Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. – Charles William Elliott
About a month after we opened ATH, we had a visit one night from another local restaurant owner and his current chef (a chef who continued with him for about 6 months before moving on). On that night, all seemed well, they ate, they said hello, they left.
In the week that followed, I received a phone call from our fishmonger. He said he was calling to give me a heads up, that the restaurant owner was talking to most of our colleagues in the area about the “joke” of a meal he had at our restaurant. That his chef specifically pointed to one dessert that “exemplified” that I was lacking in training, inspiration, and quite honestly “talent”.
As brutal as the interaction was, one part of it has stayed with me and angered me more than the rest. The rest of the conversation can be chalked up to sour grapes – part of why they warn you to have a thicker skin to survive the industry.
But, the dessert that he was pointing to as evidence of my lack of talent and inspiration was a tart. Specifically, it was my version of a very famous tart. A tart au fromage with lemon cream.
The tart itself is fairly simple: puff pastry is rolled out thin and par-baked, it is then filled with a ricotta filling flavored with lemon, and typically finished with fresh fruit or compote.
In its origins, it is a simple take on a classic french pastry, not too sweet and very fresh.
It is more widely known, as it was featured in a cookbook written by Suzanne Goin, her Sunday Suppers at Lucques.
It happens to be one of my very favorite cookbooks, and it was, unequivocally, the inspiration and guide for my version. What was implied, or rather straightforwardly said, was that it was a rip off, and not a good one at that.
Which raises the conversation of creativity, ownership, and cooking – bedfellows which I think belong easily together.
Part of the conversation for me is based on how I saw chefs interacting as I was coming up in the industry, in Seattle specifically. I watched in awe at a cadre of chefs, young and old, who somehow had figured out that a little interaction, collaboration, competition – it was all healthy, and it helped everyone in the end.
Each chef certainly has his or her own spin, take, style, culinary voice – it’s why we watch cooking shows by different chefs, the substance of cooking documentaries, and certainly the basis of pretty much every single cookbook on the shelf. What works and sounds good, what he/she likes to use or pair, what sells – its different for every cook, every where.
But, if you are going to tell me that eating at another chef’s restaurant, looking at another chef’s cookbook or Instagram, and exploring another chef’s food pretty much anywhere – if that isn’t what inspires us a lot of the time – well, I guess it’s possible, but I am pretty much gonna say your lying. Chefs, cooks, home cooks, eaters of the world – what we see and taste is certainly going to have an affect on what we are cooking.
I have a cookbook library stacked two deep on my shelves and I have pre-ordered books still arriving. My instagram feed is also pretty much two deep with follows of other chefs. I love food. Whether I choose to do this professionally again is besides the point – food will always remain a piece of how I see myself and what makes me happy. Cooking is a part of my life and my relationships – and I cannot think of a memorable event in my life that didn’t involved food, drinks, or a meal of some sort – food is the brackets around my memories.
Which brings us back to that little tart.
In cooking school I made dozens of tarts. In the life of ATH and OHS I made hundreds more. That one was a stunner. It was rich (from the ricotta), it was fresh (from the lemon), it was emblematic of the season (with gorgeous currants on top), and it was delicious. Chef Goin’s was a simple, clean take on a classic. Julia Child’s classic tome contains a version of a custard tart, as does La Bonne Cuisine – the Saint-Ange bible of french cooking. What makes Chef Goin’s version so tasty and placed in current settings is its careful treatment of fresh ricotta in the custard.
Did I use ricotta in my custard? Yes, yes I did. I also used quark, from Hawthorne Valley Farm in NY state. Chef Goin did not. If I’ve taken what she built off of and made it my own, for my place in the lexicon of cooking (although no one has certainly asked :), is that now my recipe or is it still hers? or Chef Childs? or Madame Saint-Ange? Who is the owner?
I’m not prepared to live in a world where that answer doesn’t include us all.
Each cook creates something new every time they enter their kitchen. Yes, there are those amongst us all – whether at home or in a professional setting – who choose not to. They hammer out the hits – what the kids like, what sells, what just works.
But if you love food – which is what I imagine is a little piece of what drives many to keep cooking, many other things, but food, food first and foremost – if you love food, then at some point you just want to create something. It is this little piece of the equation that leads each of us to tweak, and take liberties, and rely on our own brains, and palates, and memories and imaginations to create something delicious.
The best dishes – the dishes that we want to be remembered for – those are the ones that take all of those pieces of the equation – what we’ve seen, tasted, heard, been inspired by, remember, imagine, brainstormed, and tasted – and create something that is special. Something we just want to eat, and eat, and eat some more – and share – we want to say “I made this, try it.”
And I certainly can’t do that without getting my brain, and my imagination, and my palate out there – tasting, smelling, experiencing, reading, sparking.
So thank you Chef Goin. Thanks for making one kickass cookbook. Quite honestly the pages are all stuck together now, the dust jacket is well worn, and there isn’t a page in it that I haven’t stuck my grubby fingers all over. And, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As for my tart, all this talk has me wanting to make one again – whether my version or Chef Goin’s I haven’t quite decided as of yet.
I’ll keep you posted. xo Andrea