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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Writing Life: Heroes, A Food Stylist and a Chef


Excerpt From Simply Becasse, A Novel.  

When the struggles between a Chef and  Food Stylist on a Photo Shoot opens a whole new perspective. 

Coobook Shot list: Tunis Desserts
Crispy vanilla date cakes puddled in pomegranate honey creme
Cool Tunisian melon and oranges steeped in cracked coriander syrup
Desert figs stuffed with pistachio marzipan and soft cheese
Iced mango in hot green coconut soufflé
Kiln-baked semolina pastries with crushed walnuts and rose water glaze
(slow zoom in on table and a sweep over each dessert)
(tease shot of Chef Phillippe eating desert figs)

            Chef Phillippe bends over the green and purple desert figs on the table, hot lights illuminate the still life of desserts, the photographer backs up, a tease shot just taken.

            “There is a long deep memory of the figs growing in my country, twice the size of these,” and with aplomb and panache he raises the two prettiest figs to his mouth. Is this a dare to me as the food stylist on this three week long shoot? “But these are quite beautiful and fragrant. Don't you agree? Sometimes you can never tell. Until you try them.”


            “Phillippe, you can’t be ….they are the only….” And as I watch he eats the last two most photogenic figs, the beauty figs or the hero figs as we call them in the biz. He was just supposed to pretend to eat them. Pretend, Phillippe! How could he not know?


            One look in his eyes and I see he did know. And now you know this was one of those moments when something happens to change your life. All it came down to was two simple figs and a crazy chef. Phillippe acted as if these figs had had nothing better to do than serve him. They might as well have been lying on a prep table in his kitchen, in Tunis, in New York City. And he walked by and was dazzled by them, so enchanted that he didn’t care (even in his place or perhaps especially in his own place) that these figs had been called to another purpose in the evening’s special clafouti or in this case to be stuffed with a pistachio marzipan and a soft fragrant-with- rosemary-brambles cheese hanging in a muslin bag from a wooden spoon over a bowl in my prep kitchen not ten feet away.
The final photo of the desert figs stuffed with cheese for the cookbook cover was about to be taken. But without the figs? The shot is lit perfectly, and ready, well, was ready with all the other desserts for the dessert chapter on platters, surrounded by bowls of flowers flown in from, you guessed it, Tunisia. And as if my eye had become so used to and perhaps preferred watching life from the safe distance through the eye of the camera, instead of admitting the proximity of danger; this disaster loomed right before my eyes. Phillippe was real and not imagined. And a jerk. 
I watched while Phillippe’s smooth, tan, and thick knuckled hand picked off all of the rose’s deep red petals. With that one move something cracked open in me. Not trust, peace and a state just south of delirium as I think Chefs should incite, but freaking havoc for no reason (in my eyes) simply because he could. Figs, I’m sorry, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t what I had planned. But maybe you are better off! Wait, what am I saying? You’re in the belly of the beast!

The rest of the crew scurried off expecting a full blown fall out knock down culinary extravaganza between me and Chef Phillippe that had been building for three weeks. But with this fig thing we seemed enveloped like a Brik a l'Oeuf, a golden triangle of crispy fried phyllo hiding a soft golden egg, along with chopped capers, onions and parsley and once broken, once I speak, the runny egg would burst through its crunchy protecting shell and .... well, I just didn't want that to happen. I had a job to do. To finish. 


“Phillippe, I’m surprised! You, jealous of a couple of figs? Just because they were perfect and still and ..beautiful. Now what? Since they are clearly out of the picture.”

He looked up, his rose petal plucking hand covered the lens of the camera. On the roof, the rain spattered overhead, and the rosewater glaze driped off the plate of semolina pastries. Warm honey creme pooled around the vanilla date cakes, while rivulets of coriander syrup spilled onto the flame edged white roses on the heavy table. And all over the counter golden drops of creme look like they’d been flicked by a paintbrush.

“Yes, but since they are out of the picture you are more in focus. I search and search for something. It seemed there was nothing. But then I find it is so simple." 


"What is simple?" I asked. His dark smokey eyes were set so deep it was no wonder he couldn't see anything. 


"Why, what it takes to make you angry. Eating figs.”

Oh brother. Hadn’t I seen this before? An egotistical chef, wanting to command everyone in his midst. He ate the last two figs to get me angry? How much time would that cost all of us? I groaned inside to think how long it was going to take me to re-build the set with all new desserts. 

            “Do you have any idea what those figs cost? Of course you do. But right, it’s not about that, it’s about you. But the recipe is in the book, your book, the galleys are finished. So, I tell you what, when you find your two figs let me know! I’ll be in the kitchen.” Looking for a knife, I thought to myself.

            “Miel, if only you were more patient.”  And with that he pulled out a basket full of figs from under the table. “I just want to see what would happen…but you showed me what you were made of.”

            I knew I wouldn’t, I couldn't walk out on this job, but I knew also that somehow before our time was over I would turn him, and show him, not with words, but I would change his mind about what truly made a hero, a hero.  
            

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