lenten journal: special and ordinary


    When I arrive to open the kitchen on the days I work, there’s always a piece of paper hanging where the tickets hang during meal service listing the things that need to be prepared for the day. On Mondays, it’s always a long list because we’ve usually managed to deplete most of our supplies over the weekend. Today was no exception. The list said:

    onion soup
    cut romaine for salads
    parmesan cups
    honey mustard dressing
    cole slaw
    lobster salad
    slice tomatoes
    slice red onion
    caramelized onions
    cut salmon
    cut filets
    mashed potatoes
    veg du jour
    beurre blancs

    I put on my chef jacket and got to work doing the ordinary things that keep the kitchen going. Telma, who bakes all our wedding cakes, works with me on Mondays. She came in a little after noon and we kept crossing things off the list. By the time the dinner service started, we were in pretty good shape and I was putting the finishing touches on the special.

    In The Soul of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman describes one of the parts of the Certified Master Chef’s Exam called the Mystery Basket where the chefs are given a basket with a number of random items and they have to come up with a four course meal for six using as many of them as they can. Mondays are my mystery basket because I have to come up with a special based on what I can find left in the walk-in refrigerator after the weekend. (I don’t mean left over food; I mean things that have yet to be used. Forgive the second list, but here’s what I found:

    statler chicken breasts
    a few shrimp
    green tomatoes
    fresh basil

    What I came up with was a roasted Statler chicken breast with roasted corn risotto and green tomato and basil jam served with shrimp fritters and grilled asparagus. The green tomato jam, as I called it, was my favorite thing because I made it up. I diced the green tomatoes and put them on the stove with some aji mirin (a sweet rice wine), some chopped fresh basil, a couple of chopped scallions, and some sugar. I let most of the liquid cook out and then I pureed the whole thing and put it back on the stove to reduce some more. I then cooled it and kept it in my prep area. My plan was to heat it and pour it over the top of the chicken to finish the dish. As is my custom on Mondays, I made the dish for the three servers both to feed them and to allow them to speak firsthand about it to the customers. It turned out really well. I loved the way the tastes and textures went together. I loved getting to make up some recipes. I loved how much they enjoyed the dish.

    And no one ordered it all evening.

    My unrequited cooking brought two things to mind. The first is a question I have pondered for years. At the end of any sports championship, the winning team quickly dons the official championship hat and shirt as a way to make all of the fans want to get up early the next morning to buy their own. The instantaneous appearance of the attire means there are unopened boxes in the other locker room (or near it) that make the same claim for the other team. Here’s my question: where do those clothes go? I have a fantasy that they are given to aid organizations who send them to other parts of the world. Somewhere in East Timor, a guy is wearing a Colts Superbowl Champion shirt and thinking he’s pretty cool.

    The second thing was a distant literary memory (so much I couldn’t chase down the exact quote) from Wallace Stegner’s wonderful novel, Crossing to Safety. The way I remember the passage, the narrator is talking about his love of writing and feeling incredibly grateful he had been born into a family that afforded him the opportunity to get an education and follow his passion. He then wonders out loud about the tragedy of being born a writer into a family and a culture that valued only spoken words and never being able to uncover your gift and your passion, and perhaps never know what you were missing.

    Not selling any specials tonight was not quite that traumatic, if at all, but that’s what came to mind. I’m guessing Chef will find the chicken and fritters when he comes in tomorrow and do something with them at lunch. I know the sauce will make a reappearance, or morph into something else.

    I created a near miss; all I can do is circle and try again.

    I know part of the reason I make one of the specials for the staff is I want it validated. I want to know how it tastes to them. I want a response to my effort. That they try it takes away any stake I have in seeing how many sell over the evening. I’m feeding them and taking care of myself.

    The prep list I left for tomorrow night was short: Chef needs to spice the walnuts for the spinach salad. That’s what Mondays are for: to leave a short list. I don’t get to see how he responds either. He’s the one coming in early tomorrow because it’s my day off. Chances are, as he opens up refrigerators and sets up the line, he will find something that needs to be done that I missed. I won’t be there for that, either.

    Part of what it means to be human is not being able to see all of the impact of what we say and do. Our actions do not have to affect large groups of people to be significant. I came up with the special and the ordinary today.

    What I’m most proud of is leaving the short list.



    1. Milton,
      Isn’t finding pleasure in creating that chicken special its own reward? Now I know that there has to be a commercial value to the things we do to earn money, but the sheer joy of creating something that is pleasing to self and to co-workers, freinds, family can’t be measured solely by return on investment. How wonderful that you find pleasure in the simple tasks as well as the complexities of cooking. And you get to write about, which you do with compelling stories! I hope to travel someday to your restaurant and taste your food and listen to your stories.

    2. Bill,

      I took a great deal of pleasure in creating the dish. And even more, perhaps, in feeding it to the servers. I was reminded of that last night when it didn’t sell.


    3. It sounds delicious to me. I’m sure it was.

      Sometimes I can see when I’ve made a positive difference for one person, and be content. We usually don’t find out about the ripples that flow out to other people because of our small action, but I believe they are there.

    4. When I toured with Covenant Players we would have nights we thought our unwashed sweat socks smelled better than our performance. And how caught up short we would be when a letter would come into the office from someone expressing moving gratitude for our “show”. Or a pastor would write in with a three hanky story of a parishoner’s reaction. Reminded us that what we did was not a “performance”, but a vessel for God’s light. That’s why we’d always pray before hand. Just in case our vessel was darkened on our side.

      Dinner can be like that too. Especially, I’d wager, the way it sounds you cook.

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