Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meals that might have been

There's no negotiation at the Oak Cafe, so I'm not in the back of the house this semester. A month's advance notice or just failing to show up give the same result: you're out! So, after a pre-emptive drop I'll try again next year.

Just because I was to be thrown out of the class does not mean that I didn't do my homework, in the hope that somehow reason would prevail. It didn't, but I still like the fall menus I created. I might even invite some friends over and make one or two of them.

The assignment was to talk about my inspirations. With this paper, I was already breaking the rules, because we're supposed to start with Famous Chefs for inspiration. I don't. I start from fresh, seasonal ingredients, tie them together with a theme and prepare a menu.

As an aside, I'm not really a Famous Chef fan. The chefs I admire most are the ones who stay with their customers to create wonderful meals in a warm, welcoming atmosphere. They might write a cookbook or two, hold culinary events in their restaurant, or do other local activities - but they aren't the guys who are constantly on television, opening restaurants thousands of miles apart and hawking their brand of Things That Come in Bottles designed more by food engineers than chefs.

Since this was a seasonal menu, I went with cuisines that follow the seasons, using typical autumnal ingredients like pumpkins, mushrooms, quince, game (well, duck anyway), pomegranates, persimmons and pine mushrooms for the Japanese menu.

Everything was supposed to come from one, inspiring chef. Unfortunately, I preferred recipes from several chefs in the same theme, so another broken rule.

Three Inspirations

The real inspiration is the food, the different courses linked by a common theme and in this case done in a common style per menu. People enjoying food around a table is the true end goal; recipes and cookbooks are but a means to that end - as are preparation, training, quality ingredients and the panoply of things that must be done and known in order for that seemingly simple meal to be a success.

With this in mind, I’m starting from the meals themselves and working towards chefs who fit into the theme. These foods also come from places with a sense of seasonality, especially Japan where they may go so far as to simulate a full autumn moon in a bowl of soup.


These foods were great things to find, coming in from a cold autumn day. These aren’t high-end, three star restaurant foods; they’re things people in France eat more or less regularly. Except maybe the millefeuille, but part of the idea is to make things you love.
Sample Menu
Brandade de morue, Pumpkin soup, Confit duck gizzard salad with pine nuts, Toulouse sausages with beans, millefeuille, quince tarte. Country-style sourdough bread.
Paula Wolfert, Julia Childs, Auguste Escoffier, Alain Senderens, Peter Reinhard (bread)


This started with an Iranian restaurant in Pasadena. The place was for some reason never crowded, but the people inside seemed to be enjoying themselves. So I ventured inside to discover some really wonderful foods. We have restaurants just as good here in Sacramento, where in addition to the printed menu, they often secretly brew up a pot of khoreshe fesenjan, yours for the asking.

Sample Menu
Pomegranate soup, Stuffed quince, Duck/Pomegranate stew with nuts (khoreshe fesenjan), Ground lamb kebab, baklava, rice pudding. Pita bread, herbs.

Claudia Roden, Maideh Mazda


I really didn’t have many white friends where I grew up, since the hood was at least eighty percent Asian. So, when I was invited over for something to eat, it wasn’t PBJ’s. Since then, I’ve traveled to Japan, and dined for a while at a small kaiseki-inspired restaurant in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. That’s where I discovered chawan mushi and matsutake. Tako yaki was discovered in Tokyo on a cold day as I was passing by some street vendors. Then there's that izakaya place where you squeeze in and order of a chalkboard that changes constantly...

Sample Menu
Pine Mushroom (matsutake) soup, (or tako yaki ), custard soup (chawan mushi), Miso-grilled fish, Katsu Kare (curried breaded pork cutlet), Persimmon ice cups, Sesame crisps, Steamed chestnut-bean squares. Rice.

Kuwako Takahashi, Elisabeth Andoh
I don't know if they would have accepted these people, since they're not hip, fusion or cutting edge. They just write (or wrote) good recipes for traditional Japanese food.

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