Any good chef builds a personal relationship with his guests, and they become a part of his life. More importantly, the chef becomes a part of their lives.
I realized this with a guest of ours named Frank. He was a regular, in his early sixties and newly retired. There was a time I had not seen him in a few weeks. When he came back in to dine, I asked if he had been out of town.
Unfortunately, he had a heart problem and was home recovering. He said the cardiologist recommended he cut back on the fat, since that caused the blockage and the trip to the OR.
When he said that he laughed. His favorite meal was tortellini carbonara.
Then he asked me if I could prepare this dish without any fat and make it taste the same.
It was my turn to laugh, but I did not. I told him that would be next to impossible.
He looked at me with an expression of disappointment, almost desperation, put his hand on my arm and said he needed my help. He absolutely loved my cooking and if anyone could make such a dish, I surely could.
That was the moment I realized I was a part of his life more than he was of mine.
If he never came back, I would miss him. But I had hundreds of other good customers that would eventually fill that seat on that night, and I would cook something they liked very much.
But it did not work the other way for Frank. He loved that carbonara, my carbonara, because no one else made it the same way I did. There was only one of me.
Now I understood. His coming into my place every week to taste that creamy sauce enriched with smoky bacon, nuanced with onions and peas and a hint of white wine mingled into the finishing flavor was almost a sacred ritual for him. He had woven it into the very fabric of his life and I was the guy responsible for that experience.
My creativity was his great joy. I was truly honored.
I went back into the kitchen, did not even change out my pressed and monogramed chef coat I visited the table in, and went to work.
My mind disassembled the dish I had made so many times that it had become automatic.
All fat must go, he said.
Cream was substituted for low fat milk, bacon for liquid smoke and a slurry of corn starch to thicken instead of the egg yolk. The diced onion was sautéed in minimal olive oil. I had no substitute for the grated Romano cheese; that was the only exception.
He thanked me for it, but I could see he thought it was nowhere close to what he loved.
I suggested making him a different pasta dish using our low fat/no fat approach.
He agreed and his face lit up with joy again.
That night before he left, we conferred extensively on his culinary mindset. Ingredients and techniques were discussed, agreed upon and he looked forward to the following week’s visit.
I kept his request in the forefront of my mind, like a brightly lit billboard along a dark road.
Now, instead of disassembling just one pasta dish, I disassembled my approach to all the popular pasta dishes I had put on our menu.
It was hard to learn how to make good food after losing a dozen ingredients I created with for years. I persisted and I filled that hole with new flavor profiles that I could bring to that same level. These flavors were strong, rich, and, most of all, had substantial mouth feel to replace the fat.
I added herbs that were not found in traditional Italian cooking. Some were better for dishes other than pasta sauce. I was forced to construct a crash course in how to control their flavors. Adding chopped rosemary may be overwhelming, but if the whole sprig is added then removed before serving, it makes a big difference.
Where it made sense, I incorporated a touch of Tabasco or red pepper flakes sautéed in the oil, but always when I had other big flavors to use like shredded swiss chard, spinach, julienned root vegetable, roasted bell peppers, the occasional Kalamata olive and diced tomatoes. Heat may get in the way of wine, but it is long on the palate, like cream, and adds satisfaction to the eating experience. I also convinced Frank to move away from his light Sauvignon Blanc white and into a more substantial Montipulciano red.
When I sautéed with olive oil, I switched pans and left the remainder of the oil behind, as per Frank’s request.
For that big-mouth feel, I oven-roasted vegetables, diced them up and added them in. It was low cholesterol but big flavor and mouth feel from their caramelized sugars developed from the dry heat of the oven.
I made stock from oven-roasted chicken bones, rosemary, garlic, onions and carrots. After it cooled down in the refrigerator, I picked off the top every speck of fat that made its way into the process. This stock became the base of several pasta dishes. Some of the sauces for these dishes were thickened just enough for it to cling to the vegetable.
Beef stock, reduced down to the consistency of jelly, or glace di viande as the French call it, became like a secret ingredient.
Even the flavor of the garlic was varied: either sautéed in the pan or roasted in the oven, then added in. Another secret ingredient.
Potatoes were roasted in the oven until they were crisp on the outside and were added to several dishes as a texture foil.
I made vegetarian soups so thick and chunky they were transformed into meatless stews. They usually had a combination of rice, small types of pasta, potatoes, or barley to thicken them up. Frank never complained he was hungry a few hours after he got home.
My culinary compendium was expanding, and Frank was happy about it.
Making Frank a happy diner taught me a lot about being creative in the kitchen and about motivation and integrity. But his greatest lesson was showing me the importance of sharing that with others.