Monday, March 2, 2009

My Big Adventure at The Culinary Insitute of America

Behind the concierge's desk in the entry hall of the Escoffier Restaurant at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY is a photograph of the brigade de cuisine of the Hotel Pierre in New York City as it was at the hotel's grand opening in 1930 . In the front row is Auguste Escoffier, the man to whom the "E Room" (in CIA lingo) is dedicated and whose book "Le Guide Culinaire" did more than any book -before or after- to establish the haute cuisine as an international standard for sophisticated western culinary art.

To Escoffier's right is the hotel’s owner, Mr. Pierre, and Charles Scotto a former apprentice of Escoffier and the hotel’s executive chef. Flanking the three leaders and in several ascending rows, is one of the biggest kitchen brigades I have ever seen. It is hard to give an exact head count but I estimate that there are over a hundred people in the photo. In the second row behind Chef Scotto is my paternal grandfather, Giovanni del Grosso. (Shown in an earlier photo above, second from left in the second row.)

It's difficult to write about this picture without sounding like I'm bragging or lamely trying to boost my credentials by indirectly associating myself with one of the most famous figures in western culinary history. (After all, my grandfather worked for Chef Scotto, not Escoffier.) However, when I saw that photo last Tuesday, moments before I was to give a presentation on Food Blogging, I have to admit that I felt something like pride commingled with the sense that like that photo, I was not only in the right place, but that I was meant to be there. This was not the first or the last occurrence that prompted me to understand that there are many reasons why I feel a special affinity for that place, but it was certainly the most eerily metaphysical.

The runner up for the most peculiar event that caused me to recognize that I was in a place of kindred spirits occurred the previous evening.

Monday evening (2/23) I gave a presentation on my work at Hendricks Farms and Dairy in Telford, Pa. in The CIA's Danny Kaye Theater at the Hilton Library. The final third of the presentation was a tasting of the charcuterie products I make at the farm and two of Trent Hendricks' raw milk cheeses. On the plate were two forms of air dried beef, three salami, two cheeses and something that I brought on a hunch that someone other than myself would find it interesting. Earlier in the month I had almost pitched the thing into the furnace because it stunk and mites had drilled into the bone leaving dust trailing in creepy brown filaments. Small wonder, it was an eleventh month old leg of lamb.

In 2008 I cured four legs in a simple brine of salt and sugar for three weeks, glazed them with a mixture of lamb fat, pepper, salt and juniper berries and hung them in the aging room to dry.

We'd sold one leg of after 6 months, but the response to the product was so tepid that the remaining three were shunted aside and forgotten until one day when a local chef came to visit and expressed interest in trying one. After he called to say the lamb was inedible, I tossed the rangiest of the remaining two into the wood furnace and put the fourth out of my mind until the week before I was scheduled to give my presentation when, something told me I should bring it.

You could have knocked me over with a sprig of thyme when, after I'd finished the tasting and had asked the audience which meat they thought was the most interesting, about 2/3 responded that it was the lamb.

I suppose that I would have gotten a similar response from any group of of chefs and cooking students. But I prefer to think that the reaction was an idiosyncratic response by a unique group of people whose devotion to craft is so complete that they are able to overlook the obvious (the meat looked like wood and smelled like dirty sweat socks) to see things for what they really are.

I'm sure my grandfather, who ended up working at The Pierre Hotel for more than thirty years and who, because he spent so much time on his feet in lace-up leather shoes and was "old school" when it came to hygiene, would not have thought twice about the smell of that lamb.

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