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Friday, December 07, 2007

A Complete Bite

We'd started the day meeting at Eastern Standard talking with Garrett Harker learning about the business-side of starting a restaurant. It was so interesting to really learn about getting the businesses started, particularly from a non-cook person with that point of view. Most specifically, I was glad to be able to ask a bit about the brainstorm and development process during the initial idea stages, not just scouting out a location, but the steps needed to determining what makes a good location. Also helpful was all the questions Garrett answered about how the restaurant handles openings and it's day-to-day public relations. Although I love the cooking, it's really helpful to develop a more well-rounded view of the restaurant industry, because most of us are unlikely to enter the restaurant industry as cooks, I think we all have different ways we hope to approach the industry.

Listening to Garrett explain how they worked through the process of developing the idea of the restaurant, the design process, how they decided the menu, etc. I think the most important thing that we really gathered from the conversation was that it's not a decision of a life that should be taken lightly, it's certainly a very important and costly decision. In the end, I think that Garrett's experience and 'clout' (if you want to call it that) really helped him in the end find the investors and help establish the type of relationship that they will have in the business.

Afterwards, we stayed at Eastern Standard to have a quick lunch. Of the group, only Potter had really eaten there several times and we all wanted to try the food and get an idea of what it's about. Unfortunately, we had to rush a tiny bit in order to make it back to class on time for an afternoon with Kevin Crawley.

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Working with Kevin today was like having a huge injection of energy. After we worked with Jacques and Jean-Claude, it's seemed like the class has been a bit sluggish and less interested in details, making deadlines and just making it happen. Kevin's energy level is just so intense and so infectious that it's nearly impossible for anyone around him to not feed off of it at least a little.

We started the day talking through the recipes and telling Kevin a little bit about ourselves. It was like the craziest one-sided conversation with topics ranging from German idioms to fine art and painters to drugs to writers to travel to.... endless topics. I joked later on that listening to Kevin is like a masters class in pop culture, he's a very energetic speaker but also a very varied conversationalist, it was truly enjoyable to hear him just talk.

After we all spoke for a good hour, we had the startling realization that we needed to get on with the cooking because we weren't going to have nearly enough time to get it all done (especially the duck confit group). Paige, Jenny and I worked together on the mushroom crepes that would eventually be rolled into small, filled tubes and tied off for presentation. To begin with, I started chopping an obscene amount of mushrooms while Paige made crepe batter and watched Kevin season a pan for crepes so that we could compare using a non-stick and a well-seasoned pan (for the record, I think the seasoned pan worked better, just enough sticking power for it to grab the batter, but it still came off easily).

I think I chopped close to ten pounds of mushrooms to make the duxelles filling for the crepes. I was expecting that we would need a lot of raw mushrooms given how much they tend to cook town and I was hoping that the amount that I had made was going to be enough. After putting them all through a robot coupe to get them into a fine dice but not quite a puree, we sauteed the mixture in a pound of butter (no kidding) and shallots. The mushrooms cooked down a bit, but not as much as I thought, they probably just replaced the water with butter fat. The mushrooms were cooked through with a little cognac within ten minutes, so Jenny and I hopped over to Paige's station and helped her finish making crepes.

I've never made crepes before as I'm easily intimidated by batter-type foods, particularly those that require a specialty cooking technique (for me that means everything that requires more equipment than just a pan and a dash of oil). Also, crepes are notoriously difficult to perfect and takes a lot of practice than I often have patience for in my home kitchen. I was glad that my first time out I would be under the supervision of the Paige, whose crepes were coming out beautifully. My first crepe was a complete disaster that I ate just to hide the evidence. Naturally, Kevin assured me that the first crepe is always thrown away, but he quickly withdrew his thoughts when I messed up crepes two, three and four. Before I started on number five, Paige nicely suggested I move on to something else before we ran out of batter and ended up short on the crepes.

Jenny cut the crepes down to size so that each crepe gave us two small rectangles of a consistent size for us to roll the duxelles into. I filled every crepe with a small mound of the duxelles, rolled it and sealed it with a spread of sour cream (Kevin would have preferred for us to use creme fraiche, but we couldn't find any in the kitchens that day). Once rolled, with the seam side down, we took strands of lightly blanched chives and tied the rolls in the center to look like tiny sleeping bags or presents. This was so painfully fiddly and slow going I was sure that I was going to hit thirty before finished all 140+ of these little rolls, even with Jenny and Paige doing it with me.

Once completed, I thought they looked pretty fabulous and ready-to-go, but Kevin had other plans. After the knots were tied onto the little crepe packages, he wanted us to place a tiny dollop of sour cream onto the knots and finish each one with very tiny, finely julienned pieces of truffles. This was a very tedious task because of the tiny droplet of sour cream and because it was so difficult to place the tiny truffle pieces onto the cream in an artistic fashion (Kevin's looked the best, frankly). In the end, the little garnished rolls looked precious but were not the best tasting of the lot, which I think belonged to the duck confit profiteroles.

Truffles are a very strong flavor in a person's olfactory system and a little bit goes a long way. I think the inclusion of truffles and/or truffle oil in the crepe batter, the duxelles mixture, the sour cream for sealing and for the garnish was just too much. It was hard for me to eat more than two or three of these without having a bit of a truffle overload. I think it would have been better balanced had the sour cream and duxelles gone without and the truffle flavoring.

The duck confit profiteroles on the other hand were a study in well-balanced flavors and textures. The soft, fatty texture of the meat contrasted well against the airy, crisp profiteroles and cold, slimy and lightly crisp fruit salsa. But the balance of spicy (duck seasoning), sweet (banana-mango ketchup) and tart (fruit salsa) really went a long way to making this feel like a complete thought in my mouth. It left me satisfied and wanting more, something I think all chefs hope to achieve.

I liked that Kevin was all about creating a full experience in just one bite. Obviously there were some more successful executions than others, but overall I appreciated the message he was sending: the perfect bite can exist.

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