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Monday, March 5, 2012

C'est si Bon! Travel Tales: Movement on the Surface or The Stirring of the Dragon

On a long ago day, outside it was May, but inside it was my first day in the Oriental Kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. This was  in the spring of my first year there. In a few weeks I would be leaving for my externship on Hilton head Island. But first there was this. For the next three weeks Chef (Warren) Mah would teach our class of thirty some students, everything we wanted to know about four or five thousand years of Chinese cooking.

Chef Mah gathered everyone at my station, that’s right, the one with the giant wok. We were the same height, Chef Mah and me. Short. And I stood beside him. But not too close. He smelled like garlic and maybe, shrimp. He was a Legend at the Culinary Institute. Rumor swore he grew his own ginger and fermented his own black beans at home in the basement, and that somewhere in the kitchen, in this kitchen, he kept a sword. Just in case. Of what exactly, I didn’t want to know.

He cleared his throat and began speaking to me as I had drawn the fortune of working at the wok, the most difficult station of Oriental Kitchen. 

“What you want look for is movement on the surface. The stirring of the dragon.”

My seventeen culinary compadre’s and I watched spellbound as he waved his hand over the huge wok full of hot oil while underneath the gas flames licked yellow and red and blue tongues against the bottom of the wok; shimmering the oil as if invoking magic.

My classmates smiled at me, shaking their heads. Poor Fool. Bon chance.

Chef Mah continued, ignoring the heat. He leaned over the stainless steel table with his knife raised.

Szechuan style mean main ingredient always cook first. First cut one inch piece. No wash.”

His curved knife cleanly tamed the green beans into fragments. His intense golden brown eyes told me everything I needed to know. He lives in constant battle with the oil, the dragon. But the more he talked, the more I felt, was certain, it was my goose that was going to be cooked today.

“Soak dry shrimp hot water. Chop shrimp, radish, scallion, and ginger fine. Then ‘ragon juice,” he held up the small bottle with a bright orange viscous liquid. I truly believe if he had uncorked it, we would all be consumed in a raging fire. If only, then I might be saved from the daunting and dangerous task of burning all the hair off my head, arms, and most likely even the tops of my feet.     

He handed the ‘ragon juice to me. “You in charge fire. Now everyone work.”

He clapped his hands furiously and disappeared. We had entered the battle.

I had never before looked in the face of such a behemoth. The mouth of the wok could have held an entire pig, and it looked hungry.  Was it moving towards me?

“Excuse me, Chef. You didn’t say. What to do. When. The oil starts moving, then? Whaaa-t?” But by that time Chef was testing the dough for almond cookies on the calm and cool side of the kitchen.

The soul of Chef Mah lay in this Szechuan dish. I could tell he enjoyed holding it in an ever passionate and dangerous embrace. Manipulating beans. Managing carrots and garlic into the szechuan portal. The dish would come through a delicate membrane, like an osmosis of his mind, will and spirit, to be remembered as Chef Mah and only Chef Mah. And once beyond the cruelness of hot oil, the dish would sit quietly and patiently on the table.

On the other hand, the only thing I had in my mind was how to quietly transform my carrots, radishes, and scallions into Chef Mah-like fragments. I did not, was not, on my first day of a thousand year battle, ready to face a dragon.

But it was as if the oil watched Chef, too, as he walked frantically from eggrolls
to hot and sour soup the oil took in Chef’s tension and strain. And multiplied it.  

I tried to stand as innocently as possible. Far enough away but ever in the
presence of the dragon. I kept my knife engaged with the radishes, carrots, and scallions. C’mon vegetables. Fragments, I beg you.

But the oil defied Chef Mah and billowed across the room to meet him.

I don’t remember ever hearing the fire alarm, but soon the entire building of 1600 culinary students, even Jacques Pepin who was the guest chef in Charcuterie that day were heralded outside.

All except for Chef Mah. He stayed behind in what they told us was a knock down drag out fight with the fire-breathing beast. It was no surprise to me who won. 

We filed back into the kitchen to find Chef remarkably calm. He motioned me over to the sideboard to finish filling won-ton wrappers with the ground pork and water chestnuts. Is this what he had students do who lost the battle?

Once a few hundred dumplings lined the sheet pans, I knew I’d have to engage him. I kept watch for his tall white toque bobbing about. Soon enough his small footsteps approached. Chef Mah stood by my side, his hands on his hips and said, “You monkey, me rat, together we fight dragon. Now fall off horse. And get back on.”

He lifted two bamboo skimmers from the rack nearby and handed one to me. He insisted we cross them like swords and then slowly we submerged the dumplings in the crackling beast.  

Merci, Chef Warren Mah!

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