Monday, August 23, 2010

The Divine Foods of Summer

I always feel a little desperate on the eve of September, as if I need to start storing sunshine in my bones to save for the dark days of February. As fall peeks around the corner, I can feel the heavy, humid days slowly fading, and with them baseball, the sweet smell of grass, and the guilty pleasure that is summer food.

As wonderful as it is, summer food does not have a sophisticated culinary pedigree. Unlike its blueblood cousins that require delicate handling and white-linen surroundings, summer food is best eaten when you are sweaty, dirty, sunburned, tipsy and/or trying to remove sand from every crevice. It is, much like a Thanksgiving meal, food that is inextricably linked to experiences and memories.

We all have a perfect summer day lodged somewhere in our past: a hot sun shimmering over a lake/pool/beach/backyard, an afternoon that lasts forever, friends and family circling around a grill, the pleasant thump of slamming cooler lids. And in every perfect summer day, picnic/patio/kitchen tables groan under the weight of too much food, which is then ladled in enormous quantities onto paper plates, sending all partygoers into a comfortable haze of food coma.

When confronted with a pile of meat and a bottle of ketchup, I am slightly disgusted by how much I can eat. But summer etiquette does not frown upon a three-bratwurst day. I do not go so far as to fill up two plates at once, mostly because I need one hand for my beer, but I find it almost impossible to overlook any dessert, or not take one of every salad. No matter how many times I have eaten potato salad in my life, it never tastes better than it does coming out of a big plastic bowl and sloshing around on a plate next to watermelon, baked beans and corn on the cob.

Warm-weather fare is comfort food in a different way than fried chicken and gravy. Hot dogs and ice tea are the companions of the days I love best, from my past and present. I remember long weekends spent camping with my family, and I foresee Sunday afternoons spent playing with my kids in the pool, and I can see both of me with a hot dog in hand.

As summer winds down, I vacillate between excitement for fall and longing for July. Come September, I will miss the summer food and the barbecues that go with it. But no matter what the season or how deep the snow, I know that I can instantly conjure up cicadas, late sunsets and the smell of sunscreen with a single bite of potato salad.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mastering the Art of Julia Child

Before there was Emeril Lagasse or Gordon Ramsay, or any other TV-reared chef, there was Julia Child. She made complex French cooking accessible, and she did it with honest passion and likeability. When Chef Matt and I watched Julie and Julia for the first time last week, I was struck by the masterful combination of talent and coincidence that paved the way for her transformation of the culinary world.

In some ways, she had much in common with many other chefs. She was gifted, she adored food, and she was tenacious. I loved the scene in which the uncomparable Meryl Streep portrayed Child chopping mounds of onions, both to perfect her technique and to keep pace with her male classmates, as well as the scene where a beautifully prepared bit of fish brought her close to tears. I recognized both of those reactions.

But it was Child's life circumstances that allowed her talent to see the light of day in ways that elude 99 percent of chefs. First, she was unwillingly childless. As a historian, I shrink from speculation, but I think the presence of a child would have shifted her attention and perhaps her iconic status would not have come to be. It is difficult enough to have children while working the world of food, but for a woman in the 1950s, even one of Child's determined demeanor, a revolutionary cookbook would likely have taken a backseat.

Second, she lived in Paris and studied at a legendary institution with renowned chefs. Such a culinary upbringing would certainly do wonders for most budding cooks.

Third, and nearest to my heart, was the support of her husband, Paul. I watched with interest and understanding as Paul Child nurtured her great love of food and acted as an anchor during her long, arduous journey to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Food was a merciless business even then, and Paul Child embraced his wife's destiny with grace. As a modern-day Kitchen Widow, I admit that such grace comes to me, at times, with difficulty. My support, much like Matt's cooking technique, is always a work in progress.

It is likely that our fortunes will not follow the Childs' path. But Julia Child, however unattainable her fame, showed chefs the way to an entirely possible career outcome: You can cook, and do it well, and do it with ferocity and love.

And for me, the lesson came from Paul Child: Your spouse's attachment to knives and sauces and butter is worthy of relentless support, and will surely keep you well-fed in the process.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Six O'Clock Dilemma

One of the first things people say to me when they discover I'm a chef's wife is: "Oh, so he must cook for you all the time!" It's a logical enough remark, but I always feel a desperate twitch to correct assumptions about the home life of a chef.

Chef Matt does cook, to be sure, but it is not often and is not the luxurious three-course meal that people may imagine. Once a month or so, he'll make a delicious reduction of some kind and ladle it over a sauteed pork chop and cream cheese mashed potatoes, but the reality is that he works five nights a week and is generally not home to cook for us. When he is home, he doesn't necessarily have the desire, or ingredients, to execute a lavish meal for me and our selectively finicky toddler.

That leaves me in the role of "chef du maison." I alternately love and dread this role. I love to employ the skills absorbed while watching my chef work his kitchen magic, particularly when I manage to create a passable cream sauce. I dread it when I must assemble a mildly delicious meal on short notice and a long day, much like, I am sure, thousands of other grown-ups attempting to be grown-ups.

Every day that I am home alone with kids, I open the refrigerator around 6:00 and blankly stare at its contents, willing inspiration to hit. I close the fridge and open the pantry cupboard, calculating an equation of starch + meat + vegetables before closing the cupboard and going back to the fridge in an endless cycle of passivity.

This regular indecision has made me a master of the creative dinner. I can take five random ingredients and a baking dish and thirty minutes, and have at least an edible dish to give my family. I rarely use recipes or ingredients fancier than a box of rigatoni, and as a result, the family of the chef eats not sirloin and crab cakes but sloppy concoctions of whatever we happen to have hiding in the cabinets.

In an effort to ensure that our kids do not go out into the world thinking that a hot dish is the only possible evening meal, I recently started planning out dinners and shopping accordingly. So far, so good, but I know that my days of the apathetic refrigerator stare are not gone. And in a very strange way, this makes me feel proud, and a little like McGyver. Matt can cook a dish worthy of fine-dining restaurants, but I can scramble together five nights' dinners with nothing but a wooden spoon, a can of soup, and that box of rigatoni.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Now Hiring: Somebody Good with a Knife

A chef's resume must, by occasional necessity, appear on paper. But a printed resume does little to demonstrate a chef's skills or the curiosities of each restaurant experience. It's a business that often has little continuity and does not always consider multiple jobs in a few years to be a deal-breaker. Such a business is not often reflected well in a formal resume.

Every time we have updated Chef Matt's resume, informality seems more attractive, if not necessarily appropriate. "Can peel thirty pounds of potatoes in thirty minutes" would be of much greater help to a potential employer than "Manages tasks efficiently and quickly." Similarly, "Will show up for work every day, on time and not hung-over" would be a valuable demonstration of reliability.

A good culinary resume would read like a shopping list of skills. Instead of "Experienced in authentic Mexican cuisine," a head chef or manager would be much more interested in:

  • Can artfully butcher chickens and a variety of large fish.
  • Able to easily identify a dozen peppers and their heat intensities.
  • Cooks tamales that have the seal of approval from multiple Mexicans. Taster references available.
  • Makes awesome guacamole. Will whip some up on demand.

Restaurant resumes should be thus reformatted to fit the culinary universe. Head chefs browsing resumes need to know that "good team player" means "I can handle three stations by myself when another cook walks out during Friday dinner rush," and "skilled at multi-tasking" means "I can assemble fifteen taco platters, neatly chop a pound of cilantro, translate and answer a co-worker's question in my broken kitchen Spanish, and roll twenty pounds of pork in banana leaves, all at the same time," and "hard-working" means "I can go twelve hours without eating."

As Matt begins a new culinary adventure today and our loyalty shifts once more, I know he looks forward to adding new skills to his resume list and using the ones already mastered. Restaurant culture shifts depending on cuisine, but some things do stay constant. He will always have to chop a lot of onions or tomatoes, will always have nights where he faces a line of tickets three feet long, and will always have shifts where he subsists on Coke and water.

It's the constants that make me think chefs should add a section to their resumes titled: "Why I Love This Business Despite All I Know About It." That might be the longest section of all.