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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Settling In

                                                                SPARKY’S  BLOG

Settling In –

Do you remember when you first moved into your first apartment (for those of you that have lived in apartments) and started settling in?  Do you remember your first neighborly experience that left you disgruntled and upset?  Mine was in the guise of footsteps, footsteps at 2am, 3am and 4am right above my bedroom…you know, the place where you’re suppose to sleep?  I was awakened by what sounded like the annual wildebeest migration of the African Serengeti or so I surmised as the racket above caused a stirring in me to take cover.  The noise was constant and I wondered how many people were living above me and why where the footsteps so prevalent and constant?  Were they practicing for a flash mob or perhaps they were playing some frenetic version of Twister®?  I don’t know and I don’t care, all I want is for it to stop!!  I was able to find some ear plugs and stuff them in for some relief……don’t folks realize the world doesn’t revolve around them and what could they possibly be doing at this time of the morning?  Perhaps they work 3rd shift and I should give them a break?  Nope!!

Okay, now on to Tom who first introduced himself to me on my very first day of moving into the apartment complex.  He was walking his dog that was a large mutt which should have been a foreshadowing of things to come.  Tom was very cordial and welcomed me heartily to his fine city of Charleston and wished me well and went on his way.  A few days later I hear a howling emanating from Tom’s apartment.  It sounded like a dog but very high pitched sort of like a Chihuahua that was castrated on the spot and left for dead.  Turns out it was Tom’s dog yearning for his master who had just left for work at 5am.  Yes, I’m living in THAT place.  Tom’s dog wasn’t small in stature but sure sounded like it yelping and howling and even chortling like  a whiny, wimpy sissy dog. What a poor excuse of canine representation but then again, owning a dog and leaving it in an apartment all day isn’t the best thing for an animal with a pedigree of running free.  It wasn’t the dog’s fault but that of the owner who may be a bit selfish to understand that it’s simply irresponsible to the dog for not having the space to properly care for it.

                      Upper right is Tom's place, lower right are the "Fighting Hindi's", Upper left are the Wildebeest's               and I'm on the lower left.
Let us now move in a more disturbing direction.  My next door neighbors are from Indo-Asian descent.  I’m guessing they’re from Bangladesh, India or Pakistan and heavily influenced by the caste system incurred within their society many generations ago.  I count only one woman living among 3 male’s, two adolescents and one elderly man with a long white beard and white turban to match.  He looks like he stepped out of an abstract version of an Ang Lee movie titled “Crouching Hindu, Hidden Karma”.  Regardless of how old this man looks are misleading as he packs a loud clamor during his sudden outbursts at the woman living with him.  He’s not coy about sharing his feelings as they are done so with extreme prejudice.  In the caste system there are levels of elite within society.  There are also levels within the family with women residing at the very lower echelon of this system and far be it for a woman of all beings to voice her opinion in this system.  I don’t know what stirs these heightened discussions between the elderly man and middle-aged woman but they do get loud and somewhat entertaining as I can’t understand a word they’re saying due to all communications being in their native tongue.

One night was quite eventful….things started out much the same way with a steady rise in decibel level and a systematic increase of back-and-forth staccato argumentative enunciations and articulations (I’m being nice).  Before I know it, there was a soft bang against an interior wall kind of like someone putting a small bowling ball into a pillow and gently throwing it up against the sheetrock.  This piqued my curiosity; was the lady finally fending for herself?  Was the old man strong enough to cause harm?  I didn’t think so but you never know.  It sounded like the youngen's were mute or perhaps not in the apartment at all.  The banging ensued and I finally figured I might call 911 for concern of everyone’s safety.  Just as I got off the couch to fetch my phone is when the activity spilled out into the parking lot where the female piled herself into an SUV and sped off.   It’s been quiet for days now and I’m loving the silence but feeling a bit squeamish about my lack of concern over everyone’s safety.  I’ll stay tuned on this one.

(Menu Change)
Creative juices were stirring at Cypress the other day and I was able to witness the changing of the menu.  Sous Chef Bob Cook invited me to a meeting where new menu items will be discussed.  He thought I might be interested in the process and ensuing discussion.  All in attendance were Executive Chef Craig Deihl, Sous Chef Bob Cook and Shift leader Chef Robert Tremayne as well as myself.  I was armed with my pen and note pad hoping to get as much information as I possibly could.  These meetings usually occur every 2-3 weeks resulting in 1 to 3 items being introduced replacing older ones.  A revolving menu ensures variety and fresh ingredients as they come into season, a very smart idea indeed. 

Checking pricing on something; an executive chef's work is never done

A very busy man who'd rather be cooking

Chef Deihl had been thinking about using lobster and marrying it with pasta of some sort and Bob was valuable with ideas of his own.  It kind of went like this:  Cypress chef’s meet every so often to talk about foods that may interest them or come into season.  Items may also get interest if their price drops and provides a cache of sorts that intrigues the customer.  Like for instance the trout being replaced by sheepshead fish because the sheepshead price has dropped.   Sheepshead fish were mostly thought to have been “garbage” fish for one reason or another but the fact is that they taste very good due to their diet.  Folks think they taste like shrimp or even lobster because that’s what they feed on and if you can get that taste for a reduced sum then it’s just good business sense. 

Another thing that these talented chefs understand is that people don’t want the same offerings every time they come to dine with them.  Customers may have a favorite item on the menu but don’t always wish to eat it every time they choose to come to Cypress.  I love Snickers® bars but wouldn’t enjoy eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Trout atop a portion of hominy
Rack of Lamb with sauce accompaniments

In addition, Craig mentioned doing pasta and joked that Cypress had better step it up to ensure their dish isn’t confused with that of other restaurants in the area.  It would be sacrilege to buy dried pasta when they can make better stuff in house and that is exactly what they did.

So the pasta dish turned out to be a lobster and shrimp spaghetti tossed with Nduja salami which has a rich, full bodied flavor that packs some spicy heat.  A few days later chef came by with a plate of the homemade pasta and Nduja to share a taste with me and I found the dish to be nothing less than spectacular.  I can only imagine what it will taste like with the shrimp and lobster tossed all together; it will surely be a winning combination.

The creative process is very constructive to me as I watched each chef bounce ideas off one another.  Everything we learn in culinary school about the collaborative efforts of running a successful restaurant are tried and true as I’m witnessing this very process before me.  The topics range from the creative such as the sheepshead fish and lobster pasta to the economics of certain types of lobster or should they just buy the tails then suddenly the discussion turns to dollars and cents regarding lettuces.  If you’re not paying attention, you will surely be left behind in these conversations.

Ultimately, the chefs came up with a game plan they were all in agreement on and included topics such as savory bread pudding (spoon bread), pasta, lettuce, shrimp, lobster, economics, sheepshead fish and more.  I was kind of in awe with the knowledge they seemingly pulled from the air but they’ve been doing this for many years and are consummate professionals at their craft.  The whole time the meeting was taking place; Chef Deihl was reminding all involved that the clientele that walk over the threshold into Cypress want a responsibly and fairly priced dish.  Most customers at Cypress have plenty of disposable income but do not part with it in a haphazard way.

(An amazing talent)
Sous Chef Bob Cook is an amazing talent.  His palate is truly remarkable; I’m sure he’d smash any taste test that Gordon Ramsey could concoct like he does so glibly on “Hell’s Kitchen”.  I was in amazement when he summoned me to aide in his assembly of a “secret” sauce for a new special they were running in the bar on Monday nights which was Burger Night for $5 - a great deal at Cypress. 

Any time Bob wants to impart his years of wisdom on me is time well spent, but this experience saw me understand that what this man possesses is nothing short of a gift from above.  His tongue and entire mouth pick up on the slightest nuances of flavorings he introduces into his batch of sauce-making.  His fantastic process of developing this concoction went something like this:

He first had me puree 4 cups of sauerkraut (yes I said sauerkraut) and reserve the juice I strained from it.  I would have never thought to start a hamburger sauce with sauerkraut but we’re not talking about an ordinary chef here.  The folks at Cypress don’t just think outside-of-the-box….they invent a whole new approach they can call their own.  It’s always about what sets them apart from the rest of the pack and if you don’t have that mind-set then you’ll get trampled in the restaurant business.     

Chef Bob Cook

I then finely diced some pickled Serrano chilies and he sparingly added only a small portion into a bowl with the pureed sauerkraut.  He’s careful to never add too much opting to take a little more time in the creative process ensuring a successful outcome.  I was then told to add a base of a few cups of mayonnaise, half that amount of sour cream and 1 tsp. of sweet smoked paprika as well as a few tbsp. of mustard powder.  He then tasted it and pondered for a moment or two or three.  He had this look on his face like the weight of the world was on his shoulders.  Bob’s creative talent and skill is on a higher plane than the normal schmo walking down the street.

He quickly went into the cooler and returned with 1 ½ tbsp of horseradish and a ¼ cup of Dijon and added this to the mixture.  He said “it needs something very different”.  At that time he scurried off to the baking area and was carrying honey and poured a thin stream of that and exclaimed “it’s getting closer”.  I thought we were done but he knew it needed that little one or two more items. 

After more pondering, he asked me to go get the salt and white pepper and put an undisclosed amount of each into his palm and spread this evenly over the mixture whisked it in and tasted.  He seemed pleased but at the last minute added a few tbsp. of kraut juice and became very satisfied with his creation.  Witnessing something like this gave me a real thrill!  This is something that you’re born with and cannot be denied.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

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