“Thanks. See you on Sunday. I’ll be the funny-looking Asian, staring blankly at the door,” I ended my note to Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy as we arranged for an interview and a recipe demonstration. I am, apparently, the master (mistress?) of lame humor. Did I think he would have me confused with another funny-looking Asian, waiting outside, staring meaningfully at the door?
As it turned out, though the restaurant was closed that day, I didn’t have to wait outside to be buzzed in. The uniformed and apron-clad Chef Fahy was already waiting in front of the entrance looking clean-cut, friendly, and a lot younger than I’d envisioned him.
Within minutes after a brief introduction, Fahy and I were standing in his kitchen in the presence of a massive bowl of beets. With gloved hands, we started peeling and cubing the highly-staining orbs. As the frothy deep crimson juice trickled down the spout of the ferocious-looking Champion juicer, the conversation started flowing.
Two weeks prior, I had the pleasure of dining at Blackbird, Chicago, a place where I’d always wanted to visit and would have done so several years ago had life not been so actively getting in the way. The tasting menu that evening was fantastic. And while I would not rend my clothing and wail in agony if I don’t ever eat one of the seafood dishes again (sorry, Chef Sheerin), everything else was just as I’d hoped it would be and then some.
It was obvious to me that some genius thinking went into the flavor-texture orchestration. They were presented in a simple yet elegant and creative manner. Affectation was nowhere to be found. I’m old-school when it comes to food, believing that the taste that bears witness to the impeccable, well-chosen ingredients as well as the adroit hands that put them together should be able to enthrall any diner without anyone standing nearby whispering, “Eat it quickly. In two bites. The psychedelic purple sphere first, please, then the periwinkle.”
Something honestly good has the ability to impress even though it is not presented amidst pluming clouds of solid carbon dioxide or skewered on Capellini-thin sticks precariously balanced on a martini glass.
Sated, I closed my eyes to sleep that night with thoughts of the subdued earthiness of the beet ice cream, the slightly bitter bouquet of the dark chocolate pavé, and the lingering vibrancy of the lime zest-perfumed grains of salt. Even Robert Linxe’s biscuits moelleux au chocolat consumed by the Seine didn’t have that effect on me. It could be the Libran moon. It could be that I’ve watched Babette’s Feast way too many times. Or it could be that the desserts I had at Blackbird were honestly good. Excellent food made and served ex animo tends to have a heart-warming effect on you. What a way to celebrate my first bittersweet birthday without either one of my parents alive.
A few keystrokes on my computer later, I found out, Patrick Fahy, the man behind the scene started working at the restaurant only a few days prior to my visit. The 30-year-old Chicago native spent the last year working as chef de partie at the celebrated French Laundry in Yountville, CA. Being one degree separated from the renownedThomas Keller, I suppose, must make for an impressive curriculum vitae not to mention an enviable position to be in.
It did not appear to be a stroke of luck, however. Apparently, blood, toil, tears, sweat, and I’m sure substantial financial investments in education, had gone into landing Fahy where he is. According to the chef, his early years involved countless hours of menial jobs in the kitchen. He had worked in the restaurant and catering industry doing a variety of tasks, accumulating know-how and experience working in places such as Bittersweet Pastry Shop and the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. The half-year L’Art de la Pâtisserie program at the French Pastry School in Chicago and 14 months apprenticing in Florence, Italy, have strengthened Fahy’s standing in the culinary realm.
“Nothing unusual. It’s been done,” Fahy humbly mumbled a response to my praise of the pairing of dark chocolate and beet, carefully dropping chunks of beet into the juicer’s feed chute, not noticing that I’d just clumsily dropped a piece of beet on the floor. Shoot.
The cold chills that suddenly went up my spine were unwarranted by the chef’s friendly demeanor. In fact, to describe my first impression of Fahy, I’d say this. You know how when you’re alone at a Starbucks working on your laptop when suddenly the need to use the washroom arises and you look around for someone to watch your computer and blueberry scone in your absence?
Well, based solely on appearance and mannerism, Fahy struck me as a guy under whose care I would not hesitate to entrust my laptop and fruit-studded pastry. My utterly illogical theory: If someone looks like they might run away with your laptop, they probably are the yelling/cussing type.
Sadly, Gordon Ramsay’s falsetto insults (warning: YouTube clip with F-bombs) had left an indelible imprint on my memory. And though Fahy did not appear to be the kind of chef that yelled, I was taking no chances.
In an attempt to divert the chef’s attention away from the floor, I asked how he came up with the dessert ensemble. “Chocolate and root vegetables go very well together,” he said and I nodded. As Fahy mentioned that he was thinking about pairing chocolate with butternut squash and other starchy, autumnal items, I dropped yet another piece of beet on the floor. This time the chef saw it. The stray sucker got thrown into the garbage can and the conversation continued as if nothing had happened.
My theory was correct. He wasn’t the yelling kind.
It seems cooking is something the chef had enjoyed since he was a wee lad growing up in Rogers Park, a Chicago neighborhood. For as long as he could remember, he had always wanted to be a chef. Asked what he would have become if life had been different and he was not a chef, Fahy strained for an answer as if the thought never crossed his mind. “I’d probably be in professional sports, I guess,” he answered, adding that he used to play quite a bit of tennis.
At first, that sounded a bit odd. But observing Fahy work in the kitchen, I could see the connection. Professional cooking requires the kind of physical stamina comparable to that of an athlete. You need to be able to be on your feet at least 12 hours a day. The job is also very physical with a great deal of heavy lifting and squatting down to retrieve things from the low-boys among other things. Everyday you come into contact with sharp metal tools capable of severing digits and causing the jettisoning of blood. Then there’s the deadly molten sugar which can burn like a …. You get the idea.
“What was the first dessert you made as a kid, Patrick?” I asked. A long pause followed. “Brownies. Got to be brownies. Every kid starts off with brownies,” I obnoxiously helped him answer my own question since silence could be so unbearably awkward. “Actually,” the chef finally spoke, “It was a custard pudding.”
I swallowed hard.
So the first dessert he made as a kid involved controlled oxidation of C12H22O11, creating an environment wherein protein molecules can coagulate just right, and possibly baking au bain marie. When I was a kid, my greatest culinary accomplishment was being able to crack open an egg and not having it land on the floor.
Quickly recovering from a brief bout of inferiority complex, I set out on a little supervised tour of the kitchen. Something about this place beckoned the little kid inside me to come out and play. I moseyed around the clean and well-organized, albeit limited, space, checking out all the cool gadgets and gizmos. Every box was clearly labeled and neatly stowed away. The chef showed me the contents of some of the boxes. Pulled sugar ribbons. Chocolate tuiles. Blown sugar miniature green apples. Dried shaved coconut. Fun.
Behind me was a huge dehydrator inside of which lay sheaths of sorghum. Tucked away in the a corner were dozens of pears and whole coconuts. Just as I was about to ask the chef whether he thought coconuts migrated, I quickly remembered what a friend once said to me, “Sometimes, you sound really smart when you shut up.” So shut up I did. Not that it was easy.
“Patrick, what makes you different from other pastry chefs?” Now, I thought that was a pretty smart question. “Dedication,” he answered. The willingness to give more of himself to the job, Fahy believed, was one of his greatest assets as a chef. He works up to 18 hours a day and spends much of what he earns on tools and trainings that would enhance his skills. “My girlfriend gave me a picture of a flying penguin as a reminder,” he said, beaming. “To be different — to fly — you just have to flap a little harder.”
The chef turned around to check on the beet juicethat was reducing and turning almost syrupy in a saucier. The benevolent beets, after having been juiced to a pulp, were now surrendering what was left of their flavor and color to the cream mixture simmering in a gigantic pot. Some of the hot liquid was briskly whisked into a bowl of egg yolks. Fahy was slowly bringing the temperature of the yolks up closer to that of the cream mixture thereby preventing them from scrambling upon contact with the hot cream — a process called tempering. The tempered yolk mixture was then returned to the cream pot.
Asked whether I made ice cream at home, I winced. The truth is, I don’t make it as often as I’d like. This is because the crème anglaise (French for “pain in the rear”) base is not exactly fuss-free. Crème anglaise, as opposed to crème pâtissière, does not contain a certain amount of starch which would help protect against curdling in the event of excessive heating. The coagulation of the egg proteins is what creates the homogeneous, viscous end result. Heat the custard beyond its threshold and it breaks on you like a brittle parchment scroll from 200 BC.
In a manner devoid of self-importance, Fahy responded to my whining about botched crème anglaise by suggesting I bring the curdled mess back to life by giving it a whirl in a blender. “An immersion blender works too,” he added. Good to know.
That wasn’t the only tip I learned from the chef that day. As the ice cream base was removed from the stove and strained through a wire gauze chinois, I learned that the best way to facilitate the straining was to tap on the rim of the strainer instead of pressing the mixture against the sieve which would cause the sediments to fall through the mesh. I learned that by adding milk powder to the ice cream base, you increase the amount of milk solids thereby reducing the iciness and increasing the creaminess of the end product. I also learned that when plating a frozen dessert, it’s a good idea to place it right on top of a layer of something (candied cocoa nibs, in this case) to keep the ice cream from melting too soon and slithering about on the plate.
But the greatest lesson I got from the good chef that day? How to form an ice cream quenelle.
Hopelessly non-dexterous, I spent a good part of my life convincing myself that symmetry and surface smoothness were irrelevant and unattainable. But maybe, just maybe, my luck is about to change for the better.