Live in the moment. Experience now. Be fully present.
These are concepts that have received a ton of press recently but which I’ve struggled greatly with.
In my work as a lawyer I’m not exactly allowed to live in the moment. It’s my job to look forward, to anticipate what can go wrong, to strategize how to get from Point A to Point B, to plan, and to predict arguments and defenses. On the flip side, I’m also expected to look backward at what went wrong and analyze the relevant facts that are foundation of the strategy I must employ to fix an existing problem or resolve a dispute. Occasionally I get a writing or research project that will pull me in to “The Zone” where I can focus and tune out the world, but for some reason those have been rare this year. At the end of each day I feel tired and my mind goes blank, but rarely have I felt like I’ve accomplished anything productive or created any positive change in the world.
In a soulful conversation this summer with my good friend Stephanie, a chef and event coordinator at Black Star Farms, I had a difficult time articulating my lack of contentment with the Now. Instead of wallowing or trying to “fix it,” though, she impulsively invited me to join the Black Star chefs in the kitchen for the September harvest dinner. Stephanie is one of those people who has the gift of eminent Presence in the Now. She focuses on nothing but you when she is with you. She makes each person she encounters feel as though they are the most important person in her world. She also has the gift of working very well under pressure and being a creative problem-solver. There are no unforeseen difficulties that she can’t handle. This is what makes her such a shining success as an event coordinator and such an asset to Black Star Farms: she is a Present person.
That also makes her a gifted chef. Anyone who loves to cook knows that being in the kitchen is a great way to be consumed in the moment. I mean, one can never really think too far ahead when making poached eggs, right? Mealtimes have been the one time and place I have been able to be fully present in my life this year. And this last week’s Summer Squash-themed Harvest Dinner was the epitome of presence of mind.After Stephanie clothed me in her black chef’s jacket and left me in the kitchen, Executive Chef Jonathan Dayton looked at me and with his quietly intense, good-humored grin asked, “you ready for this?” And I said, “All I want is to NOT be in your way, and to be useful. Put me to work.”
Ask and you shall receive.
I was given a box of about two hundred of the tiniest baby patty pan squashes you’ve ever seen. Many were no bigger than a blueberry, with their tiny, delicate blossoms still attached. It was my glamourous and enviable job to wash them all under cool running water. And I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the water. Fail. So embarrassing. Until one of the veteran staffers came over to help me and took three turns on three different handles before getting the water to run himself. Not so embarrassing after all.
After surviving the new-kid hazing that was washing the baby squashes, Street asked me to chop some toasted pine nuts. I poured about ten ounces of them onto the cutting board and immediately laughed and asked Street if he would be annoyed if I chopped them one at a time. I got a look that said, “you haven’t been here long enough to be funny.” I mean, there were only fourteen other things on the first plate besides those pine nuts. Hurry the eff up, newbie.
So for the next four hours I was completely, 100% consumed with helping plate up the most incredible six-course wine-paired meal I’ve ever experienced. The first plate was an absolute work of art. I was fascinated by Chef Dayton’s simple method of separating and poaching egg yolks and arranging them with paper-thin slices of zucchini and summer squash to create a dish he called squash carpaccio (or, as I thought of it “squashpaccio”) dressed in a beautiful basil oil and decorated with a dozen delicate little flavor accents that I would never have thought would be so explosive together. Purple basil, red wine salt, ricotta cheese (which almost did not end up on the plates because we all forgot about it until one of the guests asked where it was; oops! You’ve never seen 24 cups of ricotta cheese miraculously appear on a dinner table as quickly as those did. Way to work In the Moment, Cathy, Katie & Brad!). Paired with Black Star’s famous “BeDazzled” bubbly dry white wine, it was clearly the favorite course of the night.
Until the goat was served.
The goat. My Lord. The “main course,” it was roasted and shredded, stuffed with chevre (goat’s cheese) inside a large delicate squash blossom, coated in a light breading and baked until crispy on the outside, served over a pool of creamed corn sauce – it was a comforting combination of savory, sweet, rich and creamy that involuntarily made one’s eyes drift to a close in order to fully appreciate that first bite. Served with Black Star’s dark red Arcturos merlot, it quietly said, “winter is coming…” and with that, the September harvest dinner was complete.
(PS, even as I type this I’m falling back into the blissful centered zone I felt when I was there.)
There was also a smoked course with smoked zucchini “steaks,” duck ham, smoked tomato and smoked butter. That was amazing.
But wake up! Yes, there was a squash dessert.
Dessert. Ahh, yes. Everyone knows dessert is my thing. And Stephanie is the resident pastry chef at Black Star, so it’s no wonder that we initially bonded over buttercream. Much earlier in the night, before the dinner guests arrived, Steph and Jon were discussing the delicate timing and logistics of service and plating, including making chocolate ganache to serve with her citrusy zucchini cake with cocoa buttercream filling and Street’s zucchini ice cream. During a silence in their discussion as they weighed the who’s-doing-what-when, I grabbed the bowl of fancy chocolate chips out of Stephanie’s hands, looked at her with all the confidence in the world and said, “ganache and I are great friends, I got this one.” She shrugged, looked at Jon, and said, “Cool!”
(No joke, I babysat that chocolate ganache over a double-boiler all night long and was TERRIFIED I would ruin it. I have accidentally ruined chocolate ganache once or twice. It’s possible.)
Anyway, the dessert turned out just as good as it looked. I will even boast that it was my idea to top it with a little flaky sea salt – which I think took it to the next level.
I did not want that night to end.
Being the gracious and entertaining hostess, Stephanie pulled us kitchen staff out to the dining room for introductions after the dinner was complete, and gave me a second to say a few words. I was almost in tears as I told the restaurant guests that I wasn’t really a chef, but I was a lawyer and was just playing one on tv. I told them that Stephanie and I met and became instant friends five years ago as I planned my own wedding at Black Star. And Stephanie knew this summer I needed to do something different, something positive and creative with a team of talented and fun artists, so she invited me to participate in this event. I thanked Don Coe, Black Star’s managing partner who was attending the dinner, for giving his staff a license to create experiences and memories like this for their guests, and told him that the reason his business is so successful is because of the people they have taking care of it. I thanked Stephanie (at least I hope I did) for having the vision and insight into my life to know how greatly a night in their kitchen would inspire me. I felt like the luckiest person in the room.
Pulling off a successful, artful meal certainly takes planning and strategy, but more than anything it takes a willingness to be flexible to take advantage of whatever ingredients look perfect in the moment. Steph and Street shopped the farmer’s market that same morning for many of the items that ended up on our plates that night. And it takes preparation, training and education, but also instinct and raw talent that no one can teach you. In the end, getting a perfect plate to the table takes attention to detail, choreography, timing, and service that is a sensual experience that must be lived 100% in the moment. The food should be savored and appreciated with four of the five senses: sight, smell, touch and taste. With a little good conversation and music, all five of our senses are nourished and we are made truly whole, if only for a moment. That moment, created by the talented team at Black Star, is something I wish everyone could experience. Being involved in assembling that meal was a joy I can hardly describe. Somehow, like Stephanie, I need to find a way to be more mindful of the creative opportunities and positive moments my own work can present. Because when we focus our energy and effort on the people and tasks immediately before us, I honestly believe the recipients of those efforts feel more aptly served and the tasks get done more effectively. Being present now allows us to be flexible and avoid disappointment. And sometimes, serendipity results from a lack of planning. So I’m going to try to stop looking for the key to the door in front of me and just enjoy being in this room for a while. Maybe what I’m looking for is right here.