Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Educator Gets a Lesson

Last Friday--a day that may be remembered as the only warm sunny day on record for this May--while the rest of the world was moving along apace and going through its quotidian rituals, I broke from my kitchen routine and made tacos for school lunch at Dover High School.  It may seem strange for the chef of a little Portsmouth bistro to be scooping from the steam table at one of our region’s largest public school cafeterias, but I gotta say, it was right up there with the most edifying experiences I have had in recent months, if not years.

To be clear, this was not my first time cooking in a school.  I have worked directly with small groups of students at New Heights in Portsmouth, and I have made smoothies for my kids’ first grade classes.  And, around the holidays last year, I made beet and spinach pasta for the elementary students at Central School in South Berwick, working at the behest of Kathy Gunst, a fellow food blogger, chef and cookbook writer who heeded the summons of Michelle Obama and attended the Chefs Move to Schools kickoff event on the White House lawn last year.  (Also representing our area at that event were Mark Segal of the 100 Club and Dan Dumont of Wentworth by the Sea.) I could not rearrange my schedule on the short notice I was given, and still regret not having attended the event.  However, one needn’t stand on the White House lawn to be inspired by Mrs. Obama’s philosophy: the way to improve school lunches in America is not to preach to the parents, but to reach the students who eat the lunches.  Cultivate the non-GMO farm field, as it were, and they will come.

So, back to the Dover High event.  I had been invited by Amy Winans, UNH Hospitality maven and indomitable force behind much of the knowledge transfer that goes on between generations on the food front in our area.  Amy, along with her husband Dan (who heads up UNH’s semi-revolutionary EcoGastronomy program), have positioned themselves at the forefront of the fight for fair, local and sustainable food systems in the seacoast region.  As a rule of thumb, when Amy or Dan asks me to participate in dinners or lecture to their classes, I don’t hesitate.  The power of their persuasion is not merely political; they are also uncommonly nice people.

My assignment, issued by Amy, was to produce a sample dish for 300-plus growing, demanding and sometimes vocally defiant high school kids.  The sample had to be built around the idea of locally sourced ingredients, and that was—it turns out—the easiest part.  A Maine farmer ponied up 25 pounds of beef, a New Hampshire farmer pitched in black beans and lettuces, and so recipe ideas quickly turned to tacos.  I made a gallon of roasted chile salsa the day before, spilled about two cups on the passenger seat of my car, and the rest was a matter of waking up really early and getting to class on time.

The Dover High School cafeteria—a far cry from what I had expected--was stocked with hundred-gallon steam kettles, Volkswagen-size standing mixers and seriously high quality industrial equipment.  All surfaces were spotless and food very well respected and handled.  I quickly realized that the problem with Dover’s school lunch, like that of so many other school systems in America, lies not with the facilities or the staff but with the food the eager and talented crew has to work with.  In short, subsidized foods are crap.  They have to be, in order to get calories into the kids at the lowest possible cost to the government, the school systems and—ultimately—the parents.  Even the most endowed public school dining budgets can only afford to buy the lowest-end commodity, and so that crap (which, unfortunately, can actually taste pretty good sometimes) goes into the kids who will grow up to make future food policy via their own shopping priorities.  Bottom line: we can’t keep teaching health and nutrition in the same schools that are shunning those values in their kitchens. 

So how do we twist that paradigm until the inconsistencies shake out?  How do we make good food a higher priority in the hallowed halls of education while simultaneously making local and responsible ingredients available at affordable prices?  The answer, obviously, is quite complex.  Judging by the recent presentations made by Dan Winans’ EcoG students at UNH, solutions might emerge in the upcoming generation of food policy makers. 

Back again to the classroom…..After greeting me at the DHS door, Amy introduced me to her charming and cheerful assistants—Lauren, Sarah and Kim—who were volunteering for their second such event at Dover High.  I would later find out that these young ladies had signed up not only to chop vegetables for a tyrannical chef but also to schlep the samples canapĂ©-style through the dining hall, where they would be besieged by students clambering for free taco samples.  Brave is not a strong enough word for these dedicated young women.

In short time, I met the cafeteria staff.  Mark Covell, the District’s Food Service Administrator, could not have been more receptive to my intrusion on his turf.  He made me feel at home and played gracious host for the duration of my visit.
Sue, the Assistant FSA, gave me a tour while rattling off her past cooking credentials, which were very impressive indeed, and Melinda (one of the key cooks) later came to my aid at the steam kettle.  Melinda’s culinary heritage included New Orleans and Las Vegas, combining the Old Guard and the New Frontier food cities, both of which would inform her culinary style if she were allowed to incorporate it more into the lunch program.  I suggested that I come back in the fall to do shrimp po-boys.  Mmmm.

I didn’t bring an apron, and the one I was loaned was a disposable sheet of thin plastic with a neck strap.  My new Culinary Rule Number One: Don’t work with large, boiling stockpots on a gas range when wearing a thin plastic apron.  It’s a good rule, especially for chefs who should know better.

I came away from Dover High School with a melted apron and a strong sense that those cooks I worked with are not only willing to learn, but already have the desire to do more with local foods that are whole, safe and nutritious alternatives to the “spicy fried chicken burger” that was being offered on the day we were in the kitchen.  I overheard Melinda, the Head Cook, say to her boss, “See, we could be doing this [pointing to the homemade salsa] instead of getting that canned stuff.”

I haven’t seen the student surveys that were passed out by Amy’s charming assistants, but I hear they were generally quite positive, meaning that high school students enjoyed the fresh taco experiment and crave an alternative to the packaged, processed and insalubrious status quo. 

For me, the defining moment of the day came when three jocks--the kind of linebacker material that would have eaten my lunch and then made me pay for it in high school (not that that ever happened, but you get the picture)--came into the kitchen while we were wrapping up the third seating.  One of them hollered at me, “Hey, are you the chef who made the tacos?” 

Reluctantly, pretending to be busier than I was, I replied, “Yes.”  Even though I’m beefier than I was in high school, I think my voice cracked a little, just for old time’s sake. 

The three boys (I say boys, but they were young men of great mass and height) approached me and reached out their hands in what appeared to be the conventional, old-school handshake gesture.  Unsure of how to respond, I went with what I knew and shook their hands without slaps, snaps, palm-slides or fist-pounds.  They seemed to fully understand the gesture and reciprocated in kind. 

“That was really good,” one of the three jocks said, stretching out the first syllable in “really” so that it hung in the air like a game-winning field goal.

Phew.  Happy jocks.  Happy chef.  Amazing how food can bring people together, eh?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

3) ODE TO SPRING: intimations on immortality, power lines and mud


Now let’s flash to April 16, to Punta de Mita, a surfer-infested Mexican fishing village just south of the privatized point of land where St. Regis and Four Seasons have plopped down some pretty spectacular structures in the gated acreage on the point.

It’s Spring Break ’11, and my family and I are on vacation. For one week, we are like a Norman Rockwell family with a little Griswold streak.  There is Griswoldian pressure on us, because we don’t do family vacation—at least not of this caliber—more than once a decade.  The pressure can manifest itself in some strange ways.

For example, I am gazing up into a mango tree, thinking seriously about climbing it.  The tree itself weaves up through power lines at the edge of the street where restaurants and surfer shops block the view of the waves and the rock-studded beach.  I find myself there because of my own intrepid (read: stupid) spirit.  (While walking through the village under the heavy late-morning sun, my family and I had stopped, bemused, to watch five older gentlemen trying to literally pick the ripe, low-hanging fruit from the tree with a mangled rake.  The problem, as we saw it, was that there was no low-hanging fruit left on the tree.  The only mangoes worth groping for were fifteen to twenty feet up, above the rickety plastic chair, above the retaining wall, above the power lines.)

I rupture the charming image before us—men poking in vain at the low branches in hopes that ripe fruit would somehow fall from above—by gesturing to the men that I, a very pale but nimble tourist, was willing to scale great heights for their desired bounty.  Without hesitation and with plenty of bastardized Mexican slang, I promptly climb up into the tree, fully intent on being a gringo Samaritan, an ambassador of goodwill to these earnest Mexican gentlemen.

Once in the tree, like a graceless grimalkin, I realize that I have no means of descent.  As I make this realization, my wife brings to my attention the power lines weaving through the branches.  I have the metal-tined, mangled rake in my hand and I can see the wires but note that they appear to be insulated.  I continue to stab up into the branches unfazed.  I am on vacation and am therefore invincible (also impervious to the effects of harmful sun rays).  As I strike at the ripe fruits, they begin to fly from the tree like fat little jewels in the morning sun.  The phalanx of men, who are now cheering me on, have gathered below the tree and are attempting to catch the falling fruit in their inverted hats.  My quixotic folly has now become sport.  I have brought fruit to the village and feel like a god on high.

Engulfed in an aura of self-sanctimony, my attention lapses and I do the inevitable, brushing my forearm against the power line.  I gasp.  I pause. I live.  So, of course, I reach out and touch the line again.  And again.  I continue, to my amazement, to live.  The men are now watching me, twenty feet or so above their heads, as I face the true test.  Having survived electrocution, how does the silly gringo get down from way up there?  I know they are wondering this, because they are humans with common sense and survival mechanisms built into their brains.  When they were passing out this gene, I was taking a potty break, apparently.  Nevertheless, I am peripherally aware of the laws of gravity, and so I begin to calculate my next move.

I begin my descent, dropping the rake to one of the men below.  When he moves to catch it, it hits him in the head.  I feel bad, but still invincible.  When I get to the top of the wall (was it brick? I remember it being brick), I find myself astraddle a power line.  Speaking to the men with the fallen mangoes, I make a joke in Spanish that won’t translate well at all: “Si me bajo asi, vamos a tener huevos revueltos para comer!”  Very loosely: If I jump down now like this, we’re all going to have scrambled eggs for breakfast!   (Ed. Note: the word huevos in Spanish refers not only to hen’s eggs that are eaten frequently for breakfast, but also to the low-hanging reproductive fruits of the human male.)

((Ed. Note Sidebar: The Spanish name for the avocado, aguacate, comes from a Nahuatl word meaning “testicles”.  Evidently, the word was used originally because the early denizens of central Mexico had not yet learned the word “cojones”.))

In a leap of faith, I swing a leg over the wire and jump from the wall.  It’s a high wall, maybe eight to ten feet.  Maybe less than that too, but I’m telling a story here, so let’s say ten-plus feet.  No eggs are scrambled in the process.  Again, I live.  I laugh a little as I land on the street.

The men are parsing out the fallen fruit in a democratic fashion.  My family rushes over to me and tells me they think it’s really cool that I just climbed a mango tree.  I don’t hurt, miraculously.  The men hand my wife three ripe mangoes (because, we assume, it is a woman’s duty to carry the mangoes for the family), which we will eat three days later in the form of a perfect breakfast smoothie.

As I am walking away, the men are talking among themselves, holding the mango bounty they have dealt out, and one of them turns to me and says, “Thank you, Soo-pear-mon.”

Soo-pear-mon.  He really says that, maybe with a slight undercurrent of playful mockery.  I walk away with three mangoes and a secure notion that I would rather risk life and limb so that I can taste the glory of the high-hanging fruit.

Friday, May 6, 2011

ODE TO SPRING: intimations on immortality, power lines and mud


For the second year running, I have been invited to participate in the “Star Chef” Series at Gracie’s, a truly inspiring restaurant in Providence, RI.  Last year, I worked with gifted young chef Matt Varga to produce some dishes paired with the always stunning wines of Michael Honig (see 4/10 blog).  At that dinner, I and then-sous chef Mike learned a lot about how technology can expand the creative palette of the cook while simultaneously reducing risk.  The dinner went off without a hitch, although being the day after Easter, attendance was lower than we had hoped for.

This year, the stakes and the attendance were higher.  We had to live up to the expectation set by last year’s dinner, and attendees included foodbloggers and Matt Jennings and his wife, Sarah.  In March, when I was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Northeast, I was shocked (to say the least) to see my name on the list, and simultaneously thrilled to see Matt Jennings in the running.  Our paths have crossed a few times.  I have eaten Matt’s lunchy food at Farmstead twice now, although I haven’t yet had the pleasure of dining at his full-service restaurant, La Laiterie, and Chef Jennings has dined at Black Trumpet a while back.  So, when I heard he was on the list of attendees at Gracie’s, I was thrilled to be able to feed him and cheer him on as he continues to go forward into the finals of The James Beard Award.  I want to see him win, not only because he embodies for his community the same values we do for ours, but also because he is the nicest guy ever to be nominated for a big award.  Winners will be announced at a ceremony in New York on May 9th.  Go Matt!

Back at Gracie’s in mid-April, sous chef Carrie and I arrived the afternoon prior to the dinner and helped prep a few things.  When I say that, I mean the kitchen staff at Gracie’s let us stand around and talk about stuff that they prepped diligently in our midst.  Carrie and I are used to multitasking to the oldies, stressing out over deliveries coming in and phones ringing while we’re managing two pots, one oven, four pans and a cutting board.  There is an element of luxury attached to the “Star Chef” status that made us feel simultaneously luxuriant and somewhat uncomfortable.

The graceful and gracious Gracie’s owner, “Miss Ellen” Gracyalny put us up in the lovely Hotel Providence.  After prep, we ate dinner at the charming and delicious Beard nominee for Best New Restaurant in the U.S., an unassuming little spot called Cook and Brown.  Food and drink at Cook and Brown, it turns out, are humbly spectacular.  Barbecued pig tails for everyone!  Cook and Brown--with chef Demo, his wife and their newborn—get my unqualified Beard vote for sure.

The day of the dinner, the Gracie’s crew assembled in impressive numbers, led by Chef Matt and his magic spoons.  I was permitted to handle a few food items, but by-and-large, Carrie and I stood in awe as the Gracie’s team breathed life into a hard-to-execute menu right before our very eyes.  Props go to Matt and pastry chef Melissa in particular, for being so thorough in their preparation that I had to go out of my way to confuse them.

There were passed hors d’oeuvres that included lobster sangrita pipettes, fresh flower and ricotta pupusas, pig trotter cakes and something else I have since spaced.

Then came the spring pea flan with deliciously fresh local vegetables, a giant sea scallop served in its shell with lobster nage, a chicken roulade with morels, an intermezzo of passionfruit tapioca, a steak and egg dish that involved technical precision beyond the scope of most food pornographers, and finally, a beautiful peanut financier with bourbon-spiked black trumpet mushroom ice cream.

Art and science.  Passion and insanity.  Form and function.  Thank you, Gracie’s, for joining me in the quest to understand where those boundaries lie.  Yet it’s OK, I think, to muddy them a little.  It feels good, and we should—as often as possible--wallow in the muddy area, to be as simple and playful as pigs.  Ad astra per aspera!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

ODE TO SPRING: intimations on immortality, power lines and mud


The girls collecting sap at White Gate Farm
That’s right: screw the robin. There are new signs of spring in New England.  Robins overwinter in our area now, courtesy of climate change.  To hell with the groundhog.  He is a lying sonofabitch, and we all know it.  Peepers?  Fugeddaboudit.  They are relegated to the last seven or eight vernal pools left in our area, all of which are slated for development in the immediate future.  Which reminds me: on the homefront, we Malletts have been informed recently that, due to the laws of imminent domain, our 10-acre property is most likely going to be bisected by a 100-foot-wide swath of clear-cutting for a new power line.  This is deeply regrettable, not to mention powerful foreshadowing.  The only way to stop the power line powers that be, we are told, is to prove that some endangered species might have a sacred vernal haven in our midst.  To that end, if anyone knows where I can find some rare salamanders on the black market, please contact me immediately (using untraceable media, please). 

Cormac getting kisses from Nutmeg
So I propose that the new symbol of spring be not a visual image but the sucking sound boots make when they get stuck in the deep mud. Like when the kids and Denise and I went to White Gate Farm in Epping to help with the sugaring of the maple trees.  Black Trumpet bartender and wine buyer RJ works on that farm with his mom, Susan, who is also a schoolteacher.  Farmer and schoolteacher--gives work ethic a whole new depth of meaning.  The hard-working farmer in Susan was busy boiling sap into the large syrup-making device in her sugar shack when we arrived.  The schoolteacher in Susan patiently explained the process of refining luscious golden syrup from tree juice while also cautioning the children about the enormous quicksand-esque mud puddle that, in drier climates, is actually the driveway to the shack. Naturally, after the warning, my intrepid and obdurate son proceeded to get a boot stuck in the mud.  The ensuing burst of sound that emanated from that boot when we pulled it from the murky quagmire was ungraphable, but let’s say it was something like, “Thwuck!”
Making Maple Syrup at the farm
Having now purged the last of my lingering Winter darkness, I’d like to begin this seasonal blog—which I’ll post in a series of installments--with a statement of the obvious: the best way to ring in the mud season is to get out of Dodge. 

Three of the last five Sundays, I was nowhere to be seen at Black Trumpet.  My three excursions—to Providence, Mexico and North Carolina—all took me out of Dodge during some especially nasty spring weather.  Sous Chef Carrie went above and beyond to ensure smooth sailing while we were gone, and she even joined me on one junket, for which I salute her here in immortal cybertext.  Thank you, Carrie, for your supreme dedication.  The following blog posts are centered around those three events that took me away like a series of Calgon commercials, although in each post you will find plenty of contextual leaps and mindless meandering, as you have come to expect, I’m sure.
Evan and the kids in Mexico...finally
Enjoy.  Or be bored.  Either way.  Thanks for reading.  Oh, and for those of you who say I don’t post often enough, I say to you now, “p-l-l-l-l-l-l,” or whatever the raspberry sound looks like in print.