Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chef Juan Mari Arzak and the Burning Bush

God speaks Spanish.  And has three Michelin stars.  I know this, because he has just spoken to me at this five-course luncheon, on this cold, rainy mid-October afternoon, in the middle of Washington's Rogue 24 dining room floor for all here to see.  He touches my arm and speaks to me again, more slowly this time, almost languidly, the way an all-knowing abuelo will speak to a dimwitted, if favorite, grandchild at his knee.  He tells me, his head waiter charged with leading today's service, to slow down.  To concentrate.  To keep breathing.  To focus on what I'm doing.  He tells me that life in the Basque Country of Spain is not about speed.  Not about efficiency.  Not about rushing food from the kitchen to the table.  No.  That's gringo style.  The disease of North American fine dining.  Basque cooking is about taking one's time.  It's about the savoring the delicacy of life's many flavors.  It's about finding the reflection of one's very own soul in the pearly brine of an oyster shell.  And he tells me this, all of this, in Spanish.

"Entiendes lo que estoy diciendo?"

I tell him I understand everything.

"Claro, chef," I say.  "Si, claro.  Lo siento."

But I understand none of what he's trying to say.  Not just because my Spanish sucks (as clearly it must), but because this is a case of an oracle speaking directly to an acolyte from on-high.  Because this is a case of God speaking to Moses through the burning bush.  For while I might understand the words themselves and the sequence in which they're spoken, it's the concept of what's being said that I'm now struggling with, and mightily.  No doubt Arzak has already sized me up with his god-like acumen and spotted me for the food-professional impostor that I am, the foodie idiot savant.  I am not worthy.  Not to stand before him.  Not to serve his food.  He sees this or something like it in my face and smiles.

"Chill out, kid," he says in perfect English.  "Everything's going to be just fine." 

For those of you unfamiliar with the great chef, here's Arzak in a nutshell:  Three Michelin stars.  Chef/Owner of Arzak, a restaurant which international food writers routinely rate as among the world's ten best.  The reigning godfather of Basque Nuevo cuisine.  A true culinary heavy weight.  A living legend. A god of modern gastronomy.  

That I have well over ten years in the business and thousands of events under my belt should make me impervious to all the Food Network induced celebrity chef worship crap that goes with working with the likes of Arzak? 

Hardly.  That ain't the way it goes.

If nothing else, my hard-scrabble years in the food business evoke something just short of pure reverence for the great chef Arzak.

How so?  

Those of us who toil daily and largely-annonymously in the industry find (if my may speak for my food brethren) all of this celebrity chef bullshit somehow analogous to the music business:  most rock 'n roll bands, however talented and good, never get signed, never land the big record deal; they are, almost all, relegated to the ash heaps of obscurity, a veritable dust bin of unlistened-to demo tapes, and dismissed to a life of "what-if's" and "almosts."  So it is in the food business.  Daily I am surrounded by ferociously talented cooks and servers, who will, for their entire careers, remain nameless and obscure in their glorious labor.  But that's the gig.  It's what they've signed up for.  It's a given.  You live in the moment.  And when that moment has passed, you move on to the next.  Not until the advent of the Food Network, and still as rarely as lightning gets trapped in a bottle, had anyone (with exemptions allotted to Child and Pepin) risen to true celebrity in the food business.  Only very rarely does this world allow a skinny, big-toothed, knock-kneed punk-rock drummer from suburban Northern Virginia to become Dave Grohl.  Only more rarely does the world allow a Vassar-dropout-cum-brunch cook-cum-junkie become to Tony Bourdain.  And we celebrate those who have gone before, whom have triumphed.

So what, then, to make of this culinary titan before me, this Chef Juan Mari Arzak, for whom our own Food Network/Travel Channel celebrity chefs swoon and revere?  Arzak, I suspect, knows little of such things.  Here is a man, born in 1942, and who came of culinary age when apprentice chefs were physically beaten, and whose stations were, in the American parlance, fixedly blue collar.  

The luncheon for which we're working is for 27 guests.  And it's to celebrate the food and wine of the Basque region of Spain.  All Arzak has to do is show up in his whites, shake a few hands, and smile.  His vast international celebrity can do all of the heavy lifting for him.  It's a veritable walk in the park.  I would know.  I've been working with his advance team of sous chefs for the past two days.  Everything's been prepped; every culinary contingency met; nothing left to chance.  All Arzak has to do is show up and smile.  

But no.  He enters the kitchen and rolls up his sleeves.  He means business. 

And this is why, in a silly blog decidedly about the glories of street food, of populist cuisine, that someone the likes of Arzak shall appear, stars and all.

Because he brings a ferocious Basque-cum-American blue-collar ethic to his cooking; because he is seemingly oblivious to his own celebrity; because he's a man of the people, a man of the street.  I watched him fix an unworthy sauce seconds before plating.  I watched him berate (in hushed, god-like tones) one of his sous chefs for not having a section of beef cheek at proper serving temperature.  I watched him plate every single course, and touch every single plate, that came out of that kitchen.

Is this the life of a so-called celebrity chef?  Is this what international acclaim brings to a no-brainer of a lunch for 27 dim-witted Washingtonians who merely need the famed chef to clap like a seal to feel nourished and well-fed?  No.  This is the work of soldier, who, for no matter how many Michelin stars may be pinned across his chest, will forever fight the good fight, and no doubt die with his culinary boots on.

I salute you, Chef Arzak.  And yes, Chef, I am working on my Spanish.

At this very moment.

And that's a promise. 


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