Brainstorming for my next article topic, I was coming up empty. Rather than wallowing in my mire, I decided to go to the local organic market. As I perused the meat counter I found myself mesmerized by a wonderfully marbled, bright, vibrant, luscious Hereford strip steak. At that precise moment my article topic slapped me in the face: inspiration. What drives us as human beings to do the things we do? More specifically to the kitchen, what are the determining forces compelling us to create? Why do we obsess over the minutest details when plating a dish? In the end, it is just food on a plate, there for fifteen seconds. Why all the self-imposed torture and mental anguish?
My own culinary epiphany took place in October of 2001. I found myself killing some good time in Barnes & Noble during a lunch break, as per usual, lost in the cookbook section. My gaze fell upon an oversize blue cookbook that I had seen there before and remembered as being white. This particular book was always wrapped in plastic. On this fateful day, some other patron had ripped it open and presumably taken the jacket cover. It was not me… I promise.
This book was The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. There was no way of predicting how much that book would inspire my cuisine. It was as if a door to a whole new universe had been opened in my mind. Thomas Keller is one of America’s finest chefs. He owns two of the five best restaurants in the world, The French Laundry in Yountville, California and Per Se in New York City. His cookbook is composed of a myriad of topics; however, two pivotal points resonated deep within me: taking care in presenting the food and respecting the ingredients.
Cooking in many regards is a mechanical act, governed by laws derived from the chemistry and makeup of the food to be prepared. On the other hand, plating is delving into the human aspect of being a cook. Presenting food artistically provides the opportunity to honestly express the self, while making an emotional connection with guests. Undoubtedly, food can be cooked beautifully, plated haphazardly, and still be amazingly tasty. However, in my opinion, you can have the best of both taste and eye candy. This is what Thomas Keller inspired within me. As cooks, we consistently take the time to lovingly prepare food, obsessing over every detail of the cooking process. An empty plate is a blank canvas. When presenting a dish I look at the plate, tweak it, and finesse how the food is laid. Ultimately, the spirit of the exercise is not about being fancy; it is about expressing your wisdom and what you feel inside.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, not just Michelin starred chefs. My foray into the blogosphere has afforded me the opportunity to read incredible blogs. More importantly, I have met a unique group of positive, giving, and supportive cooks. Silvia Gregori, a personal chef from San Francisco, is one of the very best. Her marvelous blog, Citron & Vanille, is well-written and enlightening. Servicing the greater Bay Area, she provides personal chef services, dinner party meals, and cooking classes. Her cuisine is fused with French and Italian influences, reflecting her distinctive familiar background. I like to think of her cooking as Mediterranean chic.
Growing up in Nancy, France, Silvia developed a great love of the land and respect for gardening. Her grandfather, a skilled gardener, grew radicchio, cardoons, green beans, cauliflower, spinach, potatoes, carrots, and fava beans. This influence has stayed with her throughout her life. Her repertoire is all-embracing, including poultry, meat, fish, beans, vegetables, and eggs. Upon moving to San Francisco she was exposed to the eclectic Bay Area food scene and readily incorporated new ideas to explore.
Reading her blog, you realize that her courses exhibit balance and harmony. The plating of her dishes is a master study in color, contrast, and texture. Silvia parallels her thought process of presenting a dish to accessorizing clothes. When you choose an outfit, the shoes must match the dress, while the accessories must complement the main piece. Some of the tantalizing dishes you will find on her website are Grilled Fennel Salad with Red Onions, Almond Shrimp with Broccoli Puree, Chive Crepes with Marinated Salmon and Leek Mustard Sauce, and a decadent Chocolate Pot de Crème. If you reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, book Silvia Gregori for your next dinner party. Trust me, you will not regret it.
Inspiration is stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling. Food can rouse in countless ways. As with any major creative endeavor, passion, intelligence, and patience are required of the cook. And when these forces match the cook’s inspiration, magic happens.