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Common Foodsense: Good Cooks Get Their Affairs in Order

Back when I was teaching fresh-faced young culinarians, I used to encourage my students to have affairs. I confessed to a class some years back that I was in the middle of one myself: a torrid fling with smoked Spanish paprika. I thought about it day and night, smelled its perfume when it was nowhere near me, blew money I didn’t have on it and brought it to places it had no business being. After a year of this I was done, and moved on to pomegranate molasses, but we’re still cordial. And the relationship has gotten more appropriate. I don’t really think it liked being put in gelato.

I’ve seen this enough that I think it’s a chronic condition in cooks who are truly cooks. I worked for a chef whose passion for duck confit was almost an embarrassment—it would turn up in ravioli, eggs, salads, soup, hash browns… I think our accountant might have intervened at some point, but for whatever reason, things eventually cooled enough to bring our food cost back down to earth. 

But we got some great ideas out of it. And I saw the same thing happen in another place with fish sauce, a substance whose aroma would gag a cat—but when used as a catalyst can unlock hitherto unsuspected kingdoms of flavor. It’s like Southeast-Asian demiglace: You can’t sit down to a bowl of it, but you can use it to make other ingredients get up and dance. Did you know that it goes beautifully in osso buco? Minestrone? Did you know that if you spill it in your car you’ll need to sell the car? (But probably won’t be able to.)

This whole subject occurred to me yesterday when I was making a rather odd breakfast. I had some leftover moujendra (a Greek lentil-and-rice pilaf; ugly as sin, but tasty) and some leftover fried rice seasoned with Bali Rendang, a sort-of curryesque mixture which I’m just learning how to use … and kind of overdid. I mixed the two together in a skillet over peanut oil, and the moujendra diluted the Rendang and the whole mess wound up being wonderful. I put a fried egg and feta cheese on top. Your exotic breakfast, $9.95. Your food cost, 85 cents. Now let’s see if marketing can figure out a way to sell it.

Personally and professionally, these little ingredient crushes are part of what keeps the industry moving. In spite of long hours, indifferent returns and more strings on you than a puppet, there is always something to discover; a gleaming little nugget hidden in the thicket of brambles. The institutional problem is how to harness this energy, and keep it from being diffused by all the tiny leaks that are there to drain it away.

In the Indies, of course, it’s easier (there’s a Columbus joke here—voyage of discovery, Indies—oh, never mind). Small, hip places out to make a name for themselves tend to have “exploration” written into their mission statements, to the delight of their staffs and occasionally to the despair of their bottom lines. At Faegre’s in the late '80s, the cooks had to come up with 20 specials a day, including two daily patés. It was amazing to work in a kitchen with that kind of energy, but I don’t recall that us cook-types ever sat down with a sales report to assess the popularity of cold lunchtime liver. 

And the opposite problem prevails in the multi-unit universe, where numbers rule the stars in their courses, and creative energy can be crushed by the immense gravity of the enterprise. The fact that they have test kitchens doesn’t change this: A job description does not confer creativity, first of all, so when you hire for that kitchen you’d better have a way to judge it. Ask your candidate what she made for dinner last night. Secondly, innovation does not flourish through segregation into an arty little enclave. If there becomes a class system, where marketing thinks up cool ideas and the test kitchen gives them birth and everyone in ops just does what they’re told, you might as well replace your production staff with robots, because that’s what you’ve decided they are. And robots are unlikely to generate usable ideas: Check the recipe for chocolate chip cookies produced by a neural network. It does OK until it gets to the horseradish.

So before the age of the machines sets in, let’s say you have people, for the moment. Use ‘em. When I’m asked to do a menu makeover, the first thing I do is go to the line cooks and ask them what they’d like to see on the menu. They know their kitchens better than anyone, and their bored experimental snacks sometimes represent breakthroughs. In a place with a thousand units, where every kitchen is a clone of every other, the effect of such ideas is magnified instantly across the system. You also have a huge potential pool of idea-generators, who might work more productively if they felt their ideas were heard. Some may follow the lead of their mechanical brethren and come up with horseradish cookies, it’s true, but at least with humans, your odds are better. 

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