Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, I’m resident Author and Monkey striving to make Hamlet on a Typewriter, Jon O’Guin. Today, I want to talk about something that happened to me and near me today, and use it to discuss a broader theme of experimentation in cooking. And trust me, I know that sounds super fucking boring too. So of course, I’m gonna try and make it fun for both of us. All of us. MORE PEOPLE READ MY SITE THAN JUST YOU, NO MATTER WHAT THAT TROLLOP GOOGLE SAYS. (actually, fun fact, if you type “Kitchen Catastrophe” into Google, I show up twice on the first page. Strangely, not the main page, however. The facebook page and Post #6 show up instead. Weird.)
Anywho, onto my awesome life. Today I was in a Japanese restaurant, basically on accident. My family had spent Saturday at a wood-turning symposium, where we saw some bonkers shit, as unlikely as that sounds. But seriously, a guy shaved a wood bowl so thin that it was translucent. He spun a wooden top, and then made and spun a second one before the first had time to fall down. Yes, despite the room being 92% Male and 98% white, it was actually fairly exciting.
These things, for instance, certainly excite the imagination.
But we were tooling around (haha, wood-turning puns) the city today before we went our various ways, and ended up desirous of lunch. I said, checking my GPS “Let’s whip around this corner, and there’s a sushi/teriyaki place, near what looks like a mall, we can check out what’s there.” The mall ended up being just a notably large Fred Meyers (or I’m bad at estimating shops sizes, one of the two. Maybe both), so we just ate at the sushi place. And I noticed something about the sushi while looking at the menu: It had original items on it.
Now, to more egalitarian diners, that point may sound rather banal. (Did I eat a thesaurus earlier today? “Desirous”? “Egalitarian” and “Banal”?) But here’s the thing: As I am not a particular fan of seafood, and my father doesn’t really like sushi, and as I have over the course of my life lived only in a small town of shipyard workers and a “rolling fields of barley” college town, my experiences of sushi are mildly limited. Maybe 12 different restaurants in my life, sort of thing. So I’m used to seeing the same names when I go to one. California Roll, of course, the 9-1-1 roll, the Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Dragon, the Playboy, the Lion King, etc. And while, yes, upon a touch of research, each restaurant has at least one or two unique rolls, I was never struck by how MANY unique rolls a place had before this one. They also had a roll I’d never seen before: the Teriyaki Chicken roll. Which was, to me, something of a complete genre-changer. Replacing the fish of a rather basic sushi roll with another entrée? This demanded thought.
I honestly couldn’t decide whether to caption this “Ein-Stein level thought” or “So I pulled out my thinking robe and beer.” So I wrote this to do both.
Who can do it? Spoilers: You. You can do it.
Now, one thing I immediately noticed: I didn’t discard any of the rolls they had made up at this restaurant. And that made me introspective, (because, yes, I am exactly the kind of introvert to take time to self-reflect on the emotions I felt at a Japanese restaurant during a family lunch. Has that not been clear? ) as I realized there was something about the fact that it was printed on a laminated, colorful specials menu, that immediately generated validity. And I found that strange. And to explain why, I’m going to go on a moderately long tangent about a guy I’ve never talked about before, because, yes, I am exactly that kind of long-winded story-teller.
So there’s this dude I learned about a couple months ago, and got interested in, named Justin Warner. He won Next Food Network Star a couple years back, and proceeded to not become a Food Network Star, presumably because he loves irony. I learned about him when he showed up on a day-time food talk show and said “I’m going to make a Nacho Cheese Volcano.” That’s a sentence that grabs one’s attention. It locks in the mind. He used a food pump and a slow cooker to make a tower of ingredients that nacho cheese then flowed over, and I said “I’m in.” So I recently picked up his book, and learned that his mentor had been Alton Brown, another food star I love.
Be honest, you haven’t read a word since I said “Nacho Cheese Volcano”, have you?
And 50 pages into his cookbook, he told me to put Foie Gras in a jelly doughnut, and I went: “Eh... no thanks.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit: I don’t like foie gras. It’s nothing against the taste. It’s purely a psycho-somatic thing: the first time I had it was as an appetizer at Thanksgiving, where I proceeded to overeat a little, mix acids and fats a little too strongly, and sit next to a booming goddamn bass speaker because my grandfather has hearing trouble, and his solution is to inflict it on the rest of the family as well. Pounding head, surging guts, weighty innards, it’s no surprise I ended up walking calmly out of the room to the bathroom, and had, as eating competitions so eloquently call it, “a reversal of fortune.” Which means I threw up. Vigorously. So I’ve never really given foie gras a second chance, despite knowing it’s not its fault.
And here was a guy who I knew had cool ideas, backed by another guy I knew was intelligent, skilled, and knowledgeable in cooking, and, in his nationally published cookbook that I was totally digging, he said “Try this,” and I said “Nah.” And that was interesting to me. Sure, I don’t like a fairly crucial component. But I can tell you, emotionally, I’m interested in that doughnut. He makes it sound great. But I simultaneously don’t believe him. He’s a celebrity, floating in rarefied spheres I’ll never reach, and that makes his suggestion suspect. But a strip-mall Japanese restaurant in Lacey? They have to be legit. Because if it didn’t work, they couldn’t sell it, and they NEED that money.
Rarely do the phrases “Experimental cuisine” and “Next to the Dollar Store” come together in any truly good sense.
And that’s, I think, the dichotomy of experimentation: we think of it as the purview of the rich and famous, or the cheap and desperate. “Sounds like something I’d make while I was high” is a common joke I hear about new combinations of ingredients. But it’s not just for those two. It’s something you can do at home. Experimenting is how I got my start in cooking: I wanted new dipping sauces for chicken tenders, so I made some. I wanted new spices on my chicken, so I mixed them. And I learned to do it well. And my friends asked me to do more. Then I made sandwiches, and soups, and then, one day, I realized I had a hobby.
I recently got a friend a cookbook from a chef I know he likes, and it motivated him to make octopus stew. That’s a dish bold enough that even I wouldn’t make it. But he did. Because he trusted that chef. And himself. That’s the biggest step: Experimentation requires trust. And as long as you trust yourself, you can make some great things.
“Terrible! Yes. But great.” Am I the only one who remembers that line from Ollivander in Philosopher’s Stone? I’ve always liked it.
NEXT TIME: Following Multiple Manic Episodes, Jon mellows out with movie time.