Recently, I shared a post on social media I got from my Cuz, Sally Stanton Poutiatine, about a great Chef doing a great deed in post hurricane Puerto Rico. Chef José Andrés went to the devastated island and initially began cooking for doctors and nurses, “because no one was feeding them.” But persistent calls for more help poured in, and Andrés couldn’t ignore them. He ended up coordinating 18 kitchens, serving over 150,000 meals a day. Andrés was named the James Beard Outstanding Chef of the Year, as well as Humanitarian of the Year in 2011 for this stunningly lovely gesture.
That story prompted another friend, Bryan Lee, to mention world famous Chef Massimo Bottura’s reaction to the devastating 2012 earthquakes that ravaged the area around Modena, Italy, home to balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The earthquakes damage included 360,000 wheels of the famous cheese – Over $200 million dollars worth, enough to fatally cripple the industry. What could one Chef do that would actually make a dent in such a disaster? Bottura gave it a think, and came up with risotto cacio e pepe, a play on the legendary pasta dish – But Massimo’s version used Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of the traditional pecorino, and rice instead of pasta, (because the affected region also heavily depends on rice production for its economic well-being.) a fundraiser was arranged, and the recipe was shared widely on social media. The result? The dish went ballistic across the culinary world, and “All 360,000 wheels were sold,” Bottura proudly told the TV show A Chef’s Table, “They were sold out. No one lost a job. No cheese maker closed the doors. That was a recipe as a social gesture.”
Alright, you say, very nice, very noble – But what’s this got to do with us home cooks? The simple answer is this – If you want to be a great cook at home, then damn near everything.
Before we get after the specifics of why, lets dig in a bit more to those Pro’s doing great deeds. In both these instance I cited, Chefs who were running a single restaurant waded into a much more dire situations, natural disasters of epic proportion. If you don’t know how professional kitchens and chefs work, this might seems deeply strange – What the hell would some milquetoast food dude know about dealing with things normally handled by major departments of federal governments, anyway? Turns out, quite a bit, and the reason for that is chaos. It’s not coincidental that cooks know all about chaos, and frankly, that’s everyone from Andrés and Bottura to home chefs – It’s just that chaos in a professional kitchen is exponentially more stunning than it is in ours.
My little cafe is a good example, even though in the big picture view of professional kitchens, it’s frankly peanuts. Nonetheless, we do north of four million dollars in business annually, and that happens at around fifteen bucks a pop. So, do the math for a busy weekend like this past one – Veteran’s Day weekend down here and a three day weekend for our Canadian pals – That adds up to lunches running up to $2,000 hours, and maybe three or four of those a day for three days. We’ll turn the restaurant a bunch during that service, meaning a new party takes over table X, in a cafe that’ll hold around 190 folks at a pop. Our goal is for you to be fed in under five minutes, from the time you order until food hits your table, and all it takes to screw that up is for one of us to have a hard time for a minute or two – Running out of an ingredient, a complex order, something small like that – When it happens, its called, in polite company, being in the weeds, (albeit the French term is dans le merde). It sucks, and it escalates in a heartbeat, and it can be really hard to get out of in anything resembling short order, but get out if it we must, and get out of it we will, because that’s what we do.
The way you deal with chaos in your kitchen determines how you’ll do when it happens. Handling it is part of the profession, and in the blood of good chefs. If you ever walk into your cafe seriously thinking, ‘I know exactly what’s going to happen today’, you’re either delusional or crazy. Even when the shit hits the fan, the good ones figure out, quickly, what needs to be done and how to do it. And frankly, it doesn’t matter to us whether it’s a kitchen, or a hurricane, or an earthquake – Disaster is disaster, and we know all about that. Andrés answered it perfectly when asked how he’d done what he’d done in Puerto Rico – He said, “Restaurants are chaos and chefs — restaurant people — we manage chaos very well. After a hurricane, you see a lot of chaos, and people go hungry and people go thirsty. But what we are very good at is understanding the problem and adapting. And so a problem becomes an opportunity. That’s why I think … more and more you’re going to be seeing more chefs in these situations. We’re practical. We’re efficient. And we can do it quicker faster and better than anybody.” I spent twenty years as a firefighter and a cop before I returned to food as a profession – I know exactly what he means, and he’s absolutely correct.
And so it comes to us in the home kitchen. Yes, what I described above is epic, but truth be told, a major screw up in the home is no less traumatic for the cook. The burned roast, radically over-salted home canned pickles, over cooked beans turned to mush, or the dreaded fallen soufflé has flattened many a cook – So what to do?
First and foremost, change your attitude, gang. What’s called for is a healthy dose of chutzpah, like we walk into our kitchens with every day. This is your kitchen, and come hell or high water, it’ll still be yours – Own it, warts and all. This is, frankly, the most important thing you can do towards becoming a better cook. This is your stage – Even if you flub your lines, if you do it with panache, nobody will know. Remember Julia Child throwing some failure over her shoulder and warbling, ‘Oh well – onward!’ That’s what I’m talking about. If it was easy, everybody would do it, and you know as well as I do that they don’t.
Secondly, embrace failure. If you never fail, you’re not pushing yourself near hard enough, and you’ll never be a better cook than you are now. You have to screw things up sometimes, especially if you’re experimenting. Expect it, accept it, learn from it, and make the next attempt, if not absolutely right, then that much better. If y’all saw how many things we boot before a recipe hits these pages, you’d be shocked – The difference is, I know it’s going to happen from time to time and I’m cool with it, because I always learn from my kitchen mistakes, and a rarely, if ever, repeat them – And that’s just what you’ll do too.
Third, expect chaos. Any time, in any situation, it can and will happen, and probably with the dish you’ve done a hundred times and are now doing for your new in laws. To paraphrase what I wrote above, if you walk into your kitchen thinking you know exactly what’s going to happen next, sorry, but you’re kinda nuts. Expect the unexpected, and don’t be surprised if that includes worst case scenarios. If you’re ready for anything, you won’t panic, you’ll think, do some quick research, and you’ll find a working solution. It may mean going to Plan B or C or D, but you’ll find a solution, because that’s what we cooks do.
So, there’s the drill. And for the record, pull the burned roast out, get rid of the pan, cut any burned stuff off the roast, re-pan it, add some water, and move on. For the pickles, remove about half the brine, replace that with water, and let them have a good soak for a couple of hours until everything tastes right again. Turn the overdone beans into dip, maybe with some toast points or pita bread. And if the soufflé has really fallen, well hell – Serve that sucker up and call it a pudding or a fondue – This is your stage, and none shall be the wiser.