The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, June 08, 2001

Back in the days of summer camp, some counselors and I would occasionally organize a campus-wide scavenger hunt. Not ones to let the blandness of convention get in our way, we often wouldn't constrain our hunted objects to the realm of the realistic, or even the tangible. (I could list some examples directly from a nine-year-old Word file I incredibly still have on my computer, but I'm afraid most of the items are inside jokes.) One time, while we were creating the list, a counselor sitting next to me suggested we include "Oedipal complex." Being a meager 15 years old and not having yet reached The Odyssey in my high school curriculum, I was entirely unaware of the term. To me, it sounded like he had said "edible." It didn't make any sense, but my proud, adolescent mind wasn't about to ask for clarification. I typed in exactly what I thought I had heard: "edible complex."

After those looking on stopped their chortling and guffawing, they were too amused to not let the term as I had written it stay on the list. And as I recall, we got some pretty creative answers. One team arranged a bunch of french fries into the word "complex," and then ate them all in front of us. Still, for the rest of the summer, they never let me live that one down.
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Thursday, June 07, 2001

Fresh on the heels of my inspiring lesson in Italian cooking, I decided to try out my chops at making some risotto last night. I searched cooking.com for a fairly simple recipe. I needed to concentrate on getting the risotto part done right; adding fancy ingredients could come later.

Despite our hesitations about the evening before, I was surprised by how much of Michael's instructions became of use: Add the broth one spoonful at a time, allowing the rice to soak it up before adding more. Constantly stir, to avoid having the rice stick to the pan and to release the starch from the rice. Use a short and squat rice, which has more starch in it to begin with. Start to season midway through. Take the pot off the burner before adding the cheese, then beat to get it creamy. Use a wooden spoon. And all without my notes, too!

As the rice cooked, I was doubtful about the outcome. I've had plenty of good risotto in my life, and this stuff didn't have nearly the right texture, or taste, or flavor. But I dutifully followed the instructions -- of the recipe and of my tutor -- and by the time the final touch of cheese was added (we had to use romano instead of parmesan, despite Michael's warnings against any cheese made in the industrial pit of Rome), I had myself some pretty damn tasty risotto.

I'm convinced that if I had tried this recipe out before my class, it wouldn't have resulted in nearly the same kind of quality. This little experiment holds lots of promise for my planned attempts to gain experience by watching and working with others. In the meanwhile, maybe I'll attempt the wild boar.
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Next month, nearly three years after he began his quest, fellow dreamer Jami Zaminski will finally open his club in San Francisco. Three years!
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Like Sandy, I'm unconvinced I learned much of practical use from the Campagnola class, but it was still a hoot to watch (and taste!).

Three things struck me in particular.

The absurd attention to detail. To Altenberg, it makes a difference whether the scallops are diver-caught or trawled and whether a wooden or metal spoon is used to stir the risotto. He can taste the difference between Fleur de Sel sea salt and kosher salt, let alone table salt, and between cold-pressed olive oil and any other kind. I guess I have an underdeveloped palate -- I can drink Schlitz without squinting, after all -- because I don't think I can pick up on these nuances. It seems that most of a chef's effort goes unnoticed by even attentive diners. Perhaps this is why some places lean so heavily on presentation.

No measurements. When students asked how much of an ingredient he was using, he could only shrug, as if to say, "You use 'enough,' y'know?" This didn't shock me, but it was neat to see.

I refer again to "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," in which Pirsig talks about the importance of working without instructions.

Look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you'll see the difference. The craftsman isn't ever following a single line of instruction. He's making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he'll be absorbed and attentive to what he's doing even though he doesn't deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn't following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind's at rest at the same time the material's right.

This allows the chef not only to improvise, but also to react to environmental changes. Altenberg told us, for instance, that he'll adjust his procedures if it has recently rained, because the extra moisture in the air will tweak cooking times.

The long road to ownership. I was encouraged to see that Altenberg was a philosophy student in college. But then I saw that after that he got an associate's degree from Kendall College, and then it was nine years of apprenticeships and assorted gigs before he opened his first restaurant. And now, five years in business, he still feels his restaurant is al dente, on the fringe of making it or not.

Do we have nine years to spare? Would we have the patience to go another five before having any sense of security?
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Wednesday, June 06, 2001

Remember how we talked about taking a class at the Inspiration Cafe? Last night Luke and I (and Joanie) finally made good on it. The three of us, along with a couple dozen other "foodies" (as the I.C. staffer liked to put it), witnessed the rustic Italian stylings of Campagnola owner and head chef Michael Altenberg. Technically, Michael was there to instruct us, but I'll be damned if I can reproduce any of the meals he made. I know there was something in there about wild boar, and diver scallops, and fava beans, and artichokes, and morel mushrooms, but the way it was all put together is beyond me.

I don't regret going, because all the money goes to a good cause, and I got an exceptional meal included in the price of admission. But more than any cooking technique, I learned that I am woefully unknowledgeable about the art of food preparation. Classes like these don't do much to help, because they assume a certain level of expertise. What I need is some decent first-hand experience, and to get that, I think I'm definitely going to have to volunteer in Inspiration's Cafe kitchen.

Anne (the I.C. staffer I spoke of) told me that volunteering for for kitchen duty will give me a major ass-kicking -- sort of like boot camp for the culinary-inclined -- and it sounds like exactly what I need to get that experience we both crave.
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I've tried several ways to make oatmeal cookies, but they've come out "right" only when I use my grandmother's recipe. This goes for a lot of foods: There may be hundreds of recipes, but the only "right" recipe is Mom's. A few weeks ago I did her enchilades, and I was swept by the sensation that I'd just come in from Little League practice. And no matter how expertly prepared, I trust no lasagna but her's. All others are foreign, second-rate and just plain wrong.

Similarly, each time I catch a whiff of Reza's, I'm taken to my first week back in Chicago, when after a long day of apartment hunting I wandered in with my stomach empty but my pockets full of per diem.

Today's Tribune explains everything:

"Many authorities believe that the sense of smell has a more powerful impact upon the emotions than any of the other senses," says Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, a pioneer in research on memories triggered by smell. Hirsch talks of "flash-bulb memories," so vivid are the re-creations. ... Jacques Pepin, the French chef and television personality, adds: "It's immediate, unexpected and very powerful. You come into a kitchen, sniff something and suddenly you are 5 years old again." ...

A study Hirsch conducted, asking nearly 1,000 people, "Do any particular odors remind you of your childhood?" brought an 85 percent positive response. "Food and cooking" were cited by 38.9 percent of the participants, with fresh baked goods the odor mentioned most often. Odors from nature, such as trees, rain and hay, rated 31.6 percent. No other odor--including smoke and soap--rated even 7 percent.

Nostalgia, meanwhile, is playing with our psyches, Hirsch says. It is not just a yearning for the past, but "a longing for an idealized state, a sanitized impression of the past . . . with all negative emotions filtered out."
At one time I thought our restaurant's shtick could be using only our mothers' and grandmothers' recipes. (I even had a name: "Edible Complex.") But obviously such a menu would not trigger the same positive memories in our diners that it would in us. Perhaps we could solicit recipes from our regulars, each week featuring another diner's favorite family dish in addition to our regular menu.

We should definitely ensure that our place puts off a pleasant odor, either from the grill or perhaps fragrant landscaping out front. Each time someone passes, we hope, they'll be reminded of their first visit and its delights.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2001

YAPL: Another tied-house. This one's on Division Street, somewhere around Wood.
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