Monday, August 17, 2009

Ashes to asses

Working with Rick Bayless was inspiring. It’s a simple comment (but one that is important to make) considering the focus on drama from last week’s Top Chef Masters.

It’s worth mentioning, that I have very little experience cooking Mexican food. I have Mexican chefs on my staff. I eat Mexican food. But just haven’t made too many tamales in my day. But Chef Bayless was one of the first chefs I witnessed doing a demonstration when I was in culinary school. He prepared cactus that day. How neat is that ! And He struck me that day as admirable.
He’s such an intellect and one of the most thoughtful cooks I’ve ever worked with. His passion is obvious and contagious.

As we were cooking and discussing the dishes, it hit me that I was caught in a sheer moment of inspiration. It wasn’t that Rick was introducing me to new ingredients, like cactus for example, he wasn’t. He was showing me that burnt is relative. And I know that sounds weird. Just as some would say that liquid nitrogen awakens a new world of cold food techniques. With just a grill, or oven, Chef Bayless was taking me into a world of flavor that I, or any of my mentors don’t usually enter. Beyond burned.

In one of my interviews, I referred to his food as rustic. Wrong choice of words. His inspiration may be so, but his food is precise and technical. Often, when we say technical these days, the mind goes to gram scales and molecular gastronomy or The French Laundry and sauces strained a thousand times. Here however, Bayless takes common pieces of equipment, and ingredients, and really breaks them down. I mean, quite literally, breaks them down.

At one point Bayless was discussing a recipe that took him years to perfect. I don’t remember it specifically, but it involved charring to ash and developing flavor, at a point where most cuisines would consider the dish burned. Garbage. This conversation opened up a million new avenues for my own cuisine. We had honed in on the exact reason why I wanted to work with him.

As I was preparing the pork dish and it’s sauce/braising liquid, he asked me to sear the tomatillo puree in pork fat. We discussed the quality of pork fat he uses. I mentioned that we were in essence doing “pincage”, a classic French technique of roasting tomato paste before a braise. He didn’t know, or more likely, didn’t care what it was called in French. But it was a light bulb moment. A solid connection between his food and mine. Here was a precise classic technique I was familiar with and it was spun under the guise of simple Mexican food. With burnt onions and tomatillos. A lowly cut of pork. It was authentic, and Mexican, and new to me. It was also absurdly delicious. A goal, maybe THE goal, of technical precision in a kitchen that is sometimes overlooked.

People have been curious why Hubert Keller cleaned up with the judges, and why Bayless cleaned up with the guests and those two opinions could be (seemingly) so skewed. It comes down to flavor versus technique, pure and simple. Don’t get me wrong, Keller rocked it. He took a different route. Presenting tiny tastes. Beautifully plated. Absolutely killed it with technique. Obviously accomplished a lot of work. And the judges saw that. He deserved the win. But Bayless’ food was the exact opposite. It’s not apparent at first glance but there is so much technique and precision going into the food. He under promises, and over delivers.

Just like his personality. The gentle teddy bear of a chef you have seen on the TV screen, the one who at times reminded me of Ned Flanders from the Simpsons, is a tremendous leader. Call it democratic, or collaborative. The players coach, or leading by example, whatever. But throughout those few days he brought an oddball team (lets be honest) together to execute his food. He got us to understand his vision, and feel connected, as if we were all in it together. And for as much credit as I’d like to get for being a part of that cohesion, he would have done just fine with 3 monkeys helping.

Bayless runs a tight, authoratative, “ yes chef”, or maybe in this case, “Si, chef” ship. He’s the chef, it’s his show and don’t forget it. It’s clear from his movements and knowledge. And I’d take a guess that he’s boiled over once or twice. Just as any great chef has. Just as I have. And just as Michael Chiarello may have over those few days.

I don’t think there’s any need to detail the events of those few days in regards to my comments or Chef Chiarello’s actions. But I do think that there is a need to express a simple fact. Everyone has a personality. We all, 100%, talk smack in those interview rooms, or in our walk-ins, or on our couches watching “what happens now”. It’s human nature, and it’s quite unnatural to think that, for example, I’m a nice guy all the time. I’m not. Ask my staff, eek, ask my wife ?

Editing is a powerful tool but its not a mirror.

Why would you want there to only be Tim Tebows ( good guys ) and Mike Vicks ( bad guys )? Certainly there are people in the middle of that spectrum?

What struck me most, after this episode was when someone wrote on my Facebook wall, that my comments were very “UnRichard-like". Actually, they were very Richard like. Curt, an attempt, albeit an ill attempt at humor, and not at all very serious. But perhaps not very much like the edited Richard. The loveable loser, molecular gastronomist, faux hawked, give his prize away team player. That Richard has become, although it is me, and it is unscripted, my absolute character...

And with that being said, it’s unreasonable to think that Michael Chiarello, Hubert Keller, or Rick Bayless, aren’t jerks some times. Because although they may be master chefs all the time, I doubt they are flawless all the time.

Don't forget to check out my newest article coming out mid-week on Creative Loafing and I'll be blogging for the upcoming season of Top Chef starting on Wednesday!

TC Masters- Behind the Scenes

No big drama here... just a bunch of us getting ready to head home after a long shoot!