This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on the Roman Empire and how to successfully cut a leg of beef from a cow. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken near Arezzo on the superstrada to Florence and features a street sign announcing a truffle vendor selling truffles at street level prices. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Schoenberger: I would kill the cook who’d dare to pour cream into a mussel brew.
Dax: There’s that aggression again. Why do you always get so excited when people become creative and start to experiment with recipes? I understand that cooking is not about being creative and certainly not about pouring cream into a mussel brew. But then again, it is certainly allowed to alter recipes to a certain degree—when ingredients are missing for instance, or when you try to reproduce a dish at home that you’ve enjoyed in a restaurant.
Schoenberger: Sure. But I always get annoyed when I hear the term creativity in connection to cooking. Why not use another term instead? I’d suggest variability. Most people seem to have not understood that cooking is just another word for dictatorship—in the sense of the Roman Empire. It basically means that the laws of the galley apply. The captain recites the poems of Horaz. His pacing as he is reciting dictates to the drummer the speed at which to beat the drums. And those who are in the belly of the galley have to row according to the drum beat so that the ship can move. I guess you call that a chain of command. And it makes sense. If you’d allow your cooks or the service people to articulate an opinion you are doomed. And yet there were possibilities to bring in ideas.
Dax: Like what ideas?
Schoenberger: Any ideas were allowed. But the procedure had to be exactly like Machiavelli described it in The Prince: If the prince needs any advice, he asks his consiglieris. If he doesn’t ask for a counsel, nobody has to offer any. The captain moveth in mysterious ways. End of the story.
Dax: Can you name an idea that was brought to you and that you did accept?
Schoenberger: Actually, I adapted quite a lot of ideas from my people. When I felt there was a need to redirect I would call for a summit and ask for suggestions on how to improve certain things or how to confront specific problems together. I am just saying that you cannot allow, at any time, to invite people to constantly bother you with so-called ideas for improvement.
Dax: No examples?
Schoenberger: I told you we were cooking lunch for all the people who were working in our backyard on a daily basis. Since it was always the same people who were eating somebody suggested that we let them always pay their bills at the end of the month. It was a tiny thing to change but it made such a difference! People felt like they were members of an exclusive club or something.
Dax: If you were serving lunch for your friends and dinner for the masses, when would a typical working day at the Schönberger start in the morning?
Schoenberger: People started to pop in around 11 a.m. Never ever would anyone show up earlier as the nights at the restaurant were always long. Nonetheless it was often my duty to visit the fish market, the food wholesalers or the abattoir at 3 a.m. or at 7 a.m. in the morning. So, when we all met again around 11 a.m. we’d dish up an improvised breakfast while two of the cooks were preparing the lunch—composed of a salad and a main course. If the cooks weren’t too hungover they’d even prepare a dolce for everybody.
Dax: This reminds me of lunch traditions that you can sometimes still find in places such as provincial towns in Italy, France or Greece. At least that’s how I recall it. As a guest, you’d enter an osteria in, say, Jesi or Sassocorvaro, queue with the other people holding a tablet in your hands and then get something delicious for lunch and a carafe of wine. You never knew what they’d be serving you. But it was always great.
Schoenberger: And don’t forget: Serving a salad didn’t mean that we were taking the easy option. The kitchen hand would have to clean the salad for as long as it took for it to no longer contain any traces of soil. Ask any chef in a kosher restaurant how often they clean a salad or the vegetables. Always remember that soil is not a sign of freshness. In autumn when it rains a lot you may have to wash a salad ten times until you can consider your work done.
Dax: What other kind of preparation work had to be done in the kitchen?
Schoenberger: The fish had to be gutted and scaled. And with my personal working background as a slaughterer I would bone the meat whenever necessary. Usually twice a week I’d also boil out the bones and extract meat stock. The important thing—if you cook for a lot of people—is that you prepare everything in advance. And I mean EVERYTHING. Even if you’d find some time in the evening you certainly wouldn’t find the space to do it. Especially in this regard cooking in a restaurant differs from preparing a three-course menu at home.
Dax: How do you extract meat stock?
Schoenberger: You chop the bones to pieces with a cleaver and put them into a big braissère together with some olive oil. You then braise the bones with the oil in an oven until they get dark, then add some celeriac, bay leafs, carrots and just a little bit of flour to bind the oil while roasting the bones. You then deglaze everything with red wine and broth and let it reduce for a couple of hours in the oven. The broth you get by concocting vegetables and meat—otherwise you’d call it a bouillon. While you keep the broth to use it for the meat stock you throw away the boiled out vegetables. The meat you can serve as a cold starter together with homemade pesto.
Dax: By what means did your background as a slaughterer help in that regard?
Schoenberger: I certainly had some advantage when it came to merchandise knowledge. I did save a lot of money buying entire pieces of meat that I would then dissect myself. But even more importantly, people wouldn’t sell me bad product at the abattoir. If someone told me a piece of meat had been well-hung for eight weeks then I had the capacity to be able to see that it might’ve been hung for just two or three weeks instead. At the abattoir people respect you immediately if you tell them that you can cut the leg of beef yourself from the quarter because they realize that you are one of them.
Read Fast Food 17 next week.