Cooking is a tough profession loaded with booby traps, so a mistake is easy to make. Now, some mistakes -- like confusing salt for sugar in a cake you bake at home -- are one thing. But how about in a professional kitchen, where the stakes and pressure can be so much higher?
Year two of my culinary apprenticeship at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris - I am a young cook, excited, unstoppable. And now comes my big chance to prove myself, at the BIG luncheon. The President of the French Republic and his whole family are there. Every "Ministre" from every aspect of French life is there. My role in this? To cook one of my favorite of Guy Savoy's signature dishes: a slender portion of trout briefly seared and dropped onto a bed of pureed parsley mixed with beurre blanc. So simple. No vegetables. The effect? Imagine a flowered plate, vibrant with color, with a circle of grassy parsley sauce and the deep pink orange of the fish. Stunning.
The process? Simple enough. Heat beurre blanc. Sear the fish. Stir puree. Assemble. If this dish were a children's toy, the directions would have fit on one-quarter of the side of the box. "Ca va?" asked Laurent, the sous chef, smiling grimly. I smiled back and tasted my beurre blanc. It had the perfect tang of lemon and vinegar. Guy Savoy came running into the kitchen. "Il est arrive, on y va!!"(Loose translation: make the fish NOW.)
The plates were hot, the fish seared so nicely. The puree was such a vivid color of green. I imagined myself lying on a cool patch of grass that same color. Lounging around, staring at the sky, waiting for the accolades for my cooking prowess to start pouring in. I watched as the sous chef ladled the parsley puree in perfect circles. Move over Simone Beck, Julia Child.
You know that moment in a horror movie when the sweet child morphs into Satan's messenger? Imagine a kitchen filled with French dudes staring at plates of puree that had somehow instantly gone from green to a muddy brown. "Quest-ce que c'est cette daube la!!!" I heard Guy Savoy shout. (Loose translation: this food is crap.) I froze. "C'est quoi ca?" Guy Savoy looked at me as if I'd sent a stripper to his house during Sunday family dinner. (Loose translation: Don't think I will be joining the chef hall of fame any time soon.)
Laurent deftly whisked in some water and more parsley puree. Like magic, the sauce went back to green. "You just put a little too much vinegar in the sauce. The water balances out the acid that was killing the green of the parsley," he smiled humbly and continued ladling the sauce without missing a beat.
It was as if the kitchen breathed a sigh of relief and continued plating the fish. Disaster averted. Check. Lesson in humility. Check. Does this remain one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in a kitchen? Check. Did this happen over 14 years ago and still pop up in my thoughts at least once a week? You better believe it.