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Friday, January 18, 2013

The Importance of Rabbits

    Let me start by saying I wholeheartedly expect this to me a somewhat shorter post, but you all know how I get. I sit down to share a few tidbits from class with everyone, and before I know it the post turns into a full fledged novel. The truth is, I am working on a much lengthier post for you all so this will be a little amuse bouche to get your palates excited.
    Last week the my class and I (what's left of us anyway) embarked on our journey through the homeland and beyond in Cuisines of the Americas, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all what exactly we have been doing for the past week and a half.
   Everyone has watched that one movie where the protagonist eats a meal in a foreign country and is taken back when something unusual such as monkey brains are brought to the table; i.e. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (picture below). The character looks on with troubling eyes as the natives gorge themselves on the "delicacy" of the land. The audience gasps, wondering if people eat that sort of thing in real life. Well I am here to tell you that they do, because yesterday I had the pleasure of willfully eating the heart, brain, and eyeballs of a goat. Yes, you read that right....

"Leftovers again..."
    There we were, setting up demo plates for the class (we only have service every other day so we can work the kinks out before we feed the masses) when I stumbled upon the head of a goat sitting on a cutting board. One of the teams in the kitchen were braising sections of the goats body for a curried goat dish, but what was the head doing there? Naturally I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and took my phone out to snag a quick photo. Chef Phillips gathered the class around the serving tables and explained what everyone had made. My eyes were fixated on the goat head chilling ominously in the corner; which looked oddly similar to the pig's head from Lord of the Flies




    Actually, after looking at it they look nothing alike. I guess its because I've never seen an animal's head detached from its body before. Anyway, Chef Phillips finally made his way to the end of the large silver prep table where the goat's head was resting. "So this is the head of the goat we braised earlier in class", he said as some of my classmates gasped in horror. Without hesitation Chef Phillips cut into the head with a large cleaver while simultaneously describing the benefits of eating the head. "Here in gringo land we usually toss this out, but south of the boarder they utilize EVERYTHING", he continued. Going to town on the noggin, he shaved off chucks of the cheeks to distribute to the class for tasting. "Funny, I've never tasted a goat's cheek before...", I thought while plunging the tiny morsel into my mouth. For some of the students in the class this was already too much to bare, but it did not stop there. I glanced over at my friend Kaitlin to see how she was doing right at the point where the goat's eyeballs were being plucked out. Her face was pale as Caspar the friendly ghost, and I could feel her soul die with every hack and chop of the head. When the jaw was removed, I thought she was going to faint, but she soldiered on. Now that the eyes were on the table, Chef Phillips cut them into tiny pieces for everybody to try. All eyes (including the goat's...) were on the always cheery Kaitlin Hill. I was curious myself to see if she would muster up the courage to eat a piece. She did not. For someone who just started eating pork again only a few months ago, seeing an eyeball chopped to smithereens can be a traumatic experience, so you really can't blame her. I on the other hand was far to curious to not eat some goat eye. It felt like the fatty grizzle on the end of a steak in my mouth, but was surprisingly delicious. 
    Our wild trip through the inner workings of Gary the goat's head was coming to a close but there still was one more part to try; the brain, or as the zombies would say: braaiiiiiiiinsss
    As with the eyes, the brain was chopped into bite-sized pieces for the class and we were again encouraged to try it. I did not hesitate (there goes that curiosity again...), but the question still remained, would Kaitlin give it a try. For the record she was not alone in her refusal to eat goat head parts. Alex, our group leader also was defiant in his stance against it. One of these two would step up and eat some brain. Now Kaitlin is a small blonde haired girl who on most days fancies eating bananas for dinner, and quivers at the thought of killing cute or small animals. Alex on the other hand is a 6"1' 230 pound (rough estimate) ex-lineman from New Jersey. Who do you think ate the brain? The Vegas odds were going off with Kaitlin at 50-1 and Alex at 3-1. Well if you're a lover of money I would not take this bet...Everyone in the class including Chef Phillips were cheering them on when finally Kaitlin grabbed a small chunk of the brain and ate it like a champ. Holding back vomit no doubt she swallowed it and forever will be able to say she knows what brain tastes like.
"GARSON! Be a doll and fetch me some brain"

      




   


    We as a society are conditioned to enjoy "beef" and "pork" as delicately fabricated pieces of meat cooked in a pan. We never see the happy cows lining up to be belted over the head with a mallet (its more humane these days I assure you, but still), or the chickens that are put into special machines designed to rip off all the feathers in one motion. Even fish served with the head on can freak some people out. There lies a disconnect between us as consumers and the animals we kill for food. Just ask my Sous Chef at Sperry's back home. He was asked by one of his purveyors one day to assist in the rabbit slaughtering process and its something that probably haunts him to this day. "I was fine when I got there", he said to me one day while chopping vegetables for stock. "but when you get into the pens were they keep them I started to loose it. You have to grab them by their hind legs, and these things really scream because they know what you're trying to do. It kind of messed me up for a while." This is coming from a guy I've seen fillet an eighty pound Halibut no problem...
    The point I am trying to make here is not to depict the modern day David & Goliath scenario of Kaitlin vs Alex in brain eating, but rather to explain how people feel about food when it suddenly has a face to go along with it. Its one thing to eat "venison", but its an entirely different thing to shoot Bambi in the neck and physically feel its heartbeat slow down before digging into its still warm body to remove the guts. Unless you're like my boy Clayton who has killed more ducks in real life than I have in Duck Hunt, than you probably will never see that part of the process. I've never been a part of the killing process but I hope one day I am. We all should. Not just as chefs, but as people. We all should be there to kill an animal before it is broken down for consumption. Taking the life of an animal creates a closer bond, an intimacy if you will, that Thomas Keller describes in a chapter of one of his books titled, The Importance of Rabbits (from which this post is named). Below is an excerpt from that chapter that I think you all should read if you want to understand the deeper bond I am talking about.


“From 1980 to 1983, I worked in the kitchen of a small restaurant near Catskill, New York, on a patch of the Hudson River Valley so remote it didn’t have an address.  The sixty-seat restaurant was owned by René and Paulette Macary (she remains its proprietor today).  La Rive, named thus because it sat on a wide running creek, was a fruitful training ground, and New York State had extraordinary livestock.  Beautiful veal came down from Utica.  I found a man who raised spectacular pigeons.  I began to ask these farmers for unusual items to experiment with, things like pigs’ ears, cockscombs, duck testicles.
One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit.  I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning and butchering, and then the cooking.  The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.  He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it - the whole bit.  Then he left.
I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan.  I clutched at the first rabbit.  I had a hard time killing it.  It screamed.  Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly.  Then it broke its leg trying to get away.  It was terrible.
The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste.  Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them.  I would use all my powers as chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.  It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away.  A cook sautéing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself?  No.  Should a cook squander anything ever?
It was a simple lesson.”

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