Shortly after graduating from Culinary school I found myself working at Bobby Flay’s restaurant Mesa Grill in NYC. It was an exciting time for me. I was very eager, and I had proved myself to my Chef and worked my way around the line to become Sous Chef. As a Sous Chef, we had the freedom to come up with creations to serve as daily specials. This process was something that I loved because we got to flex some creativity and build upon our style. After some time, I became a tad big headed. I grew comfortable and sure of myself and started to exercise this freedom recklessly. Then, this one day I came up with this bright idea to run a delightful pairing of lobster and hot chocolate as a special.
Alright, before you go cringing, let me explain my thought process. I don’t remember all the details of the plating or how I put it together (I think they were tacos), but in retrospect it was ridiculous. Lobster is sweet, buttery, and rich. I thought about trying to balance this with the spices that you might often find in Mexican chocolate and mole poblano. Canella or cinnamon, bitterness from chocolate, spices, chilis, corn tortillas, sometimes hints of banana or plantain, seeds or nuts all frothy and warm. Well, anyway, the GM of the restaurant was there when I brought the dish out to the servers to explain before service. A few minutes later I get a call in the kitchen. It was Bobby. He said something to the effect of “What the heck is this special your running (he was probably a little more profound than that)?!” So, needless to say, we pulled the special that night. It was a bit of a blow to my pride and or ego. Some of the line cooks thought it to be funny also which didn’t help matters, and I felt small. The next day or two, we got the notice that the specials program would be put on hiatus for a bit. I felt bad, thinking it was my fault that the other Sous Chefs couldn’t have fun because of my mistake. I apologized to them and tried to talk to Bobby and my Chef about it, and they told me that my blunder wasn’t the entire reason for pulling the specials. They were in the middle of expanding with Mesa Grill Las Vegas, and he didn’t have the time to keep as close an eye on our experiments, yadayadayada. I mean think about it, he worked so hard at his brand and to have some young punk fresh out of culinary school tossing half-thought out, wacky experiments out there could start to chip away at that image. What if a critic was to have been there that night?! I felt bad about that for a little bit, but It turned out to be a valuable lesson for me.
A couple of things I learned is that showing restraint at times is important. The art of simplicity is difficult to comprehend at times as a young culinarian and usually seems to come with experience. Know your audience. I don’t think there would have been many guests at Mesa Grill that would have appreciated that dish looking back on it. It’s a way too abstract and awkward of a pairing for most people. Knowing your limitations is another key realization. I was too young and not skilled enough to make a pairing like that work at that time in my career. Keep it simple and think about the wording of the dish, it doesn’t sound appealing at all. In your head thinking about the two items, they just wouldn’t typically belong, and it’s hard to make that connection mentally.
The other learning point here for me is that after all these years I still have a strange burning desire to prove it right. I still have the drive to pair these flavors in the right way. I don’t want to give up. The challenge lives on!
Chef’s I’d love to hear about a dish you just don’t want to give up on. What are some wacky pairings that you insist go together. What are the lessons learned from the mistakes you’ve made?