Monday, June 8, 2009

the raw and the cooked

This spring I was given the opportunity to do  a raw food meal for 12 people, a gluten free meal for 12 people and a heart smart dinner for 12 people.  All three were done at the special request of our customers.

The raw food dinner came about when a friend of a friend was in having salad with nothing but fresh lemon.  We started talking and I found out that he and his wife enjoy a strictly raw food vegan diet.  Raw foodists eat nothing that has been cooked.  I agree, or perhaps I offer, to cook him and his wife a strictly raw food dinner. Well, I guess they enjoyed their first meal because they booked to come back with another couple. The second meal was a success so this gentleman decided to invite his family out for a raw food birthday dinner.

Raw food is more than just salads and chopped up veggies. I was challenged to create memorable meals with colour and texture, complementing and contrasting flavours, interesting constructions. These meals need to be nutritionally complete. Just like any other dinner, 'cept raw.  

I made sprouted legume crackers.  I made chilled melon soup. Tomato and fennel was pureed and dried to make a pasta like skin for manicotti which I filled with a creamy avocado and almond mixture. (Tastes surprisingly like ricotta). I made a creamy hemp seed ice cream and a chocolate cake out of fresh cocoa nibs, ground date flour and dried bananas.  

The guests said the food was delicious. I have another raw food dinner coming up.

The gluten free dinner was less of a stretch. Our menu is already quite celiac friendly. I have a good friend with celiacs so since we opened three years ago we are always mindful of this condition. If our dishes don't need to have flour or grains, we won't use it. And many of our dishes can be made gluten free with minor modifications. We always have at least one good gluten free cake on the dessert menu. We even stock Frio, a gluten free beer.  The only hitch was doing the fries. We had a pot of oil on the stove, (we fry breaded products in our deep-fryer and there is a fear of transference) but just couldn't keep it hot enough.  But otherwise, the dinner went off smoothly.

The third interesting dinner came at the request of a couple who are regulars. Would we do a heart smart dinner? Those of you who have been to the bistro will recognize the irony of this. Bistro 7 1/4 is not really the type of place you think of for heart smart dining.  "What are the three most important ingredients is french cooking?" I will often quiz my customers. "Butter, Cream... (pause for effect)... and more butter".  We are known for our hammer chop, a 24+ oz fatty rib steak that we serve with sweet potato fries and top with, you guessed it, a chili butter.  Our favourite appetizers are the grilled pork belly and the fatty beef scraps which we deep-fry. There is enough butter and duck fat vapours in the air to clog your arteries just by breathing it in.  Even our salmon dish, which is usually heart smart, is topped with butter and on a chowder made with reduced cream and bacon. So, when asked to do a heart smart dinner, we were shocked, but of course we said yes.

4 oz portions of lean beef or grilled halibut, roast potatoes, asparagus, it all looked very elegant. Fennel and grapefruit salsa graced the halibut; fresh tomatoes in balsamic adorned the steak. The dessert however as the highlight. I made a chocolate cake with nothing but cocoa, egg whites and sugar. It was rich and dense and deliciously chocolaty.  It was a hit. The guests left satisfied and happy.

Why did I do these special dinners? I am not hurting for the business.  They take extra work when I already have a pretty full day. I guess I agree to take these things on for two main reasons.

The first is the challenge. It is easy to get complacent in your cooking style. You keep rehashing old recipes, using the same techniques. It is easy to get stuck in a rut. Doing these alternate dinners challenges you to discover new techniques, research new recipes, explore new ideas. Cooking a new style of meal forces you to think outside of the specific box you are in. I would challenge all of you to try eating vegan for a week, that will stretch your gastronomic mind.  Challenging yourself in this way will make you a better cook the rest of the time.

The second, and most important reason,  is the power of yes.  Without getting motivational-speaker-creepy on you, excellent customer service is about saying yes.  Lemon in your water? yes. Extra olives in your martini? yes. Can we come in at 11:30 even though your sign says you close at 10:00? yes. Can I get my salmon without bacon and my livers with extra bacon? yes. Can you do a raw food vegan dinner with no fermented products or mushrooms for twelve next Saturday? yes.

But this is not a stretch. It seems like this makes more work for me, but
 saying yes is way easier than saying no.  I genuinely want to make people happy. It is not a marketing strategy. Genuine hospitality comes from an instinct to provide to you guests not only what they need, but what they want. So saying yes is easy. It is never confrontational. It is never difficult.   Why say no, when you can say yes and make someone happy?