I start with dessert. I’m not even a chef, but they asked me to cater the entire lunch, and my mind goes first to planning dessert. What should I present to 32 people? How can I make this meal very, very special? My main goal is to bring great delight. To me, feeding people is an honor.
The menu is all up to me. What dishes will reflect my style and personality? What have I cooked before? What new recipe would I like to try? How much time can I give, with everything else already on my schedule? Will my choices harm anyone (considering the dietary restrictions)?
Dessert will have to be cheesecake. Three different kinds. I pop a handful of Ghirardelli Classic White chips and discover they taste startlingly like pastillas, the kind I can get only when my mother vacations in the Philippines and brings back pastillas from a bakery there. They satisfy teeth and taste buds with the rich feel of heavy milk cooked thick with sugar. Every single one is wrapped in its own square of papel de japon—the same thin Japanese paper used for delicate origami designs.
I melt the Ghirardelli White with heavy cream, feeling the wood of my cooking spoon like a paintbrush. The heat is on low, so I rest the spoon on the saucepan edge and attend to other tasks. But I forget about it. A caramelly scent jars me. The stove is still on, and I hurry to the kitchen too late. I move the spoon and see the bottom of the pan thick with a layer of hard, dark carbon.
But the burnt aroma is actually tempting. I have accidentally made something better. I taste the light brown parts and decide this will be a dulce de leche cheesecake instead. I paint the top with dark chocolate ganache.
On another day I make the main and side dishes. Everything has to be from scratch. No bottled sauces. This means I touch the food. All of it.
Now the pasta salad. I find pleasure in fingering the bumpy seed core inside a yellow bell pepper, especially in contrast with its sleek skin. I remove the seeds, shaking off the clingy ones that hang on to my fingertips and the inside of the pepper. The 8″ chef’s knife with its strong, hard blade is pleasurably heavy in my hand. The tip of the knife always touches the chopping block, making a steady fulcrum. I rock the blade swiftly while my other hand moves the pepper strips at a rate to match the coarse chopping.
Strangely, the knife’s J.A. Henckels logo reassures. Though I’m inexperienced at catering, at least I know I’m doing this with the help of cutlers who have expertise.
Then, the garlic. I turn the knife sideways and use the heel of my hand to bash clove after clove after clove (convex side up) the way my sisters taught me when I was a girl. If I am swift and not too forceful, this motion loosens the skin with minimal bruising to the garlic flesh. I handle this food so thoroughly that it becomes a part of me, its scent lingering for days. I exude creativity long after the creating is done.
The catered lunch is over. I dip into the poetic memory of details – scorched sweet peppers, depth of flavor under the blistered skins. One-ounce molded chocolate coarsely chopped. The happy, rough and bumpy sound my chef’s knife made coming down through dark, unsweetened squares. The stressful extra grocery run and the warmth of the wool headband I wore, because the snow was heavy that late winter evening.
In the kitchen, I never measured anything, just touched my lips to the curve of a teaspoon every so often, to taste what was being made.
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