You might think it’s odd for a baker to go out and find other bakeries on their day off. I bake all the time, and surely I can make anything I want at home for a fraction of the price. Why should I go check out other bakeries in the city?
You might as well wonder why musicians go to other peoples concerts. Baking is my skillset and profession, and I definitely make a commodity, but it’s also acraft- and I like seeing how others practice it.
The same as there are different genres of music or literature, there are different cuisines. Within those genres, everyone has their own style. A way they practice their art that’s all their own, or a kind of art that they just vibe with and respond to.
There’s lots of ways to do this cooking thing, after all.
When it comes to our favorite recipes- whether it’s the dishes we make for family or the ones we sell at our businesses- whether or not to share recipes can cause a lot of emotion either way you lean. The same people that have no problem sharing the recipes they created might be a little twitchy about sharing their family’s “secret” meatloaf. That goes double if you are in the business of cooking for others. Why would you want to give away your perfect fried chicken recipe where a competitor could get it? Can we protect our recipes? Should we protect our recipes and keep them secret?
The short answers are “Sorta?” and “Only if you really want to.”
The walk up Mount Tabor has become a familiar old friend, and like an old friend it has it’s own moods. Normally, when I go walking through the park, it’s with an audiobook in my ears. The walk is for the fresh air and exercise, the book for entertainment and distraction- especially if I’m in a foul mood and need to clear my mind.
That was the case this afternoon as I decided I needed to get out of the house and write this blog, but not go to a bar or cafe. Money has been tight lately, so I need to find other spaces to be creative in. The weather is perfect, and the park is free. Walking up to the top of a little hill near the summit, I have an Earthsea book in my ears. The breeze was blowing, kindly cooling me under the heat of the sun.
In my meditation lately, I’ve been trying to build on focus and mindfulness- being in each moment, and appreciating where I am and what I’m doing. As I walked, I pulled the headphones from my ears.
A deep breath. A quiet moment between heartbeats. The smell of warm cedar, and someone practicing a bamboo flute nearby. Distant traffic. Bird song.
I kick aside a few fir cones, lay down my blanket, and start to feel everything.
“Look, I’m just saying it’s missing something. I don’t know what, but it needs something else.”
The conversation next to my bench had been going on for close to 20 minutes. Our manager had just tried a spoonful of soup that we were going to selling tomorrow. It was a spicy African Peanut soup- dried ancho peppers had been infusing the pot with a smoky flavor, carried on the fat of the peanut butter and oil the veggies had been fried in. There was a suggestion for salt, but the recipe already had a lot.
Black pepper, sage, garlic, more cayenne, it went round and round. The owner looked over the pot and called me over. “Matt, taste this- what do you think it needs?”
I grabbed a spoon and took a taste. Smoke, peanut, and fried veggies washed over my tongue… but no heat. The heat from the anchos needed something to cut through the fat. “It’s good, but dull… you need some kind of acid in there to carry the heat and brighten it up. Got some lemon juice?”
The hot pepper might give the soup bite, but acid gave it jaws to bite with. When you become a cook, you start learning a different vocabulary for flavor, which is itself the vocabulary of food.
This morning, I had the great fortune of getting contacted by an old teacher of mine from culinary school. Chef Joe Sheridan was appearing on WOND, a local New Jersey radio station, discussing culinary education, the industry, and seeking the voices of alumni. I was having a slow morning and agreed to call in.
After catching up a bit on the show and brief introductions (including plugging this blog and my book. #shamelessselfpromoter) Chef Joe asked me an interesting question.
“Matt, I’ve recently been reading this book “Burn The Ice” by Kevin Alexander and- well, to stereotype your entire city, we came from an era of white table cloths and pressed napkins. Now we have chefs with tattoo sleeves, in black T-shirt’s with hats on backward, serving in dining rooms with bare tables and distressed walls. It’s all different!”
Now, I gotta own that since coming to Portland, I’ve gotten a couple food tattoos. I haven’t worn a proper white chef’s toque since I graduate culinary school (I hated them anyway. The paper ones tore and had a habit of knocking things off overhead racks, directly onto my neck.) There’s no denying that the Pacific Northwest spawned a reckoning in how fine dining was treated in America.
While I have yet to read Kevin Alexander’s “Burn the Ice” on the subject (I just bought it on Kindle a few minutes ago. It’s officially on The Pile,) the sharp cultural difference between living on the West Coast and training on the East is something I’ve mulled over plenty.