the magazine five or so years back. He would host dinner parties to test recipes during the time the restaurant space was being renovated. One of these dinners, cooked whilst hung over from too many gin and tonics the night before involved live lobster, he writes:

"The next day, I felt bad—gin bad—and thought I would never be the same again. I had these two lobsters I had to cook for a big dinner the next night. Just looking at those poor bastards sink into the boiling water with their claws clutching the sides of the pot, I told myself that I was going to use every bit of them. I was making a lobster carrot galangal risotto. I took every bit of meat out of them, including the green stuff close to the head that tastes like the sea. I made a stock with the shells and ground it up just a bit at the end to get every bit of flavour out of them. I cooked the rice in the stock with a bit of shallot and galangal, then finished it with some juiced carrots and the lobster from the claws. At the very last moment, I squeezed in the green stuff from the head. I topped it off with a piece of the tail poached in butter.I was so spurned by my pain that day that I put everything I had into it. It was the best damn risotto I ever made."

One would hope that there is a deep compassion that emerges in a chef who has to take a life for food; a respect that borders on reverence. In his writing, I get this sense from Chef Paul. It touched on my own emotions.  I was not unmoved by the thought that despite being several orders removed from my own species, this bass had a beating heart. And yet I knew its fate as it flopped ungracefully on the grassy bank pumping its gills in vain. I ate a small amount raw. Its flesh was not cold like a store-bought fish. It was ever so slightly warm and had the most definite spark of vitality. A strange experience.

There is also the painful realization, after reading about the year long struggles of this great chef and his restaurant, Union on the Ossington strip, that maybe I have no business opening a restaurant. Teo Paul is a bona fide chef. He was not only involved in launching a restaurant in Paris, he was one of the cooks. For crying out loud, he has personally seared fois gras for the most scrutinizing Parisians. He has shopped in the world-renowned food markets of France. He has decapitated a poulet de bresse and cooked it for some of the most discerning palettes. I am a data analyst. What the hell am I doing? If it was such a slog opening a restaurant for a seasoned, well-traveled chef like Teo Paul, what fresh nightmare awaits me?

When I got home from the cottage, with all these thoughts banging around in my head, I had to turn back to the Momofuku cook book and re-read the harrowing experience of the first few months of New York's Noodle Bar. David Chang and his partner, Quino, had spent the last night before opening their restaurant in a Japanese-owned peeler bar in Midtown. They figured if they could just convince hot Japanese strippers to eat in Noodle bar the next day, it would draw in the crowds. They practically blew their last $800 that night. This is what he had to say about it:

"Opening a restaurant is the worst feeling in the world....and we were there (in the strip club) despite not having a properly outfitted kitchen--we'd bought everything from K-mart, borrowed Quino's girlfriend's stand mixer, convinced ourselves we didn't need more than we had. We knew what we wanted, even if we didn't know how to operate a cash register or anything about taxes or how to payroll, or how to get anybody to work with us. 

You couldn't find two individuals who had less business opening a restaurant than us."

On the day of opening, three gorgeous Japanese women came in the Noodle Bar, ate ramen and left without paying. They never came back. No other customers came in with them that day. 

That was in 2004. In 2013 David Chang is an award winning chef and owner of a rather dynamic and amazing restaurant empire that spans two continents. I think I'll be reading that chapter a few more times over the next two weeks. 

I suppose things could be worse. I could have eaten one of those mushrooms.

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