Of Fire, Water and the Ego of the Chef

Watching the third episode of the inaugural season of Chef’s Table on Netflix I was in awe, in love, and then a bit uncomfortable. The series by David Gelb, who created the sublime documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, uses stunning cinematography and slowly unfolding stories to create a tension between personalizing the chefs and venerating them. Each story seems to beg the question: Does ego drive them to celebrity status or does constant adulation lead to inflated self-importance? Francis Mallman, the subject of a beautifully filmed third episode, embodies that question. But it starts with a fire.

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A fire on the edge of a lake in Patagonia. Trout is prepared over open flames just a few steps from where it was caught. Vegetables are thrown directly into fires as side dishes to tremendous chunks of searing meat. The carcass of an entire lamb, stretched across wooden poles, are stuck into the snow surrounding a massive bonfire to roast slowly all day. These flame-licked treasures are all brought like offerings to a massive table covered with an ivory tablecloth, in the middle of the woods and served with magnums of wine. Then Mallman reads poetry in one of the three or four languages in which he is apparently fluent.

One can not help but wonder how all of this gets done, how it is all financed, and slowly all is revealed. Mallman ran a restaurant at a young age, spent two years in Paris under a number of prestigious chefs, then came back to Argentina and ran a highly successful French restaurant before walking away from it all and “living off the land”. There is much made about the simplicity of his lifestyle and how he is returning to his Argentinian country roots, but then the army of assistants starts to slowly emerge; young chefs who have come to train under this cult of personality. But for all the pomp and circumstance which ultimately surrounds Mallman, the lingering impact for me was a re-kindling of a romance for cooking over open fire. In that, there is something pure, something true.

The cabin at the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan provides the perfect setting to let my romance for cooking over fire grow into a full-blown love affair. Though the process may take a bit longer, the cooking may be more uneven, and there is a pretty high potential for ash in your dinner, this was something I wanted to do. And being the cook, it’s still a bit about me, isn’t it? At some primal level, creating a dinner is fundamentally an act of the ego. And it just don’t get more primal than fire.

In order to provide adequate fuel for our affair, we made a stop at Waseda Farms Market on the way to pick-up a whole host of precious provisions including organic tri-tip steak, green beans, sweet potatoes, and duck eggs (more on those in a later post). We built the fire, sipped a few Michigan and Wisconsin beers, developed some lovely coals, then placed our set of well-seasoned cast iron pans on the grate to help to moderate heat. Potatoes and sweet potatoes were peeled and placed in foil with butter, salt, and fresh sage. The green beans went into a pan with diced bacon. The steak was lightly seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, and paprika and given a generous knob of butter as well. All very simple.

Initially, there was some concern the steak may be overdone and the potatoes might still be a bit hard, but thankfully the steak was beautifully smokey and medium rare upon being sliced and the potatoes were creamy and smooth. The sun setting on the lake and the warmth of the company undoubtedly added to the moment, but it was a truly lovely dinner. The fire did add a smokiness to the meal, but more powerfully, the fire added a very visceral connection to the process; watching the meal cook and then enjoying it outdoors, just a few feet away.After dinner, Michigan peaches were quartered, pitted and then placed on the fire with butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. They were served over the morning’s remaining crumb cake.

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As we explore these ideas of Great Lakes Cuisine, we’ve returned to the fire many times – the fire-brewed booyah, the infamous pig roast, our campfire exploits and countless smoked dishes. The process is not essential to the preparation of Great Lakes Cuisine, but it undeniably adds to the romance.

The Chef’s Table series focuses more on the chef than on the process, which may make for better story-telling, but can also distance the viewer from the food being created. We are being sold on the idea that each dish is a work of art, each dinner is a performance. But rather than place ourselves in the passive role of audience, to paraphrase the great bard, perhaps we are the actors and all the world’s the stage. My romance for food is not spectacle, but visceral, it is participatory. For all the great food coming out of the chef-led restaurants of the Great Lakes area, one of the hallmarks is a certain humility, a lack of showmanship. This connection to the food, connection to the land, connection to traditions generates a reverence and respect which is not a force of ego and an act of artifice, but more authentic and an act of true craft. This I would suggest is truly an essential component of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Cooking over the Campfire: Re-creating Tin Dins

A few summers ago, my children introduced me to a camp tradition – Tin Dins. They prepare them at Camp Batawagama in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a layer of cabbage leaves topped with diced potatoes and onions with a hamburger patty on top. A bit of salt and pepper, then wrap the whole package in foil and place them over the embers of a campfire. And when you have been away from home for a few days and you’re camping out under the stars, these apparently are like heaven when the come off the fire, all slathered in ranch dressing.

Now, we can’t re-create the feeling of camping with friends, under the star-lit skies of Upper Michigan, but we decided to make a stepped-up version of the classic camp dinner. There are a couple of issues with the classic tin din – the cabbage typically burns, the potatoes are often underdone, and ranch dressing is not my personal preference for a sauce for hamburger. We decided to shred the potatoes and then par-cook them with onions and cremini mushrooms with a bit of thick-cut bacon from Angeli Foods in Iron River.

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Bacon is never a bad idea…unless you’re worried about bears. If you were looking to stay true to the backpacking nature of this dinner, you could par-cook this and then freeze it in proper portion sizes. We were cooking over the campfire, but not hiking into a campsite, so we had a bit of flexibility. Our packet was a two to three cabbage leaves, a pile of our shredded potatoes with bacon and mushrooms, and then we combined beef with ground pork. Salt, pepper, and dried thyme sprinkled over the top, and then folded in a double layer of foil.

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The campfire had burned for about an hour before we decided to add the tin dins. Knocking down the fire and then layering a grate across a couple of logs allowed us to keep the packets up off the direct embers to cook the packets a bit slower and keep our cabbage from burning.

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As they cooked, we prepared a simple bechamel sauce with blue cheese to stand in for the ranch dressing. Cook times are very uncertain over a campfire. These cooked as long as it took to leisurely sip on two old Ore Dock Scotch Ales from Keweenaw Brewing Company, based in Houghton, Michigan, while looking out on the lake.

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The cabbage leaves were browned but not burnt and lent a beautiful flavor to the potatoes. The bacon and pork added extra flavor and a bit of fat to the cooking ground beef. It may not be pretty, but it was certainly tasty. And we timed it perfectly to allow us to get back out on the water for some evening fishing. It was a perfect finish to a wonderful day on the lake.

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