Critic-Turned-Cook Stirs It Up At Chef's Retreat
"Do you remember the heat you took when you did your Top 10 list one year and ranked Chicken-n-More higher than Beverly's?" chef David Blaine asked me last weekend. We were taking a trip down memory lane about my years as a critic in Spokane, Washington, from 1996 to 2003.
When Blaine invited me to a chef retreat at the wonderful Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts, I didn't hesitate to say yes. "I'm finally being embraced as a cook after nearly a year of working in various kitchens," I thought.
"Yeah, we're inviting some writers this year," he said.
Oh. Maybe he didn't hear that I hung up my professional feedbag.
"One of the things we wanted to talk about was being better at communicating what's going on in the kitchen to food writers and their readers."
Okay—I can definitely serve up an opinion about that.
The agenda for this retreat was pretty loose, but we covered lots of ground as we sat around the long kitchen table. I teased head cheese maker Lora Lea Misterly about being the Dorothy Parker of Rice, Washington.
The chefs talked of the frustration in coaxing diners into being more adventurous. "In Spokane, so many restaurants try to appeal to people by acting like big chains," said Blaine, whose menu at Latah Bistro is updated daily.
There was also a fair amount of head-scratching about how a mid-size city like Spokane could get some national recognition for its culinary accomplishments. I bet that "Hey, what about us?" topic inspired some heated griping in fly-over country last week when the James Beard Foundation best chefs semi-finalists list [PDF] was announced. Maybe there should be awards that shine the spotlight on out-of-the-way, under-the-radar restaurants. "The Stealthies"?
Still, the mood around the table was chill enough for me to put the chefs on the hot seat: "There's nothing worse than a bad mussel, right? And you can smell a bad mussel, right? Why would you ever send that out?"
"Look, bad food can happen, even in the best kitchens," Blaine said.
We must have sat around chewing the fat about food for four hours before taking a break to go dig out some parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and leeks to use in dinner prep. We ate cheese and sublime country ham cured and smoked by Rick Misterly. Then we talked some more.
It got me wondering how often chefs get the chance to sit down with their peers and share stories and sustenance. Probably not that often. Most cooks have too much to do by prepping, planning, and ordering, not to mention cooking and cleaning. In most kitchens, time is more precious than Beluga caviar. It's a bummer considering how inspiring all this sitting around and talking about food was, especially in such a beautiful setting.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and is working on a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.