Rest in peace, Anthony Bourdain. To watch the video featuring Bourdain at Les Halles, click on the post title to go to my blog’s website.
I was watching a TED talk the other day about Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (had to watch a YouTube on how to pronounce the name) and his concept of “flow.” I remember buying his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” in the 90s, but found the read too New-Agey and I never did finish it. In the TED talk, the presenter described flow as the mental state achieved when a person is focused on performing an activity for its intrinsic value and is fully present, immersed, and in the moment. A state that is relaxed but intense, where time flies but stands still, and where actions are effortless within a challenging situation. Think of Michael Jordan “in the zone”, or an individual who is rock climbing, mountain biking, or surfing.
Csikzentmihalyi applied “flow” specifically to artistic endeavors such as playing music, writing, dancing, painting and intellectual pursuits such as scientific research, concept development, and inventive design. Although TED didn’t mention blue collar work, I remember times cooking on the line in a restaurant kitchen when, apparently, we were in a flow state.
It began like any other night: each station set up for the rush, manned by a professional with skills that matched the challenge. Service started at 5:30 with a few early birds; gradually picking up steam—then let the circus begin. The expediter shouts orders from chits coming through the Remanco in a tappity blur—“ordering one monkfish, one lobster, three chicken breasts with port, three poussin, two skirt steaks—one SOS; salads out on the 12-top; pickup four breasts with port; fire three New Yorks; 3 out on those hushpuppies; where’s the skirt for 13; ordering one risotto on the fly; ordering two clam spags; draggin’ two side salads; pick up cheese plate for a deuce; 86 the branzino; hold table 23; that’s five breasts all day; order/fire one ribeye—blue; kill one New York; stretch the soup; VIP on 24; fire the 12-top; Ruth Reichl’s in the house.” Cooks echo each call-out, “Yes Chef! One monk, one lobster, three breasts, three poussin, two skirts—one SOS.”
The heat intensifies, the fryer boils over, sauté pans hiss and sizzle, bursting into flame as bourbon is added: HOT BEHIND, YES CHEF, I’M IN THE WEEDS, WHERE ARE YOU ON 24, DROP FRIES FOR 23. Dishwasher sidesteps onto the line, shouting BEHIND!, stretching to put clean plates on the pass, picking up bus tubs heavy with sauté pans.
No motion is wasted: bend down to pick four steaks, three chicken breasts, three poussin, one monkfish, and four swirls of pasta out of the low boy, run to the walk-in to grab a live lobster, pin him down on the table and cut him in half, spin six sauté pans onto the hot top, a round of oil in each one, brown the poussin, drop the pasta, slide the dead lobster down to the grill man, check the chicken, sear the steaks, breasts in the oven, steaks out, bourbon in, pasta in, drop the hushpuppies, poussin out, plate poussin, cream in the bourbon, pasta out, drag a little pasta water into the pan. Second push comes, repeat over and over in varying iterations until the rail is clear at 11:30.
We look up at each other and wonder, “What happened?” The hours didn’t exist, only the dance—we were one beast moving in slow-motion but at a full tilt.
When I’m just cooking for me and the Sweetie, I still try to focus on the techniques, enjoy the ingredients, and remember what Michael Roberts used to say, “The easiest way isn’t the best way.” So I whack whole garlic cloves, peel tomatoes, fine dice the onions, trim the skin off the ham slice, make a fruit coulis for the salmon, fry the tortillas to soften before stuffing them for enchiladas, and brine the chicken breasts. I don’t achieve “flow”, but then I don’t limp all the way to the bus stop either.
Michael Roberts’ Chicken with Port
Add butter to hot sauté pan. When foaming has stopped, brown chicken breast, skin side down. Pour off fat. Add 2 T. shallots, 2 parts red Port to one part chicken stock to sauté pan with chicken. Roast in oven for 10-12 minutes. Remove pan from oven, remove chicken breast and keep warm. Reduce liquid (port/chicken stock) to syrup. Add 1⁄2 c. heavy cream—reduced until thickened. Add 2 T. stilton cheese, and whisk in 2 T. cold butter. If the cream sauce separates, just add a little water to the pan and swirl around.