Monday, July 16, 2007

Getting back to the roots

Freshly inspired by a Horticulture class and a stint as a pottery painter at Terra Cottage, I began an internship as a pastry cook at a Mediterranean restaurant and have been surprised by how often I am called on to use my newly acquired environmental knowledge and artistic ability.

No matter how many restaurants change their menu based on food trends (pomegranate vinagrette one day, kumquat the next), mine bases theirs, not on what is popular with foodie magazines, but on what is current with Mother Nature. Origins gain importance: we don't serve Just Vanilla ice cream, we serve Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream. As people become more environmentally-concious, they become more concerned with how and where their food is made. Yesterday, we received an idyllic bushel of fresh-picked peaches from a friendly local farmer. The kitchen revelled in the freshness, the unbearable sweetness and the sheer purity of the fruit. But there was one dilemma that I imagine many chefs must struggle with: how can one possibly improve upon a ripe summer peach? It's not an option to charge a patron $7 for a plain piece of fruit, but we can't go too far before we miss the point of using fresh produce.

With this new and almost provincial attention to the value of home-grown food, many chefs are reverting to the classics--the dishes that exhibit the flavors of their carefully chosen ingredients. A few years ago, architectural feats of presentation were popular but now chefs seem more understated. A little powdered sugar or an elegant chocolate curl is all the dessert plate requires; they want no more of that old-fangled fussiness. The fanciest I was allowed to get was a simple paisley pattern made of raspberry sauce (a pattern I had painted on a dipping bowl earlier in the day) next to a molded white chocolate mousse with berries arranged on top. Although the rules of baking are strict, the chef encourages us to experiment with the plating. In keeping with the foodie morals he keeps up in the rest of the restuarant, he tells us to make it as beautiful as we can--but not to get carried away.

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