March 10, 2017

Headlines this Week:

Razor Clams Arrive at 1O8

1O8 “Creates a New Language”

We started a new dish this week, raw razor clams. The dish goes like this: salted gooseberries from last summer and green strawberries, topped with raw razor clams and salsify, which has been cooked in dashi, dehydrated, and rehydrated in dashi several times, which achieves a toffee-like texture, and finished with roasted yeast oil. The razor clams come in live, so we blast freeze them, shuck them, cut them in half, scrape out the guts, and then portion them for service. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a ton of work, but it’s incredibly tedious and time consuming. We used to have this dish, raw shrimps, that had the same level of mind-numbingly tedious preparation go into it. Once a week, we would have shrimp day, where we would receive huge shipment of shrimp that had been caught that day. We would then spend, literally, all day, peeling these itty bitty shrimp and blast freezing them. We’ll be doing the same with the razor clams. Maybe, just maybe, clam day will be Monday or Tuesday, so I don’t have to deal with it. I doubt I’ll have such luck, though.

One of my friends put in his notice this week. We started a week apart from each other and worked the same station for the past six weeks. We spent 80 hours a week next to each other and worked well on the section. He was incredibly calm and cool in service, nearly to a fault, but it helped balance my constant feeling of being overwhelmed. Having him leave will be a bummer. But so goes life. However, when he told me he was leaving, he asked, “Why are you still here? What are you even learning here?”

That’s a good question. Maybe I’m not learning a new recipe every day. Maybe I’m not having this super sexy, Chef’s Table type of experience. Yes, I have some pretty hard, pretty shitty days. Yes, sometimes I want to pull out my hair and run screaming and naked through the streets. BUT I am learning. I’m learning things I don’t like, as much as I’m learning things I like. I’m finding my strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen. I’m understanding the difference between being in a position of leadership and having charisma. I’m learning new flavors. My palate is changing. I’m thinking about ingredients differently. I’m composing dishes differently. And I’m understanding a different ethos of cooking.

All of this struck me this week when I sent a list of dishes I’ve been working on for progress, over to one of my chef friends, whom I bounce most of my ideas and menus off. I wanted to get her feedback and gut reactions to the ideas because, sometimes you get too close to your food or too married to an idea, and can’t see that it might not sound good or seem right. She told me (and this made my week), “Hear me when I say this, okay? This sounds fantastic. Like, really great. These dishes feel and look differently than dishes you sent me just a few months ago, like more developed, more mature, more graceful. You’ve grown. A lot. I think they sound really delicious.”  That’s when I stepped back and was able to see how I’ve been thinking differently about food because of my experience here.

I have two favorite quotes from chefs. One is from Roy Choi, who says something to the effect of, “When you cook, think about your life, think about past mistakes, think about girls. Put that in your mise en place. Put that in your food.” The other, is by Rene Redzepi, who says, “As a cook, you’re creating a language. We need an alphabet to form sentences. The ingredients are our alphabet. And the more letters we have, the more beautiful the prose.” My experience here is giving me more letters in my alphabet. My experience is also teaching me to be actively positive. It doesn’t always happen, and it’s not easy, but negativity creeps into food. As Wes Johnson would say, if you’re bitter all day doing your prep, you end up making hate meatloaf.

Some encouraging news came this week from our sommelier. He’s one of my favorite people. He has this quick, dry, sarcastic sense of humor that’s perfect. He has a wealth of knowledge about wine and spirits, that he’ll happily share, and has perfectly timed words of encouragement for just when you need them. He told us, after a particularly rough service, that a chef, a chef with a big name and a big following, had eaten at 1O8 and written him, saying that the food was amazing, and the experience was incredible. He said that what we’re doing is creating a whole new language in food. I think this can be taken a number of ways, because there are so many facets to what we do at 1O8. But I think he was referring to all of them. We have a Michelin star, but we have an a la carte menu, our wine list is unique and exploratory, rather than focusing on big, old school names and wines, our tables are close together, which fosters a sense of community (which, personally, I find rather brilliant—it’s also something we aim to do at progress), the service and atmosphere is causal, and the food is truly unique. We’re not austere. We’re very approachable. And I think that’s incredibly important, and something that gets missed a lot in fine dining.

Here’s an anecdotal story: one of my friends from the restaurant invited me to her new apartment for brunch on Sunday. But let’s go get drinks the night before, she said. So after work (which, remember, is around 1 a.m. or later), I met her and a few other chefs for beers. That quickly escalated to us spending the next four or five hours at a “party” which, in Danish, is code for soul-crushingly loud “music” (I put music in quotes, because a pulsing baseline for hours at a time with no change or lyrics, to me, is not really music), and people all shuffling in a sort of zombie trance dance. I threw up my hands at 6 a.m. and said I was going home. When we left, with the sun fully out, there was still a line of 30 or so people waiting to get in. If you know me at all, you know this isn’t in my definition of fun. But it’s a new experience I had, nonetheless. She joked with me during the night that, “I have a feeling this is going to end up as a sarcastic story on your blog.” She was entirely correct. Oh, and because I got home at 7 a.m. and fell into a mild coma, there was no brunch. I’m convinced it was all a cruel ploy to lure me into the trap that is the techno dance music scene.

The world's best 50 restaurants list has Eleven Madison Park as number 1 this year. USA! USA! I could rant for hours on the 50 best list. However, one of the most interesting and compelling articles I've read on it is this. I won't dive too much into it, but I think this article makes some really interesting observations. 

I have just over a month left at 1O8. I’m excited to see how else I grow.