Richard Blais

Chef by trade

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Baby Steps

I was keeping it "tight." A term professional chefs toss around pretty loosely to define things being done correctly. It was 6:45 in the morning. There was farm-fresh asparagus boiling away in a properly salted pot of water. An egg, from another local farm, was gently cooking in a glass jar. This was a rather neat idea, I thought, as it kept the egg a beautiful shape and enabled me to get it to a nice, soft, custardy texture. A whisk was busy emulsifying a little olive oil and butter into some egg yolks and vinegar. A sabayon or hollandaise, take your pick.

It was the type of breakfast you might get in a very good bed and breakfast. Not overly creative. Tasty, simple, beautiful food.

Cold milk and a freshly pureed apple with a dash of cinnamon finished the prep list. And as I awaited my client, I checked off on her dossier. She has restrictions on her salt and sugar intake. Only fresh ingredients. Proteins cooked well-done. For that matter, vegetables, grains, everything cooked super tender. And most important, dessert (apple puree in this case) must be kept out of sight until its appropriate serving time. Or else...

When the time came to present the meal, I was happy. Everything was cooked properly. All of it was tasty and prepared within the strict guidelines. And even though I knew she wasn't one for flash and presentation, I just couldn't resist. I'm a chef. It's what I do. I delicately piled the asparagus tips – only the tips – over the velvety egg. Gently dripped a few tiny spoonfuls of the sabayon around the egg. Even brushed the top of it all with some finely chopped tarragon and basil mixed with olive oil and a splash of lemon juice – Meyer lemon juice.

7:30 struck and my guest was ready to eat. You could tell because she was pointing to her lips and smacking her belly. A move often reserved only for French royalty in the 17th century.

And as a princess may have done during that time period, she tasted her food and then proceeded to throw every single piece of asparagus tip in myriad directions. Over her head. Toward mine. Did I mention the asparagus tips were peeled and turned? Oh well, on to the egg.

The egg was met with curiosity at first. A look, I was sure, meant she was amazed at the texture and shape of what lay in front of her. She was amazed! Amazed at just how easily the eggs squished in her hand. This was fun for a few moments. Eggs: the new play dough. But at least most kids enjoy the flavor of play dough. The eggs, having been so cautiously cooked, were now an unidentifiable mess squished into chubby creases, hair, and under fingernails.

Did I mention the sauce? The sauce's main goal is to bridge the flavors of the more textured ingredients. To push and pull. Compare and contrast. Add depth and excitement. This morning's sauce was now tarragon-laced finger-paint. And although the moment inspired me to create a few paintings using whole foods and ingredients (look for a gallery showing soon), it was amid great despair.

My hard work. My early rise to please this one diner was an epic, more Blais-esque than usual fail. It was not losing at the buzzer, or in overtime, or even by a few points. It was a blowout. There wasn't any way to look at this and rationalize that it wasn't that bad.

I'm a professional chef, who can't get a 1-year-old to eat a nice breakfast.

I resorted to the applesauce and store-bought yogurt. And as I washed the dishes (all seven tiny copper pots and glass verrines), my wife explained that Riley doesn't eat green things except broccoli. And that (it should have been listed in the dossier) she likes her eggs scrambled hard.

The next day I tried again.

This time tossing the asparagus in some olive oil, and roasting them in the oven until shriveled, wrinkled and browned. Usually the type of food that ends up in a family meal at a restaurant. I shook some vinegar over the vegetables. I cooked the egg in the microwave, and half asleep chopped it up. It was definitely cooked hard. No sauce. Barely any seasoning. Herbs stayed in the window box. And the soundtrack, which was Yo-Yo Ma's solo in G major yesterday, today blared The Best of the Wiggles.

And there it was.

Not only a successful, plate-cleaning breakfast, but an inspirational, professional epiphany.

Beautifully manicured, well-taken-care-of ingredients have their place. Gently cooked eggs are nice. And presentation is fun. But not when you don't have pre-existing experience and years of the real world telling you what's tasty and pretty and what's not.

You eat what tastes right.

Babies don't care about green or brown. They don't care about the history of France, or molecular gastronomy. They only care about flavor ... as should I.

Thanks for the cooking lesson, Riley Maddox Blais.
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