The old saying goes, “Luck is the place where preparation meets opportunity.” In my humble opinion, no preparation is ever wasted.
In the culinary world, preparation is the cornerstone of the craft. As in chess, every move you make in the kitchen sets up not only the next move, but any number of moves down the line. Fail to order properly ahead of time and you can lose whole dishes off of your menu. You can’t cook with food you don’t have.
Take too long with your chopping and mixing, you may miss your window for firing, then all of the elements fail to arrive on time, together. You drop one ball and balls start dropping all over the kitchen. It’s a cascading effect from which it’s tough to recover. Prepare and you won’t have to worry about it.
Then there is preparation that goes beyond and precedes the day’s work. That’s the prep that goes into building your repertoire and your character. By that, I mean stockpiling your inventory of skills and knowledge and life experience.
My style of cooking, if I have a style, is characterized by a foundation in a classical European approach with an overlay of the eclectic. I have at least a passing familiarity with the cuisines of many different nations. When I cooked for the Royals, who liked their food very English and relatively quite plain, we had a lot of guests, from pretty much everyplace in the world, and they liked cooking that reminded them of home.
When I left that job, I shipped aboard cruise liners that made ports of call all over the globe and hosted every nationality imaginable. Then I headed food operations in hotels and casinos, which not only means room service, breakfasts and buffets, but the French bistro, the upscale Italian, the big time steak house, the Sichuan palace and the sushi bar, to name just a few.
All of these influences came together on one of the best days I had on Dinner: Impossible, which also happens to be the one day I truly “failed” one of my missions. At the CIA.
The Culinary Institute of America, the home of one of the world’s great cooking schools, has a faculty brimming with master chefs. The challenge that day was to walk into a room, analyze, by taste alone, dishes created by seven renowned chefs in seven different national cuisines, recreate them without recipes, then create seven additional dishes in each of those nationalities assisted only by a team of students. Oh, and you’ve got to make enough of everything to feed the other 80 students who are coming for dinner.
Every chef I polled later on the faculty thought we were nuts. Maybe, maybe if I’d had George and George and David we might have made it. I didn’t think we had much of a chance. Guess what? We didn’t make it. And I had one of the best days ever.
In that hallowed hall of cooking, with those inexperienced but incredibly game teammates, under unbeatable time pressure, we threw everything we had at that challenge.
I know that sauerbraten typically takes three days to make, but I thought that if I could quick-braise the beef, I could make it happen. For the Indian dish, I am a sucker for nothing if not a great lamb curry. We never had close to enough goat for everybody, but had lots of great veal, so I went “Saltimbocca” for the Italian and “Blanquette” for the French. The kids gave it their all, stealing every trick they could muster from their instructors; one showing dogged persistence no matter how many meatballs she was asked to roll, another throwing together enough chocolate cake to feed a small army, a third doing the work of three while softly singing to himself the whole time, “Chef is in the weeds, chef is in the weeds…” just loud enough to be picked up on our microphones.
Did we “fail” the mission? Sure, but that was never really the point. Afterwards I felt a weird sense of elation, not even close to any sense of failure. We got a great show out of it, I was humbled by the graciousness and support of our hosts, took the kids out for refreshments and a chat after and went home feeling deeply satisfied.
Being there felt right, like I had chosen the right profession for myself, that I was on the right path for me and that I was doing okay. Last Christmas, I was invited to return to the site of a great day and a great memory and to speak at the CIA commencement ceremony. On that day I was bestowed the honor of being named an “Ambassador of the CIA.”
Whatever you do on any given day with the right spirit in mind prepares you for these moments.
Whatever you do that develops your way of thinking and kindles the fire inside you, that feeds your curiosity, that sets you in the direction of mastery, is preparation for the as yet unguessed-at events of your life.
You never know what is going to come in handy, what scrap of information, what purloined technique, what chapter of what book you’ve read or TV show you’ve watched or conversation you’ve had, with someone who knows more than you do about a subject and is willing to share with you, will become a valuable part of your development.
No single headache or problem can defeat you. Conversely, triumphs come and go. I think that what will see you through, in the end, is the trust in the voice inside that tells you which is the right way to go. If you follow it, you’ll do just fine.
SAUERBRATEN WITH JULIENNE VEGETABLES
Copyright 2008, Robert Irvine, All rights reserved
Yield: 6 servings
4 pounds beef bottom round roast
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup red wine vinegar
1½ quarts water
2 onions sliced
8 whole black peppercorns
10 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
2 whole cloves
⅓ cup vegetable oil
⅔ cup diced carrots (approximately 2 or 3 carrots)
⅔ cup diced onions (approximately 1 large onion)
⅔ cup diced celery (approximately 2 stalks)
½ cup tomato paste
1 cup flour
1 quart (approximately) vegetable or chicken stock to have on hand to adjust sauce
¾ cup sour cream
6 carrots, peeled, cut julienne and steamed – for garnish
3 stalks celery, cut in half lengthwise and julienned, and steamed – for garnish
Cooked egg noodles as an accompaniment
2 tablespoons fresh minced flat-leaf parsley leaves
Trim the beef of excess fat, salt it and set it aside briefly. Make a marinade for the beef by combining the red wine, vinegar, water, onions, peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves and cloves in a large pot and bringing the mixture to a boil over high heat. Let this marinade cool to room temperature, about 15 to 20 minutes. Place the beef in the cooled marinade, cover, and refrigerate overnight if possible, but for at least 2 hours.
Remove the beef from the marinade and place it on a utility platter. Strain the marinade into a pot and bring the marinade to a boil over medium high heat . Skim any impurities from the surface of the marinade, then reduce the heat to medium low and allow it to cook for 10 minutes at a simmer.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. When it begins to shimmer, add the beef and sear it on all sides, then remove the meat to a utility platter. Combine the carrots, onion, and celery in the same pan to make a mirépoix. Sauté them for 2 to 3 minutes, then deglaze the pan with about ¼ cup of the warmed marinade. Stir in the tomato paste and continue cooking for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add a bit more of the warmed marinade to the sauté pan to de-glaze again, and reduce heat to medium. Sift the flour gradually into the tomato pate mixture, stirring constantly until a paste is formed. Then, slowly add the rest of the warmed marinade to the mixture, as though you are making a roux. If the sauce is too thick, which can sometimes happen due to density of flour, gradually add chicken or vegetable stock stirring constantly until you reach the consistency where it just coats the back of a spoon. Return the meat to the pan, reduce the heat to low, cover it and simmer until fork-tender, about 1½ to 2 hours.
Remove the meat to a cutting board and let it rest 5 to 10 minutes before slicing the beef.
Strain the sauce and place slices of the meat in the center of the plate. Place some cooked egg noodles onto each serving plate, leaving space in the center for the meat. Spoon sauce over the meat and noodles and garnish with steamed vegetables and dollops of sour cream and fresh parsley.
INDIAN STYLE LAMB CURRY
Copyright 2008, Robert Irvine, All rights reserved
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup grapeseed oil
3 medium onions, diced small
4 teaspoons turmeric
6 teaspoons masala powder
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 chiles, diced small (your choice)
5 pounds lean lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups all purpose flour
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1½ quarts vegetable stock
3 medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced small
2 cups rice
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Note: You can replace the turmeric and masala powder with curry powder
In a large cooking pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the chopped onions. Fry until golden brown, stirring frequently. Add the turmeric and masala powder (or curry powder), garlic and chiles, mix well and cook for a couple of minutes to integrate flavors, stirring frequently. Add the lamb, increase the heat to medium high, and sear on all sides. Sift the flour over the meat and spoon in tomato paste. Then, stirring constantly, gradually add the stock. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until meat is tender, about another hour. Check the pot often and stir the mixture so the curry doesn’t burn. If the sauce is thickening too fast during this cooking time, add water to retain the consistency and to prevent burning. (If you prefer, once you have added the stock and the sauce is a good smooth consistency, you may transfer to a covered roasting pan and finish in the oven at 350 degrees until the meat is tender.) In the last 30 minutes of cooking time, stir in the potatoes.
While the lamb curry is in its last ½ hour, bring 5 cups of water to a boil over high heat, add the rice and salt, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until tender, about 20 minutes undisturbed. Remove from heat and let sit 5 minutes with the lid on the pot.
Spoon ½ cup rice onto each serving plate, top with lamb curry and garnish with fresh cilantro.