The Year of the Cucumber: Part III

A New Generation of Eaters
[This is the final post in a three-part series. See also "The Year of the Cucumber: Part I: Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?" and "The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It’s Just Food"]

On September 14 (2009), I was fed a seven-course meal by Alexandre Gaulthier, from La Grenoullière in France, because he was cooking as a special guest chef in New York at Momofuku Ssam Bar.

Momofuku, which means “lucky peach,” is a small group of restaurants (Ko, Ssam Bar, Noodle Bar, and Milk Bar) headed by David Chang, a chef who has been repeatedly named one of the best and most exciting young chefs in the last few years. Ssam Bar is a small and in the East Village section of Manhattan.

Chang and the Momofuku team arranged for four guest chefs—Pascal Barbot from L’Astrance, Iñaki Aizpitarte from Le Chateaubriand (which apparently was canceled due to problems with chef Aizpitarte’s visa) David Kinch of Manresa, and Alexandre Gauthier of La Grenouilliere—all more or less on unofficial hip watch lists, to come to New York and cook at one of his restaurants. The event was dubbed the “Four Fucking Dinners,” and by some absurd luck of the draw, I got a seat at Ssam Bar. (A fifth dinner was held at Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50, with guest chef Michel Bras cooking alongside Dufresne and Chang.)

My friend and fellow gourmand, whom I call Googly, found an Easter egg on the Momofuku web site before the reservations for the event had officially opened and got two seats. He sent out an email to a handful of friends who are all serious eaters asking who would like to join him—first come, first served. I just happened to be online and checking my email when he sent the note, and I replied instantly.

The fact that Chang, Gaulthier, and the other chefs are seen as young, hip, and up-and-coming cooks is significant. Of all the things that were different about this meal, the most striking was how unpretentious it was.

It was fun.

Service and the servers themselves were integral to the atmosphere. The wait staff was exceptionally tuned in to making the experience something novel, something that was of the highest esteem but marked a new era, or marked the coming of a new generation of fine dining patrons. We were eaters eating great food, not fine dining people. This wasn’t my grandmother’s or mother’s idea of impeccable service; this was my ideal.

There were many differences from a typical high-end restaurant that created this unique experience. It’s easy to put my finger on the more prominent ones, like the music or the fact that half the diners shared a communal table. Others were subtle, but the small differences in culmination meant something.

For instance, our server, who also poured the wines (though I don’t think he was technically a sommelier), spent time with us, and chatted casually yet sincerely about the food, drink, preparation, and ingredients. His body language didn’t say, “Now I shall pour you some wine.” It said, “Hey, I’ve got this wine I’d like to share with you.” It was like the difference between doing things by the book and doing things according to the intended sentiment or toward the goal, without having rigorous instruction on how to get there.

Another example: When we asked whether the “cup of seawater” was indeed water from the outdoors, or whether it was just a brine made from sea salt, he said, “Oh, no it’s not really seawater. The chef told us earlier, ‘You know when you go to the beach and the waves splash you and you get a mouthful of the ocean?’ That’s what he was after.” A by-the-book answer might have been, “The chef has prepared a solution of sea salt and water that mimics the saltiness of the Atlantic.” One response is stuffy. The other is just people sharing ideas.

The Lowly Cucumber
On the seven-course tasting menu there were two courses that featured cucumber. Featured! Cucumber wasn’t just an ingredient; it was the star of the plate in one case, half a giant pickling cucumber, grilled, with taramasalata, and lead supporting actor on another, a cylinder of slow cooked turbot and an equally sized and shaped peeled cucumber. Seven courses, and two of them are cucumber. It’s the kind of thing that should make you say, “What is the chef doing?”

I used to not be crazy about cucumbers. As a kid, I never saw a salad that didn’t have them, and in the summer, my mom would fan sliced Kirbies, always Kirbies, always with the skins on, alongside slices of beefsteak tomatoes, served with a cup of Hellman’s mayonnaise and black pepper for dipping.

When I was old enough to have to stock my own refrigerator, I bought cucumbers out of habit, the requisite Kirbies at first, but later waxy cucumbers, which were sometimes cheaper, and English cukes when I didn’t feel like peeling the waxy ones. After a while, I got tired of cucumbers, but I didn’t stop buying them. That would have seemed wrong. Instead, I started seeding them, slicing them into spears, dicing them, marinating them, doing whatever I could think of to make them different.

By this spring, I had had enough. I stopped buying them. And yet, every time I opened the vegetable crisper, I’d find one, or half of one, that Boyfriend had bought to put in his lunch salads to take to work.

One day in late July I went to my CSA distribution and learned I had to take home a pound and a half of cucumbers. Sorting through the box, I noticed these were Persian cucumbers, long and slender with soft, light green skins. There were ribbed, and I’d say they were phallic, but in reality, they were much smaller.

I came home hungry, and as I put the groceries away, I wiped off one of the cucumbers and bit it in half. It had a crisp snap. It was juicy, but not waterlogged like so many waxy cucumbers. It was refreshing. I sprinkled some salt on the bit end and, crunch, took another bit. This was not a cucumber as I had known it. I felt like every cucumber I had ever eaten had suddenly been wiped from memory. A complete and total do-over.

Appreciating a simple and unadorned thing, like a cucumber, or a pear, or an oyster, is to me the mark of a matured and educated palette.

Now, having had that perception-changing experience, I think about cucumbers the way some people talk about pears. A good one is stupefying. Anything less than a good one makes my expectation for how good they can be at all plummet.

So here I was at a very expensive dinner (with wine pairings, $170) faced with two cucumber dishes that I could only hope would be revelations.

The Dinner
Tasse d’eau de mer: cup of seawater, black sea bass, oyster, chervil, basil
The raw fish, raw oyster, and gentle herbs were a joy to my mouth. By far, this was my favorite dish. I adore crudo.

Cornichon grillé: grilled pickle, tarragon, taramasalata
The pickle was barely pickled, if at all, but wonderfully firm and warm and topped with a paper-thin slice of lardo. Fresh tarragon was a lovely touch, and the taramasalata was remarkably not too salty (by it’s nature, it’s generally quite salty).

Gnocchi de pomme de terre: potato gnocchi (Yukon gold), lemon, comfrey, parmesan
Due to an abundance of butter, this was the most French Italian dish I have ever eaten. The richness of the butter was counter-balanced by a strong lemon overtone, perhaps a bit too strong, although together, they rubbed out any bitterness from the greens.

Cuisson douce turbot: slow cooked turbot, cucumbers, dill
Like two long tongues, the shape of the turbot and cucumber were striking. Dill came in the form of, what I can only guess was a fresh and sprouted dill seed, clinging to the cucumber.

Poulet Rôti: roasted chicken, trout roe, romano beans
When the poulet rôti arrived, I saw two two-bite-sized pieces of chicken, which looked poached due to the whiteness and uniformity of color, a glistening of sauce, a few green beans, and two or three miniature potatoes (note: I emailed Chef Gauthier to check, and he has confirmed it was miniature potatoes and green beans), a single elongated leaf, and a crisp disc of something balanced on top. I had a moment of anxiety upon not hearing the server clearly. “Did he say toro?” I asked my friend? Was that what the golden chip was, a smoked and dried sliver of toro? My eyes were wide and my mouth had dropped a little.

Googly just looked at the paper menu. “No. Trout roe.”

But where was it? There was no roe on the plate!

Then, I cut into the little pouch of chicken and out spilled brilliant orange eggs, like a change purse with golden coins inside.

Intermezzo: honeycomb
A honey man traveled from table to table and cut a chunk of real honeycomb for each person to suckle. This was dynamite honey made more enjoyable by the act of pursing one’s lips, giggling it around in the mouth, and sucking the honey from the comb, then chewing the comb, extracting every drop of sweetness, and finally pulling it from the mouth, reminiscent of secretly getting rid of chewing gum in school.

Prune d’agen: plum, maple syrup sugar
Prunes are so very French, though I would have liked for the chef here to have done more to compose the dish. The cooked, halved prunes were splayed across the plate with a smear of custard, which was grainy.

Glace badoit menthe: peppermint and Badoit (brand name) sparkling water sorbet, berries
The final dessert definitely cooled my palate, but it positively popped with fresh peppermint, chopped and left in. A very enjoyable texture and flavor contrast was a panna cotta next to the quenelle of sorbet, and fresh raspberries.

What Makes Having Dinner a Good Time?
The food at this dinner was great, but then again (as I note in Part II of this series), it’s just food. It’s the stuff we eat every day, often three or four or five times a day.

I went home that night very late for a Monday, and a little tipsy, but genuinely happy. There had been nine wines with the pairing, plus one non-wine digestif (Fernet-Branca—definitely not for me), plus an extra pour or two, courtesy of our gracious server who noticed that I didn’t care for the Frenet-Branca and said, “Let me bring you something else. I have some sparkling Muscat.” We lingered after paying the bill, and he poured a little more.

Wine lubricates not just the conversation, but also the soul (a word I almost never use). I tend to get a bit irked when I hear it, but people constantly tell me how much more fun I am when I drink. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, I loosen up and become a much more free person after two glasses of wine.

Dinner conversation doesn’t have to be about one’s day, one’s job, one’s boss, one’s to-do list. Meeting new people doesn’t have to involve answering the question, “What do you do... for work?” These are the typical conversational topics of Americans and other Westerners.

However, dinner conversation doesn’t have to be this way. It can be about how it feels to let down one’s parents by dating someone of the wrong race or background (not me). Or it could be about fear of failure. Or it could be about how the loss of flirting feels after being in a monogamous relationship for years.

Let me assure you, for me, wine loosens something other than just my tongue, allowing me to have these kinds of conversations. And I need them, not every day, but sometimes.

Not long ago, I saw the documentary film Man on Wire about Philippe Petit’s goal in the 1970s to string a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York and walk it. At the end of the film, I declared it my favorite movie ever. I fell in love with it for many reasons, though a big one is this: I am envious of cultures in which peoples’ lives are filled with true emotion, not just measures of career success.

The amazing feat that Petit accomplishes matches the enthusiasm and love with which he talks about the act. In the movie, he is brilliantly animated when he explains how he spent years preparing to walk the wire. When he describes the set up, how he and a small team of people banded together to arrange their tools and rigs, illegally and secretly, to string the wire between the two towers, he speaks as if he were still in that moment, still trying to get away with something that could, potentially be thwarted.

Even Petit’s girlfriend from that time, Annie Allix, looks back 30 years and has the same welling of emotion when she talks about her former boyfriend walking the wire. So do the other Frenchmen involved in it. However, the Australian teammate and the American ones talk about it differently. Their voices don’t rise and move to tell the story. They don’t pour forth as much expression unreservedly.

Anyone who knows me will agree that that is not me. I do not speak emotionally, even about the things that matter most. People are more likely to call me steadfast, critical, judgmental, hardnosed, or unsympathetic. I am not an emotional person, but it’s a quality that, when expressed by an entire culture, commands my envy. There’s something magical about a group of people who treat others warmly and without reservation, who talk about their ideas and their feelings and relationship more than they talk about their jobs. These cultural differences can only be learned through traveling widely and interacting with new people.

The closest I ever come to acting with the same generosity of emotion, or openness, that Petit and Allix do, happens after two glasses of wine. It’s sad, and I’m sad, to know this, but it’s the truth.

I had more than just two glasses the night of the Momofuku special guest chef dinner, and perhaps my enjoyment of the whole evening was proportional.

The Wine Pairings
Marc Pesnot, Chapeau Nature (NV), France

Domaine de Montcy, 2007, Cour-Cheverny, France

Domaine Ganevat, “la Combe” Savagnin Ouille, 2005, Côtes du Jura, France

Domaine Ricard, les Trois Chênes, 2008, Touraine, France
The Reed Hook Winery, Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, North fork, NY
(the only wine more than half the diners seemed to dislike)

Belle pente, “Belle Pente Vineyard” Pinot Noir, 2006, Willamette Valley, Ore.
Domaine J. Chamonard, 2007, Morgon, France

Mas Amiel Millé, 1980, Maury, France
(aged, single vintage)

Sparkling Muscat
(off menu)

The Year of the Cucumber: Part I: Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?

The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It’s Just Food