Click below for a PDF of my piece in the summer issue of Flavor Magazine on the innovative beverage program at The Occidental, a 106-year old restaurant around the corner from the White House.
When I worked as a line cook at Blue Duck Tavern, I was responsible for the daily harvest vegetable ($9)–or “farm veg” in the vernacular of the kitchen–a side dish featuring one or more of whatever vegetables were in season and happened to be in house that day. In theory, I was supposed to come up with the dish each day, but I consistently shirked that responsibility on the premise that I was a novice cook–a culinary school extern, in fact–and that it was therefore too much to ask me to conceive and prep a dish from scratch every day on top of the daunting task of managing my station’s more involved but less ephemeral dishes. (Of course, this meant that the chef–who had many more responsibilities than I did–had to come up with the farm veg. I feel slightly bad about my recalcitrance, but am prepared to live with it.)
Because a poorly planned or inadequately prepped farm veg could throw an otherwise calm day into chaos, we typically mapped out a tentative strategy a few days in advance, doing as much ahead of time as possible so as to ensure smooth sailing on the farm veg’s big day. For example, we might use a lull in service one night to trim brussels sprouts that would then be blanched the following day for use in the farm veg on the third night.
Shockingly, it did not always proceed according to plan. The restaurant was open seven days a week, and I worked five of them, which meant that someone had to cover my station on my days off. Frequently, I would spend all week getting ahead on the farm veg so that my understudy would have an easy go of it, only to return from my sabbatical to find that the farm veg pay-it-forward scheme I’d worked so diligently to engineer had collapsed in my absence. Other times, the chef would have an idea for an upcoming farm veg–one that in theory required relatively little prep work–but fail to actually order the required produce.
As a result, I came to despise the farm veg.
Nevertheless, I worked dutifully to stay ahead of the curve, so that I was consistently putting out a farm veg that met the restaurant’s reputation for tastiness without compromising the quality of my other dishes, while also maintaining my sanity.
On one fateful occasion, I arrived at work without a farm veg plan, and approached the chef to discuss the topic levelheadedly. Having become accustomed to my inability and/or unwillingness to do my own farm veg-related work, the chef took my entreaties in stride, and pronounced plainly that the day’s farm veg would feature roasted wild mushrooms over Anson Mill grits with a goat cheese fondu.
To set his plan into motion while simultaneously taking care of a bit of housekeeping, chef hurriedly asked me to follow him to the walk-in fridge, where I watched him root through a tower of mushroom boxes. As he stacked the boxes in my arms, he noted which I was to use for farm veg, which I was to discard, and which I was to relay to other cooks for one purpose or another. His instructions flew at me fast, but my brain registered them apace, and I exited the refrigerated repository with a clear sense of purpose.
I delivered a portion of the mushrooms to their intended destinations, and carried the remainder to my station, where I proceeded to clean, break up, slice, and otherwise fabricate them into a mushroom medley consisting of a rich and textured variety of bite-sized mushroom morsels, ready for roasting.
Along the way, I came across a rather unsightly batch of fungi in a damp, half-empty box. The mushrooms were rather large, with a passing resemblance to royal trumpet mushrooms with their thick stems and cream coloring. Half of them looked to be on the verge of rotting, and, since I had an ample supply of honey, hen-of-the-woods, and beech mushrooms on hand, I trimmed these misfits liberally, tossing the more questionable ones, and gouging any other parts that were remotely soggy or discolored. I treated the good bits as I had the other mushrooms–I cut them into bite-sized pieces, folded them into the mix, and pan-roasted the hell out of them.
Farm veg that night–as was the case every night an assortment of roasted wild mushrooms were involved–was a hit. When all was said and done, I had enough left over to fill a shallow six-pan–less than a quarter of what I’d started the night with–which I wrapped in plastic and tucked into the walk-in along with my other mise en place.
When I arrived at work the following day, I learned the harsh truth of the matter: those damp, homely mushrooms I’d treated so unmercifully hadn’t been royal trumpets at all. They were porcini mushrooms. Fresh ones. The kind that cost anywhere from $25-$50 per pound. The ones intended for use in a dish for that night’s high-priced chef’s table. And while chef was angry enough at the fact that they had been incorporated into the wild mushroom mix along with their inferior, far cheaper brethren, he didn’t–and still doesn’t–know the worst part: I threw more than half of them away.
I’d like to issue a public apology, first to my chef at Blue Duck, for not following his instructions, for compromising his meticulously planned chef’s table menu, and for unceremoniously dumping good money into the trash.
But, more importantly, I’d like to apologize to the species porcini: we don’t know each other well, but we’ve had some good times together (that week in Italy after my wedding was unforgettable), and I am more than fond of your meaty flavor and creamy texture. I know this doesn’t mean much, but I’d like to think that the pressures of cooking on the clock, where common sense often takes a back seat to haste and the mechanical completion of assigned tasks, was as responsible for the demise of your offspring as any personal failing of mine.
If you’ll still have me, I’d like to get reacquainted over a bowl of fresh pasta and a bottle of Gattinara.
We all know the official harbingers of DC spring: cherry blossoms, hordes of eighth graders, and delectable seasonal lamb dishes popping up on restaurant menus all over town. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool lamb-lover, you’ll want to set up camp next month at Zaytinya, the popular José Andrés outpost that, according to the restaurant’s publicist, is the largest purchaser of lamb on the restaurant DC scene.
Last night, Zaytinya held a reception (which I attended on behalf of Flavor Magazine) to unveil a lamb-centric menu available during its annual two-week celebration of Greek Easter, featuring a variety of dishes that play a significant role in Greek Easter traditions, many of which are only enjoyed this time of year.
The Easter menu will be available April 8-22, and diners will be able to enjoy its offerings in a variety of ways. All of the special dishes will be available as part of a ten-course tasting menu ($99 for two people), and individual dishes will be offered as specials on the restaurant’s regular a la carte menu.
In addition, Zaytinya will reprise two popular items from past Easter celebrations: a lamb sandwich cart featuring spit-roasted lamb on fresh pita with tzatziki and pickled onions (the cart will be located on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, where guests can enjoy the sandwiches picnic-style or purchase them to go); and an assortment of Greek Easter cookies available as a dessert or in a take-home bag. The restaurant is also offering a pair of specialty gin-based cocktails during the festival.
See below for pictures of select dishes from last night’s reception. Learn more about Zaytinya Greek Easter festival (full menu coming soon) here.
Zaytinya Greek Easter menu
Anastasis (specialty cocktail #1): Beefeater gin, Cocchi Americano, kumquat liqueur, lemon juice, sour cherry sphere
Glossa: thinly sliced lamb’s tongue, potato skordaila, green olives, pickled red chilis, celery, candied pistachios
Spanakorizo: rice pilaf with wilted spinach and tomato, spinach puree, feta cheese, preserved cherry tomatoes
Bizeli Me Yiaourti: English peas, garlic yogurt, pistachios, micro lemon mint
Greek Easter lamb kleftico: spit-roasted lamb, kefalograviera cheese, English pea skordalia, feta cheese, dill
Attica (specialty cocktail #2): rose-infused Plymouth gin, lemon juice, house-made grenadine
Loukaniko Me Patates: traditional house-made lamb sausage scented with orange and cumin, potato, garlic
Tsoureki bread pudding: macerated strawberries, candied almonds, orange flower ice cream
Assortment of Greek Easter cookies
Sometimes, I wish I was crazy. Not “get these bugs off of me” crazy; rather, the kind of crazy where the screws are just loose enough that you can break free from the shackles of normalcy and pursue greatness unfettered. Normal sensations like self-awareness and the need for sleep are all well and good, but they keep us grounded. Crazy lets us fly.
Alas, I’m not crazy, but I have had the privilege of witnessing it first-hand by way of an unusual mix of two professional experiences with nearly nothing, at least on paper, in common: national politics and fine dining. Yes, craziness is manifest in the long hours, hectic pace, and stress level of both careers, but it is nowhere more apparent than in the behavior of the men and women at the top. And after having been exposed to my fair share of these people, I can say definitively that both chefs and politicians are completely bonkers.
The differences between professional cooking and professional governing are numerous and, for the most part, fairly obvious. First, while the hours in both jobs can be long and unpredictable, the basic schedules are almost completely inverses of one another. In government, it’s Monday through Friday, nine to six (or seven, or eight), and a little on the weekends, mostly via your taxpayer-subsidized BlackBerry. In the kitchen, you work nights, weekends, and holidays. Over the course of six months, I worked two eight-day stretches and two ten-day stretches, neither of which is remotely abnormal in the industry. A fellow cook told me he once worked 32 straight days, then shrugged and went back to slicing chives.
Second, the people you work and interact with in each job could not have less in common. The political class consists mostly of white, educated, middle-class people whose desk televisions are tuned to CNN all day and who regularly peruse on-line news sites. The professional kitchen I worked in was the picture of diversity, with whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and immigrants from all over the world represented in nearly equal measure. Some were educated; others were not. Most were working-class people who thought about coming into work the next day and earning a paycheck rather than about whether it’s really fair for Iowa caucuses to always be the first contest on the primary calendar, regardless of how loudly I bitched about it to the fry cook.
Lastly (and this may shock some of you), government work is different than kitchen work. The first is performed primarily seated, in cubicles in front of computer screens and in conference rooms, and consists of producing and exchanging pieces of paper. The second is performed almost exclusively in the standing position, and consists of taking organic material that has been harvested, killed, or foraged and fabricating it into something that, between the hours of 5:30 pm and 10:30 pm, strangers can arbitrarily order. The first can be performed with relative effectiveness while drinking chai at Starbucks; the second involves copious amounts of salt, butter, and yelling.
But the similarities between the two professional environments are even more interesting. Both are uniquely stressful and require feverish multitasking. Both involve managing and coexisting with a wide range of personalities–people are people, after all, and idiosyncrasy and insecurity are always present, whether you’re around the copying machine or over the stove.
Most importantly, both are performed under the leadership of crazy people.
Let’s start with the politicians. The men and women who hold elected office in this country are often maligned for being lazy do-nothings, but the ones I’ve witnessed first-hand are nothing less than torrents of energy, miniature funnel clouds that whip in and out of meetings and events, leaving a trail strewn with slapped backs, half-empty promises, and annotated policy memos.
Their professional arc and daily responsibilities are largely to blame. In order to even get the job, they’re required to campaign relentlessly for months on end, and to win an actual election involving thousands (sometimes even millions) of actual voters. Once they’re in office, they have to be unconditionally available to a never-ending parade of constituents, special interest organizations, and lobbyists; and to interact effectively with colleagues just as crazy and harried as they are. The pace is as relentless as it is exhausting. Those who willingly endure it–even thrive in it–can’t help but be a little “off.”
On the other hand, it’s no secret that chefs are crazy; in fact, many are renowned for their insanity, and others are all too willing to play the part. They too are whirling dervishes, constantly spinning from one challenge to the next all in the name of running a profitable restaurant. On a daily basis, chefs order and keep track of hundreds of ingredients; shepherd those ingredients through the process of being cut, peeled, prepped, mixed, cooked, sold, and eaten; and corral staffs of often unreliable and unruly people whose absence or tardiness could send the entire tenuous enterprise into outright chaos.
And they do all of these things from a cramped, hot, messy kitchen chock full of other miserable bastards. Levelheaded people, these are not. I once watched a chef eat 15 shishito peppers in an effort to ascertain their spiciness, only to proclaim that his “face [was] burning off.”
Strangely enough, due to the peculiarities of the Washington social scene, the paths of chefs and politicians cross often despite the very different worlds they occupy. The involvement of celebrity chefs in various political initiatives aside, the fact of the matter is that politicians like to eat out (there’s no better setting for political brinksmanship than at a dimly lit table over an alcoholic beverage), and Washington restaurateurs are used to seeing famous political names appear on their reservation lists with some frequency. In my short time in a DC restaurant, I had the opportunity to cook for a sitting Vice President (Joe Biden) and a former one (Al Gore), as well as Cabinet Secretaries, senators, and any number of high-level staffers and operatives.
For me, this is where the true intersection between the two worlds exists. Listing the unheralded shared traits of chefs and politicians makes for good entertainment, but it’s a far more fleeting enterprise than a good meal, cooked, served, and eaten by people from very different backgrounds and with very different interests and skills, around a table where people can find respite from, or an outlet for, the unusual impulses that make them do what they do.
Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not crazy, even if I sometimes wish I had at least a little bit of the insanity that drives chefs and politicians to thrive in their respective, absurdly demanding professions. I ended up leaving the kitchen in large part because I couldn’t get past not being at home with my wife in the evenings–a sensation far too “normal” for the life of the professional chef. It’s enough for me to have had a seat at the table, a place behind the stove, and the chance to regale anyone who will listen with stories of the wonderfully crazy people I met along the way.