It’s a truism of the food business that the best of the best have earned the privilege of making the food they themselves love most and that their talent and dedication mean that their audience follows with faith. Most of us aren’t in this boat and just about everyone who has worked in this trade for awhile has executed, sometimes ad nauseam, dishes that they themselves wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. For me, various glib riffs on the cuisines of Italy and Thailand come to mind. Nevertheless, it’s a simple fact that cooks and bakers pay a different kind of attention when preparing something they have eaten and are fond of, just as any craftsperson would. Recently, I polled a cross-section of the staff here on their personal favorites from our menu. Some of the responses surprised me and made for interesting conversation, revealing the spectrum of tastes and priorities across the staff members who make this food day in, day out.
Winners on a percentage basis included vegan bakery items of various stripes (but notably Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies), Peanut Butter Pie, Vegan Mac n’ Cheese, Jeff’s “Cheesy” Bowties and Garlic Lover’s Pasta Salad. Reading this, you may be thinking that the Kitchen is staffed almost entirely by vegans, but the fact is that not one person polled adheres to a strictly vegan diet. These items were cited as favorites based solely on flavor and consistency. Other favorites:
Lemon-Poppyseed Pound Cake
Raspberry Crumble Bars
As you can see, the staff members here enjoy a range of flavors and textures on their plate, but tend, like most cooks do, towards the fundamental. Another axiom of food production, nowhere more true than in fine dining establishments where the food is rich, fussy and labor intensive, is that cooks do not crave foie gras or an artfully arranged plate of frisee and carpaccio at the end of a hard day. All-too-rare down time in a professional kitchen usually finds cooks and chefs refueling on the simplest of foods that recall school lunches and Mom more than that trip to Lyons. I know this held true for the entire time I worked in restaurant kitchens. The work is hard, calling all your resources into play and sometimes challenging your limits in a substantial way. What’s wanted to regain your footing is something nourishing, but also primal and comforting on an emotional level. When dining out, you may want to be titillated by a towering mound of edible garnishes, but not if you’re “in the life,” as we say—artifice like this is anathema to pros. This sensibility dovetails nicely with what we’re trying to achieve in the Production Kitchen, as we supply a grocery where the membership tends in the same direction of wanting food to eat at the home table with the occasional fancy twist thrown in.
While flavor, as always, ruled the day overwhelmingly when cooks were asked the qualifying factors behind their choices, there were some other interesting bits. One cook singled out his bakery favorite (Raspberry Crumble Bars) as the least sweet-tasting item made by bakery, which is a proclivity of mine as well and an oft-unsung merit of dessert items in general—it’s rare enough to find a dessert which can cap off a rich repast without being cloying or overwhelming. One of our dishwashers expressed a desire for more bakery items available at room temperature, which we have been working on and hope to implement further in the latter part of the year. Rich-tasting bakery items came in for specific praise as well and some feedback indicated that we might do well to expand the choices in traditional bakery items laden with the holy trinity of egg, butter and sugar. It seems safe to say that we could make progress in that direction without sacrificing our many excellent offerings for those on a vegan or gluten-free diet.
In all, I was glad to see that the staff had clear favorites, showing that familiarity has not bred contempt. It was great testimony to our vegan and gluten-free products that several of those items were selected on the basis of quality alone. Look for these items next time you’re shopping and remember us here in the Kitchen as you partake.