Lost in Translation
Here’s another spine tingling (for me) story of another cooking try-out. This test was for the position as founding chef for what was to become Bridges Restaurant in Danville; you know the one that was featured in Mrs. Doubtfire? That was a great movie, but my experience at Bridges often felt more like being on the set of Lost in Translation.
I had prepared a meal for the first tier of recruiters. That went well enough for me to advance to the next level; to prepare a meal for the Japanese entourage (the owner being a wealthy oil man from Osaka) and his crew of headhunters, his attorney, his sister and even the mayor of Danville. Mr. Sugitani’s vision for the restaurant was to bridge the cultures of America and Japan. He had decided to open his first restaurant in the town of Danville where his son was enrolled in private school.
Erin McKinney, my friend and chef mentor, offered to let me use his commercial kitchen and transformed his Grace Street Catering offices, housed in the old Alameda Hotel, into a kind of lounge for the dinner group. He donned his black and whites, dimmed the lights, played some new wave music and ushered the guests (about 12, I think) to the banquet table hidden behind the shoji screens he happened to own that were perfect for this particular occasion. After I met everyone (for the first time) I went back to the kitchen and went to work.
The first course was to be an appetizer of tiny Belon oysters, broiled with truffle butter and served on a platter lined with coarse sea salt which kept the oysters stable and prevented the umami flavors from spilling out. When Erin came into the kitchen to pick up the oysters, he looked at the platter and yanked a palm frond from the spindly plant that happened to be next to the stove. He tied a loose knot and placed the frond across the plate at a very jaunty, Zen-like angle. He looked at me, I nodded approval and out he went.
The dinner went without a hitch and encouraged by the comments Erin shared from our diners, i was in a groove and before I knew it, I was done. I hoisted myself up on the counter, swinging my legs, feeling like the chef in Babettes Feast. Why are all of these movie metaphors coming into my head as I write this blog? I was asked to come out to the table. I sat down and was offered a glass of wine. Kazuo Sugitani, the Japanese oil man, soon to be restaurateur, looked across the table at me and asked “Will you come to Japan?” I assumed this meant that I had gotten the job and was being invited to visit Japan.
I learned that Kazuo Sugitani had two young men that were his attachés; one managed his properties and business in the US and the other in Japan; and after a few months they would switch places. One was good at cooking and the other was strong in finance.
After what I can only describe as a life changing and culturally mind blowing trip, I found myself in the airport in Osaka with Takeshi, one of the attachés, waiting for my flight back to California. We chatted politely and I tried to understand as much as I could of what he was saying. Takashi smiled and said “Mr. Sugitani, love your cooking. Especially oyster plate. He love the (he gestured tying a knot in the air)”. I felt the air go out of me and asked, "But didn't he like the salmon with sake sauce, or the bread pudding?"
“Yes, yes he like everything, but oyster plate he love!”
I spent the flight home in a state of anxiety that can’t be described. I was convinced that he had hired the wrong person and that I should tell him the truth. I even asked Erin if he would like the job. i spent a day tying knots with blades of plants of varying lengths and widths for future plating (not really).
After much soul searching I decided to keep the truth about the oysters to myself and learned that much can get lost in translation anyway. The next 3 years were spent realizing I was exactly the right person to create the bridge between our cultures, until I wasn't.
Broiled oysters with truffle butter
Serves 4 - 6 as an appetizer
2 dozen oysters, Belon or other
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cloves garlic
2 T. chopped black truffle
2 T. finely chopped thyme, and parsley leaves
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. truffle salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Garnish: a single palm frond
Chop garlic, herbs and lemon zest in robot coupe to very fine. Add the butter, lemon juice, chopped truffles, truffle salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Store in the refrigerator until you are ready to broil the oysters.
Open the oysters and place on a sheet pan lined with coarse salt so that they do not tip over. Place a small amount of truffle butter on each oyster and place under the broiler for no longer than 5 minutes.
Serve on a platter with additional coarse salt and garnish with a thin single palm frond tied in a knot.
Pan seared salmon with sake butter sauce
4 portions of salmon, 6 oz. each
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T. Vegetable oil
1 small red chili
1 stalk lemongrass
½ cup red bell pepper brunoise* (without white inner pith)
1 lime, julienne zest plus juice
1 T. peeled and julienne ginger root
1 cup mirin
2 T. unsalted butter
12 cilantro sprigs for garnish
Heat oven to 400-degrees F.
Season salmon with salt, pepper, chopped garlic and vegetable oil.
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Sear salmon on one side and place seared side up on a sheet pan to finish in the oven, about 7 – 10 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook.)
Slice the chili and lemon grass into very thin rounds. Place in a heavy bottomed pot with the bell pepper, lime zest and ginger. Add mirin. Reduce until the mirin is very syrupy. Then whisk in the butter, and add the lime juice.
Serve the salmon topped with the sauce, trying to get the chilies, ginger, etc. on each piece for garnish. Garnish further with 3 single whole cilantro sprigs, stem intact, placed around the salmon.
*Brunoise: finely diced vegetables that are cooked in butter and used to flavor soups and sauces.
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