November 12, 2013
October 7, 2013
The Result of Determination
There was one thing I promised to myself I'd do before the end of my very productive and inspirational internship at restaurant Chef & Sommelier. It felt like I had a mission, it was something I simply had to succeed with. Usually, if I seriously set my mind on doing something, I'll go through ice to reach my goal. As you might have read from my last post, I've been doing a lot of baking with sourdough during my internship. It's somewhat ironic that the task was handed to me since I'm the only one who can't eat the bread I bake. Gluten is my worst enemy. Regardless of this minor issue, I've thoroughly enjoyed baking and learning the very basics of how sourdough works.
It didn't take me long to ask my chef the crucial question "And what about gluten-free sourdough?". I assumed he'd tired it since his wife is also gluten intolerant. I started doing some research on it and found myself in a cyberspace maze of tips and hints, each trickier than the other. Frustration hit me. It all seemed too complicated and I thought, how fucking hard can it be!? So I did what I always do – I try everything, at least once.
My first trial didn't take me far or bare any significant results. Or so I thought at first. But actually it's the mistakes and the unsuccessful trials that take you furthest. That's how it works for me at least. I tried to make a starter with buckwheat and hemp flour and I asked my coworkers which one of them had the dirtiest hands. My chef had just been harvesting 45 kilos of celeriac, his hands would be perfect. Turned out buckwheat and hemp don't marry well. My chef had his doubts and expressed to me openly, but I had to try it for myself.
My second trial worked better. I used a mix synthetic gluten-free flour (potato starch, rice flour and what have you) and corn flour. The starter started bubbling slightly, but the water and the flour separated after five days. This time though, as the smell was correct (acidic notes of soured yoghurt and bananas) I didn't discard it. I added water, flour and heaps of determination. I also made another batch using buckwheat. I still had faith in it. I understood though that buckwheat is very dense and "heavy" so I only used 1/3 of it and 2/3 of synthetic gluten-free flour. I also added some organic honey this time.
A week later both starter were semi active, but I kept having trouble with some of the flour lumping on the bottom of the starter jar. My chef kept telling me that I need to be patient and give it time, but I was worried and wanted to boost the process. I added a bit of honey to both starter and did what I often do – forget things half way through the process because I see no results. This time though, it was exactly what the starters needed.
Last week, I think it was on Thursday, a Swedish lady Jessica Frej known for gluten-free baking came to the restaurant. I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. It would've been so cool to show her my bubbly and active sourdough and feed her some freshly baked gluten-free sourdough bread. Half an hour before service I decided to take a look at the starters. Maybe, just maybe a miracle had happened.
There is a sourdough God after all! A miracle had happened. Both starters were extremely active and smelled perfect. No time to bake, but after getting permission from the sommelier, I showed Jessica my starters. She was as thrilled as I was.
After service at 2.00 AM I prepared the dough and let it rest over night. The next morning I came to work to a very nicely grown dough. I folded it into three cute little buns and heated up the oven. What followed is best left unwritten since words can't describe the joy I felt. I'll let this video speak for itself.
One word: Determination.
September 17, 2013
“Good morning all! Nice weekend?” I greet my colleagues who are already fully concentrated on work. One is pulling off tender meat from the lamb leg that has been simmering in its own fat over night. The other is fileting trout that just came in as fresh as it gets. I receive no answer, just a firm nod, but I don’t mind. By now, I’ve learned that Tuesdays for chefs are like Mondays for normal people: Tired and moody. Better to simply let them work and start working myself.
A ten-liter pot of rye bread dough and a 2/2 GN-steel container full of beautifully risen wheat bread dough are waiting for me. Clothes off, clothes on. Quickly. One, two, three, four and five. I button up my mandarin collared jacket. Ready. Let’s go.
Rye bread, first up. I have to work carefully but fast: A seemingly impossible equation at first, but I’m getting better. After six weeks of doing it every morning, I should be better. The oven is already hot. I snap on a pair of disposable plastic gloves and gently push my hand to the bottom of the pot to grab the dough. There, now the firm yet soft dough is sitting on my hand. I need a moment here. This part is crucial: Under no circumstances is one to break the crust that has taken shape over night. Important rye bread cosmetics. Ok, time to do the lift. Steady now. My hand is just a tad too small, but I compensate with determination. I hold my breath for a nanosecond.
Damn it. A tiny part of the dough always sticks to the pot.
I’ll be better tomorrow.
I pat, I sprinkle flour, I pat again. I cut twelve equally big lumps. Cut, cut, cut, twelve times. The dough is sticky but I shouldn’t add to much flour. It’s perfect this way and it’s so alive. The mark from the cut disappears in split seconds. The dough keeps growing and expanding as I go. A bit like a lizard that grows back its tail.
As much as I enjoy teamwork, this part of the morning is the best. I often get left alone to bake. It’s just me and a shit load of sour dough. Dough that technically is my worst enemy, dough that I can’t eat when done, but I don’t mind. I still give it my heart and soul. And it’s so worth it---
My thoughts stand still, I’m concentrated. I’m nowhere but there, here. Patting, shaping. Salt, flour. There. Done. There are only a few things in life that give you the same utter satisfaction as manual labor does. To see the result of your own bare hands in a matter of minutes is priceless. Even though I’ve done it each morning for six weeks now, I still marvel over the little loaves of bread each time I make them. Such beauties they are.
Next up, wheat bread. No kneading at all – in fact, I barely touch it. It’s wet and elastic, almost wobbly, but it holds itself well. A strong smell of lactic yeast, bananas, yogurt fills the room as I pour the dough onto the wooden baking table. The dough is active all right. A complex gluten net formation is a very good sign. Long elastic gluten strings. I love to see them even though they are a threat to me health.
Dividing the runny dough was such a pain at first. Now, I’ve learned how to not get it all over the place. Scraping, cutting. I’ve become accustomed to use the bench knife as an extension of my arm. Scrape, snip, cut. Flour. More flour. Wet hands. It helps. Four mounds of dough, four bread loaves. I fold each dough mound four times and flip them over. My right hand rotates the dough as my left hand beats it gently – a wonderful exercise for your motor-skills. The bouncy, but tight dough bun is sexy as hell! I cover the beautiful sight with a handful of flour and under a baking towel they go.
At this point I’ve been working for half an hour. It’s the best Tuesday morning therapy. It gives my morning a rhythm, a continuity. I get to interact with something, use my hands and see immediate results.
I can only smile. I’m all doughy. The oven is still hot. I should run, take the rye breads to the oven, but I take a minute to enjoy it, taking it all in. When dough is involved even the chefs’ Mondays are filled with joy.
September 15, 2013
September 2, 2013
Finding Nordic Coconut
It’s September in Finland. Nature is showcasing its abundance, it's harvest time, and the head chef Sasu Laukkonen and his team at restaurant Chef & Sommelier in Helsinki are enjoying it to the fullest. Since 1st August I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the team as an apprentice. Yes, I have left steaming hot Italy, for the time being, in the need for fresh air, but also to put theory into practice. As we speak, I’ve been sweating and learning in the 9m² kitchen at Chef & Sommelier, alongside head chef Sasu for the past three weeks. Workingsixteen-hour days, five days a week might scare most people off, but for me,even though it took some time to adjust, it has been a deliciously mind-blowing experience and I still have six weeks to go..
Chef & Sommelier is much more than just a restaurant. Aside from it receiving the title “Restaurant of the Year” bestowed by the Finnish Gastronomes’ Association, I consider it a showroom of deliciousness, as the restaurant truly is a factory of new, exciting flavours with its ways of using Nature’s fruits. Sasu himself is the pioneer determining the restaurant’s firm philosophy. He belongs to a new generation of vibrant chefs who step out of their comfort zone, leaving pots, pan and knives aside in search for new edible delights to serve to the loyal customers. Many of those customers specifically travel from places as far away as Australia, Korea and Japan, to savour his creations. Believe me, he makes it worthwhile. Together with his farmer Janne Länsipuro (yes, he has his own farmer), Sasu and his team select their vegetables and greens from the very seeds. But it doesn’t just end there. A rigorous watering, farming and harvesting scheme has been put in place. Everyone takes part – naturally. This is about as intimate as one can get with the raw materials if you ask me.
When the final products start pouring into the restaurant, Sasu is like a proud father looking at his children. He smells, he tastes, he observes and then, he starts to cook. Magic happens. Watching him work is truly an inspiration. Since Sasu and his team have a firm rule on keeping food waste to a minimum, almost nothing is discarded. And why would you throw away carrot or beetroot stems anyway? Have you ever tasted one or the other? They’re delicious, just for the record.
But it goes beyond food waste. Since we just happen to find ourselves in the less sunny and warm side of the hemisphere, we simply don’t have access to certain raw materials that are taken for granted let’s say in Italy for example. It’s a fact and it doesn’t help whining about it. At Chef & Sommelier we just wine, we never whine. Sure it’s a bummer to not have lemons, artichokes, capers and coconuts growing in the backyard; it would be nice. But what if I told you that there’s a Nordic version of each of these yummy treats? Read and marvel.
This is how it happened. If most people would have a fridge full of parsnip leaves (if they had kept the leaves to begin with) they would probably blissfully ignore them and end up throwing them away when they’re rotten. Not Sasu. When he knew his precious parsnip leaves would only have a few more days left, something had to be done, quickly. Sauté and fry them? Been there done that. He needed something new. Ice cream? No kidding. He made the base using milk, cream, raw cane sugar and gluten free flour. Once done, he added a big bunch of parsnip leaves into the mix and switched on the blender. Vivid green and velvety. Just before pouring it into the ice cream machine he added a touch of caramelized butter to enhance the flavour – the secret ingredient? As the ice cream started taking shape and texture, a familiar smell filled the tiny kitchen. Could it be? Yes indeed. It was coconut. To check his judgement he had all of us taste it. It was coconut, no doubt about it. For the cherry on top, he grated some dehydrated parsnip from the late harvest last season. The result: a masterpiece that he baptised the “Nordic Coconut”.
The Nordic coconut is just one of Sasu and his teamsgreat discoveries. Sunflowers picked when still about to bloom, preserved in oil before panfrying in butter, taste like artichokes; tagetes flowers that grow perfectly well here in the north have a citrusy flavour that easily replace the acidity of lemons; pickled dandelion buds are a perfect Nordic substitute for capers,and the list goes on. When curiosity meets talent and guts, anything is possible. Well, almost anything.
The work of a chef is extremely challenging, that has been made clear to me since the beginning. Numb heels, backache, cuts and burns are inherent, nothing to complain about. But the chef who wants to make it big today needs to not only master his kitchen but also become a farmer, a forager, a chemist, a fisherman, a researcher, a lean-mean-holistic-gastronomic-machine. The idea of a blurred threshold between the kitchen and the dining room has been Chef & Sommelier’s concept ever since they served their first customers in late September 2010. Today, Sasu is not only stepping out of the kitchen to personally tell the diners the story behind his raw materials. He even stepss out of the restaurant to make the best food with the best raw materials. “There’s no other way, it’s essential and natural. How should I so it otherwise?”
That’s what he says, and I couldn’t agree more.
July 31, 2013
Dressed in White
Breathe in. Breathe out. Must-keep-cool-head.
I took the decision already a while ago, but it hit me only when I first tried on my outfit. Like many others, I’ve been dreaming about this day ever since I was a little girl! I guess I never thought I had it in me though. But it’s happening all right: There I was, standing in front of the mirror doing the fitting. White has never really done me justice, but it sure looked good on me now. My brother’s approving look sealed the moment. Of course he had to be there for this special occasion. After all, it’s thanks to him that I found this love that has been growing for years now.
The circle is complete.
I woke up early today. I hardly got any sleep last night. Today is my last day as a virgin. Tomorrow at 10 AM I’m stepping into a three-month long adventure: I’ll start working as a trainee at one of Helsinki’s finest and most vibrant restaurants. Yes, that’s correct. In less than 24 hours I’ll find myself sweating in a professional kitchen just like onions that I’ll most certainly get very intimate with. I can't wait to learn!
* * *
I have to say there’s something extremely solemn, almost heroic about wearing a cook’s coat. I’ve never worn any type of uniform before and its lure seduced me at once. Wearing it I stand straighter; I’m stronger somehow, yet nothing has changed. It’s just a white coat. And I’m just a newbie about to be thrown into a world I’ve only visited my imagination. Will the coat present me with hidden talents and skills? Remains to be seen. The idea of a Clark Kent/Superman -transformation amuses me thoroughly. Here goes hoping.
Every time I take a seat at a restaurant I try to get a glance at the people working in the kitchen. Often though, the magic happens behind closed doors and you never see the faces of the cooks and chefs working hard to serve you a delicious experience. Luckily, open kitchens are pretty common nowadays, even in Finland. When that’s the case I’m probably the worst dinner date as I end up neglecting the person sitting opposite to me – what goes on in the kitchen triggers my curiosity far more.
From tomorrow on the roles will be switched and I’ll no longer have to stay put at the table, waiting for the kitchen door to open to get a quick peek to the other side. I’m ready all right. Tomorrow morning, as some sort of giving away ritual, I’ll have coffee with my Mother before I hop on my bike and speed down Mannerheinmintie – the main road of Helsinki/my aisle. It'll be a once in a lifetime experience no doubt. I'm very honored to have been given this opportunity.
My love it strong, and this love will last. I’m certain. I might, however, throw up my morning cereals just before I say: “I do”.
June 23, 2013
When Local Turns Ethnic
Numerous articles and books have been written on the effects and impacts that globalization has on our food system. Concepts such as Mc Donaldization, de-territorialization and ethnic foods set the tone of many of these works. Some scholars even argue that globalization is the number one cause of the demise of regional and local cuisines and culinary traditions. If the world we live in keeps getting smaller and smaller and culture is getting more and more homogenous, then why would food be an island and remain untouched by these forces? It's a legitimate fear by all means, but it's not all black and white.
Food sure hasn't been left unaffected, quite the opposite. Food has been traveling around the globe for centuries and is doing so as we speak. The fact that we no longer need to travel halfway across the world for a spicy Tikka Masala, a greasy Pad Thai or fresh sushi is just the simplest evidence for this argument. As a result of globalization, ethnic foods have comfortably arrived to us and become extremely common. We can both savor and prepare Indian, Thai or Japanse delights in the privacy of our own homes whether we live in Italy, the United States or Finland. So what happens to local cuisines and food cultures as result? Will they be gradually replaced and eventually forgotten? Or will they resist and prosper?
In countries like Finland, Thai food has become so banal that it might as well be considered Finnish by now. Similar trends prevail in the other Nordic countries. Of course the Thai food à la Nordique has little or nothing to do with real thing, but it seems not to be of concern. A modestly spicy coconutty sauce with chicken and veggies served with white rice is Thai enough for the Vikings. In fact, it's exactly what they look for to relieve their Thai -cravings. Consequently, these pseudo-Thai dishes have been to a large extent, if not totally, naturalized into Finnish food culture for example. Whether they can be called Thai in terms of authenticity isn't the point. Accepted and liked by the grand majority, these dishes are somewhere between ethnic and domestic. Prepared using Finnish raw materials, spiced up with imported flavors and reproduced in Finland, makes the result technically more Finnish in the end. Obviously it's more the idea of it than the actual food that has been globalized. Again, the idea of eating Thai is satisfying as it is.
But this is nothing new, nor is it about Thai food per se. Whether it's pizza, kebab, sushi or biryani, Finns have been stuffing their faces with foods from all four corners of the world for years. I would even like to go as far as to claim that most Finns have not eaten proper Finnish food in... yes, can one even remember? Can one blame them though? Real Finnish food has become rare for a number of reasons. First of all, many considers it to be too expensive. Secondly, Finland is geographically speaking one of the trickiest countries in regards to agriculture. To get Finnish produce the year around is close to impossible. Thirdly, we sure have the purest nature with its abundant fruits, but let’s face it, which average working Finnish adult has the time or energy to go foraging and exploring the many lakes and forests. It breaks my heart a bit, but so it is. Finally, in terms of availability, the number one sources of food in Finland are the two big supermarket chains S-Market and K-Market. These chains hold more or less the exclusive control of the supply and trade of commodities. As a result, an absolute majority of Finns buy all the same apples from Italy, peppers from Spain, meat from Sweden etc. For a people who used to be so in touch with nature we have went awfully astray.
Recently however, an intriguing trend has started taking shape in my country largely thanks to the hyped New Nordic Cuisine movement ushered by the success of Noma in Copenhagen three four years ago. In tone with their Danish colleagues also Finnish chefs and food professionals started to rediscover the purity and deliciousness of their own land. And gladly, the masses have (finally) started to follow along the same lines. It's certainly very romantic and "authentic", some might even called it culinary nationalism at the get-go. The apostles of this "back to the basics" -philosophy might explain it as a counter reaction to both Mc Donaldization and de-territorialization, but most of all it's simply cool to know how things were done before and especially how these traditions can be upgraded and given new life today. Of curse it's also a reaction to the fact that for years, food culture in the respective Nordic countries was the last thing on people's minds. Something had to be done.
For years, if not decades Finns thought very little of their own food. Descriptors such as 'bland', 'uninteresting' and 'unworthy' were the rule. This isn't a simple reflection of a state of fact, but it's also directly linked to the Finnish modesty distinctive to our culture. What strikes me as extremely interesting is that only when recognized globally as something trendy, new and fascinating the Finns have started opening their eyes (or should I say mouths) to the pure tastes of their land – 'pure' being the key world. What was referred to as 'bland food' still five years ago is now upgraded to 'pure cuisine'.
This has globalization written all over it. When the rest of the world started craving for 'Nordic', only then Finns started to grow a taste for it too. 'Nordic' is becoming as generic of a term as 'Indian', 'Thai' or 'Japanese'. The concept of something 'Nordic' has become a commodity and people travel to Finland for a Finnish or should I say the 'Nordic' experience. Like I mentioned before, food hasn't been left untouched in this case either. The irony is that even Finns living in Finland who are intrinsically Nordic now seek to consume 'Nordic' food. It had to travel around the world before it started to be appreciated and perceived by the people physically living in the midst of it all. This is yet another perfect example of how an idea gets globalized and formed through a global lens.
So when I am asked whether globalization equals to the devastation of local food cultures, I'm not sure what to answer. In the case on Finland, globalization made the local somehow ethnic, hence something new and (re)appreciated by the locals. Maybe Finns nearly had to lose their culinary identity in order to find it. What isn't entirely sure though is the motive behind this sudden new love for domestic deliciousness. At a first glance it seems rather genuine and positive: Finnish food culture has never been as vibrant and alive as it is today. On the other hand however, I can't help but wonder whether it's just another ethnic food trend that just conveniently happens to be Nordic thus easily accessible and comfortable; familiar and new at the same time. Of course these kinds of claims of culinary hypocrisy would be crushed in a blink of an eye if uttered out loud in Finland. Most Finns have never been as proud of their food culture as they are now.
Still, I can't help noticing that the restaurants known for New Finnish/Nordic Cuisine in Helsinki still serve duck, snails and artichokes. Last time I checked none of these are typical for Nordic cuisine.