Cooking Up a Good Story
Is an empty plate a blank canvas or a blank page? Are chefs painters or storytellers? Do their culinary compositions flow from a palette or a pen? For CVI Chef Jamie Simpson, story is everything.
“It’s not about pretty plates. It’s ‘what are we currently experiencing right now,’” he said. “Maybe we should start there, you know? And really look at ‘how do we start with a single story, a single theme to deliver a message?’ That’s kind of how I look at it.”
That single theme could be anything, he said ─ a time, an ingredient or a place, for example.
“Say it’s about peas, and the overlap in seasons between peas and carrots,” he said. “If it’s just a single ingredient, or a single overlap of seasons that allows us to tell a story, then we’ll just find ways. Sometimes it’s a moment. Like, the pheasant makes haste through the corn fields, eating every single thing that moves in its path, getting ready for winter. And that’s a thing. That’s an opportunity to tell a story and build a dish.”
Ideas and Inspiration
Rather than scrolling through Instagram for ideas, Chef Jamie said he finds the most compelling stories in nature.
“If I want to get inspired, I’m going to go outside,” he said. “Walk through the farm. Walk through the garden. Through the woods. Any part of it.”
Chef Jamie’s “walk through the garden” salad is a constantly evolving narrative. “It’s the day, the season, depending on the walk,” he said. “It depends upon what’s going on out there right now. So, right now, I’d say cherry blossoms. I see crocus coming up. The very early parts of fennel. Little chive plants are about to pop ─ all kinds of really cool things out there. How do you bridge all of those together in a dish?”
A “walk through” dish can be inspired by less idyllic locales, as well. “You can walk through the root cellar or you can walk through the freezer,” he said. “We do a dish we call ‘Walk Through the Walk-in.’ It’s leftovers.”
Sometimes a single ingredient can be the plot of the story.
“Imagine a linear path through a plate that’s a composition on turnip,” he said. “The turnip can live high and low, left and right, wide and lean. It can sort of become this modular ingredient. I think it’s really dynamic. So we do some raw turnip applications. Maybe some turnip leaf applications. Maybe some turnip flowers. As we work our way down, we’ll go into maybe a poached turnip, turnip purees. We get into the fermented turnips. We get into these big hard core seared grilled turnips, and then we look for charred and blistered, those kind of things. Petite turnips can live here, those that are also charred.
“And then you need a bridge,” he said, “an ingredient to sort of bring it all together. In this case I’d choose goose liver or chicken liver or duck liver or some kind of iron-y thing. We could make a mousse from it. A big spoonful. You can take a little and bring it all the way through. You’ll experience turnip at every stage of doneness and ripeness of its life, kind of working your way down the line. Naturally, a fork will go to a specific part of the dish first, depending on the way it’s presented.”
Chef Jamie said he is encouraged by fellow chefs charting a path toward story-centered plates.
“More and more chefs today are really trying to tell a story,” he said. “And I think that’s really important. For some of them it’s about the local habitat, the local farmers, their food, their history. For some people it’s about their heritage. For some people it’s all about preservation of something like sustainable seafood practices or working with green light items that are invasive species or whatever.”
“Diners are looking for those stories, too,” he continued. “I think Blue Hill is such a good example of that in New York. Dan Barber is such a storyteller. So much so that it’s one course into the next and into the next.”
Specific geographical and cultural regions can be rich storytelling opportunities, as well.
“My attraction to Ben Shewry (Attica, in Melbourne) is his ability to tell stories,” Chef Jamie said. “His story is growing up in New Zealand, raised in Australia, not accepted by Australians, but accepted by indigenous people of Australia, and sharing food through the aboriginal lens at an extremely high, high level. Not a lot of people can tell that story.”
“I had one dish, and it was like the history of Australia by way of tart,” he continued. “It was three tarts, and one was about 200 years ago when it was kind of untouched land, and it was all native ingredients, really interesting, cooked in traditional indigenous ways. And then it was the English sort of thing with the blood sausage and pig. And then it was the Jewish – the neighborhood that the restaurant’s in is like a little Jerusalem, essentially. It’s a very Hasidic region. So then it was schmaltz and chicken salad and stuff on the tart.
“It was a cool way to tell that story of that particular place, on that land, of what it was like 200 years ago, a hundred years ago, and then today. The English one, the blood sausage one, was pitch black. It was a black tart shell with a black sausage. It was almost sad.”
The plating of a dish can even tell a story about discovery, such as Swedish scientist Ellen Hendrén’s research on bioavailability, digestion and carrots.
“She found that bioavailability of beta carotene in carrots is only three percent available when eaten raw,” Chef Jamie said. “Blended, it can go up to 21 percent. When you blend it and cook it, it goes to 27 percent. When you blend it, cook it and add fat, it’s 39 percent. So you’ve gone from three to 39 percent absorption rate. We told that story with a dish.”
To make the dish, Chef Jamie cooked a blended carrot soup and then froze it inside carrot-shaped silicone molds, then dipped into carrot cocoa butter. The butter formed a hard outer shell to contain the soup as it melted and was ultimately released when guests broke in with spoons, spilling the soup onto a bed of ground and roasted purple carrot and butter “soil.”
Besides being a whimsical dish showcasing the versatility of carrots, Chef Jamie said he intended it to articulate and encapsulate a path of discovery. “I was talking about Ellen Hendrén, and Sweden, and her research on bioavailability and digestion in carrots,” he said.
With constant access to ample farm-fresh vegetables from The Chef’s Garden, Chef Jamie said that, sometimes, he’d rather not make a plate too precious, and instead tell a story of family and abundance. And he’s proved that a dish like that doesn’t have to be served on a plate to be well-plated.
“We did a welcome dinner for a team building event,” he explained. “The goal of the welcome dinner is to establish a sense of place, a sense of season, a sense of respect, and set a tone for the rest of the week. So we try to have a little fun. We try to put some really great simple dishes out ─ vegetables perfectly cooked. So we’re at course five of maybe seven courses. That’s plate after plate. Let’s break it up a little bit.”
“We wanted to tell a story about our pigs and the vegetables they eat,” he continued. “And we did this barbeque cart buried in food. And we roll it out to the middle of this dining room and we serve it family style. It was a whole separate dinner, essentially, with different music. And everybody got up and took pictures and was part of breaking this big roasted pig down, distributing vegetables. It was a big change of pace, and I think, successful. It was a really good opportunity to bring a group of people together.”