Rats, Thomas Keller and You

We finally got around to watching “Ratatouille,” last night. It’s a pretty neat film. There’s plenty there for kids, adults, anyone in between. There’s no singing, which is something that plagues (in my opinion) Disney films, but the music is well-suited for the movie. That said, Remy (the main character), is an inspiration to us all, really. What? You don’t think that a rat can inspire? You must be new to the whole Disney over-personification process. I kid, but…not really. The one thing that Disney always seems to be good at is taking the lowliest of woodland creatures (or brown rat) and turning them into heroic visions that we, ourselves could only aspire to be. This isn’t really that different.

The moral of the story is something that all foodies, not just critic “Mr. Ego,”cringe at hearing. It says, “Anyone can cook.” I thought, at first, “ooh…that’s not true, really.” The more I thought about it, though…the more it’s pretty spot on. Anyone can cook. It’s just that operative word that gets ignored a lot — whether everyone should cook. I didn’t take much away from the movie other than “anyone can cook” and “be true to yourself.” That’s enough, though, don’t you think?

I recommend the movie, by the by. Rent it or buy it, today. If you’re in the culinary field, then I would recommend buying it, not just for the movie, but moreso for the interview “Conversation with Brad Byrd and Thomas Keller.” The interview sections with Brad Byrd were inspiring, but the culinarians (can I use this, here?) just perked up with the mention of

Thomas Keller
Thomas Keller is a name synonymous with the pursuit of perfection in American Cuisine and, indeed, international cuisine. His drive, his creativity and energy have and continue to inspire cheflings around the country and, as mentioned, the world. He has given American cuisine French sensibilities while maintaining its Americanality. I know, I’m just making up a lot of words, here. Shakespeare would be proud, right? I would like to think Thomas would, too. Why? If the paradigm does not fit the situation, you can either change the situation or the paradigm…it’s all about which way you choose.

The interview with Thomas Keller was one of those inspiring little shorts where we get to see an artist in his element, creating, challenging our notions of “what is” in the world of food. It’s inspiring. It’s what I strive to do in my lowly chefling job at the Dayton Art Institutes’ “Cafe Monet.” I think it’s what all cooks should aspire to do. It’s the least we can do. The inspiration I got from just watching him wander around his kitchen, talk about what inspires him…I wanted to hop into my kitchen and start creating. If it hadn’t been 10:30PM, I might have. This brings us to

Me? No, you. You? No, me! If this hasn’t snapped the little synapse that kept your attention span on this blog, then read on. This is something I poured over in my mind as I was trying to get to sleep, last night. This may be an odd take on the whole “grasshopper” philosophy, but we are either the Rat or the Linguini. If you haven’t seen the movie, this makes no sense whatsoever. The bottom line is that we either have innate skills in the kitchen or we have to learn them, over time, to become great. Either way, there’s greatness to be had, we just have to discover it.

I started thinking about what it was Keller said about the plates we send out being extensions of ourselves and, well, that stuck with me a little. I strive, when I do my job, to do the best I can and give the people the best food I can within the framework or what’s being served. I’m not saying that we have on the menu isn’t sufficient — it’s probably the best museum menu I’ve encountered! I’m saying that even when I think I’m sending out the best plate I can, I’m probably not — I just haven’t opened my mind enough to show me the next level, the better that best way. What I’m trying to say is that we should all strive to be like Thomas Keller. I almost wrote strive to be Thomas Keller but thought, “Nah…there’s only one Thomas, and that’s how it should be.” No, we should strive to be like him.

How like him? Or, to be less gramatically opaque, “like him, how?” Well, to be honest, take on his views of perfection. We can all strive for perfection, but never accept that we have, in fact, achieved it. We need to view every dish we plate up as one going out to the local food critic, a fellow chef, your parents, whomever it takes to inspire you to make every dish your best, every plate your masterpiece. Once we do that, we’re being more true to ourselves and more pure in the love and creativity that is the culinary arts.

So, as I wait for my chef pants to dry — forgot to change over the laundry before going to bed, oops… — I find myself inspired, again, for another day that may or may not bring the joys of what we do to the fore. It may be dealing with the people that can’t be pleased no matter what. It might bring the folks that close their eyes and are brought to a better place by your food. Either way, my mission is the same, as is yours: give them the best food possible with the best presentation possible. If you’re satisfied with either, then it’s time to move on. That’s not to say you can’t get satisfaction from your job. No, what I mean is that if you’re doing your best and it’s working for you…it’s time to ratchet it up a notch. I don’t feel like I’m making sense. I’m just trying to express my drive for what I do and what I feel we should all have, drive-wise.

I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. In summary — Ratatouille is inspiring. Not just in the Dinsey feel good way, but in the cooking way. I recommend it. The interview with Keller and Byrd is inspiring. It’s worth the DVD just for that, even if it is only 14 minutes… Strive for perfection, but never accept that you’ve reached it. Cook well.

Songs while writing:
“No Angel” — Voivod, “KATORZ”
“Blind Leading the Blind” — Dance Hall Crashers, “The Old Record
“The Happy Meal-Worm” — Circus of Dead Squirrels, “The Pop Culture Massacre and the End of the World”
“All of Me” — Lemur Voice, “Divided”
“Eleanore Rigby (Beatles Cover)” — Ancestral, “The Ancient Curse”
“Am I Evil?” — Metallica, “Garage Days Revisited”
“If I Should Fall” — Folkearth, “Drakkars in the Mist”
“Staring at the Sun” — The Offspring, “Americana”
“Nobody’s Home” — Avril Lavigne, “Under My Skin”
“Shadow of the Moon” –Blackmore’s Night, “Shadow of the Moon”
“Outsider” — Green Day, “We’re a Happy Family: A Tribute to the Ramones”


Breakfast with Beelzebub Revisited

Current Song: “Trial By Fire” — Testament, “Live in London”

Dreams are weird.  It’s pretty much the mulling ground for all things subconscious and can end you up, some mornings, waking up and either saying, “WTF, mate?!” or, as was the case, this morning, “Wow.  That f’ing ruled!”

The dream that woke me up, this morning had a dash of inspiration, a dose of wackiness and a whole lot of things that just made sense.  Well, made sense in a “I’m having a dream” kind of way, really. For those that know me, you know that I am a metalhead through and through.  I delve into other genres of music, so, maybe I can’t consider myself 100% “metal” or maybe just 100% “mental,” but you’ll notice just about all my “current songs” on my blog entries are some metal band with a gruesome name or song title.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Also, those who know me (now, more than in than in the past), I love to cook AND I am pursuing a life in the field of culinary arts.

Finally, as a bit of background for the title of this blog entry, those who remember 106.3FM, WNDY, Crawfordsville, IN, you may remember during the 6a-8a, Tuesday and Thursday slot from 1991-1992, you would be as likely to hear Metallica or Death Angel as you were to hear Enya or Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.  One morning, the station manager dubbed my show “Breakfast With Beelzebub.”  It stuck.

So, one part wacky dream, one part love for all things thrash, one part culinary magic…what do you get?  “Phil’s House of Metal.”  In this dream, that was the best name that I, an unidentified friend who had a son who projectile vomited a lot, and Alice Cooper could come up with while having breakfast at an Awful Waffle while waiting for our wives to return from the shopping extravaganza across the parking lot.  I didn’t say that it was going to make sense, I just said I had an inspiring dream.  That said, when asked — and I’m going to hold him to this! — Alice freaking Cooper said, “Yeah, I’d eat there.”

While Alice was mum on things like funding and location, it was a very surreal part of the dream as we actually talked in a bizarre little roundtable discussion the menu items, decor, and the like.  The dream then started extrapolating all on its own how I could get support, funding and make this into a fantastic little restaurant.  I was impressed with my brain, really, for coming up with this all on it’s own. I did a little searching on the ‘Net, and it was surprising that there’s not been a lot of “metal-themed restaurants” discussed — 1 short page of 8 entries via Google.  I read the topic thread on Nevermore’s forum and had to chuckle.  I think that the most important thing was brought up, there, amidst the wacky ideas for decor, food, etc., and that was “cool, yes; profitable, no.”  That’s the sad reality of this…this dream that woke me up early.  I can see hordes of teenagers thinking, “OOH, COOL!  A METAL RESTAURANT!” and arriving and saying, “$25 for a @$%!@% entree! WTF!?”  Welcome to why, even as a slick concept, I am not sure it would fly.  I’m not into creating fast food.  I’m not the type to do a Cracker Barrel-type fare.  I’m just not geared for it, I don’t think.  I think the tag-line my dreaming mind came up with was, “Fine cuisine for the gourmand metalhead.”  I’m not sure I can see it in action, in reality, but it was a fun dream.

Hey! I Could Do That!

So, we’re watching “Hell’s Kitchen,” last night, because despite it being my profession, I find it fascinating and, for whatever reason, my family finds if fascinating, too. That said, every episode ends with one of the family looking at me and saying, “you could do that!” Well, this time around, there was the promo spot saying, “You think you’ve got what it takes?!”

I return from the kitchen and am greeted with a “You should apply.” What? I had no frame of reference, and after a second or two explaination, I was still thinking, “what?!” My experience level in the kitchen is short — 2 years — and, as I type this, it’s taking longer than I would like because my right index finger is heavily bandaged from where I decided to try to filet it last night while cleaning the chef knife I had JUST sharpened…then again, if I hadn’t been mostly paying attention to “Whose Line is it, Anyway?” I mightn’t have sliced myself, but…at any rate…

The more I thought about it, the more I thought, why not? Why not, indeed. It’s not like by applying I’m going to get picked. Lara asked me a couple of times, “What’s the worst thing that happens? You get picked?” I replied, rather sheepishly, “Yeah, getting picked would be the worst thing that could happen.” Then again, is that the case? What would happen if I got picked?

First, I’d have to dedicate 6 weeks of my life to being wherever in LA the directors wanted me. I can’t say I’m fond of LA, but, then again, never having spent more than a microsecond, there, I can’t really speak to it. I would say that it would introduce two factors that worry me: time away from my family and having to press the “pause” button on my Culinary Arts education.

Second, I would REALLY have to speed up. Anyone who knows me in the kitchen knows that I grew up in the south and, for me, hurrying results in “terminal speed” — the speed at which it becomes terminal. I can do it, it’s just a matter of learning how, which is why there’s the aforementioned Culinary Arts education.

Third, and most importantly, I am not sure how long it would take for me to have some sort of brain-short and simply kill everyone on the set. I don’t mind getting yelled at, so much — I tend to ignore about everything when I’m cooking; just filtering in the important things and ignoring all the “what the @$!” inanity. It’s not really a possibility, but it’s one of those things that makes me think, “do I really want to try to move around in a kitchen with 10 other people? And not stab one of them?” I kid, but I AM awefully used to being either just me in the kitchen or working with 2 to 3 other people who don’t get in the way.

So, the main question is: am I too spoiled to do this? I would say no, but I think that’s mainly got to do with the idea that I’m taking the “beginner’s mind” with the Culinary Arts and I’m not to a point where I know anything, again.

Would I enjoy working with someone on the level of Gordon Ramsay? Oh, hell yeah. Do I think I could either impress him or not consistently disappoint him? Yeah, sure. Do I think I have what it takes to survive in Hell’s Kitchen? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Ask me in six weeks (not the six weeks for the show, obviously, but six weeks’ worth of Culinary Arts education….) and I’ll let you know.

Books for an Aspiring Chef

Current Song: “…And Justice For All” — Metallica, “…And Justice For All”

In the Chef2Chef forums, over the past month or so, there has been a discussion about what a mother’s son would need if he wants to become a chef and attend Culinary School. That got me thinking, especially as I just registered for Culinary School, but have been reading and following Alice Waters’ advice of spending every last free cent on cookbooks instead of other creature comforts and so on.

People have been mentioning on the forum topic (which, if the wireless network hadn’t just tanked I could look up for you and give you a link…) their “top 5 things” this youngster would need. Invariably, there are 3 or 4 books listed, sometimes even 5. For me, I’m thinking that isn’t nearly enough. Now, they’re naming the “Big 5” or so with titles such as On Cooking, The Professional Chef, La Gastronomique, and On Food and Cooking. I agree that these should be in the library of a good chef, but for the amount of money that would be tied up in the aforementioned books, averaging $50+ each, there’s another route.

What I would recommend would be to find a used bookstore like “Half-Price Books” and live there. Stop in every week to find what gems are there and get as many sources of information as humanly possible. I mean find as many books by Dournenberg and Page as possible. Find as many books by Michael Ruhlman as you can. See if you can find used copies of Madeline Kamman’s The New Making of a Cook or any of the “big 5” used before throwing down the kind of change involved. Even if you don’t have the equivalence of a “Half-Price Books” near you, Barnes and Noble and Borders each have their clearance areas where you can usually pick up some fantastic deals on fairly diverse books.

That said, I have to have a “top 5,” those books I continually reference that I find invaluable, right? Well, sort of.

1. The CIA “The Professional Chef vol. 8”
2. Dournenberg and Page, “Culinary Artistry”
3. Le Courdin Bleu’s “Le Courdin Bleu Cookbook”
4. Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef” OR “The Making of a Chef” (either one is fantastic…)
5. Auguste Escoffier’s “The Escoffier Cookbook”
6. Carol W. Maybach’s “Creating Chefs”
7. Riely’s “The Chef’s Companion”
8. Madeline Kamman’s “The New Making of a Cook”

If I had to narrow it down to just 2 books, it would be the top 2. There is very little you could NOT accomplish with these two in tandem. The “Chef v8” is packed with amazing information and very good recipes as well as very well articulated instructions and quite a bit of history. Culinary Artistry is an invaluable resource, to me. It has so much information in it that isn’t what’s normally covered in cookbooks. I tell you what, the “Flavor Pals” section of the book is probably the best thing that ever happened to my cooking. In a LOT of cases, it allowed me to create dishes at the Cafe that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

With these two books in hand, or in a bag — the CIA book is heavy — you can learn an amazing amount and, if you’re in a position where you can create dishes for a restaurant, you can come out looking like a genius. Then again, a little creativity goes a long way, too, and everyone needs a little bump.

I wouldn’t say, however, that just 2 or 4 or 5 books will really do it. I have a shelf and a half in the built-ins that are dedicated to cook/cooking books. There’s a book by Aftel and Patterson called “Aroma” that is a unique perspective on cooking with essential oils that I would recommend to anyone. If you can find a copy of The Escoffier Cookbook I would seriously recommend buying it. I would almost always advice against getting any celebrity cookbook, but if there’s a book on the business by a celebrity, snatch it up.

It all comes down to what you can afford and what you can find. My copy of The New Making of a Cook cost me $10 from e-Bay…and $4 of that was shipping and handling. The average price of the books I come home with from “Half-Price Books” is $5.95. The aforementioned Aroma cost $6.95 while retailing at either $24.95 or $32…I don’t remember, but what was important was that I didn’t pay retail and it’s a hell of a book. In fact, the only books on my list that I paid full price for were The Professional Chef v8 at $80 (*cough*) and Culinary Artistry at $26.95. Oh, wait, I did get The Escoffier Cookbook new — $25, the best deal up there, really, although I still can’t really put a price on Culinary Artistry. To me, the more diverse the book collection, the more prepared you are to make your own recipes (I should write about my opinion of recipes, later) and be able to handle anything a Chef throws your way.