Sunday, April 3, 2011

Someone's in the Kitchen with Nitrous

Calling all nonprofits or charitable organizations: Invite me to your silent auction! I admit it. I have a sickness. I've never met an auction I didn't like, and I've never stepped away without bidding on something. Sometimes it's very small: a gift certificate for a frame shop, or a bottle of wine. Sometimes it's quite large: 10 days of seaside lodging in Croatia, for example, or more recently, Chef for a Day at Moto restaurant.

If you don't know Moto, it's one part traditional kitchen, one part mad-scientists' lab. Their food is a mash-up of normal old grocery-store staples and unpredictable techniques employing food dehydrators, liquid nitrogen, nitrous oxide, edible paper, and machines invented expressly to unfoodify (yes, I've just made this up) the dishes. You get 10 or 20 small courses, depending on your level of extravagance and purchasing power. The result is at times extraordinary (a signature box that heats consommé so it steams a piece of fish inside, or a faux Cuban cigar wrapped in collard greens) and at times disappointing (edible packing peanuts seem to mock rather than play with their consumers). But it's always original. And I can say now from experience, the kitchen crew is having a blast preparing your meal.

I spent four hours in their stunning basement kitchen yesterday, listening to a soundtrack of 70s classics as I peeled carrots or sliced shallots through a laughably unstable mandoline, marveling at how these culinary experiments start with the most banal ingredients. This struck me as either a lighthearted extension of the restaurant's sense of humor, or a comforting sense that everything, and I mean everything, begins with the basics.

Ben, the pastry chef, who has gained fame through his appearances on Future Food, and also happens to live in my neighborhood (see how I did that? brought it back to the neighborhood? because otherwise, you're right, this doesn't fit the parameters I've set out for this blog at all. thank you, Ben), took me under his wing. He insisted that I taste everything, including his amazing housemade ice creams: Earl grey and sassafrass. He's enjoying sassafrass lately and also made it the esssence of his homemade marshmallow fluff. I tasted pineapple infused with vanilla, densely macerated banana puree, and a rich dark chocolate truffle into which is inserted a small marshmallow wick that is set on fire like a tiny bomb. When the flame goes out, you put the entire truffle in your mouth and it explodes with the taste of a campfire s'more. At one point, Ben put a pastry bag of his banana puree into an industrial vaccuum sealer.

"What's that doing?" I asked.

"Running the restaurant." He was smiling, but he wasn't kidding.

I joined the crew for "family meal" around 2:30, when everything breaks for some needed staff sustenance and revelry with the front-of-house folks. One of the chefs made a decidedly un-Moto like chicken marsala with truffled mashed potatoes and homemade pasta. I could've eaten that marsala for days.
I also got a window into their service strategies during the 4:15 staff meeting. They reviewed the reservations -- so many dietary restrictions! -- and decided on the fly how to substitute dishes to keep Table 4 gluten-free, make sure Table 11 had no dairy other than cheese, or avoid refined sugars for Table 8.

All in all, it was an unforgettable day. So different from being in my grandmother's restaurant as a kid, when my sister and I would flee to the walk-in when the French chefs would start screaming at each other. In fairness, they couldn't've been overjoyed to have two sticky rugrats in their kitchen stealing melba toasts from dry storage.

There's something kinetic about a restaurant kitchen. Especially so when you're sucking all the moisture out of a mushroom to turn it into a crunchy garnish for beef, or pouring a vat of liquid nitrogen into a bowl of who knows what, filling the room with smoke. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to that banana puree, and how they remind you of the ones your father used to mash for you as a toddler, when you weren't old enough to remember much, but this was one of the things that mattered.


Rosemary said...

How fabulous! That has to be the best silent-auction item *ever* (though the seaside lodging in Croatia would be a close second). Sounds like just what you needed to take your mind off of various worries and disappointments.

BTW, I had no idea your grandmother ran a restaurant! How did I not know that?

Adriane Harrison said...

Sounds awesome! Back in the early (ish) 90's I won an day in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter. Then I heard he was such a tyrant in the kitchen that I decided not to use my "prize". This sounds like a much better experience and super tasty too. I want to hear more about your grandmother's restaurant (how do I not know these stories?).

Christy said...

Rosemary, it was really pretty terrific. And it does seem strange that in all those years in high school, I never mentioned my grandmother's restaurant! She was quite the toast of Southampton, catering for the likes of Jerry Lewis and other folks I can't remember. David Niven once sat at what is now my family's dining room table.

And Adriane, I've actually met a few people who worked for Trotter, and they've confirmed that particular reputation. But my friend Ben did a stint in his kitchen a couple years back and had the time of his life. I guess there's no predicting.

Rosemary said...

I know that Southampton is pretty far outside your "neighborhood," but I'd love to hear some of those stories sometime. Maybe in person, over cocktails. Cocktails seem necessary for tales about the heyday of the likes of Jerry Lewis and David Niven.

Christy said...

Agreed, Rose! I've got stories galore and would love to share. Any chance you're headed to Chicago this year?

tracy said...

What a fun experience, and fun read!

leslie said...

This sounds like FUN. Any plans for a culinary career change??