Mar 9, 2017
Recipes Are Already a Story: On Reading Cookbooks and Writing Menus
For me, writing a menu is not unlike writing an essay: I spend hours sitting on the couch with books—cookbooks in this case—and handwritten notebooks splayed out around me like a pack of sleeping puppies. Sometimes there’s a literal sleeping puppy thrown in there, too. I open each book to a certain image or flavor combination so I can easily shift my eyes between the recipe for green onion powder, a step-by-step pictorial guide to wrapping dumplings, or a dish that combines elderflowers with scallops, and imagine all the ways the pieces could interlock. In many senses, I consider that chief of culinary premises: what do we have to work with? The question includes not only the fridge’s contents, but the memories of textures and flavors that build upon the story that I want to tell.
I’m planning a menu right now actually, in the lead-up to a restaurant I’m opening in a coastal town in Mexico. The genre I’m playing with is Asian drinking snacks, consumed at “nomikai” in Japan and “nhậu” in Vietnam, the informal gatherings where workers wash away their days, talking shit about their bosses while squatting around small dishes of fermented tofu and little fried somethings. The dishes at Bonito Kitchen—which I named for the fish used in Japanese katsuobushi and the Spanish word for “pretty”—will be sticky, savory, crunchy, funky, and perfect with a cold bottle of Pacifico beer. That flavor and textural profile also brings me back to the food I treasured as a kid, like the Chex Mix I devoured (and picked the pretzels out of) while watching Total Request Live from my hiding spot under a coffee table.
I think there’s something to the fact that I’m going in a nostalgic, childhood memory-plumbing direction with the first menu I’ve ever written from scratch. Though I’m writing this menu alone, it feels like I’m collaborating with and celebrating my past self, the child with the lingering smell of dried cuttlefish and MSG on her palms. In that way, reading a book like Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Vietnamese culinary expert Andrea Nguyen feels like flipping through a cousin’s photo album: the major beats are similar to what I remember, even though the particulars of those moments are obviously different. Her sense of flavor is so reliable that I read her recipes to get my head straight and recalibrate my mental palate after eating Mexican food all day. I remember, yes, I was that fish sauce-stinking girl. It reminds me of the truth that I’m trying to tell.
While getting my bearings, I also find comfort in the team correspondence reproduced in the Momofuku cookbook: emails sent from David Chang to his inner circle, full of ideas for his upcoming Momofuku Ko. More functional than flowery, this is the kind of urgent chef-language I appreciate the most.
“egg course—I think this might be a great egg course, as it requires simple à la minute assembly: soy sauce soft eggs—4-minute egg, boiled, ice bath, peeled, and stained in flavored soy, ginger, star anise. Use fish tippet to cut eggs in smooth halves, fines herbes, pecans, country ham dust. We will try tomorrow.”
I am planning this menu alone, and when you do something so personal and exposing as this on your own it’s easy to get distracted shooing away that poltergeist, self-doubt. Chang’s letter shows me that a menu is never really done; there are actually many recipes in the book that speak to his urge to improve dishes as the ideas come. Each menu is a draft.
I’ve also found the first section of Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes to be immensely useful, especially as I work out different ways to recreate flavor and texture combinations that trigger specific sense memories in me. Titled, “Inside the Project Kitchen,” the section details all of the housemade dairy goods, tinctures, and spices used by co-chefs Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns, who are a special breed of culinary witches. A good, intentional spice blend is a lot like writing with a firm sense of place, and you can easily build a world with the elements you choose to throw into the mix. In this way, menu writing is truly writing, in that I’m deliberately bringing together ideas both experienced and imagined to have you feel something very specific.
I want you to know how it feels to eat a banh mi made out of the best ingredients your mom could scrounge up in a small town grocery store in 1995; to sit down in a bare room in winter with a plastic baggie of trail mix while you wait for the moving van, and your husband, to arrive; to smell white lilies, hash oil, and camarones al ajillo while getting tattooed in a Mexican courtyard.
But I don’t just want to tell you; I want to show you a piece of my soul, to have your whole body to be shocked into the clarity of the memory as if it was your own.
How better for us to understand each other, where we each come from? As with writing, what you’ll produce as a chef will more often than not be indefensible unless you can credibly answer the question of why you’re choosing to share it. What story am I telling here and how am I going to lead my audience to that place that I can see so clearly in my mind? Aiming towards crafting better versions of my stories is what keeps me in the kitchen, and the cookbooks that help me tell them are the ones I keep coming back to as I work.
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