My daughters have been quite supportive. They have been dancing and training in classical ballet for 12 years, and I’m appreciating how similar Ballet Culture is to Chef Culture. Like the Chef, the Ballet Mistress is in charge. There is no talking in either place; we work in silence. We must be focused, yet relaxed. Our movements must appear effortless even as we are constantly corrected, refining our techniques over years upon years of practice. In both worlds, one must learn and master the basics before moving onto more advanced techniques, even if it means repeating a movement every single day.
Ballet, though a global art, teaches all the technique terms in French, which is how my daughters have been able to transition seamlessly from a ballet studio in Los Angeles to one in Tokyo. And in my new world, the technique terms are also in French. In just three days we have been introduced to over 60 French terms, most describing methods of cooking, preparing and slicing food. But surprisingly, some terms are the same, such as fondue, sauté, and fouette. In cooking fouette is to whip, and in ballet fouette is to whip your turn. These turns are so difficult that when performed correctly they are the hallmark of a dancer’s repertoire, with the best performing 32 perfect fouttes in a row.
Today’s lesson is crab bisque, which for me is as daunting as performing 32 fouettes. Bisque sounds easy enough; it’s just soup made from the cooked shells of crustaceans. And the demonstration was straightforward enough, until we got to the part with the crab. It will not be alive (hurray), but we need to clean the inside, which includes removing the eyes, the attached membrane—and don’t forget the sac of sand inside the head! Really? There’s a possibility of making of lovely and expensive crab bisque only to find that I’ve left a tablespoon of sand inside?
And then, after I cook the crab shells in the pan, I puree them in a blender, strain them not once but twice, and make sure it’s so perfectly strained that I’m not serving pulverized crab shells to the customer. Sometimes it seems like there’s so many ways to go wrong!
But this is what was holding me back. Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about what could go wrong. I thought about my disappointment yesterday and realized I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster. Instead of looking for personal satisfaction and learning, I’ve been looking for Chef’s approval, like a child with their first grade teacher. This is a silly way for me to act. I’ve accomplished so much in my life; why let one cooking practical define me, good or bad? I’m here to learn, so I should be making mistakes. The question should be, “Am I improving and correcting my mistakes?”
So with a more confident attitude, I arrived in the kitchen and started handling the crab. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. The removal was straightforward and nothing like the dissections I had in high school. The shells colored to a beautiful red and created the loveliest golden-orange color and a silky consistency that I’ve never had from canned bisque. I also liked the addition of Cognac at the end. What a lovely way to finish the bisque. I especially liked my method of adding it: I didn’t know how to measure milliliters and figured it must have been a few tablespoons Chef added. So I just added a little at a time, tasting the soup, until it was to my liking. Chef always says to taste your food, and so I did.
Now it’s time for Chef’s approval—no, his assessment. I give myself the pep-talk, “I’m here to learn, I’m here for myself, and I should be making mistakes and improving…” Chef tastes the bisque and doesn’t comment. He tastes it again and says, “Too much Cognac.” Not to be deterred, I looked him right in the eye and said very nicely, “Yes, but does it taste good?” Chef pauses, smiles, and says, “Hmm, yes, very good.”
So this was a triumph. I navigated my crab, remembered to remove the sand sac, and took full ownership of my food. No apologies or second guessing. Just like the ballerinas, I presented something comprised of difficult technique, yet the audience experienced only a velveteen finished product. Today all the Crow ladies can do fouettes, only mine are in the kitchen. That’s a successful day!