What I Did for Fun
1. Being a fly on the wall in a world-class kitchen. My family was in the restaurant business from 1888 to 1988, exactly 100 years. Dad's kitchen was hellish—bursts of steam, shooting flames, people screaming in Hindi, Portuguese, and Greek. What's a world-class kitchen like now? Alain Ducasse is one of the most expensive restaurants in New York (the seven-course tasting menu is $280). I arrive at 10 A.M. Didier, the chef de cuisine, shows me around his stainless steel paradise. Squid are being decapitated, napkins folded into crowns. By 11 o'clock I'm faint with the smell of fresh focaccia bread. At 12:10 the 17 cooks who work under Didier don pleated white toques. The first order comes in and they jolt into action.
Unlike Dad's kitchen, the work is hushed, zenlike. No plates fly. It takes four chefs to garnish an eggplant tartare. There is a man whose job is to sort arugula so every leaf is the same size. These leaves are washed and dried by a culinary school graduate who has worked free for three days before getting hired for this task. At 12:22 the first amuse-bouche (a gift from the chef to whet the guests' appetite) goes out. Today it's chilled prepubescent shrimp with pesto in a lobster reduction, topped with shrimp cappuccino. Shrimp cold, foam hot. Eating it evokes the ocean on a warm day, with your head in the sun and your body submerged. Each bite is hot and cold at the same time. I do not want my amuse-bouche to end.
Everybody tastes everything—"Very nice!" The chefs chew with their front teeth, not their molars. It's odd, a room full of front-mouth chewers. It's rabbity. I decide to ask why they do this but am interrupted by an order for foie gras, which is garnished with carmelized apple, dried apple, and apple marmalade.
By three o'clock the last order is out and every surface of the kitchen is engulfed by a tsunami of soapsuds. I leave thinking I may never eat again. This lasts an hour. At home I make my childhood favorite: peanut butter and mayonnaise on rye. If I could blindfold Didier and carve my sandwich into dainty canapés, I feel certain he would love it. Did I have fun? Mais oui. And if I ever do my kitchen over, I'll get counters with rounded edges (they hurt less when you crash into them). I'll cook something that's hot and cold at the same time, using prep work with last-minute assembly. If at all possible, I will have 17 extremely good-looking people to help me.
2. Finding the taste of my youth. I practically grew up in my neighborhood Schrafft's when a square of dark fudge went for seven cents. It was so good, I could make a piece last all day. Everywhere I go, I buy fudge looking for that taste. Artisan's Nosh in Peterborough, New Hampshire; Billings & Stover in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Candy-Gram in Saratoga Springs, New York. Julia Child once wrote that she pines for Schrafft's fudge, too. I want to get the recipe, make a batch, and send some to Ms. Child, who's recovering from a back operation.
I call Boston information looking for corporate headquarters. Zip. I try my friend's ex-brother-in-law who did quality control at Schrafft's (he checked cocoa beans for worms). Nada. I surf the Web. No fudge recipe, but there's a hotel in Las Vegas with a Schrafft's ice cream parlor. "We don't make fudge," they say. "And our ice cream is made by Swensen's." I call a friend who did Schrafft's advertising. "Schrafft's went bankrupt," Tom says. Has the taste of Schrafft's fudge vanished from the universe?
I find a recipe for Schrafft's fudge sauce that was printed in the New York Times on June 15, 1988. I'll try to adapt it to fudge. There's a secret ingredient in the sauce: malt vinegar. I buy a candy thermometer. I use the Silver Palate fudge recipe. At the very end, after the vanilla, I stir in one-quarter teaspoon of malt vinegar. The fudge never gets hard. And it's way too sweet. I try again, eliminating the corn syrup and adding extra chocolate and more malt vinegar. It's good. It has the Schrafft's long-lasting, complex aftertaste. But it's not like I remember. Do taste buds change? Is the recipe too different? I pack some up for Ms. Child and FedEx it with best wishes.
Three days later a thank-you note arrives: "...Very good, but for perfection I'd like them a bit moister...perhaps use a sugar syrup? A bit too sweet for my taste, and I wonder: If you added some cocoa powder as well as chocolate you'd have a stronger flavor?? Anyway, keep trying! —Julia Child."