In 1975 John McPhee published a story called Brigade de Cuisine about a remarkable chef who ran a 55-seat restaurant with no help except for Anne, his pastry chef/wife, and their children who served the food, and a dishwasher on the weekends. McPhee’s Otto, which isn’t really his name either, is a British born, (Austrian father and British mother) Spanish/Britain raised Germany/Switzerland/Spain trained firecracker. A perfectionist, a classic old guard hefe and an obsessively inventive European chef performing miracles en croute. “The man’s right knee is callused from kneeling before the stove. He would like to see his work described. He would like to be known for what he does, but in this time, in this country, his position is awkward, for he prefers being a person to becoming a personality, his wish to be acknowledged is exceeded by his wish not to be celebrated, and he could savor recognition only if he could have it without publicity.” The location of the restaurant: somewhere in the region of New York City.
A lot of time has passed since Brigade de Cuisine was written, and even back then McPhee writes “Otto is a wave of the past. This is the age of the microwave and the mass-produced entrée…” Certainly 30 years later chefs like Otto—working alone, with their weird obsessive concepts of how things should taste and should be cooked and their commitment to achieve these particular flavors and textures by controlling how everything—from the trimming of herbs to how to clean the pastry brush—is done in their kitchen, using their weird, innate ability to bring heat to matter in interesting ways, and their weird, poignantly humble personalities in a profession replete with egos the size of tuna bellies—have all but disappeared. Chefs now become “Chefs”, and then they simply stop, stop whatever it is they do naturally, and set their sights on some sort of game plan or material goal.
In this generation we have Chefs on Reality TV shows, Chefs with Designer Footwear, Chefs Undercover (writing “tales from the trade” type novelettes, with titles such as ‘Under Hot Water,’ ‘Hung High and Dry Like a Cold Cut,’ ‘Kept in the Dark and Fed Shit – My Life as a Mushroom in So and So’s kitchen,’) Chefs as Celebrities—full scale photos of them in their pearly white outfits on the walls of their establishments or previously mentioned mugshots on said assorted condiment labels—and Chefs That Are Too Busy to Care, by far the saddest and the most pandemic of the lot. They have video monitoring in their kitchens at remote restaurants so the Superstar chef can keep a steely eye on each and every lesser chef to give a thumbs up or down on the aesthetic quality of every dish going out under his/her name. The maximum size of a micro green, the speed and direction of a swirl of sauce, the compass direction for string bean placement, the girth of a baby fingerling. In these days, you don’t simply go to a Thomas Keller restaurant per se, you have a Thomas Keller EXPERIENCE and that TK Experience flattens all differences in time and space. Other than differences in municipal tap water, the meal has no context. We are, after all, in the ipod generation. Songs are no longer part of a larger framework called the CD. Download on demand, a single track, a riff, a keynote, anywhere. Be it in New York or Las Vegas, Napa Valley or the moon, your TK Experience is guaranteed to be identical. Grade A, virgin cold-pressed, free-range and 100% THE SAME. This type of fine dining experience is thrilling, entertaining, often delicious, makes for incredible dinner conversation, leads to good posture, and pummels chefs like Otto about as dead and flat as the octopus Otto’s cousin (in BdC) drives over with a car in order to break down its tough and fibrous nature.
At the end of Brigade de Cuisine, after 50 glorious pages, McPhee mentions the impending closure of Otto’s restaurant. Customers have heard the news and come bearing gifts: “a bottle of Château Haut-Brion, a tin of caviar, an authentic Habana cigar.” McPhee’s meticulous pacing is a dirty, agonizing trick. He’s sensed the line wiggling and has yanked up on the reel. “In a short time, [Otto] and Anne will be gone.” The idea of planning a quick trip to the region of NYC—so titillating as one reads Brigade de Cuisine—blows up as one reaches the scant few pages left . It’s like getting chopped on the Achilles heel, you’re merely wounded but you can’t run away. Even in 1975 had I been able to scour google earth for the three-storied, multi-windowed structure, red tin roof, long drive with dying apple trees, neighboring can-and-bottle dump, stream and “good-sized pond,” geese nests and morel patch and tall field of fox grass to brilliantly uncover Otto’s sacred whereabouts, and then jimmied my parent’s Ford Fairlane (I would have been 8 at the time, and had just finished writing my first story: The Adventures of Fuzzle – a story about two cats befriending aliens, leaving pies in unattended ovens and sharing assorted meals made of “squarish” and “roundish” matter) and set course for the outskirts of NYC, it would have been too late. Winter would have fallen on the old white inn and the sounds and aromas belonging to a new owner, a new tub of duck fat, a less worn set of knives, a new blender (probably with a lid), and clean, level floor would have welcomed me upon arrival. On the second to last page McPhee writes, “…they are not going far, not far from New York, no telling where.” The feeling one gets is of watching particulates invade the clearest of all consommés, the lobe-aching cacophony of something gritty and sour destroying the most lyrical of swan songs.
But so, if Otto had indeed closed up shop, let his fiddleheads, blueberries and dandelions grow wild, sold his family collection of Queen Anne chairs, bullfight prints, taxidermal fox, drawings of vanishing and vanished animals, plaster gargoyles, empty magnums of Chateau Margaux, Spanish sconces and crossed swords and made in fact a much longer trek past the border of “not far from New York,” across the American Midwest and all the way to California where the state made a parenthesis-shaped attempt to prevent his migration further, if he then ignored the gastronomical purr of northern California and instead trickled south and down towards the coast and signed a lease in a crappy little strip mall in Los Angeles, gave up his knee pads for a long black apron he ties meticulously at the waist, swapped out his amazon-dot-com-sized wife for a petite 5-foot-something Japanese woman able to wear lavender and green eye shadow well, shrugged off several pounds and reincarnated himself as a wiry, size-8-work-shoe’d, lightly graying and far less argumentative Japanese man, then I have found Otto at last.
My Otto is a one-man brigade. He controls the temperature of the bisque, the thickness of the rib sauce, the consistency of the fromage blanc, the porousness of the merengue. He eyes the width of the tomato slices, the cacao percentage in his ganache, the total square inches of gelatin in his panna cotta. He mans the sirloin (prods at it to see if it’s done, and squints at it as a graphic designer does to a layout to see if type is lining up properly), calculates 2πr of a cake pan so he can construct the correct length of ladyfingers which will eventually go around the circumference of a pear charlotte, decides the fate of matsutake mushrooms, (“If there’s very little smell I throw them immediately into the sauce, if the smell is good I know I can serve them straight up.”) steams crab legs until appropriately cooked, (“They were so fresh I didn’t want to cook them at all.”) checks the color of bananas (“If the bananas are perfectly ripe, then I can simply sauté. If not, then I toss them into the caramelized sugar a little. It helps with the texture”). He does all this practically at the same time. He saves cleaned carrot peels to make the stock for his smoked salmon vegetable terrine and deep fries his parsnip peels into delicate crisps. “Never throw anything away.” He maintains a shiso plum salt (“It’s got a sequence, first you taste the salt, then you taste the shiso and plum. Put this on food and no one knows what’s going on.”) a macha and salt mixture he serves with his deep fried chocolate ganache, and a shrimp salt he makes by grinding dried shrimp shells into a fine powder. He uses Tahitian vanilla beans for his panna cotta but then washes and dries them using the oven’s pilot light and grinds it to make vanilla sugar. He cooks fish on a piece of wood that has been soaked in wine for 2 days; the board is salvaged from the side of a wine crate, branded with the words Chateau les Grand Maréchaux. Grand vin de Bordeaux. “Never throw anything away.”
He has a special tool—a can with the top and bottom cut out—to blanch vegetables such as asparagus. Using the tool he makes the stalks stand in the boiling water inside the can for a few seconds before he lifts the can to submerge them from end to tip. “The ends need to cook longer than the tips. This way, the chewing is the same consistency along the whole thing. It’s a good texture.” He does the same to other vegetables with special needs like baby bok choy. One time a customer was presented with the vegetable on his plate and said, “Is that bok choy? I don’t like bok choy.” Otto said, “Please try it.” The customer did and remarked, “That’s not bok choy.” Otto replied, “OK.”
At the market he hand picks the vegetables, “Don’t buy the really straight green beans. Get the ones that have grown completely crooked. The straight ones have something wrong with them.” He tears scallops by hand. “If you cut them with a knife the surface is too smooth and the sauce doesn’t stick to the sides. That’s the Japanese way of cooking scallops. I learned that from a book. I read a book on Japanese cooking once.” He’s figured out humans are made up of .2% salt , and uses this knowledge to calculate how much salt to use when creating a marinade for his meats. He hears one customer is coming who is from a particular region in southern Japan. “I am going to make a him a traditional dish from his hometown but throw in a French twist. It will be nostalgic and new. It’s funny. It’s actually a very traditional French dish called a quenelle. I’ll put a lobster sauce over it. I’ll put some mountain potato , and some water chestnuts in, that will give it an unusual texture. But the pieces have to be the right size. If you leave the pieces of water chestnuts too big you can tell what they are. I’m trying to be a little more sophisticated here.”
In between all the cooking he cleans. At any moment the kitchen looks as if the evening is over and the stove burners are the only items remotely unkempt. There is no ghastly pile of frying pans, blender lids, tongs and cutting boards in the sink. Watching him move dirty pots to the sink, cleaned pots to the racks and dried pots back to their posts is like watching a seasoned Photoshop artist remove the background from a photo of a long-haired cat lying on an angora blanket. There is no tool that makes the process easier, but there’s evidence of a strategic plan. The cleaning is part of planning what to cook. It’s not like the manual part of the labor all of sudden looks easy, or that “Otto makes cleaning look fun,” but he certainly makes it look smart.
With a small towel Otto wipes the counters, the knives, the cutting boards, the bottoms of jars, the lips of plates. With larger towels he dries the pots, the pastry cones, the ladles, the whisks, the blender, the underside of the faucet, the small spice bowls. There is great order in his activity. He keeps separate cutting boards for pastry, for fish, for meat, and for easy to stain ingredients like beets. Items are moved from the main fridge to the countertop, and then returned afterwards a little smaller, saltier or softer. He is constantly transferring matter of all consistencies from large containers to smaller ones, wiping down the counters and unwrapping or wrapping things in plastic wrap. Another chef I know used to interview his kitchen staff by asking if they were good at the game Tetris. Otto is good enough to play Tetris on four screens at once. Anne says Otto won’t begin to cook until everything is clean and in order. “It’s all him,” she whispers, as she walks a dust bunny into the trash…