The Color Of Things

A few of you have mentioned that I haven’t written in a while, and you’re right…I haven’t. Hasn’t been a whole lot to write about, and I frankly haven’t felt like it. Some writer huh?

So here we are, 4 weeks in to the 2010 Fall Semester and life is good. I’ll bring you up to speed on the events of the last few months, there have been a few.

We had a grill cook die of a massive brain hemorrhage.

My Sous Chef left after 10 years of service (although I think it was only 9 years) and didn’t have the guts to tell anyone he was leaving. He sent another employee in to gather his belongings and drop off his phone and time card. He left to begin a rewarding career at Arby’s. Many of us are still celebrating! His replacement started exactly one week later and has already received immense kudos.

The lady that I nearly strangled (and nearly lost my job over) this time last year passed away a week ago from inoperable cancer in multiple organs. She will be missed by many! One of the last bites of solid food she ate was a brownie that I took to her at the Hospice. They were the only good thing I ever made according to her. I agree! Not my recipe.

Back in the Spring we pulled off a couple of the most amazing events of my career, and I’m not sure why I didn’t write about them except that I was tired and uninspired. But there’s a couple things we did well here recently that I had to talk about because they were really cool.

The American Cancer Society has a program called Paint The Town Purple. Apparently purple (my favorite color) is the official color in support of all cancer victims and survivors in general. Well, it turns out that it’s the official color for about 28 different things including 9/11, animal abuse, and eating disorders as well. I find the latter interesting. You’ll soon see why.

We were approached by a group that is supporting the Relay For Life and Paint The Campus Purple movement to join them in a day of recognition. We decorated a section of our dining room decidedly violet, passed out purple ribbons to our staff, and created a menu of purple food.

There was purple cabbage, purple potatoes, purple jello, purple cheesecake, blackberries and purple Chantilly Cream, Purple Velvet Cake (Red Velvet Cake with a little blue coloring added), and my personal favorite purple soft-serve ice cream. We even made a couple purple desserts so as not to alienate the sugar-free constituency.

It’s hard to make purple food that people and chefs alike can take seriously. Purple lends itself best to the dessert table I think. I thought of turning Vegetable Lo Mein purple, but I resisted. Plums are out of season. Purple green beans are a past fad, and they turned green when you cooked them anyway.

Eggplant in my opinion, while inherently varying degrees of purple, just plain sucks. Who ever craves a big plate of eggplant?

In my training I have been subjected to a lot of little tips on food presentation, particularly when it comes to color schemes. There are certain colors that are just more appealing than others when it comes to food. Green is pretty natural. Bright reds always wake up the visual senses. Yellow is a good one, especially when we replace red tomatoes, peppers, and raspberries with their golden counterparts.

In the fall when we think of fall colors we think of orange and brown. One big challenge has always been making attractive plates in the fall when cooking with the season. Pumpkin, winter squashes, acorns, wild mushrooms – what in the hell else is in season in October and November? The plate always comes out brown.

I learned years ago that blue is perhaps the most “inedible” color, although set up a snow cone stand and include blue raspberry syrup. Tell me at the end of the day what you sold the most of. Blue raspberry is my personal favorite Slurpee flavor at the gas station in the summer time. But what in the hell is a blue raspberry? Ever seen one? Me either.

Apparently there is, or was truly a blue raspberry that is closely related to the black raspberry (never seen one of those either). I found little about it on the internet, and no pictures…but still…I can’t call up my produce vendor and order a flat of them so as far as I’m concerned they’re a myth.

It is a core tenant in the school of thought that I come from that if the only purpose of a component on a plate is to make the plate look better then it doesn’t belong. Difficult at times.

I also subscribe to the philosophy that when tinting something edible one should use naturally derived colors. Green comes from “making chlorophyll” by pureeing parsley with a little water and straining the resulting liquid to achieve a beautiful, intensely light green coloring agent that adds minimal flavor. Orange comes from doing the same with carrots.

Of course in the 90’s there was a short-lived trend in making everything clear – void of color. Charlie Trotter made “water” from everything. He taught us that tomato water is made by pureeing ripe tomatoes, letting the liquid sit and settle for a few hours, and siphoning off the clear yet intensely flavored water that rises to the top. Pretty cool really.

When making colored pasta dough a portion of the liquid in the recipe is replaced with a puree of blanched vegetables or herbs. Spinach makes green, beets make magenta, carrots make orange, roasted peppers make red, and so on. Roasted garlic makes brown…perfect for autumn!

But what makes purple food? Purple food coloring my friend – or at the very least red and blue.

I – or I should say we discovered one of the most interesting phenomenons of my culinary career. It seems that purple, while striking, beautiful, intriguing, and unexpected, actually makes pretty cool looking food – and popular. In fact, I would say that you could paint a turd purple and people from all walks of life would line up down the block and fight each other to get one, hot or cold.

Dinner opened at 4:30. I started stirring the first purple coloring into the vanilla ice cream mix at 4. We were out of purple food by 6 with three hours to go. Normal diners were gobbling up the sugar-free stuff just to get at the purple.

At 6:30 I frantically plopped scoops of room-temperature vanilla pudding from a tin can into plastic cups, piped in a generous helping of leftover purple whipped cream, threw a handful of blueberries into each one, and stuck in a lady finger for fun.

I walked out unassuming into the dining room with about 18 of these delectable little suckers lined up on a bent up old sheet pan, all the while reciting Eddie Murphy’s “parfaits are delicious” lines in my head.

Once at my destination I had to drop the pan and run for my life. Looking back in haste I witnessed erstwhile normal, civil human beings ripping each others eyes out to get to the purple layered concoctions. Severed appendages flew across the dining room splattering the walls and windows with what appeared to be violet-tinted blood. My God – what have I done? It looked like old ladies at a bargain basement rummage sale. Vicious.

We never run out of dessert. We always have leftovers. This was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Fortunately I had initiated a policy at the beginning of the evening that when we were out, we were out. I left before the riot found me.

But it was not the only such incident this week, for this week ended with Halloween.

Last year for Halloween I did strange, scary foods. We cut hot dogs into tapeworm like strips and stirred them into baked beans. We colored Asian marinated chicken wings black and called them bat wings. We stirred corn and peas into meat-laden cheese dip to make it look like vomit. Everyone thought our efforts were ingenious and commendable, however they barely touched the stuff.

This year at the last minute it occurred to me to give people something they would enjoy. I purchased $2,000 worth of candy…nearly a quarter-ton altogether.

It worked.

Coworkers bet that the candy would last anywhere from all day to into the weekend. Not me. I knew they’d go through it all and I was right.

Interestingly though when the smoke had cleared and the bones were picked clean all that was left was orange candy. Bit O’ Honey, marshmallow Circus Peanuts, orange Pixi Stix, and those little wax bottles with sweet syrup in the middle, but only the orange ones. Weird.

All in all it was an educational week to say the least. My front-of-house counterpart suggested that we do a different colored food theme every month. Great idea, but no thanks.

Color me done.