C is for crème brûlée

A few years ago, as an editor at a San Francisco newspaper, I had the assignment of interviewing local chefs for a Q&A feature we ran twice a month. The target chef for my column was one who presided over a trendy, high-end restaurant.

Aside from the fact that I had not previously done any food writing, I was a somewhat unlikely choice for the assignment: I had moved to the Bay Area a year or two previously and though I was adventurous when it came to eating, I had not completely fallen into the city’s obsession with food. In San Francisco, everyone seemed to be pining for seared foie gras or sighing over Sonoma squab. I had acquaintances surprisingly devoted to epicurean discoveries, friends who blogged about cheeses with rich sounding names, like Roncal, Chatelain and Fleur Verte, and neighbors who regularly bought everything from loquats to rapini at the area’s many farmers’ markets. This is not to say my own tastes had not expanded after arriving in the Bay Area — they most certainly had. But I still shopped at the culinarily ho-hum Safeway, and secretly, for dinner I still sometimes ate macaroni and cheese, the kind with the nuclear orange cheese powder. In San Francisco, processed foods seem to constitute the worst kind of heresy.

My first interview was with a chef I’ll call D, who ran a posh French-influenced restaurant downtown. I met him there in the quiet hours between lunch and dinner, and we talked while his staff readied for the next surge of patrons. I had prepared a list of questions to ask, but I hadn’t been prepared for just how unprepared I was. D spoke quickly and passionately, and peppered his answers with French culinary terms. I scribbled in my notebook with purpose, nodded my head knowingly.

I didn’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t a seasoned food journalist, especially in a place like San Francisco, so I reassured myself that all vocabulary – French or no ¬— could be looked up, and pressed on. I had seven years of French under my belt, didn’t I? But it wasn’t just the lingo I had trouble stomaching. When I asked about specials on the menu D described a salad, made with organic local baby lettuces. He liked how “approachable” the greens were.

Well of course, I said. Lettuce is very approachable.

As for dessert … “Well. I certainly don’t have crème brûlée on the menu,” D told me. “Haven’t we all seen enough crème brûlée?”

In fact at the time I had never seen one crème brûlée, but I readily agreed. So overserved, that crème brûlée.

In the weeks that followed that column, my world-weary colleagues and I, cynical journalists that we were, enjoyed repeating D’s “Haven’t we all seen enough crème brûlée?” in our haughtiest phony British accents (though poor chef was decidedly U.S. born and raised) and tittering in our cubicles.

I discovered over several years of interviewing some of the best chefs in the city that chefs think about food differently than the rest of us do. They’re artists, and food is their medium. They said things like: “Well, the molecules are sort of similar between squid ink and chocolate, so I decided to pair them,” or “My specialty is clear and transparent food.” My coworkers and I awaited this kind of chef-speak each week, in a “what will they say next?” kind of way. But the truth was, I started to want to taste the results of such culinary tinkering.

I have in the years since my encounter with D, come across quite a few crème brûlées. I love the sensation of my spoon cracking the carmelized sugar top and sinking into the custard below. I’ve sampled lavender, mango and coffee versions. Every time one is served to me, I think back to that interview, my naïve assumptions, and the day I learned that lettuce can be approachable. And I think that I still haven’t seen enough crème brûlée, not yet.

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