Nothing is perfect.
At least, nothing starts out that way.
The caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The student becomes a scholar. And a pot of vegetables and beans becomes a vegetarian chili worthy of its very own page in a cookbook. Most things don’t start out perfect. But luckily for our taste buds – some end up that way.
I spent last thursday at Suenos Restaurant performing Recipe Testing with Chef/Owner Sue Torres, as she perfected the pages of her upcoming cookbook.
I arrive at noontime to West 17th Street and I am feeling a little lost. Granted I did, only recently, return home (jet lagged) from 22-hour plane ride from India and, in general, I do have a very poor sense of direction – but I usually know my way around the city better than this. From the corner of 17th Street and 8th Avenue I happily spot the maroon colored awning that reads: SUENOS in a funky teal green block lettered font. And from street level in front of #311 I can see a small window that leads to the long and narrow subterranean kitchen. All the signs say I am surely in the right place… but I cannot find the door.
This is a typical scenario for me. I can see exactly where I want to end up but for some reason I cannot get there. Or at least, I cannot get there right away. Eventually, I arrive. I just take a little longer.
I did finally arrive at Suenos. I found the hidden door – through the nondescript alley, down five steps and onto a metal grate – a secret entryway known only to those who are deserving of Sue’s inventive Mexican plates.
Sue sits me down at the bar and outlines our agenda for the day. She is organized, meticulous and hyper-aware of every detail of her business. Nothing gets by Sue Torres. Plates of mediocre food: BEWARE! Only succulent dishes – like shredded beef mini tacos and tequila-flamed shrimp – need apply.
Sue is in the process of writing a cookbook and today I am responsible for assisting her as she perfects (and documents!) a few of her favorite recipes.
We begin with Vegetarian Chili. Side by side, Sue and I chop vegetables. Sue instructs me on how to chop properly – and I certainly need her help. I have never seen a carrot so large and misshapen. Too many years of those bags of pre-peeled, pre-washed baby carrots, I suppose. I don’t know how to begin to attack it without the knife attacking back at me and julienning my finger. Sue guides me like an older sister – firm but friendly, kind and caring.
When it’s time to chop onions, Sue shows me her special technique for slicing. I certainly have met many an onion in my 35 years, but I suppose I had never been formerly introduced in this way. Sue advises me to keep the root intact so the onion doesn’t fall apart. [Coincidentally, I had made the very same suggestion to some of my clients in my 10 years as a counselor.] We make several slices 3/4 of the way through and then, holding the onion firmly, we chop in the opposite direction yielding finely chopped squares. I tried this at home a few nights later when making a pot of Rosemary White Bean Soup from a recipe I found online. Let’s just say that my onion chopping skills are not as award-winning as Sue’s and that some of that onion somehow ended up on the floor – but only a few casualties.
Finally, onions, garlic, salt, celery, carrots, beans and smokey, savory chilis are married in a large pot. We measure, weigh and record each ingredient with such precision you might think we are performing surgery. Our recipe has got to be cookbook worthy. Every seemingly small step along the way – from the tender slice of the onion to the use of local, seasonal, organic beans and vegetables – is critical to the taste and texture of our final product. There’s no room for skimping. Tastebuds do not lie.
While I do enjoy chopping, seasoning and stirring, the best part of recipe testing – is recipe tasting.
Sue and I grab fresh spoons every hour and steal a taste like two teenagers sneaking into the covered apple pie resting on the kitchen countertop. We give the pot a stir and a sample. One moment it is coming along nicely. Another taste – and the heat from the chilis goes to battle on our tongues.
Is it ruined? Is all our hard work for naught? Can we perform time-travel in order to alter our recipe? Can we somehow repair the damage? And in that moment, I became a little sad. I happen to be very good at making that quick mental jump from complication to catastrophe.
But this, my friends, is where Sue stands out from the rest – in both her ability to sooth my nerves as well her capacity to create. She recognizes that her chili is a living breathing element and she carefully coaches (but not controls) it at each stage. Sue is never on automatic pilot. She is always thinking, always on task. Although we cannot go backwards, we can continue to alter and grow our recipe until it reaches perfection.
So with a corrective cooling measure in mind, we add some sweetness to combat the spice – more carrots, celery and some beets (both pureed and in solid form) seem to do the trick. Sue feels strongly about not adding sugar to get the spice to surrender – she thinks there are more natural and healthy ways to add that sweet flavor back. So we add that to the pot and we jot it down on the recipe. Quick thinking as she is, Sue remembers to fish out those chilis – making sure they don’t continue to turn the heat back up. And we document that step as well.
What isn’t documented, however, is the part of cooking that cannot be measured – the part that is fun, playful and inventive. What can’t possibly be tabulated in our notations is that moment when cooking becomes crafting. It needn’t be a race to the finish or a challenge steeped in potential failure. It should be fun. And we, as chefs, should be bendable, flexible and pliable. I suppose you could say we should be soup-y or chili-like… never too firm and always ready to adapt to the blend of ingredients. Sue teaches me to play with my food. And never be afraid to fail. She teaches me that there will always be a corrective measure that will save my soup.
Between all the chopping, stirring, tasting, adjusting and tasting again – I am ready for a break. Luckily for me, it is time for Family Meal – one of my favorite traditions. And luckily for the staff, we are eating that perfectly perfected, not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy Vegetarian Chili. So I join my first family meal – a time for the staff to break bread and discuss the evening ahead. The vegetarian chili is a hit with the staff. No mouths are aflame and it seems spiced just right. It took several tries, but I think we finally got it. Spicy. Smokey. Smooth. Hearty and healthy too. Perfection.
Good things. like the chili, take time. In my last 6 years in New York City I have lived in 5 apartments, dated 4 significant boyfriends, held 3 different careers and cooked 1 pot of vegetarian chili. None of it started out perfect. But it gets better every time. Even the chili took 4 hours to get right. In fact, that pot of chili and I have a few things in common. Spicy. Smokey. Smooth. Hearty and healthy too. Perfection. Life is cooking up quite nicely as well. I’ve just got to simmer a little while longer.
Our meal has come to an end – and now it is time to feed our friends. As quickly as we clean up our dishes and wipe down the tables, the crowd arrives at our doorstep. 4-top after 2-top after 6-top – the crowds flood in and the wait-staff begins to circulate.
The lights come down low. The 5 orange lanterns above the bar begin to twinkle and tease as they draw the crowd away from the drafty door and into the main dining room. I’m not sure which casts a more powerful spell on our diners: drinks like Suzy’s Smokin’ Margarita cocktail or Nick, the scruffy smoldering bartender who mixes them. Jorge hits the music. The hot pink painted wall is illuminated. The bright blue bar stools stand ready to comfort our thirsty guests. And the action begins. Alisia stands in the corner of the restaurant on a raised platform stage as to highlight the star of the show: the fresh corn torillas. The theatre is alive and well in New York. And broadway is no match for the show at Suenos.
As the dinner service is winding up, my night is winding down. I pop into the kitchen one last time and already the pace is at lightening speed as plates of Avocado-3-ways, Tamarind Glazed Hanger Steak and Halibut, Halibut, Halibut come flying past me. Sue is right in the thick of the battleground expediting orders and making sure everything is timed to perfection. I sneak one last bite of the leftover Vegetarian Chili before heading out the door and I begin to think about that great big pot filled with beans, vegetables and hard work.
There were moments when I didn’t think we could resurrect that chili. There were times when I was frustrated by its flaws. So many of us, in chili and in life, erroneously expect perfection from the start. We expect that by 35 we will be a finalized complete package. But life is a constant re-adjustment. If we overdo it – we need to tone it down and bring it back to center. Sometimes we just need to round up some more flavor. And sometimes we just need to figure out a way to sweeten the pot.
Back at home, I tested a recipe of my own. It was Tuesday night, late in the evening. After a quick cup of coffee with a friend, I was home in my month-old apartment on Cornelia Street. I was settling in to a cold winters night – surrounded by boxes and sleeping on a mattress on the floor because the box spring didn’t make it up the narrow staircase during the move. Then, rising up from the courtyard below I heard echos of laughter and conversation. I was at a crossroads.
Every New Yorker is plagued by two television shows that will forever ruin apartment living in this town and leave us in a state of perpetual disappointment: Friends and Seinfeld. These shows taught us that we can be best friends with our quirky next-door neighbor and fall in love with the guy across the hall. They preached to us that we could live in a place where friends were always popping by and sense of community was only a coffeehouse away.
These shows lied to us. Or so I thought. And so on this night, I decided to test MY recipe: Can the new girl in the building make lasting friendships? Can she turn her small studio apartment into a home? Will the courtyard space at #15 Cornelia transform from a garbage recycling zone into a shared community garden filled with fresh herbs, tomatoes and flowers? Will my recipe for life turn out to taste as good as I imagine it?
(Even Kramer recognizes the challenges of getting that recipe right!)
Eager to test MY recipe and to meet my new neighbors, I put on my coat and hat in a flash and raced to the courtyard with a faux errand in mind. This seemed to me, even in the moment, like a Seinfeld episode in itself. I walked through the courtyard, pretending to be on my way to the corner deli. I said my hellos and made my introductions to my neighbor Ollie, his dog Tucker and his visiting Connecticut friends. Turns out – tonight is Ollie’s 35th birthday and within 5 minutes of conversation, I am invited to Daddy-O’s – a bar one block away. I said “maybe” and carried on my way to the deli, pickup up something I didn’t need and headed back to my apartment. An hour later I decided to follow through on my recipe plan and I met the group at the bar. Lets just say that by 2AM I had a made a few friends, got a few phone numbers in my pocket, some email addresses in my blackberry, a lunch date and some plans with Ollie for a garden renovation.
My recipe worked so far. I bonded with my neighbor and brought myself one step closer to feeling at home. I might have to add some other neighbors into the mix and stir that up for a while. There’s always the chance my recipe might veer off course. But so far… this recipe… Perfect!
And if it’s not perfect… I think I’ll know how to salvage it. Thanks go to Sue Torres for that one.