Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 12:01 am
Reaching too far?
My adventures in Chicago's top kitchen
The English poet and playwright Robert Browning wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”
This phrase has been cycling around in my head these past few days. An interesting chain of events has landed me in the kitchen of Michelin-starred Elizabeth, one of Chicago’s top restaurants, where I am celebrating my first month of retirement from dentistry by working 13-hour days in an environment where anything less than perfection is unacceptable. I think about the chefs who have committed suicide after losing a Michelin star. As my dishes go out from Elizabeth Restaurant’s open kitchen I nervously glance over to watch the diners’ reactions. When the dirty dishes are brought back I check to see if there is any uneaten food on the plate. I don’t want to be the guy responsible for losing the star. When I feel I’m in over my head I remind myself that overreaching promotes growth.
Elizabeth Restaurant does several off-site events each year and the last two years I’ve met up with them in my bus so the chefs can work out of my mobile kitchen. I always bring a pot of soup or stew that I’ve prepared ahead for the staff meal. I admit that I do it to try to impress the chefs. I use my best recipes and I take my time to make things good-looking and tasty. Sometimes I’ll spend a whole afternoon getting it ready. They’ve always complimented me on my cooking.
Elizabeth Restaurant has a themed tasting menu format, which changes every few weeks. The current theme is “Wicked and Wild School of Wizardly Wonder.” I’m in charge of making the cakes influenced by the first Harry Potter movie. First off, I’ve never seen a Harry Potter movie. Secondly, I don’t eat desserts because I don’t do sugar. Thirdly, except for making bread, I’m not a baker.
Day one: “Peter: Luis will show you how to make the cakes. He’ll be off tomorrow so the cakes will be your responsibility.” “Oh no. I’m in trouble!” I think to myself. As Luis walks me through the steps, I’m hastily writing down the recipe in my little notebook. I watch his efficient quick movements. His station remains neat and spotless throughout the procedure. His finished cakes look perfect. His icing is even and smooth. He’s finished well before our cutoff time.
That night I study the recipe he gave me. “Peel and boil 6 beets until tender. Cool down and puree. Whisk in buttermilk, canola oil, eggs and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients into mixer bowl. With motor running, slowly add beet mixture. Do not over-mix. Pour batter into a parchment-lined pan sprayed with Pam. Bake 30-40 minutes at 350°. Make icing. Punch out circles of cake. Pipe strips icing up sides of cake with pastry bag. Smooth with plastic dough cutter.” “This shouldn’t be too hard,” I thought naively.
Day two: “Peter: You have until 3:45 to get the cakes done. And tomorrow you’ll be in charge of staff meal and you will need to finish the cakes by 3 p.m.” So I cook my beets and allow them to cool slightly. I put them in the blender and begin breaking them down. The pieces on top aren’t getting pureed. I stop the blender to push down the chunks. I turn the blender back on. Beet puree splatters all over me! I clean up my mess and regroup. I sift my dry ingredients into the stand mixer and turn on the machine. I’m suddenly engulfed in a cloud of flour and powdered sugar! I clean up my mess and regroup. I put the cakes in the oven and start my icing. I follow the recipe precisely but the icing ends up softer than I remembered – more the consistency of shaving cream. I begin icing the cakes. The icing starts falling down the sides like snow sliding off a rooftop. I have 90 minutes before we have to break down and clean up for dinner service. I have 16 more cakes to ice and my first one looks like crap. I’m hunched over my cutting board trying to keep the icing from falling. The herniated discs in my back are getting real angry. I’m starting to panic. Realizing my reach has exceeded my grasp, I beg for help. That’s not what the other chefs want to hear as they race to complete their own prep.
Day two, 10 hours later: I walk out the back door shell-shocked and exhausted. The Robert Browning quote keeps rolling around in my head. It’s after 1 a.m. I find my room and go into a coma.
Day three: The alarm goes off at 9. I wake up in a panic, remembering that I’m in charge of the staff meal after I make my 17 cakes. I better think of something quick and easy that will impress my coworkers. Caldo Verde comes to mind. It comes together in under 30 minutes, uses only one pot and can be made vegan by leaving out the sausage.
Luis is back and asks how yesterday went. “I struggled icing the cakes.” “Oh I forgot to tell you that the mascarpone containers are always lighter than 8 ounces. I have to add an additional 1/3 of a container or the icing comes out too soft.” Armed with the updated information, today’s icing is no longer like shaving cream and my cakes are looking awesome. But I’m running behind and I need to get going on the staff meal. I’m glad I decided to make Caldo Verde!
Caldo Verde means “green broth.” It is a traditional Portuguese soup often served during celebrations such as weddings and birthdays. It can be made vegan by leaving out the sausage.
2 T olive oil plus more for garnish
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 large russet potato, peeled, quartered and cut into ¼-inch slices
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered, and cut into ¼-inch slices
6 cups homemade chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
1 bunch kale, stemmed and chopped
¾ lb. Portuguese choriço, kielbasa or andouille sausage, cut into ¼-inch slices
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a large kettle, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the sausage and sauté until lightly browned. Remove the sausage and reserve.
Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until softened but not browned.
Add the water or stock and the potatoes and simmer until the russet potatoes are broken down and the Yukon Golds are tender, about 20 minutes.
Add the kale and sausage to the potato mixture and simmer until the kale is tender, about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon a little olive oil into each soup bowl as a garnish.