Croikey!

The Plan

For some time, often surrounding the consumption of adult beverages, there had been discussion of organizing a pop-up restaurant.  It’s the thing to do these days; you call up some friends, find a kitchen, come up with a menu, and see what kind of service you can pull together.  It’s restaurant operation with training wheels, and without all of the risk.

The reduction in risk is what makes it so appealing.  After hanging around kitchens for a few years you tend to accumulate some crazy ideas, ideas that no restaurant owner in their right mind would allow you to inflict upon their clients.  Your only opportunity really, of seeing these ideas to fruition, is to wait it out and hope for the chance to run your own show.  But opening a restaurant of any size is a massive endeavor.

If, on the other hand, you can manage to borrow a restaurant for a day and pull all of those ideas together into one, all or nothing, anything goes, balls to the wall, “if you build it they will come,” kind of an impromptu kitchen thrashing, then you’ve got the opportunity to see some of those ideas in action, to see how they perform and are received, and then, though you still have your work cut out for you, you’re not taking on quite so much risk.

An experience like that can be invaluable.  The only thing holding us back from trying to make this thing happen was proper motivation, a theme, a unifying thought that could bring us together to work towards a common goal.

And then California took away our foie gras.  Just one ingredient maybe, but a unique and versatile ingredient, and to a group of young cooks, the loss of any ingredient is regrettable.  Dan and I were in the middle of a round of frisbee golf when the topic came up.  In just a few days, legislation would take effect, banning the forced feeding of geese, ducks, or any other suitable poultry for the purpose of enlarging their livers.  Foie gras would soon be outlawed in the state of California.

What does a group of cooks do when they are about to be told that there is a product, a classic delicacy, with which they are no longer allowed to work?  Well, by the end of the 15th hole, they agree to assemble  California’s first foie gras speakeasy.  The decision was easy; bringing the elements together was a bigger issue: writing a menu, finding a location, gathering a staff, selling tickets; each of these tasks would present its own unique set of challenges.

 

The Menu

With the decision to serve a foie-inspired menu in the wake of California’s ban came the challenge of designing that menu to effectively highlight such a decadent product without overwhelming the senses.  Our goal was to show our guests, as gently and in as many ways as possible, what a world without foie gras was lacking.

This is what we came up with. Three groups of three courses each, followed by dessert.

 

Course 1 – A classic schoolyard sandwich.  Welch’s grape jelly and foie gras mousse spread on Wonderbread, decrusted, halved, pinned up in a dried corn husk,  and served with a small glass of Strauss milk.

Course 2 – A small bite served in a ceramic Chinese soup spoon.  Slow-cooked quail egg, tomato water, julienne tomato concasse, fennel frond, and a grating of frozen torchon.


Course 3 – Neapolitan of goat cheese and roasted beets with a salad of microgreens, dressed in McEvoy olive oil, garnished with nasturtium and wild radish flowers, and surrounding a medallion of foie gras torchon.  A light course designed to highlight our torchon before moving into the fried foods.
 

Course 4 – Foie and sweetbread stuffed squash bossoms served on a dollop of green apple aoli.  Technically, it was more of a green apple mayonnaise, but in my mind, mayonnaise is something that comes from a jar.  Not to denigrate mayonnaise; it should be appreciated as the highly industrialized product that it is.

Course 5 – The torchon returns; now floated on a soup of fennel and sweet corn, finished with a sprinkle of chives and black pepper.  Not our most attractive plating, but the way the torchon gently melted and incorporated into the soup, it made for a really nice dish.

 

 

Course 6 – My personal favorite, a foie enhanced poutine.  A pile of french fries and mozarella chunks smothered in duck-heart gravy and gruyere mornay, decorated in sliced scallions and grated foie torchon.

 

Me and Dan were sitting at the counter of Sam’s in North Beach.  We were exhausted to a point
that neither of us had probably ever seen before.  Hunched over hamburgers and french fires, grasping at awareness after two weeks of waking up yesterday and going to sleep tomorrow, laughing about Bourdain’s “Mutherfuckin burger, top 3 in the world.”  I started thinking about Au Pied De Cochon and No Reservations: Montreal, the best No Reservations.  ”We should do poutine,” I said.  We came up with some cool shit in those couple of weeks, throwing ideas at each other and twistin em around and spittin em back out, but that was the diamond of em all, bled threadbare dry and cast out sparkly.

Course 7 – For the beginning of our final trio we sent out one of our most striking platings.  I wanted to present these skewers of foie gras and nectarine vertically, so I built my own serving boards for this dish.  Skewers were set in drilled holes with slices of aprium-raisin bread toasted in date butter.  A dollop of amaretto whipped cream sprinkled with crispy peking duck skin was placed in the center of the board.  This dish got a little messy but it still looked awesome.

 

Course 8 – Probably the most popular dish of the evening, our peking duck chawanmushi.  To make the base for this dish, we simmered peking ducks for two hours, then strained.  The resulting stock was cooled, combined with eggs, portioned into small rice bowls, and baked gently until set as a custard.  To order, a medallion of torchon was lightly dusted in superfine sugar, placed on the surface of the custard, and topped with a salad of cucumber, wakame, daikon, furokake, enoki, peking duck, and cured nasturtium pod.  This was one of the dishes that I thought pretty seriously about ditching.  I gotta give it to Dan for wanting to hold onto this one.

 

Course 9 – Wandering around Golden Gate Park one morning, doing some reconnaissance for the event, we stumbled upon a nice patch of chanterelle’s.  Later, with what was on hand, Dan made a simple breakfast of fried eggs, seared foie gras, and mushrooms sauteed in garlic/thyme butter.  This became the simple inspiration for our main course.

 

 

Course 10 – Finally, dessert.  Ice cream was an obvious choice, but I wasn’t really sure how to approach making a foie gras ice cream with the equipment we had available.  Dan suggested we use dry ice, something I had never worked with before.  We gave it a shot, adjusting a recipe for browned butter ice cream to accept foie gras butter as a substitution. The process made me pretty nervous, considering that a simple mistake would cost us the majority of our foie butter, but we managed to get the custard emulsified properly and after that, the churning was a breeze; fit the blade, start the mixer, slowly add crushed dry ice, and you’ve got yourself some high quality ice cream. Next time I’d like to try churning to order.  There’s a really interesting carbonated character to ice cream that has been freshly churned with dry ice, but it disappears once the carbon dioxide has sublimated.

 

There were some dishes that didn’t make the final cut.  Here’s a taste…

  • I like the idea of working with flavors that are uniquely familiar.  This sketch represents our failed attempt at doing something with otter pops, a product that I grew up with, but which are not very common these days, especially in a fine dining setting.  When it came down to it, the fatty texture of foie just doesn’t work with ice at all.  Should have known.

 

  • I also wanted to do a potato salad.  I have a soft spot for potato salad.  The plan was to scoop it onto a rock and serve it with a spork.  After thinking on it for awhile, I started to feel that the rock was going a little too far.  And then, once we decided to do a poutine, the potato salad was officially done for.

 

Nuts and Bolts

Once we had a menu together, I sat down and sketched it all out roughly, then started walking myself mentally through each dish in it’s entirety from prep to plating.  In the end, with some tweaking, I was convinced that the entire meal could be produced with only two solid burners and a small grill.  If we could get ahold of that equipment, we could pull it off.

Working on that small a scale with such a complex menu, I had to figure out a way to simplify things and keep track of every element required for each dish from start to finish.  My solution was a system of checklists.

For each dish, I created a detailed checklist.  In the days leading up to the event, we collected all of our products in bags organized by course.  When it came time to transport everything, we ran down the checklists one by one and loaded up.  For service, we broke out all of our products in order, built our dishes, and sent them out one by one.  It made for a lot of extra prep work, but I think it was worth it for the smoothness it lent to the operation.

The Venue

The hardest part of the deal was finding a place to pull it off.  Recently, San Francisco has opened up to the concept of the pop-up restaurant.  Our current economic situation being what it is, restauranteurs are eager to maximize the efficiency of their properties.  When somebody wants to borrow your restaurant space for a few hours on a day that it might normally be closed, well,  a wad of cash and some extra wine sales on a night when the place would normally be closed can look pretty sweet.

But we were working with an added liability.  We found, as we called around, that there was no shortage of San Francisco restaurant owners frustrated by the foie gras ban.  Nearly everyone we spoke to was more than happy to offer support.  A willingness to offer a space to serve a ten course dinner with a side of controversy?  A different story entirely.

We saw a couple of solid deals fall through, and that’s why we were forced to postpone the first time around.  Eventually we broke down and sent out mass emails to everyone with space available.  Finally, we received some positive responses.

We settled on our final location for several reasons.  The size was perfect, the dining room elegant and fitting to our theme, and our hosts, supportive of our project and willing to help us to use their space effectively.

A permanent restaurant has the obvious advantage of repetition.  Repetition is extremely important to good cooking.  Small adjustments made over time make for a truly refined dining experience.   A pop-up restaurant doesn’t have that advantage.  Even if you’ve done your homework and experimented thoroughly with every dish, you can easily run into trouble when you try to translate your food into a new space.  Without the help of our gracious hosts, service would not have gone so smoothly.

Politics (Feel free to skip this section)

I guess it’s a bit of a cop out but we really tried to avoid the political aspects of our little endeavor.  We’re not activists and we’re definitely not lawyers; we’re just cooks who are frustrated with a piece of ill-informed legislation.  That being said, organizing this event gave us the opportunity to evaluate the issue in more detail than we may otherwise have done.  Points were made and information brought to our attention that forced us to think critically about our position

On several occasions we were referred to online videos such as Dan Barber’s Foie Gras Parable from ted.com, Anthony Bourdain’s well known No Reservations segment on Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and this News 10 segment where chef Ken Frank of La Toque in Napa debates foie gras against a spokesperson for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.  Each of these videos brings up some interesting points, and lays out a better argument than I can sum up here.

Ultimately, there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that gavage, when practiced properly, is minimally harmful to the animal.  Furthermore, it’s more than safe to assume that a bucket of the Colonel’s Original Recipe represents more suffering than any lobe of foie.  Foie gras though, is produced on too small a scale to support a legal department and a team of lobbyists.  But, to animal right activists, a small-scale artisanal product with a narrow market is low hanging fruit.  I guess you can’t blame them, but if I found myself in control of an organization that was genuinely dedicated to improving animal welfare on a large scale, I’d spread those lobbying dollars out a little and shoot for some reasonable regulation of a range of farming practices as opposed to one flat out ban that is certain to fuel the development of a black market with little incentive to heed regulation of any kind.

As chefs, we strongly support sustainable and humane farming practices.  Healthful practices and happy animals make for good food, plain and simple.  Food is an important issue in a number of political arenas, and any step towards a broader understanding of food production is valuable, to farmers, to chefs, and to the public at large.  Outlawing foie gras is a step backwards, an unnecessary blow to a small and conscientious farming outfit, and another needless demonization of offal, an appreciation of which seems to be always overlooked as an important aspect of sustainability.  It seems to me that if more Americans would develop an appreciation for offal and high quality meat, it might put us on track towards improving our national relationship with food.

 


Monday, July 23rd, 2012. Filed under: Ingredient Legend

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