“Learning is not compulsory … neither is survival.”
– Henry Ward Beecher, 20th century U.S. management consultant
Buenos Aires – The gasps were audible. To anyone. I’d just introduced myself to my classmates, and I’ve been working in the restaurant business longer than most of them have been alive. Not surprising on my side, I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this class – Cocina de Vanguardia, or, more or less, “Cutting Edge Cooking”. The school is mostly, well, kids, who are essentially going to culinary school instead of college. This is an “advanced” class, so all of them have at least completed the base program – pretty much putting them in that early 20’s range. A few, like me, have actually been out there working professionally. What did surprise me was the number of folks who aren’t locals – there are other norteamericanos, a woman from Brasil, a young man from Colombia, and a couple from other spots that I missed (the intros were not all audible over background noise in the kitchen). Most of those from other places actually came in to Buenos Aires to spend eight weeks here, simply to take this and possibly other classes – apparently there aren’t too many cooking schools in South or Central America offering a program like this. But no one, apparently, figured on someone in their class old enough to, well, be their father… and the instructor asked me why I was there with my background – my reply, that there are always new things to learn and I never stop exploring and learning new things brought scattered sighs and a couple of “you mean I’m not done with school?” gasps… oh, they’re so young.
There are two main reasons I’m taking this course. The first is that I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the whole molecular gastronomy movement, and experimented with some basic stuff in the kitchen, but have neither the equipment nor the inclination to invest the time and money into it to explore it in depth at home. I wanted a class where I could see some of these things I’ve been reading about put into practice, get a sense of what might be interesting and useful to me directly, and then make a decision on what to spend some pesos and hours on. The second reason is something which I’ve acknowledged many times in this blog, and which is, while not generally pointed out as a complaint, is at least pointed out to me on occasion, that I don’t “do” presentation well. Strangely, as I look back at my career, with the exception of a relatively short stint working with Tom Colicchio at Mondrian, I’ve never cooked in a kitchen where presentation was a strong point. I’ve always worked in more, well, home-cooking style restaurants of various sorts – the “if it tastes good who cares what it looks like” world – and while to a certain extent I agree with that, there’s also the “feast for the eyes” that comes of having something that looks appetizing… no, beautiful… on the plate as well. I figured that this is the sort of course where there’s likely to be an emphasis on “plating”.
Class one, last week, as I mentioned in a previous post, was a sort of introduction to fusion cuisine as a basic concept in the world of vanguardia. As I said, the instructor’s definition of fusion cuisine was "using Asian ingredients to influence traditional food". Now, what’s wrong with that sentence? Well, first of all, while it might be the first thing we often think of, the fusion doesn’t have to involve and East meets West matchup. But more importantly was the implication that somehow Asian food is not traditional. That, by the way, seems to be the general viewpoint of a good number of my fellow students, who seem to be under the impression that things like Chinese, Japanese, or Indian food magically appeared, maybe sometime in the 1980s. It’s actually been amusing chatting with some of them – now, remember, these are kids who’ve already spent at least a year in cooking school – and finding that they just sort of assume that everyone on the planet eats things like steak, milanesas, pasta, and pizza, and that they always have. There’s also an immediate assumption, for the most part without having tried the food, that “Asian food is very spicy“. It’s even more notable that the non-Argentines in the class whom I’ve had a chance to talk with, aren’t under those impressions at all. A strange society I’ve chosen to live in…
So, what was demonstrated for us in this vein… First up, a risotto. Reasonably classic – though to make it “fusion”, the instructor used peanut oil instead of olive oil, added some beansprouts and bok choy, and finished it with a bit each of sesame oil, five spice powder, and soy sauce. That was pretty much it, and not too much of any of those. He did cook the risotto pretty much correctly, though often during the process let it sit a bit long without stirring, so it had a mix of parts that were cooked properly al dente and others that were overcooked. On the other hand, I would suppose that it would be difficult to run a demo class if you had to stand there and stir a risotto continuously for 20 minutes. He may have even said something about it – I had a bit of trouble following his speech – very rapid fire and a very thick accent. I asked the young lady next to me to fill in some of the gaps during our break, and she told me not to worry, that she was having difficulty following him too, for the same reasons, and she’s Argentine!
Next up, a trio of dishes that were far more interesting to my mind. The first, something called atún y sov soup, apparently standing for tuna and soviet soup, interestingly given his definition of fusion cuisine, had no Asian ingredients in it, unless you count that a large geographical percentage of the Soviet Union was in Asia. He had the soup subtitled as okroshka, or “cold soup” as he explained, which is a bit off base. Yes, okroshka is a cold soup, from Russia, but… it’s not just any cold soup, it’s a specific one, with a broth based on kvass, the Russian national drink, sort of a beer-like drink made from either fermented rye bread or fermented fruit. The broth is made of a mix of mashed hard cooked egg yolks, kvass, mustard, and sugar that are chilled together for an hour or two. Then the soup is ladled over a mix of vegetables and meats – usually radishes, potato, cucumbers, ham, sausages – and then garnished with dill and scallions. It sometimes topped off with sour cream. This version involved a sort of raw fish salad in the center – salmon because tuna is out of season – mixed with, oh wait, some Asian-ish stuff – cilantro, mango, and lime – along with chopped red onion and corn oil. The decorative bits were traditional – dill, some chopped ham, cucumber, radishes, and potatoes – the problem was the broth – not only was it not remotely traditional, nor Asian fusion, but it was simply bland as could be – a mix of cream, lemon juice, quick made vegetable broth, a caldo corto – i.e., basic mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrots, boiled up for about five minutes and seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper. Still, I liked the presentation, and you may have noticed I used something similar in my pasta-mushroom soup for the Hungarian dinners this last weekend.
This dish was simply entitled “lamb, wasabi, potato”. Very appealing, no? It was an interesting look at presentation though, and might fuel some interesting ideas for the future. It was simply a squared off log of lamb loin that was seared, then topped with a thin croute made of breadcrumbs, butter, lemon zest, mint, rosemary, and, yes, wasabi powder. Now, working with wasabi powder is a questionable thing if you’re not quite up to speed on it. The idea, you mix it with a little cold water, and then let it sit for a minimum of 30-40 minutes to let the flavor and heat develop. Just adding a half teaspoon or so of the powder to a dough doesn’t give you anything picante, nor even flavor, especially when the first thing you do is dry the dough out in the oven to make a crust. And there was no wasabi anywhere else in this dish, so no zip… The other components, a reasonably interesting take on dauphinoise potatoes – a misnomer – those being essentially a gratin of sliced potatoes – this was more like a potaotes Anna, which is a baked layering of thin slices of potatoes, but that aside, he layered the potatoes with nori seaweed, which gave an interesting flavor to the dish that I liked. And then, the gazpacho… deconstructed – he coarsely chopped the usual gazpacho vegetables in a food processor and then let the liquid drain out – resulting in this shotglass of “gazpacho water” which was sort of thin and tasteless, and then according to the recipe, used the coarsely chopped remains as a garnish – though he didn’t, he actually did a fine dice of fresh vegetables to add to the visual appeal. Hey, in that case, really puree those vegetables and then drain them so that you get some real flavor out of them. Oh, and season the dish, please… two drops of tabasco in a pot of this stuff does not constitute “making it spicy”. Still, I like some of the ideas here – a sort of shot of a vegetable water, though I might warm it; and the method of making the croute topping was an interesting approach that I could see playing with.
The last dish was both the most interesting and the tastiest. Nothing Asian going on here, but interestingly, and contradicting his opening statement, a fusion of Eastern European with Scandinavian and Latin American. The three components of this dish are blini made with with flour from maíz morada, the purple corn of Peru – which resulted in very nicely flavored, if sort of purpley grey blini, layered with a fresh guacamole (that, of course, would have benefited from the fresh jalalpeños specified in the recipe rather than the drop or two of tabasco sauce – “too spicy to eat if we used those”), and, the crowning idea for the evening, a lomo gravlax. Something to be honest I never even thought about – I often home-cure fish like salmon, buried in a crust of salt, sugar, herbs, and spices – he did the same with lomo, or loin of beef – resulting in a really interestingly textured and flavorful cured meat – though I might have chosen to alter the base recipe and not use dill as the only herb on beef just because that’s what’s used on salmon. Look for some versions of something like this in my upcoming menus!
An interesting evening, and a nice easy way to slip back into a classroom situation. The plan is that each of the successive sessions (eight in total) will explore one particular concept in the world of cutting edge cookery – fusion being out of the way with, and airs, foams, and sponges on the menu for this week.