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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pistachio Panna Cotta - The Dish that Changed my Life

This will be different from my previous posts.

This will not have a recipe in it. It will have little to do with food. And yet, all to do with food.

Some of you know that I'm not a classically trained pastry chef. When I applied for the job of Executive Pastry Chef at the restaurant I work at now, I had never done anything like that before. I had been a pantry cook or a line cook or prep cook. I'd only done pastry for fun. There are a lot of stereotypes in the culinary world(apparently) about women ending up to be pastry chefs because they can't handle the meat and potatoes(for whatever dumb sexist reason). I didn't want to "end up" a pastry chef, necessarily, because I didn't go to school for it. I went to school to be a Chef. I wanted to get my arms burnt on ovens. I wanted to be tatted up like a mother-bitch, on the cover of Food & Wine. But Pastry was...

When I was in school, I was mistaken for a pastry student by my Pastry Chef Instructor. I told him I was a Savory. He thought I was kidding, then shook his head and said I had a knack for it. It stuck out in my head.

The dish that changed my life
 I had the pleasure of speaking with one of my customers last night, who had some questions about some of the desserts that one of the servers wasn't sure how to answer. I offered to just go out to the table myself, since it was a slower night. They ended up ordering my Pistachio Panna Cotta, which has come to be my signature/favorite dessert over the years. They were super-nice, and we were slow, so I brought the dish to the table for them.

"So, you decided on the panna cotta, eh?" I said with a smile as I set the plate down.

"Well, we just had to get the dish that changed someone's life!" said the lady, with fork ready.

As I walked away, I had a spring in my step. "The dish that changed someone's life." It really did. It really, really did change my life.

Life's funny like that, you know? You wake up one morning and you have almost no idea how you got to where you are. You look back, trying to find that one pivotal moment. It was the moment I decided to make a pistachio panna cotta for my stage instead of a almond-pear tart with caramelized figs. Turns out I actually really love being a Pastry Chef. Not because I couldn't "hack it" on the hot/savory side, but because I just really truly love it.

I don't think mathematically or precisely. I think artistically. There's so much math and chemistry in the pastry side it's not even funny. I got poor to decent grades in math in school(I know, I'm a failure to the Asian people), mostly because I couldn't understand something on paper. Nobody could tell me how to understand math. I am what you call a kinesthetic learner: I have to have something tangible, something in my hands, for me to understand it fully. Many Chefs I have met are like this. And I take every opportunity I can to meet and socialize with other chefs, because I sometimes feel that they're the only people I truly understand.

I will never forget a conversation I had with my Chef about how we rank at #9 in the career field that's most-likely to contain psychopaths in it.  The long and short of it is that nobody truly sane will ever choose this for their path in life. We are damaged individuals that don't know how to do anything else. We are attracted to positions of power without having to really deal with the everyman. We have our own world in the Back of House that we understand. The hum of the ovens and the whir of the fans. The whoosh of the flames as it comes up on the gas burner. It's a language that we know. We aren't really built for the desk job, or anything with HR. We aren't really designed to be politically correct. Some of the best chefs I know are the nastiest, grossest, most-crass people out there. But damn if they can't cook, damn if they can't work. Some of the most non-functioning members of society one could ever imagine are the ones that are sometimes the best workers in a kitchen.

I'm not saying like I know every cook in the world. But I've cooked in a decent amount of different kitchens, enough to make the statement: The people in this career field can be fucking weird.

We're a sarcastic, crass, snide bunch of bastards. But it's all based on love. Cooking is how we socialize. It's the one way we get to touch other people's lives without actually having to meet them. We are basically introverted extroverts. Most of us, anyway.

I chose the pistachio panna cotta for my stage because, when looking at the menu for the restaurant, I saw that they had a pistachio-crusted halibut. This means they had pistachios in-house. The pistachio is also known as the King of Nuts. The rest of it easily fell into place, and I spent a 2-hour period in that hot kitchen making the best attempt at a dish that, what I thought, a good pastry chef could be proud of.

I also could replicate dishes from Alinea. That, I could do!
Sitting in the wine room, while three chefs and an owner dug into my dish, all making sounds around me and talking around me, all I could think was how much of a fraud I was. I had never felt so dishonest. My inner monologue was rambling on saying things like: "Day 1, they seem to have let me into their camp. They have not yet suspected that I am not yet one of them."

To tell you the truth, I don't know the first thing about pastry, except what I was taught in school. Do you know what I knew how to do? Butcher fish. Fabricate a side of beef. Eight-piece a chicken. I can tell you the perfect time to pull a steak from the pan my feeling it. I know how to blanch pounds and pounds of green beans so that they'll still have a crispy crunch, and will still be green, without being undercooked. That is what I know how to do. This is what I understood. But I saw the Chef de Cuisine's eyes go for the Exec's and whisper to him "this is good." I thought I was going to pee my pants. A week later I got the call saying that the job was mine, and that I started on Monday. All because of that Panna Cotta, that tiny little unassuming dessert.

Oh, and you can forget it if you think you're getting the recipe right now. Wait until I publish a cookbook and buy it for $24.99 or something like that off of Amazon.com.

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