I’m doing something really mean to my staff this week. I’m taking away all their mingardise recipes. Not to test their memorization skills, or make their jobs unduly difficult. I’m forcing creativity.
One of the tenants of my department is creative obligation. I’ve noticed that when creative participation is a privilege, an option, it’s often prioritized beneath all the crushing elements of a cooks daily task list. But, when it’s no longer a choice, but an obligation, the game changes. Once you step into your first chefs role, it’s no longer an option to participate creatively in the menu. It’s your job. But the skill of translating intangible ideas that live within your thoughts into a tangible item that exists in the physical world is no natural gift. It’s HARD.
The cooks that come through the pastry department at blackbird are all well on their way to running kitchens of their own one day, and I’d hate to see that day be the first that they start to apply regular excursive to that part of their brain.
While I was staging at Noma, the legendary Saturday Night Projects were in full effect, and one day Rene gathered the entire staff and gave an impassioned speech. The previous saturday had not produced many presented projects and Rene told his staff this. “When you are the chef you can’t go into the dining room and say, I’m sorry I don’t have a dish for you I was too busy to come up with something new.” He continued to talk, telling his staff that it’s never going to get easier to create dishes, you’re only going to have more to do each day as a chef. The projects aren’t just a privilege. Finding time between 2 services a day on top of finishing your miss en place and working service can prove nearly impossible. But its a priority, and you can find the time if you treat it as such.
In turn, every member of my staff has a creative obligation to our menu, in an environment where a chef is there to mentor them through the process and gently edit their results.
My cook at Avec is required to conceive and execute our rotating gelato and sorbet menu.
My a.m. lead cook at Blackbird is required to put together a daily changing coupe for our lunch menu, and when that challenge has been mastered, we add on a lunch special with the framework that it creatively uses our left over table bread.
My sous chef is required to create a monthly rotating pre dessert for our tasting menu, a process that mirrors our drafted and revised plated desserts. This process, when applied to simpler pre desserts in rapid succession will lead them into creating desserts for the menu itself.
And finally, the junior most staff members, my PM cooks are responsible for the two mingardise we serve to our guests every night. This to me is creativity 101.
The first step in creatively applying yourself to the craft of pastry is to flavor exchange, or use a proven recipe and swap flavors. For the last 3 years we have produced many of our mingardise with our fake book of textures; pate de fruit, caramels, rolled truffles, caramel truffles, bon bons, macarons, financiers, marshmallows, nougats, brittles, toffees, and meringues.
With these sweet little bodies, my cooks change the flavors daily, discovering which flavors play well with others along the way. It seems like the easiest task, simply swap a flavor in a recipe you know works. But every idea sparks a series of questions that are simple to answer now, but will be asked again and again, every time you want to alter textures for a more composed dish.
More important than discovering the world of flavor pairing, these mingardise teach cooks how to correctly insert flavor into a texture.
Lets say, a cook wants to add lavender to a mingardise. First we must determine how to insert this flavor into a textural construct by looking for our opportunities to do so. Lavender is a purple bud, highly aromatic but not edible on it’s own. The flavor of an herb can be transferred by a hot or cold infusion, both of which offer different intensities and nuances, and depending on the liquid chosen to be infused, the flavor will transfer differently. A whole herb can also be dried, ground, and sifted, and added directly to a recipe. We also have lavender extract, and lavender honey. Once we understand the various ways to transfer the flavor of lavender, we look at which of these will be successful in the recipe.
Lavender infused cream can flavor a truffle or a caramel, but a marshmallow or meringue won’t endure the fat. We would have to look at creating a lavender infused syrup, or adding an extract. A marshmallow will collapse with lavender infused butter, but the financier requires the liquid fat and would work well. But couldn’t we also grind and sift dried lavender into the financier? Yes, then lets make it both ways so we can taste the difference!
By the time a cook is a chef, creating full scale plated compositions, understanding how to insert flavor into textures will be an essential skill. This will open up creative opportunities on the plate, and directly contribute to your ability to execute your vision.
I’ve got to say, I’ve seen this process work. I’ve watched our junior pm cook master the textures with simple flavors, then start to come up with really amazing flavors as the senior pm cook and then begin to bring in recipes they want to try. The senior pm cook has grown into our lead line, a morning position, and apply their flavor exchange skills to a composed Coupe, or sundae, and then start to dabble in full dish conception with chef feed back and edits as the lunch special. I’ll never forget Molly’s concord grape summer pudding. Kara was famous for hiding small scoops of tart sorbet inside larger scoops of rich ice cream for her coupes, and ben’s maple banana bread pudding was as comforting as it was inspired. It really brings tears of joy to watch our cooks blossoming, glimpsing the chefs they will become.
And because of this, next week, I’m taking away their recipes.
We will have a brainstorming meeting, in which they will suggest new textural constructs that build off of the recipes and skills we have. I will write them a new fake book, and stand side by side with them discussing how they can start to flavor exchange in these new tiny little homes. They have dubbed it the “mingardise revolution.”
Then, with a new arsenal of recipes, they will continue to exercise their flavor exchanging muscles and create these sweet little building blocks for our guests, just as always.