Life’s Not Fair

If you have more than one child you know how hard-wired the human hunger for justice is. Witness the bitterness that can be packed into the words “it’s not fair” when a child calls attention to an inequity. If you have a boy and a girl, the situation is even worse, because it can be awkward, or even impossible, to treat each child identically. When my son, Graydon, was ten, and my daughter, Lena, was eight, and Julia and I were homeschooling them both, the “fairness” in our hearts was put to the test.

Graydon went with me twice a week when I delivered our farm’s produce to restaurants in San Francisco. This allowed Julia to focus on Lena’s needs without distraction.

“Graydon has to get up at 3:30 in the morning,” I told Lena. But the way she heard it was that her brother “got” to get up early. “The produce boxes are heavy and they drip,” I said. “And I’m weak?” Lena asked.

So I took Lena with me one morning. It wanted her to see where some of our farm’s income comes from. Besides, cartoons tell kids that being a “gourmet chef” means being a fussy, high-strung, dramatic, French or Italian man sporting a ridiculous mustache, and I wanted Lena to see that such caricatures are falsehoods. First of all, we sell to plenty of woman chefs, like Traci Des Jardines. Sure, Traci is at home in the world of white tablecloths and sparkling stemware, but she can also break a whole pig down with quick sure strokes. And as far as drama goes, when Traci went up against “Molto” Mario Batali of the Food Network’s Iron Chef show, she messed him up bad, besting him 24/ 21 on flavor, going 12/9 on plating, and tying the big guy 11/11 on originality. One of “Molto’s” apologists told me that Traci won because, at the time of the competition, Mario had just come off a grueling three week vacation that saw him party his way across Asia. But so what! I wanted Lena to see how hard work and discipline make a winning combination.

Lena and I got to Greens Restaurant at first light. Greens is by the water in Fort Mason Center, and a giant freighter passed under the Golden Gate and slipped by us just a hundred yards off shore. We could smell the brine in the air and hear the seagulls and the wavelets from the big ship’s wake slapping at the pilings on the pier. It was so early that only the bakers were present, and Lena got a hot scone. Baker’s are a different breed than other cooks, partly I suppose, because the biochemistry of yeast is so unforgiving. And bakers also have to be morning people. Sometimes bakers don’t talk a lot, but the women at Greens talked to Lena as she enjoyed her scone, and she told them that she likes to bake too.

When we got to Boulette’s Larder, Chef Amaryll Schwertner gave Lena a beautifully wrapped little package of cookies. Lena is the sort of person who appreciates perfect presentation. I unloaded boxes while Lena un-wrapped her cookies and admired Boulette, Amaryll’s gorgeous, dreadlocked Hungarian Sheepdog. Boulette’s Larder is half restaurant, half boutique pantry, where discerning cooks can find special ingredients like fresh saffron and other exotic spices. While the use of unusual or expensive ingredients may seem profligate to some people, as I get to know more professional chefs, I’m struck, not by how “highfalutin” they are, but by how down to earth and thrifty they are, compared to the average American home cook. Amaryll knows when, where, and why to use saffron in order to achieve a specific effect, but she’s also the last person to waste food. She knows that even (or especially) luxurious restaurants must practice tight-fisted economies if they wish to stay in business.

Take tomatoes, for example. Extra tomatoes, soft tomatoes and tomatoes that are damaged or cosmetically challenged are not thrown away; they’re used for tomato water. First the tomatoes are chopped, then put in a cheesecloth bag over a pot in the refrigerator and left to drain. The clear liquid that’s captured has the clean, flavorful, essence of tomato without any distracting catsup “notes” or pizza “tones.” Tomato water is used to give character to vinaigrettes, sauces, broths, juices and cocktails. It’s been eye-opening for me to learn how the discipline and values that come from measuring food costs or being familiar with scarcity are far more important to good cooking than having an unlimited budget.

By the time we got to Zuni Café, Lena was bored. The service door at Zuni opens into Rose Alley, and I always pull my truck up on the curb next to the restaurant so that cars can pass. From the driver’s seat I could see Chef Judy Rodgers stalking through her kitchen like an egret hunting frogs, peering into simmering pots, inspecting plates, counting croutons. Judy is all about details. She knows it’s not enough to make a perfect, savory meal. Success comes from knowing why a meal came out so well, so that perfection can be achieved over and over again. Judy’s a long way from the silly cartoon image of the inspired chef who flings spices at a soup. That’s why the cookbook she wrote was no vanity broadside, but a focused, scholarly work that I’ve seen open and stained in a number of different chefs’ offices around the city.

The pantry and prep kitchen at Zuni is down some very steep stairs. To help with deliveries there’s a long wooden slide that folds up against the wall when it’s not being used. Someone stands at the bottom of the slide to catch and stack the boxes as they come flying down. Lena got out of the truck, and when she saw the slide, she knew what it was really built for. Quick as spark she hopped on the slide and went hurtling into the Zuni basement, one hand held high like a bull rider.

Judy looked up from a stove where she’d bent over to adjust a flame and saw me. She had a question for me about chard, and came over. As she spoke, she heard a huffing and puffing, and looked down. Her eyes popped. Coming up the steep, splintery, freight slide, hand over hand, right out of the prep kitchen, was a ragamuffin girl child, about eight years old. Judy was speechless. The Zuni kitchen is as organized and disciplined as Judy’s cookbook; it is not a playground for urchins. As I answered Judy’s question about the relative amounts of oxalic acid in different varieties of chard, I collared Lena so she couldn’t go shooting down the freight slide again. A young woman line cook hustled Lena out the door, and as she helped Lena climb back into the cab, the young cook gave her a brownie, and a compliment. “You know, sweetie,” she said. “I always wanted to do that, but I never had enough nerve!”

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

photo above taken by Julia W.: it’s of Lena taking a special pastry class arranged by Aaron Toensing at Bix in 2006.  Thanks, Aaron and Zhana!

Lena this summer at the beach.

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