By Kristin Gennuso, Chez Pascal
I was sitting at the edge of the beach; my toes were finding a warm haven in the sand, the briny air was playing an aromatic symphony in my nose. Suddenly, the sea rolled up, and with it came the most glorious epiphany! Scallops and rosemary and countless other delectable morsels were forcing their way into my consciousness, leaping from my head; it was all I could do to contain them before I made my way to the kitchen and put forth my new masterpiece.
Capturing the moment when a new dish is created may very well happen like the above, a romantic notion reminiscent, perhaps, if J. Peterman had a culinary catalog. Having been on the receiving end of the question, “Where did that idea come from?” I thought it an interesting subject worth exploring. While some ideas do absolutely find their way from out of the blue, others require a little coaxing. In an effort to explore the annals of the culinary mind, I decided to see what goes on behind the scenes before the ingredients connect together and find their way to your plate. To accomplish this I tapped the brain of the first guy who ruined me forever for bad food. We met while working together at a restaurant (as a lot of restaurant romances go) he in the back, I in the front. After leaving that job (and having had many years under our belt in the industry already) we set out to open our own restaurant. We soon did so in the form of Chez Pascal in Providence. We got married along the way and therefore I have been granted access to his culinary mind with little chance of him escaping.
In discussing the cooking process, I was reminded of what Scott Turrow, the writer, aptly said about art beginning with the maker, not the audience. It can be agreed that cooking is also an art form. It can be studied for years, has different styles to be learned and different palates to please. When in its stride it speaks to the cook much like a blank canvas speaks to a painter. It comes naturally to some and not so much to others. Confident that my drawing skills will never reveal my true age and my sauces will always be lacking… something… I find it quite fascinating to stumble across those whose passion is tangible. So, this is not an attempt to explain culinary creativity, as that is as personal as it is individual, but merely to identify it, and be grateful to be in its wake.
When creating a dish in a restaurant there is often a clear method involved sprinkled with a healthy dose of imagination. The challenges rest in two key factors: consistency and execution. A fantastic idea may by formed, a dish that would most certainly knock diners socks off, but if it is not properly executed within the confines of what is possible in the restaurant, then you must opt for keeping the socks on and under your tables, rather than having them walk begrudgingly out your door.
In New England we have a canvas that is always changing; just before the root vegetables overstay their welcome, a different season is upon us. When creating a new dish, the season has the first word. Summer and winter menus have very different approaches. The colder months require the protein to dictate the dish. Produce is not as abundant and the method of cooking is more on the heavier side. In warmer months local produce is thriving. Protein takes a back seat to the fresh, fragrant gifts from the garden. A simple carrot has on more than one occasion been the star of many of our dishes. It is this same realization that produced our first Tomato Dinner and it’s the reason we continue it every year.
Carrot Mache Salad–a direct result of the beautiful carrots we got from Diana Kushner's farm Arcadian Fields. They are orange in the middle and deep red on the outside, such that when you cut them you can see the distinction. To showcase their beauty, Matt simply cut them wafer thin like ribbons and rolled them around fresh cheese.
So first we have the ingredient, whatever it may be; this is what gives the creative process momentum. One of the talents of being an accomplished cook is that you can taste with your mind. Somehow, past flavors, aromas and textures are stored up there, ready to be accessed when faced with an herb, vegetable or protein combination. Half the time our new dishes are tested in the brain and don’t even make it to the plate until its debut. One of my favorite ‘what were you thinking’ dishes was something we called Sweets from the Garden. It was a carrot cake terrine with cloumage cheese and a salad of candied carrots, cucumbers and dill ice cream. Texture and color always play a role when creating too. Matt always says to me “We often eat with our eyes”. Do we have that so far? We must taste with our minds and eat with our eyes! It sounds a bit more like science fiction than cooking. Ah, but I am not an unbeliever; I must admit the truth of it all even if my ‘mind tasting’ skills are not as refined. I once all too happily paired spaghetti with an unobliging Seven Seas vinaigrette as its sauce. The plate was just as unhappy to hold the creation as the stomach was to receive it. Ones weaknesses are just as necessary to realize as ones strengths.
Warm Salad of Red Cabbage with Walnuts, Apples, Blue Cheese Flan & Pumpkin Seed Oil.
The next step the dish must now hurdle is whether it can be accomplished properly on the line. It has to taste and look as good whether you are making it for 2 people or 100. This is the clincher. If this is a ‘no’ then the dish, no matter how great it is, will not make it. Other things to consider are who is going to cook the dish: Garde manger, grill, sauté, pastry? What other commitments does that person already have, and will giving them this new dish weaken the output of existing dishes? You can’t have someone playing the horn section and then give them the drums too. Also taken into consideration is actual space on the line, pans needed, utensils needed, how many steps – literal steps- it takes to get from point A to B in order to finish the dish. Oh how many days I have lobbied for fried (anything really) and been told that we don’t have a fry-o-later and therefore my dreams of fried (anything) will not be possible as it can’t be done properly on a busy night. “What if I went around to people and explained to them the difficulty?” I would plead. Let it be known that I have tried, people. Sacrifices are made for the sake of proper implementation. Drat.
The final step is simply doing it. It has been conceived (cerebrally), deemed viable, and now it is plated. One of the constants of doing anything is that nothing is guaranteed. We have pulled the plug on dishes right smack in the middle of service because sometimes the errors don’t like to show themselves until you have invested enough time in them. Likewise, specials have been created in the spur of the moment. The process is somewhat formulaic but with a controlled “fly by the seat of your pants” approach. It is what gives energy to the inspiration, the uncertain certainty of it all. Truly, those who can cook carry that much needed certainty, or confidence, like a tool, as essential as a sharp knife. Confidence, not be confused with conceit, gives you the courage to try new things and get the job done. In the end, know that your favorite dishes are thought about, loved, hated and loved again. An inspired gift, wrapped up in an emotional, artistic and edible package.
photos by Chez Pascal