Do Something That Scares You.
Photos by Nate Poekert
As a private chef, I get asked to cater a lot of events in the city. I turn most of them down because a) I live in a 6th floor walkup b) I have a tiny kitchen and c) truthfully, the time/money ratio never seems to work in my favor! Unless I'm just helping out a friend, the jobs I agree to do are the ones that stretch me as a cook. I love the projects that allow me to explore new ingredients, experiment with different styles of cooking, and flex my creative muscles. Nonetheless, there's still some level of comfort with most jobs, and the ability to rely on my small bag of culinary tricks.
But every once in awhile, a job comes along that terrifies me. One that makes me laugh and say, "This is so totally over my head." Those are the ones I love the most.
I had the opportunity a few days to cook for a very cool event for the Australian skincare line Aesop. I love Aesop not only for their fantastic, all-natural products (and beautiful packaging!) but for their commitment to culture and the arts. They love collaborating with artists in different disciplines, be it film, painting, music, or food, and they host unique themed events several times a years to launch new products.
My good friend Victoria, who happens to be Aesop's US PR manager, asked me a couple months ago if I'd be up for preparing a 3-bite tasting flight for their "A Taste of Futurism" press event. The event was based on tenets of the Futurists, a group of forward-thinking Italians in the early 20th century who wanted to change culture via the arts. This group, headed up by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, was especially radical in their views on food. They believed that food shouldn't be limited to taste, but should be a fully sensory experience.
In 1932 Marinetti published The Futurist Cookbook, which relied on science rather than Italian tradition. They banned pasta from their diets (claiming it made them too sluggish) and instead created dishes that engaged all senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Futurist food – which relied on tools like ozonizers, ultra-violet ray lamps, electrolyzers and colloidal mills – was essentially, the precursor to molecular gastronomy.
For this event, I was asked to create three bites based on Futurist dishes (here are a few examples) that would engage all of the senses. I have never cooked anything remotely along these lines, so I was immediately excited by the challenge of this. I came up with a bite-size menu based on 3 Futurist dishes:
Taste Buds Take Off: "A soup of concentrated meat stock, champagne, and grappa, garnished with rose petals.”
*My version: I created a shot of golden chicken consomme (essentially, homemade chicken stock clarified by creating a 'raft' of eggwhites) flavored with grappa and topped with gold dust.
Aerofood: "A signature Futurist dish: pieces of olive, fennel, and kumquat are eaten with the right hand while the left hand caresses various swatches of sandpaper, velvet, and silk. At the same time, the diner is blasted with a giant fan (preferable an airplane propeller) and nimble waiters spray him with the scent of carnation, all to the strains of a Wagner opera."
*My version: I created a green olive tapenade, topped with a kumquat pate de fruit (French 'jellied' fruit candy rolled in sanding sugar), and dusted with fennel pollen. I loved the interplay of sweet and savory, plus the contrasting textures of the three elements.
Diabolical Roses: "Red roses, battered and deep-fried."
*My version: I made dark chocolate truffles, glazed in chocolate and topped with rose-infused sea salt, served on an edible rose petal.
The tasting was set up in the basement, with loud Futurist music playing, dim lighting, and bubble wrap taped to the floor (bizarre, but fun!). I led the editors in their tasting experience - instructing them to spray their menus with a special Futurist Aesop fragrance, to rub the sandpaper while they tasted the Aerofood, and to notice the hints of gold in the chicken consomme. The food wasn't designed to be delicious as much as thought-provoking.
The experience, was truly both incredible and terrifying, and I definitely learned a lot. I made both chicken consomme and pate de fruit for the first time (note to self: leave margin for failed recipes and re-dos!) and thanks be to God that they turned out (eventually)!! I realized the day before the event that edible rose petals cannot be purchased in NYC (they have to be overnighted from California) and that kumquats aren't available out of season (I had to substiture a mixture of clementines, tangerines, and bitter orange). I learned that pate de fruit is not as easy as it seems (I about had a heart attack when the first batch didn't set up), and that candy thermomenters are invaluable. I learned that chicken consomme is one of the most underrated food items (it's delicious! and rarely made!) and that fennel pollen might just be my new favorite ingredients. I also learned that I have the world's best husband, when he went into work late because he stayed to help me roll out truffles the morning of the event.
Amazingly, the event went smoothly, and I actually had a lot of fun. Taking on these sort of terrifying jobs forces me to grow, and to get out of my comfort zone. There's nothing more exhilerating than facing down a fear (in my case: fear of failture, fear of rejection, fear of messing something up), and I always come out on the other end stronger. (Maybe with a few extra gray hairs, but I'm the definitely better for it!) Plus, I added a few tricks to my repetoire (pate de fruit, anyone?!). I'm not sure what sort of challenges lie ahead for each of you, but go ahead and face those fears: I promise, you can do it. And you'll feel on top of the world when you do!
**A few important shout-outs: to Victoria, for having faith in me to pull this off :), to Nate for taking brilliant photos, and to my amazing husband Brandon for helping me with dishes and truffles and sourcing edible rose petals (!). But most of all, to God be the glory - I am grateful to Him for giving me the ability to do things outside of my ability. I am blessed.