Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trial By Fire

Mitchell Johnson  Broadway & Laguna, 2010  28x16 inches

I spent my second night in San Francisco in the apartment I had just rented from Mrs. Lupescu at the top of a four-story on Pacific Avenue, around the corner from the Hyde street cable car. And there I stayed for seven years, subletting from time to time to go back to France. I had come from Paris with a diploma, a set of copper pots, a tin of fluted cookie cutters, a moka coffee pot, and a knapsack. I owned no television, no toaster, no dresser. My family quickly supplied me with hand-me-downs: a foldout couch, sheets and towels, mismatched bowls, cutlery, and an iron. Although I only wore t-shirts and jeans, I needed to iron my white chef’s coat and checkered pants.

My first job was at Campton Place, a posh hotel on Union Square, where I was filling in for the morning baker on leave. A young American chef stood at the helm, trailblazing the way for American cuisine. Critics were swooning over his pot roast, the baked potatoes with bacon, creamed spinach and butterscotch pudding. I took this temporary position to get my foot in the door, not realizing that my French culinary pedigree was useless in this kitchen where it quickly became apparent that what I knew of haute-American baking was limited to Mrs. Field’s chocolate chip cookies (a rare treat the summer I worked as a girl-Friday in a downtown San Francisco office). My resume read that I had apprenticed at a bakery in Paris and that was good enough. “Be here tomorrow morning at four.”

I made my way downtown in the pre-dawn hours when the only sounds came from foghorns on the bay and buzzing cable car lines. I wore a parka over my uniform but the wind was strong and it flapped about my knees, opening and closing, and I wished I could ride the trolley. There is a clear headedness that comes from tramping out before sunrise, you can feel heir to the city that still sleeps. At three-forty I walked through the employee entrance like I owned the place.

Pam greeted me in the far corner of the kitchen behind a deck of pizza ovens that were already roaring at four hundred and fifty degrees warming her cheeks pink. Two was a crowd in the cramped carved-out space for the pastry chef and his crew, but we were both small and I stood at her elbow while she explained the morning routine. We started out making an enormous batch of muffin batter. Sleeves rolled up to her biceps, I watched her fold eggs, cream and melted butter into flour with her hands. “You can use a spatula if you like.” she sighed, seeing the doubtful look on my face. I emptied baskets of blueberries into the lumpy mass and helped her scoop the mix into greased muffin tins. When they were done, row after row of gold and blue domes cooled on a rack behind us and we feasted on the first warm muffins of the day, slathering them with butter from a fifty pound brick. And when we stirred heavy cream in our coffee, I confessed that I had never made muffins before. “What did you do – before you came here?” Our eyes met – her’s, narrow slits. “I made croissants, brioche, madeleines.” “Well then, we haven’t got much time.” She was leaving the next day.

If you’ve ordered a continental breakfast in any hotel, you know how it varies from place to place. How the apricot danish can be a sad soggy mess or real fruit tucked into a glorious circle of light crispy dough. Campton Place prided itself on its exquisite basket of morning glories—cheese danish, raisin bread, coffee cake, banana poppy seed muffins, sticky buns, all served with homemade preserves and crocks of butter. The bread basket at lunch was equally enticing with an array of chive buttermilk biscuits, whole wheat rolls sweetened with molasses, and corn sticks. When Pam went through the morning baker’s tasks, she assumed I had some prior knowledge of Fannie Farmer fare. I may have eaten my share of sticky buns but I had no idea how to make one. We had less than six hours to bring me up to speed and we threw back our last sips of coffee before launching into a marathon training session.

Hurled from the basement of Paris’ most esteemed patisserie to the basement of a lauded San Francisco hotel is a little like going from selling silk stockings at Bergdorf Goodman in New York to snake skin boots at Nieman Marcus. Where both strive for uncompromised quality, one is understated, the other has something to prove. One knew they had the best croissants in Paris, the other was re-imagining the breads we had forfeited for the sake of packaged convenience, thus reminding us of our own treasures: cream biscuits, corn muffins, popovers, Shaker pie, sour cream coffee cake and so on. I felt sorry for Pam—not only did she end up with a je-ne-sais-quoi rookie, the girl shadowing her, replacing her, carried a green card and hadn’t sat on her grandmother’s lap at Thanksgiving eating pumpkin pie.

Thus my first day on the job—studying Pam, her ease as she kneaded big round loaves, her purpose when her nubbly hands swept flour on the wood counter. She traveled the small space between the ovens, the standing mixer, the sink and cooling racks like a dancer, humming between commands. Where she glided, I wrestled. My limbs got in the way, and even with hips as slim as a boy’s, I managed to bump into appliances. And as if there wasn’t enough to do, we hulled a flat of ripe strawberries for preserves. While jam bubbled on the stove, she pulled out cast iron pans shaped like ears of corn and explained corn sticks, instructing me to preheat the heavy molds in the oven before piping in the batter. I spooned the mixture into a pastry bag (at least I knew how to do that), but when I opened the oven door to pull the molds out, Pam stopped me: “They’ll lose their heat. You have to stick your head in the oven and fill ‘em.” No time for questions, lunch service was about to begin and the waiters looked in on us, agitated, tapping their watches—the sticks were to go into the bread baskets, hot. So I rounded my shoulders and stuck my head in the blackened space. I remembered a show where a woman’s hair burst into flame and everybody laughed. Was it I Love Lucy? This wasn’t funny. My cheeks were burning. The runny batter dripped and sizzled, smoke filled my eyes. The first batch got tossed, the next one, too. These weren’t non-stick pans. I had to scrape away stubborn chips and grease the ears, then line them up in the oven again. The wait staff was furious after having to explain to every table about the fabled corn sticks they had read about in the San Francisco Chronicle. The manager, a no-nonsense stunning woman in an exquisitely tailored ink-black suit, marched in, her heels striking the tile floor like cocking pistols. Pam stood between us. I thought. No. I prayed she would fire me, but she just glared at me, (I remember thinking how pretty her green eyes were) and hissed: “We. Need. Corn. Sticks. Now.” I shuddered in her wake. Don’t cryDon’t cry, I pleaded silently. Pam put a hand on my shoulder, “Whatever you do, don’t make Chloe mad.”

I never imagined that I would dawdle through my tasks because having just graduated, this was, after all, my first kitchen job, but I didn’t expect to jump into the fire and come home blistered. Surely I would die in that basement—a corpse. I called my mom, of course, but I didn’t tell her about my burns and left out the part about sticking my head in the oven. I pictured her sitting on the edge of her bed, smoothing her skirt with one hand, the other gripping the phone, her knuckles white, wishing but not saying: “Come home.” From that day on, the orbit of my world reduced to the penned space between the pizza ovens and the counter, and my bed where I collapsed every afternoon, rising only to stand in the shower to wash the flour dust from my hair and nurse my burns. On those dark mornings, I summoned Pam’s agility and command. I followed the order of her handwritten instructions on a clipboard that hung from a nail above the sink. I set my alarm earlier and earlier, arriving at two, two thirty, to allow for the mishaps – the blueberry muffins that stuck to the tins, the danish that oozed butter, hiding them in the trash under egg shells and milk cartons, starting over and over and over again. And more than once, I made Chloe mad. One Sunday, when brunch was in full swing, I heard the pistols coming my way. Something about the biscuits being too salty: “You know, we have a re-pu-ta-tion to keep.” She turned and walked slowly back to the dining room. One of the line cooks popped in, wiping the grease from her glasses with a handkerchief: “The coffee cake is delicious today.” I wanted to kiss her.

Two weeks were like two years. Fannie Farmer came to me like Florence Nightingale, slowly making her way, bringing bandages and balm and bravado. For three days in a row, nothing got tossed in the garbage can. Then it was a week. Then I couldn’t remember when I had last seen Chloe. Looking back, I know it was the only way I could have learned that lesson—to mind my reputation.

Buttermilk Biscuits

(one dozen biscuits)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, chilled, cubed
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a mixing bowl.
Cut the cubed butter into the flour and until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Add the buttermilk and stir just until the dough holds together and forms a ball.
On a lightly floured board, pat and roll the dough into a half-inch thickness.
Cut into two-inch rounds and place on a baking sheet one inch apart.
Bake 15 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm.

You can always add a tablespoon of chopped chives, dill, caraway seeds, 
or lemon zest to the flour mixture to serve these biscuits with soup.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wine School

In the fall of 1985 I was learning to cook at the old Cordon Bleu in Paris, still under the direction of the surly Madame Brassart, before its makeover and transition to its brand new headquarters. Keith was one of my classmates. Tall and lanky with a soft Texas drawl, he’d find a seat next to me during our demonstration classes and interrupt my note-taking with only-in-Paris anecdotes like the neighbor who let his dog poop right in front of their entrance, or the old lady who elbowed past him in the bakery line, or the sour guard in the Louvre who scowled at his attempt to speak French. Then he would proceed to mock me for wasting my time watching the preparation of Faisan en Daube a la Gelee, Daube of Pheasant in Jelly, a complicated dish that involved stuffing the pheasant with truffles, foie gras and forcemeat, cooking it in Madeira, and immersing it in game jelly to serve as a cold appetizer. He could not fathom a room full of students, there for a desire to learn about French cuisine with eyes fixed to the large mirror hanging above our instructor’s stove, unaware of the food carnival on the streets of Paris. No amount of shushing would shut him up. “Why, I didn’t come all the way from Dallas to sit a classroom!” he declared. Eventually he would slink away to go buy his own pheasant and stuff it with nothing but a few sprigs of thyme, and make his own game stock with the feet and discarded bones. Sometimes, I’d get a call late in the evening: “So, Miss Persia, did you learn anything today?” And I would chide him for wasting his daddy’s money and skipping classes.

One morning Keith came to our pastry class with a brochure from a place he had stumbled upon while he was roaming the streets and we were whisking egg whites for chocolate mousse. The Academie du Vin, a little school founded by an Englishman, Steven Spurrier, offered introductory courses in French wine. “Wanna learn something about wine, Miss Persia, or are you going back to San Francisco to tell them you can stuff a duck, but don’t have a clue what wine you’d serve with it?” Although these smug remarks unnerved me, Keith was right. Only I didn’t have his unlimited funds to while away the hours in tea salons and cheese shops, when back home, my mother worked graveyard shifts at the hospital to pay my tuition. Fortunately, it was the golden age when the dollar fetched ten francs, so even on a tight budget, I could spare the sixty five francs for a six-week course.

And so it was that a few nights a week we met at the Madeleine metro and walked along the narrow streets behind the monument to our school—a former locksmith shop adjacent to Mr. Spurrier’s wine store, Les Caves de la Madeleine. Eight of us sat on tall stools along a curved bar while his partner, Pamela, conducted elementary lessons in comparative tasting and grape recognition. There were baskets of good bread and platters of cheese at room temperature, carafes of water, dozens of glasses and an empty ice bucket. I brought a notebook, Keith didn’t. He asked a lot of questions and spat noisily, but there was no way I was going to spit anything in a bucket. She poured, I drank, and soon I would have a hard time balancing my notes, a wine glass, the crusty baguette with camembert, and my pencil, which fell to the ground one more time and Keith reached his long arm to retrieve it while giving me a sidelong glance, amused to see this other side of me that was no longer eager to be the perfect student. When it was time to go, he stood gallantly nearby and watched me wrap myself in my coat, then walked alongside, down the steps to my metro stop, making sure I didn’t tumble forth. “One of these days, Miss Persia, I’m going to teach you how to spit.”

One night we came in from the rain and took our places along the bar. If you were walking by, you would have paused to look inside at the row of devoted backs leaning forward, at our raincoats piled on a coat stand by the door, rows of glasses hanging upside down like chandeliers, and wine bottles with cream colored labels lining the wall. You would have been drawn in by the glowing intimacy of that warmly lit space. We would have made room for you.

That evening, Pamela said she had a surprise for us. Little did she know that every lesson had been a surprise for me. Until then, grapes were green or red, sweet or sour, and sometimes I liked to stuff ten or so at a time in my mouth. “Tonight, you will taste liquid gold.” I’m definitely not spitting that out, I thought. “But,” she continued, I will also introduce you to a magical marriage of flavors.” She poured a Sauterne, pronouncing Chateau d’Yquem with such reverence that we fell silent. If you’re a connoisseur and wondering about the vintage, keep in mind that I was twenty three and prior to this I had been in college drinking boxed Chablis. Those days, no one felt compelled to brag about their wine expertise. She explained about the “noble rot” that causes this blend of semillon, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle grapes from southern Bordeaux to become raisined, that the color turns from yellow to copper, and with care, will age beautifully well beyond a century. We cradled our glasses and sniffed, anxious for the first sip but waiting for the nod from our instructor. My first thought was this wine was made by bees because what I tasted was cool honey. Then she reached below and brought out baskets of levain bread and platters of blue cheese and encouraged us each to take a morsel of Roquefort and follow it with the chilled Sauterne. We did. It was the first time I understood the meaning of “unctuous” and “rapture”. We sighed, we smiled, we leaned toward each other, our kinship sealed forever in that quiet moment. No one spat. I dropped my pencil and left it there. Pamela looked very pleased.

Weeks later, Keith and I would stop mid-sentence and say “Remember the Roquefort?” or sometimes just, “Remember?” and left it alone—neither of us willing to break the spell. I retrace my steps to this small turning point in my education when I gave myself permission to leave the classroom and wander the streets. I didn’t skip lessons, but spent hours in between, poking around, following a scent into a butcher shop where terrines of duck and rabbit cooled on marble, and a simple s’il vous plait would often lead to samples of cheese, pates, the first cherries. I came home one night with a celery root, an apple, a wedge of Roquefort, no more than four ounces, and assembled a tart in my closet kitchen using a chunk of day-old bread. I called Keith and two other classmates from Spain to come for dinner. The Spaniards brought a chunk of Serrano ham they had carried from a weekend home, and the Texan brought a half bottle of Sauterne. “You shouldn’t waste your daddy’s hard earned money!” I protested. He ignored me.

Celery Root and Apple Galette with Roquefort
Serves 4
1 celery root peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
2 apples, Pippins, Sierra Beauties, or Golden Delicious, peeled, cored, and quartered
Kosher salt, black pepper, honey
4 ounces unsalted butter melted
2 tablespoons lemon juice or cider vinegar
Half a loaf of chewy country bread
3 ounces Roquefort cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Toss the apples and celery root with a little salt, fresh ground pepper, 2 tablespoons of honey, 2 tablespoons of butter, and lemon juice or cider vinegar. Spread evenly in a roasting pan, cover and bake 20-25 minutes until the celery root and apples soften. Remove the cover, increase the heat to 400 degrees, and bake an additional 10 minutes to brown.
Turn the oven back to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9 inch pie dish. Slice the bread 1/8 inch thick and line the bottom and sides of your dish, fitting the slices snugly against each other. Brush the bread with melted butter. Spread an even layer of the apple and celery root, crumble half the Roquefort on top, and repeat with another layer of apple, celery root and cheese. Place the remaining slices of bread on top. Brush with butter and press down lightly.
Bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown. To serve, you can slide a knife around the edge of the pie dish and turn out on a platter, or serve wedges directly from the dish with a hearts of butter lettuce salad.