Photo: Allesandra Petlin
My First Cooking Disaster
Anthony Bourdain, chef, author and host of No Reservations
Back in the 1970s, flush with a little knowledge and a lot of youthful enthusiasm, my catering partner and I took on a new client. The job was a large wedding reception—big money—and, eager to close the deal, we had assured the customer that there was nothing we couldn't do: pâtés en croûte, truffled galantines of poultry and veal en gelée, decorative chaudfroids, whole poached salmon adorned with Escoffier-era garnishes... All these were things we could pull off with reasonable competence. So when the client inquired about a wedding cake, I didn't flinch: "Yes, of course! We'd be happy to provide a cake!"
The fact that outside of a few baking classes in culinary school, I had never in my life made any baked good, not even a from-the-mix Bundt cake, did nothing to diminish my faith in my abilities. But perhaps sensing in some dim, instinctive way that a classic, sky-high, round cake adorned with intricate pastillage work was beyond me, I opted for something different. I filled sheet pans of various sizes with batter (a recipe I'd cribbed from Julia Child). When these had baked, I stacked them in jelly-smeared layers like a Flintstones version of a Mayan temple, then iced them with buttercream that, in a disco-era moment of chemical-inspired lunacy, I'd dyed blue. For the finishing touch, I used a pastry bag to add what I believed to be avant-garde patterns of more blue icing and studded it with blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries.
My catering partner was skeptical. "It looks like Betty Crocker on acid." But it was too late to do anything else. And frankly, we thought young guns like us didn't have to follow convention—we made conventions.
We sent the cake out to the expectant crowd, where the bride and groom were poised with a knife.
The bride said, "Ewwww!"
The groom said, "Honey, it looks like Carvel! You like Carvel!"
And in the cold light of near-universal repulsion, I realized that I had created an abomination. I hope the happy couple is still together—though somehow I doubt it.
I never baked again.