Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kitchen Challenge

The scene was unveiled with the pull of a black velvet curtain. We watched from the comfort of a soft bed, surrounded by four walls which held in dry warmth and the sporadic clicks of two touching bodies. A couple feet from a well stocked kitchen, on the carpet which delineated the dining room from the tiled cleanliness of the cooking space, was a stylish craps table. A master chef in his spotless white jacket stood before it, two oversized dice in his hands. Two clear groups stood before him, a group of five women wearing white chef’s jackets with red collars and a group of four men wearing blue trimmed jackets.
The dice themselves had twelve faces. Each face displayed not a number, but a letter of the roman alphabet. The master chef explained the objective: each group would be given five rolls, one for each member of the team (the blue team would get one extra roll). Depending on the letter on the dice, each aspiring chef would pick a food ingredient beginning with the same letter. The true goal was to think as a unit and to come up with an entrée together…each team member building off the words/ingredients of their teammates. They would cook the dish to completion and the head chef would judge and proclaim a winner.
The women’s team went first. A young woman stepped to the table and threw the die… an “r.”
“Okay,” said the head chef, “what food do you want to pick that begins with an ‘r’?”
“Rabbit,” she said with total confidence.
Now it was up to her teammates to build off this main ingredient. A woman with dark skin and dreadlocks picked up the die, she cast it… “g”…. “green beans.” Two more young women rolled…there would be garlic and potatoes as well, as one chef said, “all the ingredients for a classic entrée.”
And then it was the men’s turn. A tall man approached the table. He had the face of a young marine or soldier, but in this play, he chose to be a chef. He held the die in his large hands, holding them for a split second while he prayed… “h”… “halibut.” His teammate rolled, there was an “f” on the table. He stood there, with lights and cameras and the eyes of his teammates silently trying to send him a psychic answer. His face was sweaty and pale, he was shaking his head as though there was nothing he could think of… “figs.” There was laughter from the women’s team and looks of stark concern from the men. Who had ever paired figs and halibut before? He walked back to the group with his head down as the next man stood before the table.
“Alright,” said the master chef, “remember you’re trying to compliment the ingredients of each other, you need to think as a team.”
The man at the table nodded, he cast his die. An “a” sat perfectly still on the black lined table. He started shaking his head too, as though there was nothing to be done, defeat written all over his face… “angel hair pasta.” Roaring laughter from the women filled the room, as though they already had an easy victory…who had ever paired pasta with figs? Then came another “a”…. “apples.” It was the last turn for the blue team…. “t,” as though in a sign of assured defeat, as though putting the last nail into the coffin was the job of the dark haired man with a cast on his arm… “tomatoes.” One of the women nearly fell over laughing.
“Okay,” said the head chef, “you have 45 minutes to cook.”
Both teams ran into the kitchen. The second hand moved with a speed only available under pressure. The men took a bit of time talking about their approach, drawing on a large piece of paper while they worked out their plan. The women went straight to cutting the tips off the green beans and marinating the rabbit breast and creating a garlic puree, each woman doing her own thing.
“You better move you asses, the women are already cooking!”
It was the voice of authority. The men jumped…one began creating the sauce of tomatoes and a hint of figs, another working on the fish, another on the pasta.
“Okay guys,” said the dark haired man stirring the sauce, “come taste this and tell me if it needs anything.”
The small group of men gathered around, each dipping a spoon into the bubbling sauce.
“Oh my god…that’s actually good!”
“I know…I can’t believe it!”
A hint of joyous energy began to jump between them.
“At least we still have a shot at this!”
The camera panned out for a couple of seconds and then moved to the women’s side of the kitchen. A young freckled woman was pureeing the garlic for a sauce. The women gathered to taste.
“You know,” said the woman with dreadlocks, “I think it’s a little too garlicky, maybe we should add some sugar to it to cut down the bite.”
“Naw, that’s how it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to be strong.”
The freckled girl poured the pale sauce in an artistic swirl around the plate.

“Five, four, three, two, one…okay stop! Bring me the dishes.”
Two plates stood before the master chef. He took a bite of the rabbit and garlic, then another bite of the fish with figs…
“Wow, those are both good dishes.” He stood nodding his head in approval. “The fig and tomato sauce is actually very good…okay…the winner is…the blue team.”
The men hugged each other.
“You know,” said the master chef, “the rabbit is delicious, the only problem with that dish is the overwhelming garlic sauce, it’s just way too strong and overpowering everything else.”
The men smiled brightly, they were still dizzy with the realization that surprising wonder can be found in unexpected places. Without being completely forced to use those particular ingredients, no one would have ever paired figs and fish or pasta, but because they had to, because they were forced to, they used every bit of creative inspiration and cooking knowledge they had to try and create something unique and palatable. The women had an easy chance to win, they had classic ingredients, known ingredients that had been paired with each other for many, many years. The women had ingredients that sounded reasonable and known and acceptable…it was the men that were in no-man’s land, in completely unfamiliar territory. For the women, there had been no risk, but more than that, the very objective of the task had been to work as one, to build off each other and to compliment not only the ingredients but the skill set of the other team members, and in this, they failed. The deciding factor had been the garlic sauce, the very piece of the puzzle that did not have the spirit of collaboration within it.
It takes more than perfect building blocks to create something beautiful. With a sense of creative collaboration, you can take fish and figs and apples and pasta and tomatoes and create magic. You can take the most bizarre combinations and work them and re-work them and brainstorm and practice and stir and struggle and struggle some more and maybe…maybe something completely unexpected and truly glorious will emerge, something beyond the known, something far greater than you could have ever foreseen.

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