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The kitchen waltz. March 8, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. Sometimes, it takes a different perspective to get your thoughts in order.

I love to cook, and I’m even capable of making an elaborate multi-dish Indian meal and getting it all hot to the table. But generally speaking, I find that a main dish, a couple of sides, and a salad are about all I can handle and still make sure everything’s delicious, cooked exactly right, and served at the perfect temperature. True, my dishes may be a pretty far cry from typical family fare or some family-style cafeteria’s “meat and three,” but still. For one cook, one cranky old stove, no freezer space, no convenience foods, and no microwave, that’s pretty much the limit, unless you can make a few dishes like cranberry sauce or coleslaw or squash casserole in advance.

Now, we all have our priorities, and one of mine is temperature. I’d gladly omit a few dishes I know our friend Ben and I would enjoy if it means bringing the ones we do eat to the table at the ideal temperature. (And hey, how many dishes do two adults and one hopeful dog and parrot need at a given meal, anyway?!) As long as every dish I do serve contributes to the beauty and flavor of the meal, that’s the thing that matters. I can always make those other dishes another time, and I know OFB and I will anticipate and enjoy them every bit as much then.

There are, of course, easy ways to get around these limitations. We love our Friday Night Supper Club gatherings, where everyone brings something, be it sparkling water or wine or just-picked veggies from the garden to eat as crudites or hot-from-the-oven bread or fruit pie or some yummy homemade applesauce for dessert. That gives me scope to make a main dish or two and a fantastic salad and know that the rest of the meal will take care of itself. Then there are the two-chef families, like our friends Delilah and Chaz, who have created a kitchen to accommodate both of them and coordinate their efforts to serve such flawless multicourse meals you’d think you’d inadvertently arrived at a four-star restaurant instead of their home.

Simple or elaborate, single-dish or multi-course, I’m always delighted as long as a) the food is good and b) it arrives at the table at its perfect temperature. If it’s elaborate but not good, for whatever reason, or if by the time it reaches me it’s too cold, I’d rather eat leftover pizza (heated to the right temperature, of course) and a salad. Ugh.

But coordinating the parade of dishes to the table so they reach your enthusiastic diners when the food’s all hot and perfectly done is no easy feat. (Keep this in mind if you took your mom’s dinners for granted back in the day.) I’ve seen fabulous meals that took days to prepare go down in flames because the cook simply couldn’t juggle all the dishes in such a way that they arrived at the table at the right time and at the perfect temperature. Talk about a heartache! 

So what’s the solution here? Must you be an acrobat as well as a chef? No. But you have to be a dancer.

This revelation occurred when our friend Ben and I watched one of my favorite movies, “Blow Dry,” and a new Netflix selection, “No Reservations,” back-to-back. (Poor OFB, he’s such a sweet guy.)

“Blow Dry” is a simply delicious film starring Alan Rickman and Natasha Richardson as hairdressers entering the British hairdressing championship, with a superb Bill Nighy and Rachel Griffiths in supporting roles. (The entire supporting cast was fantastic; if you watch it, check out the mayor.)

After enjoying the film, we watched the extra features on the DVD, which included interviews with the actors talking about how they’d had to attend a hairdressing crash course and watch a few real competitions so they could look authentic in the movie. Several, including one of my all-time heartthrobs, Alan Rickman (cover your ears, OFB), discussed how choreography as much as talent contributed to success in a competition where every second counted. One of them noted that he’d attended an actual hairdressing championship with the pro stylist who’d been adviser to the movie. Seeing a flashy hairdresser at work, he’d asked the pro if the guy would win. “Not a chance,” the pro replied. “What?!!” “See, he’s wearing shoes.” Turns out, barefoot hairdressing allows more precision and speed. The resulting film emphasized the importance of coordinating your routine and staying light on your feet, literally dancing around the styling chair.

The next night, our friend Ben and I watched “No Reservations,” a predictable romance involving two chefs. Since it was a chef-centric film, it had more restaurant-kitchen scenes than I’d seen since “Ratatouille.” And sitting there, bored with the plot, I guess my mind spun out and focused on the interplay between the staff in the kitchen. In its timing, its efficiency, its perfection, it was like a ballet. Nothing was wasted. Everyone knew his or her role and everyone performed it to the split second. Just like, just like… the hairdressing championships.

Thinking this over later, I saw the connection. Cooking is a dance. Even the simplest dish is a dance: a slow dance, a tango, a waltz. Seeing and overseeing every single step, orchestrating the music, assembling the dancers and making sure every one knows his or her steps perfectly, that every nuance is in place, is the role of the chef, the composer, the conductor, the ballet master. Oh, wow. It’s so true. A solo cook (OFB’s a darling about doing the dishes), I sing and dance and waltz around the kitchen and pantry preparing our meals. (And yes, I do cook barefoot except when it’s freezing.) Ella and Louis—whom I often have on as background music, there’s no way I could cook without music—have nothing on me. I sing along, waltzing from fridge to stove to pantry to mudroom to garden to cookbook shelf or recipe file and back, frantically assembling a world of disparate ingredients into a harmonious whole.

I’m not exactly coordinated, and though I love to sing, my vocals aren’t going to land me on “American Idol” anytime soon. But it’s true, it’s the rhythm and pace that makes or breaks any meal. (And the music that, in my view, makes or breaks any cook.) The kitchen waltz: Aaaaahhh, how romantic. And how ultimately delicious.

         ‘Til next time,

                        Silence