When I was in cooking school, fellow students would find out I was from New York City and make the inquiries: Did you ever eat at Bouley? Did you ever eat at Daniel? Did you ever eat at Per Se?
“No,” I answered every single time, not without some regret. “I’ve never eaten at any of those places.”
“Why not? You live in New York...”
I’d think about what I could nominally call an income, and how much was eroded every month by rent. I’d say, “Yeah, exactly. I live in New York.”
I spent two years exposed to culinary techniques, two years bent over a stove, face vulcanizing in the heat, trying to grab the rudiments and make them second nature. As I learned and progressed through the program, I recognized by watching my peers that cooking is like film, music, art, lit and just about anything else: there’s a wide cache of low talent out there, an even larger pool of the mediocre, a narrow echelon of the pretty good, and a head-of-a-pin sized group of the great.
A person can never read “The Wasteland” too many times, never over-hear Coltrane’s Ascension. Back in college, I paid $1.95 for the edition of The Wasteland and Other Poems I still read. I paid $20 in 1998 for the two-disk set of The Major Works of John Coltrane, which has both versions of Ascension, and I listened to one of the disks not five days ago for the thousandth time. This is a pretty good return on a pretty minimal investment.
During the cooking school stint, I learned who was great in the hippodrome of culinaria. Like pretty much everyone else who isn’t just being obstinate and contradictory, I came to see Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry and Per Se, as something of a near-deity. Paging through his cookbooks, looking at his menus—it’s seeing a philosophy in action. Just to take a single recipe from the French Laundry Cookbook: Chesapeake Bay Soft-Shell Crab “Sandwich.” Keller makes a sort of tartar/gribiche sauce out of hard-boiled yolks, olive oil, cornichons, and their juice. A soft-shelled crab gets de-clawed, cleaned, seasoned, dredged, and fried in clarified butter that is “hot enough to sizzle when the crabs are added but not so hot that it pops.” Its claws are added a few moments later. Whoever is cooking it has already made brioche croutons and confited tomatoes, and washed a ¼ cup of baby arugula. A spoonful of sauce goes down on the plate, topped with the crouton, then the crab body. A piece of tomato goes down next, followed by the claws, and a crown of arugula. Sprinkle the whole thing with a couple of capers and serve. Maybe, to the novitiate, this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but understand that in the French Laundry’s hands, each step, from seasoning the crab to making those croutons brings a surreal amount of technique to bear on it. The crab is going to have the exact degree of salt it needs, without the surfeit or debit of a single flake. It’s going to be one nice looking crouton. Every leaf of the arugula has been hand-selected. Every element will be the best, the most, the perfect. And the flavors and textures will reflect it.