Friday 3 September 2010

Kitchen Confidential

My clothes smell funny. Not necessarily bad, just funny. The kind of smell that might make passers by briefly twitch their noses, crinkle their brow, and wonder if it was them or me. I’ve smelt like this many times before, though it’s been so long that it took me a brief second to recognise it: the smell you get from working in a kitchen.

Now before Homeland Security chuck me out (I was leaving anyway) or you all start worrying about me, I should point out that I’m not actually working. I just spent the afternoon in the kitchen at Atlas Bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona. I do a bit of prep and help with the washing up, but really it’s just about spending a little time in the company of Josh and Keenan, the two killer chefs.

Walking in around two thirty, the first question is wanna beer? I politely decline. Five seconds later, with a shrug of the shoulder, Josh places a beer in front of me. The stereo goes on, and vacillates between Johnny Cash, NWA and some unidentifiably heavy metal.

These guys are special. They know their shit absolutely inside out. They understand, and talk about food in the most economical but precise terms. Josh smells Erin’s coffee. The beans are slightly burnt. I guess they meant that. I brought along some hand made chocolates I bought in Santa Fe. They’re all pretty good. The best is infused with lemon verbena. Keenan is walking out as Josh is walking in. Try the verbena. It’s fucking awesome.

Going to cooking school is a bit like taking driving lessons. At the end, if you’re good enough, they give you a bit of paper. Some people are stupid enough to think this means they know how to drive. They don’t. Three months at Ballymaloe teaches you some basics. Three hours with these guys and you realise how it is in the real world. It’s like driving round Hyde Park Corner with your eyes closed: instinctive.

Today, they pulled out some cured salmon and smoked it briefly until it emerged with a delicate balance of sweetness and smoke. Ends of strip loins collected over the last few weeks were smoked, browned and slow cooked in wine and demi-glace for a beef rillette. Elsewhere they knocked up crab cakes, plated their own charcuterie and pickles, cured pork belly in readiness for roasting, and all the time talked, shared ideas, suggestions and their passion for what they do.

I used to think it was just time and repetition that elevates you in the kitchen, but it’s not. You have to be a genius as well, and I don’t have it in me. It doesn’t hurt to have the ambition refreshed a little though. I’ve let the food and cooking thing slide for the last few months whilst being wowed by other things. But it’s been there all along, bubbling away in the background like a stockpot. The next few months should see it simmering its way into the foreground once more, and I might just smell that smell a little more often.

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