Issue 28

Classic Dishes are the Devil

Classic Dishes are the Devil

As a young(er) chef, I hated the classics. I found that things that had been done before should never be done again. I ran roughshod through the menu writing experiments in those days, putting awkwardly named and rarely tested concoctions into the repertoire at the restaurant1 with little or no thought given to the origin or effectiveness of the dish. The strangely confident owners always smiled with glee at what they called my inventiveness, creativity, uniqueness, individuality, and passion. Their smiles were a bit tarnished when we closed after just nine glorious months. (Not that I really want to take all the blame, but I was pretty clueless in those days. I can hear a current student saying, “those days?” Touché.)

Back then, customers would stride in, introduce themselves, and ask for a favorite dish for their special affairs: Coq au Vin, Coquilles St. Jacques, Steak Diane, something called Rose Salmon and the acclaimed Lobster Thermador. I was offended. Those were other people’s dishes. At least I thought they were other people’s dishes as I had barely ever heard of most of them. They should want my food I thought. All that other shit seemed so de rigueur. (Not to imply I knew that phrase then—that would have required reading, which I was also firmly against.)

One lady went so far as to bring me a photocopied recipe for the Lobster Thermador out of her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was ashamed. We did not allow cookbooks in the restaurant, let alone a cookbook by a TV chef that just wrote down stuff that other people before her had “mastered.” I was a great, fresh artist. I was on the rise and anything that I cooked would be delicious. What? I had a thin palate, no training, and barely any sense of a professional kitchen. A random customer once schooled me in the midst of Friday night service on the necessity and technique for removing silverskin from pork. That was, of course, after they had eaten it and found the meat “…too gristly.” I was appreciative of the lesson, but still so blinded by what I thought I knew to be able to see the real depth of what I didn’t.

Falling through the rabbit hole

Life went on after BOJO. I worked a brief stint at the Aquarium on 72nd in order to make rent—it was a restaurant with aquariums, not an actual aquarium. Then, I landed at the Champion’s Club under Chef Teresa Kramer. She seemed to be a kindred spirit about the individualism thing. The menu she showed me on my first day was stamped across the top with the words, “recipes are ruts.” She too eschewed the classics. The ownership and membership of the club, however, required her to ‘toe-the-line’ on most things. I kept fighting it. The fight got even easier when Chef Michael Rhoades took the reins. He was an avowed lover of the avant-garde. Just over his stint opening the Flatiron, he was up to struggling against the country club set much more than Teresa had been. We ballyhooed about like school boys skipping class—grilling sea bass over chipotles and frying potatoes in egg roll wrappers. Life was grand. Then I fell down the rabbit hole.

One night after service we, the twenty-something aged staff, set out for a drink at Office West. I knew the Office to be the favorite watering hole of the matron of my first-ever restaurant gig, but I figured her to be long gone by midnight on a Sunday2. Au contraire mon frère.

Vivian was up. And, up for a scolding. I sauntered over once I recognized her. It was probably more of a shuffle with a bit of a limp, but it’s been years now so I am sure she can’t recount the story any differently so we’ll go with ‘sauntered’. I was expecting to catch her up on my past few sorties, brag a little about myself, squeeze in a thank you or two, and get a couple accolades about, “carrying the torch” or, “making George proud”, or even an, “I always thought that you’d contribute somehow.” Brother was I wrong. Vivian gazed up at me from her Keno ticket, slid down her half-moon glasses, crushed out her Benson & Hedges and shook her head. I tried to give her a hug. She thwarted it.

“Vivian?” I said, trying to muster a bit of my big brother’s charm that she always loved.

“Yes, Bull?” she responded with a bit of irritation3.

“Have you heard that I am still cooking?”

The ridiculously conceded aroma of this statement was evident to me as soon as I finished the -ing. But it was out there now. Her half-moons came clean off as she angrily pushed her non-winning Keno ticket from the now-closed game aside.

“Sit down, Bull,” she huffed.

I did. And she started right in with the tirade.

“What’s with all of this funny business?” she blurted, “Why are you trying to be different rather than delicious?”

Well into my third Jameson, she was still drilling me. She had such high hopes. She thought I knew so much. She wondered why we don’t just follow recipes. She railed on and on for almost an hour, begging me to explain what exactly the ‘Victory Pasta’ was that she had seen on the menu from BOJO.

“Why don’t you just make something delicious like Steak Diane?” she finally queried.

“What!?” I responded half dumbfounded and partially enraged.

“Delicious,” she said, “delicious.”

“I know you said delicious,” I started, but trailed off with, “But do you really think that I am actually gonna…”

“I do,” she said with motherly authority.

“Heard.”

I finished my drink, offered to pay her tab, and collected my buddies.

I went straight to work. Not literally as it was push’n 2:00 am by this time. I had yet to earn a key at Champion’s. I went home. I pulled out all the cookbooks that I had begrudgingly accepted as gifts over the years and started to do what the ambitious students did: Read. I read and read and read. I may not have slept for the next 24 hours as I poured through everything from the Mercy High School Alumni Cookbook to Mastering the Art of French Cooking with several stops in between. About half way through “Volume I” of Julia’s opus I got punched in the face.

It is the master recipe for Steak Diane. How plain I had once thought it to be. Only this time, I read it with the enthusiasm of a thirteen-year-old boy holding his first Playboy4. I did then what the thirteen-year-olds only get to fantasize about. I engaged the words on the page and made them come to life.

At the stove

I took great care in procuring each ingredient. I requisitioned some tenderloin from work, with the steaks cut from rump end as recommended. I hunted down authentic Dijon mustard at the gourmet grocery. I blew a ton of money on a nice bottle of Madeira and more brandy than I would consume to this day. I made veal stock from scratch. I bought Plugra butter, Celtic sea salt, Tellicherry peppercorns, fresh thyme, and shallots. It seems a little weird to be proud that I bought shallots, but not too awfully long ago, they had vanished from the supermarket. I borrowed a “cookbook stand” from a neighbor lady so that I could keep the recipe right there with me the whole time, just like Julia. And then, without fear or folly, I started to cook. I was half-a-dozen years into my life as a restaurant journeyman and was just discovering the body gastronome. I pushed the ingredients through my first Steak Diane like I was mad at them. I forgot to take my steak out when I flamed the pan, I over-reduced the sauce, and then, with blatant stupidity, forgot to add about a third of the ingredients. For a fleeting moment, in my first taste I thought, “what is all the excitement about, this is not very good.” I reread the recipe, discovered why, wiped out my pan and started over. The results from the second pass were mind-blowing. I made it over and over till I ran out of tenderloin. I have not yet run out of brandy.

Steak Diane, and many of the other classics, have since been folded into my repertoire so completely that I struggle to remember the particulars of how they got there. I can now pull from the different recipes one piece of technique in order to approach more eloquently both unusual ingredients and uncomfortable circumstances. I can do so without thinking. I can only do so because I was dared to. Because one day on a bar stool, someone whose opinion I cared about made me feel stupid for ignoring the canon of culinary heritage. Thank you, Vivian. If you ever have the chance to get down to Sage5, I’ll put together a Steak Diane for you, no funny business.

 

Endnotes

1 “The Restaurant” in this case means BOJO Grill, located at 521 south 13th street (site of the current Nicola’s) was open for from about February to October 1996 and was received with some critical acclaim, but mostly was just a bit of good money, from good people, gone a bit awry.

2 Vivian Kokkalas and her husband George were the long-time proprietors of the magnificent continental restaurant in west Omaha called The Blue Fox. I worked there in various capacities from June of 1987ish through 1995ish. Vivian is the first person other than my mother to have told me to do something and meant it.

3 “Bull” was really the name George used to refer to me ‘cause he thought I was huge “like a bull”. Vivian only used it when she wanted to carry the authority of both she and George in a conversation with me. When I worked for her, most of those conversations centered around being on time to work and not pouring water down ladies cleavage. (I was fourteen. C’mon! Where was I supposed to be looking?)

4 Man those articles are terrible, but the pictures are awesome.

5 Sage Student Bistro is the teaching restaurant at the Institute for the Culinary Arts, where I work now. Were open to the public Monday through Thursday night where guests are treated to seasonal menu items of local scratch cookery from a menu written by myself and Chef de Cuisine Oystein Solberg. Additionally, students themselves craft five course prix fixe menus that are focused around or inspired by one of the books from the essential canon of the body gastronome.

Brian O'Malley

Brian O'Malley

Brian O’Malley is a chef instructor at Metropolitan Community College’s
Institute for the Culinary Arts. A graduate from New England Culinary Institute and a member of the American Culinary Federation, O’Malley worked as the chef/owner of Spread. He was a manager/instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, head chef at Vanilia in Santorini, Greece, and BackNine Grille, assistant food and beverage manager at the Champion’s Club and opening chef at BOJO. Brian O’Malley can usually be found in MCC’s kitchens, teaching, creating works of culinary genius or debating the perils of out of season tomatoes.


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