Monday, October 22, 2007

Cuts Like a Knife

What many people may not consider when they dig into a steak or a creamy bowl of soup is that somewhere along the line of that food's production, a small or a significant amount of knife work took place in order to make it look like it ultimately does. Dice, chop and mince are just a few of the more common words used in kitchens across the world, words that, when used classically, can be understood by anyone in any country because they represent a standard that all of us as industry professionals abide by. Given the importance of these cuts, then, from the most basic chop to the precise measurements of a chiffonade or a brunoise, it's important that we all have sharp, precise cutting tools while in the kitchen. Unfortunately, sharp and quality aren't always the norm even in the nicest of establishments, and a dull knife can only lead to delays, frustration and less-than-perfect dishes that would have otherwise been flawless. So, while in New York this weekend (story to come), dining, walking, drinking and generally enjoying the filling landscape of the Big Apple below midtown, I took it upon myself to find a perfect cutting machine designed with finesse in mind--and, boy, did I find it.

Not quite a chef's knife designed for hacking through anything or an Asian square-head vegetable knife capable of hacking any vegetable into small pieces, this cook's knife embodies the painfully thin blade of a sashimi knife with the agility of an all-purpose chef's knife. I held knives for close to an hour, ultimately deciding on the Global (a knife I normally turn away from because of it's handle) because it felt right in my hand. I knew, too, that cutting beef for tasters and other vegetables for presentation required the clean precision that only a super-thin blade can provide. What I found most interesting in looking for the right knife, though, was the multitude of shapes and sizes they come in, particularly the Japanese blades, and all their different intended uses.
Having researched a little more, knowing that my experiences in different places with different cuisines will be varied, I know that I'll purchase more knives over the years. However, it's good to remember that it's not merely the knife that's going to make the cut fantastic. It's knowing how and when to use the right knife at the right time, with the utmost respect for a piece of equipment that could quickly take your skin off, that makes the biggest difference.

What Makes a Restaurant...Good?

As I start to align my interests and bring my current culinary studies to the doorstep of my literary, English language background with this, my "food blog," it's precisely that question--what makes a good restaurant good and why?--that I hope to answer. Along with the company and assistance of both friends and family, I've taken it upon myself to visit and enjoy as many restaurants as possible, though in no way limiting myself to "fine dining." With so little time to actually stop and cook a meal for myself, especially after spending close to 15 hours a day in a kitchen, I've found it much easier to go and savor the fruits of others' labor as I try to hone my own interests and attain more focus on my own future. Some of my forays into edible exploration have been less than satisfying (some even downright nauseating), while others have excited me beyond the mere plate as though I were a child again trying chocolate chip ice cream for the first time. Regardless, I keep going back for more, searching for new places, spending more of my truly hard-earned cash in an attempt to find out what really does make a good restaurant good. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, I haven't yet discovered a concrete answer, basically for two simple reasons.
First, I don't believe that there is a formula to define or create a good restaurant. Chef Dean Max, who I currently work for at 3030 Ocean, recently went and ate at Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in Miami's Design District, per my plentiful and raving reviews. When he came to work and saw me afterwards, his first and most important word was, "Dude," said with a tone that meant, "You were right, that food is amazing." The point he brought up was that Michael Schwartz makes food that people want to eat, which, in the restaurant and general food business seems like all too easy of a goal or accomplishment. Considering the amount of restaurants that go belly-up every year for whatever reason, though, making food that people want to eat begins to seem less obvious and like more of a chore. Plus, there's the fact that food and taste is rather subjective and trends play such a role in what we consume that what people want to eat today may be the cause for a new diet tomorrow. So, when looking at what makes a place like Michael's so good, simply saying that he makes good food doesn't really give us an answer.
My second reason for having yet to discover the secret to a good restaurant is that I haven't eaten at enough yet, in enough places, to find an answer. Until about eight months ago when I started culinary school and really began focusing on food and flavor, I didn't put much thought into what I was eating beyond whether or not I was paying a fair price for food that tasted good. Coincidentally, it was before I returned to the United States and started culinary school that I lived and traveled through various countries in Europe and South America, all the while eating in places that I still remember to this day as being good. Certain places stick out in my mind as places I would and will return to in the future to enjoy another delicious meal, while others are nothing more than a distant memory of an establishment offering something food-related to fill my stomach. So I don't necessarily believe that the credentials of being a certified culinarian or professional foodie will help me answer my question, because I could have told you back then that I did or didn't like something and why. Even if I were given an unlimited budget and a year to eat my way across the planet, trying everything from neighborhood favorites to world-renowned cuisine, I would still probably fall short of a clear definition of a good restaurant.
Basically, I need to just keep eating. I need to keep talking with others, exploring flavors, getting opnions and developing my own before I can say what makes a good restaurant good. And that's the point of this blog, my mounting credit card debt, my attendance at culinary school (even though I learn a great deal more at work)--I want to know. I'm setting myself up for a life's work of cooking my own food, eating others', travelling, exploring and discovering. Essentially, I'm looking for what's good.

Patrick Hieger