Chef Talk: Lessons Learned At The Table by Kelly Sears

There are 275 countries in the world; 19 major world religions; 6,500 spoken languages. Food is the one universal. Food has no language barrier, is borderless, and is entry: entry to people, their culture, their families, their lives. 

In a tribute to his friend Anthony Bourdain, Anderson Cooper shared “in places near and far in the world, he talked, tasted, with open mouth, and eyes, and open heart and mind.” Simple, yet with depth; raw and honest, much like the man we think we knew as Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain expressed “…everywhere in the world, we go, and we ask these very simple questions, what makes you happy, what do you like to eat, what do you cook? We tend to get some really astonishing answers. People are telling you a story when they give you food. If you don’t accept the food, you are, in many cultures, whether in rural Arkansas or Vietnam, you are, rejecting the people.”

   When you sit down with someone and share their food, you are sharing their story.  People are telling you something about themselves with each bite, each sip, each serving.  No matter how small the size of the offering, the gesture is large, and the moment is magic.

We all tell a story through our food. If you listen closely, the dish will share more than the cook will reveal in standard conversation. It’s the ingredient not listed in the recipe, not found on the grocery list. It’s the depth of flavor, the peek inside, that if you are lucky enough, you can taste in each bite.

My husband is a landlord to college students. Our tenants represent the melting pot of not only America, but also the world. If you stay within the confines of your job, the relationship is tenant/landlord. But if you take the time to say hello, learn a name, discover what part of the map is home, doors open, and magic happens; you share a table. He calls them by name, they call him Mr. Dan.

Two young engineering students from a small village outside of Beijing invited us to their apartment to make dumplings. Multi-generational, mom and grandmother were visiting and deftly rolling out dumplings with the speed of a twelve-person assembly line. Every dumpling is the exact shape and size. Once all the dough was ready, it was time to fill.  Their dumplings were perfect, beautifully shaped, properly proportioned. Ours, overstuffed and unable to close. With direction, “the dumpling is the purse, the meat filling the money. Don’t let the money fall out of the purse.” An “ah ha” moment for sure; our dumpling skills improved. The meal was set out on two card tables, served on paper plates, with lots of chairs crammed around the tables. Make room for what’s important, worry less about what’s not.

Several young men from Saudi Arabia invited Mr. Dan to stay for coffee after he fixed their leaky faucet.  They set a cup in front of him and filled it half way. Mr. Dan said, only half a cup? The host then shared that his father, and his grandfather before him, taught him that you invite someone to stay by only filling their cup halfway. This way, the cup will constantly need to be filled, a little bit at a time, encouraging the guest to continue to stay and visit. When you fill the cup all the way, you are inviting them to leave; as in, This WILL be your only cup!  Half full leaves you room for more.

We invited some new tenants, a lovely Hispanic couple, over to teach us how to make tamales. We spoke with our hands, so we could understand one another. When I was about to add water in with the masa, my hand was tapped, and an index finger waved no-no.  She pointed to the pot where the pork had slow cooked and then back to the masa bowl. Yes, of course! Water tastes like water, but pork juice tastes delicious!!  We followed the leader and tied the husks. We counted hands and realized twelve hands make a hundred tamales easier than two. Share the work and it doesn’t feel like work.

After long holiday breaks, some would return with gifts for Mr. Dan, gifts from their home: tea leaves as fragrant as the small-town countryside, homemade candies and sweets from their villages, silk scarves, a Qur’an. Share a dumpling, a coffee, a tamale; open a door to a connection. This is me, this is how I live.

We spend a lot of time watching food TV, taking pictures of food, posting food but how much time do we spend breaking bread.  We look down into phones instead of up into experiences.  We can probably identify people by the parts in their hair rather than the colors of their eyes. How much time do we spend listening and connecting (the wireless kind).

Whether it’s a kitchen table, dining table, picnic table or folding table, pull up a chair and gather round. Eat what’s offered off the fork. People open up when you nod and say “yes please” to the plate being passed. More tales are told, more stories shared. It’s the first step to a connection, to listening.

May your purse hold money, your coffee cup never completely full, may you talk and taste with an open mouth, and eyes, with an open heart and mind. I know you’ll never leave hungry.

Bread can be sliced, dipped, slathered or torn, goes with any meal, can be served piping hot, toasted or stale tossed in a salad. Most recipes make two loaves, or in this case, rolls. Break Bread and Connect.

Pepper Bacon Bread
Yields 20
Print
Ingredients
  1. 340 grams Russet or Yukon Gold Potatoes
  2. 70 grams reserved Potato Cooking Liquid
  3. 14 grams reserved bacon fat (can substitute butter here)
  4. 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  5. 332 grams all-purpose flour
  6. 9 grams sea salt
  7. 72 grams bacon, cooked and crumbed (fat reserved, see above)
  8. 5 grams coarse black pepper (may prefer 3 grams if making rolls)
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees one hour prior to baking (baking vessel too)
  2. Boil potatoes (unpeeled) until tender, about 15-20 minutes
  3. Reserve 70 grams of the cooking water; set aside potatoes and liquid to cool
  4. Once cooled, mash the potatoes
  5. In a mixing bowl, combine the mashed potatoes, reserved cooking liquid, bacon fat and instant yeast. Stir to combine
  6. Add half the flour and stir well (the mixture will be crumbly)
  7. Add the rest of the flour and the sea salt and stir. The mixture will seem very dry
  8. Use your hands and squeeze, press, and knead the mixture until it comes together as a dough
  9. Scrape the mass of dough on to a work surface and knead the dough 5-6 minutes. The dough will start out quite stiff and dry but will moisten over time
  10. Press the dough into a rectangle, top with bacon and pepper. Knead for a couple more minutes to incorporate the bacon and pepper
  11. Place in an oiled container, cover with plastic and ferment for 30 minutes
  12. After 30 minutes, fold the dough, cover again and let rest for 30 minutes
  13. After 30 minutes, the dough is ready to be shaped (loaf, batard or rolls)
  14. Proof the dough for 45 minutes to an hour; it should swell nicely and have a springy texture
  15. Once the loaf has risen, score the top from end to end
  16. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden browned
Adapted from Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor, MI
Adapted from Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor, MI
Marcel's Culinary Experience https://www.marcelsculinaryexperience.com/

Food As A Gift by Deb Forkins

After lamenting my less than stellar rhubarb harvest last year, a dear friend brought me over this homemade rhubarb treasure.  She is a fabulous cook, and the pie was delicious….but it was the big D on that pie that was the most delish!  Edible friendship!

One Sunday, I came home from working at Marcel’s to dinner in the oven.  Marc had made his specialty quiche, adding zucchini to my half.  Again, the best part of that dinner was my name on my half of the quiche in zucchini peel.  Edible love.

Sharing the gift of food is a universal gesture of love and friendship, compassion and kindness.  A meal to a family struggling with challenges, chicken soup to a sick friend, cookies to your new neighbor…food has always been a way that we reach out to one another, to connect.  We all know this.  The food itself may or may not be a fabulous culinary creation, but the gesture speaks volumes.

In her cookbook, Food Gift Love, author and chef Maggie Battista shares some tips to make you the quintessential food gifter:

  • Know your recipient. (always best to play to the audience.)
  • Master a signature food gift so you can make it quickly and have the ingredients in your head.
  • Embrace imperfection. (my favorite tip!)
  • Put a label on it. (ingredients and date created)
  • Summer and fall are the best time to make gifts when fruits and vegetables are plentiful and it’s a less hectic time of the year.
  • Reuse old jars, cups and boxes that can be cleaned and repurposed.

At risk of sounding corny, “what the world needs now is love.”  And edible love is just the best. 

(Check out Chef Kelly Sears’ “Pickling and Preserving Workshop” on Sunday, August 27th to learn the tricks of canning and preserving in anticipation of Christmas 2017 Food Gift Giving!)