Great Expectations UnfulfilledSaturday, September 7
While on a recent summer trip to the Okanagan Valley my wife and I couldn’t help but pay a visit to a favorite French bistro we thoroughly enjoyed during previous visits. The restaurant was so good in fact, that I actually wrote one of my very first columns nearly two years ago. Wow, two years already, who knew I would even have that much to say about food, but I digress. Back to the reason I bring this up in the first place.
The original article was titled “Make it Simple, Make it Right” and it spoke to the value of keeping it simple and fully understanding the fundamentals of cooking. I was referring to the importance of knowing the basic cooking skills and how food worked together, because as a maturing chef I could finally appreciate the skill required to show restraint and discipline on the plate. At the time our favorite little French bistro showed that discipline and touch in each and every bite.
Some two years later I am back to write about them again, but unfortunately for them, today it is for a different reason. This time around they were my inspiration because of another important key to success in the restaurant industry, consistency.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you like to eat, everyone has their favorite places to eat their favorite dish. Whether it’s the masterfully prepared foie gras at the expensive French restaurant or the perfectly delicious grilled bologna sandwich at the neighborhood watering hole, everyone I meet has that hot list of dishes they absolutely have to eat on a regular basis. They are the types of dishes that we would drive across town in rush hour traffic for, or stand in line for over an hour just to get a bite of, salivating at the mere thought of it hitting your lips again.
Sometimes though the anticipation is so great and we have worked it up so much in our minds that the actual meal can never stand up to the hype. It’s like going to the sequel of a movie that you thought was the absolute best thing ever seen, thinking that somehow the sequel was only going to be better. Sadly, we are seldom left feeling satisfied the second time around.
Then there are the times we drag our friends out to a restaurant because they just have to try your new favorite dish, only to be completely disappointed when it arrives and it is completely screwed up, or tastes nothing at all like your last visit.
On the other hand, most of us have enough restraint to control our expectations and want nothing more than for it to be as good as the last experience. Those were our expectations as we made our way to the restaurant. We had actually already had a wonderful meal while enjoying the sunset on the terrace of a winery, but wanted to make the most of a rare evening with just the two of us, so we elected to stop at restaurant for a nightcap. As we approached the restaurant we both couldn’t help but start talking about our fond memories of the French onion soup we enjoyed many a time before. Shortly after finding a couple of seats at the bar of the crowded bistro the aroma of the soup came wafting our way as it made it’s way to a nearby table. That was it, we were sunk. There was no way we could resist the temptation. The moment the bartender put his head we both blurted out that we would like to share a French onion soup. As we sat waiting the seconds felt like hours, and then, just when I felt like I couldn’t take it any longer and I was going to take my spoon and head to the nearest table with a bowl on it, the soup arrived. I should be clear, the soup didn’t take more then seven or eight minutes, it was merely the buildup I couldn’t handle.
Then it happened, the disappointment hit like a ton of bricks. Even as I slid the melted cheese and bread aside to allow the soup to cool slightly I could tell something just wasn’t right. Upon further inspection I could tell the ratio of onions to broth was all wrong. French onion soup should eat like a meal, with a good balance of perfectly caramelized onions, broth, bread and cheese in every bit, but there was no such luck. The broth didn’t even have the depth and character that it had so many times in the past. Worse still, at closer glance, it appeared that the bowl might have actually been re-fired, a kitchen term which means the kitchen has to make something again, in our case it seemed the kitchen made it for a table, realized they didn’t need it, then when we ordered it they simply through another piece of cheese on top of it and then through it back in the oven. This couldn’t be proven, but the underlying layer of burnt cheese around the outside of the bowl definitely raised my suspicions. Either way, it made for a very undesirable experience and has now cast a shadow of doubt over whether or not I will dine there again in the future. It’s amazing how quickly something so fond can turn into something so ugly.
As a chef I can fully understand the challenge that comes with trying to be continuously consistently great. I lose sleep over it every night. When food is prepared from scratch and chefs are relied upon to use their skills and their palate to ensure that the end result is the same there is a great deal of room for error. I distinctly remember my days in cooking school where our instructor would gather the fifteen of us to the front of the class at the end of the day to view the results of efforts. It never ceased to amaze me how each of us started with the same recipe and the same quality ingredients and yet there were almost always fifteen very distinct results. You see, to cook something requires more than the ability to read a recipe from a book and make it. It requires a great deal of passion for what you do and years of developing your palate and your skills. That is why chefs will constantly be tasting and adjusting the preparations of their young cooks. Clearly on the day of our most recent visit this vital step was missed, leaving us to second guess our future visits and having to search again for that simple, yet skillfully prepared, perfect bowl of French onion soup.
With that in mind I share with you my recipe for the perfect bowl, keeping in mind that it is up to you to turn it in to something memorable for you!