An Onion Affair

I woke up today at eleven.  I never wake up this late.  But I have good reason.  Okay, okay, I’m totally indulging myself because I don’t have to be at work until three, but honestly the past three days have felt more like a week.  I’m just trying to recuperate and get back on track.

I worked the third annual International Chefs’ Congress–and by ‘work’ I mean I minimally prepped in the kitchens and majorly watched the demos.  This event brings together chefs from all over the world.  They come in with a few of their staff and either talk about something relevant to chefs today (such as responsibility to your community, responsibility to the environment, nurturing cooks potential, etc.), or do a demo for the audience showcasing their food, and ideas on food.  They brought in some really big name guys:  Heston Blumenthal from the Fat Duck, Grant Achatz from Alinea, Marco Pierre White, Charlie Trotter, Anthony Bourdain, and the list can continue.  Even if you’re not familiar with these names, all you need to know is that these are some big hitters.  And of course it was fun and thrilling meeting and listening to them speak in person, but I was really wowed by some of the chefs that I wasn’t familiar with.

One of the last chefs to speak yesterday was a man named Rene Redzepi.  Some of you may know his food.  I didn’t.  Yes, he is a fine dining chef–turns out he’s one of the best in Scandanavia.  I need to pay more attention!  Rene specializes in Nordic cuisine at his restaurant Noma.  How many of you have ever eaten Nordic food?  Let alone in tasting menu format in a fine dining environment?!  I immediately conjured up images of tiny, perfectly portioned polar bear with potato spuds and sashimi of penguin with a bit of roughage most likely indigenous to that nether region.  Nordic cuisine??  Who am I kidding?  I had no idea what to expect.

So Chef Rene, like many and most chefs today, finds it important to use mainly local ingredients in his kitchen.  In Denmark, wintertime is not overflowing with pineapples and mangos, and more delicate vegetables don’t even think about making an appearance in the cold.  Instead, onions, potatoes and cabbage are available.  I don’t know if that sounds exciting to you, but it sounds pretty dreary to me.

I stand corrected.  He blew me away.  He pulled out fourteen varieties of onion.  While I’m in the corner racking my brain about Allium species-and I think I could only come up with six- he went into his first demo.  He began plating on a rock (which normally I find this kind of plating pretentious) because his whole theme was food from the terroir.  It completely worked in this situation because he created this food-scape of onions growing from the earth.  He smeared an oyster emulsion (delicious! and ingenious!) on the rock’s surface and then stuck all the varieties of onion, trimmed down of course, into the goo, sprinkled it with a malt crumble (brown and dirt-like) and then finished the dish with a few local greens found in their nearby forests.  So when this rock is plated in front of you, it looks like you’re about to get down and dirty-literally-with some onions and earth.  It was extremely tasty!

Now I’m not going to go into all six dishes he presented, but there was one more that had such simple ingredients and maintained such a fine balance that I have to tell you about it!  The restaurant gets fresh milk delivered daily from a nearby farm.  Oh how I would love to stir Ovaltine into some fresh milk…  Anyway, the milk is brought to 70 C until a skin forms.  The skin is then draped over some heavily roasted garlic that is nuzzled up against a truffle emulsion.  The dish is finished with a vinaigrette of rapeseed oil, which has a very distinct hay flavor, and the fresh milk.  The dish was beautiful to look at;  creative yet simple flavors, that when combined, made you close your eyes and hold the bite in your mouth for just a little while longer than normal.

Chef Rene took onions and pickled them, stewed them, used ash to accentuate their earthiness, infused tapioca with their consomme…he turned an ordinary item into something extraordinary.  But I didn’t feel he was foraging into the unknown just for the sake of it.  He foraged into his forrest and took its bounty to an ephemeral level.

I guess I’m writing about all this because I often find fine dining to be a bit affected.  I’m okay with that, I even love it at times.  It can be exhilarating and emotional to sit down to a meal and question what you’re eating, and how it was created.  But I feel there is so much to be said for the simple as well.  Heston Blumenthal passed around envelopes with listerine-like samples of frankensence and communion-esque ‘body of Christ’ rounds flavored with myrrh.  He had an interesting idea of a dish that was composed of the three offerings made to baby Jesus (I know I didn’t mention the gold, but I know and you know what gold tastes like.  Nothing).  But neither flavor was delicious.  An interesting concept for a dish maybe, but would I really want to eat it?  I can tell you flat out that yes, I would eat it, but would not be rolling around in a revelatory state.  I do admire that chefs experiment and take risks to make us think and reevaluate the dining experience, but I also love the chefs who take the mundane or ordinary item and create something otherworldly with it.  In Noma’s case, I fell in love with onions.  Who knew?


One response to “An Onion Affair

  1. Your painterly images made for flat out lovely reading at 2 AM – who knew, indeed. Claire, you are amazing. More, please.

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