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Behind the Kitchen Door

Behind the Kitchen Door

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.

Squash1That 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.Squash3After 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.”

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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.

Squash4So 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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

2015 UpNorth-132Pulling 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. 2015 UpNorth-119Being 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.

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The Comedy and the Tragedy of Traveling

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You know how when we go on big trips we take lots of pictures?  And how when we get home we purge all the bad ones and carefully select only the prettiest ones to print for the photo album and share on Facebook?  Well I did that this week after we returned from our second trip to Jamaica.  I’ve flipped through the photos a dozen times, and they are just beautiful.  The sunsets, the sea, the plants, the food, the people.  Everything looks like a complete fantasy.  

Jamaica 2014
But this time it feels completely disingenuous.
 
Here are things I did not take pictures of:  
          On the 2-hour drive from the airport in Montego Bay to Negril, we passed through six or seven dirty, dusty, crowded, and littered villages and towns.  We passed farm fields where skinny cows and goats grazed with ropes tied around their necks, staked into the ground, and horses grazed in the roughage on the side of the road.  Roadside markets, ramshackle wood huts, many painted pretty colors but others just bare wood or scrap metal.  Manufacturing facilities and schools, with barbed wire on the tops of the walls surrounding the grounds.  Nearly everywhere we looked we saw trash, litter, rubbish, debris.  Plastic bags, water bottles, beer bottles, car parts, strewn in streams and along the side of the road.  
          At least half of the locals on the beach who offered to sell us fresh fruits, juices, hats, sarongs, jewelry, or wood carvings also quietly offered us ganja, x, or even cocaine.  It wasn’t terribly difficult to tune out, of course, with the heavenly colors of the diamond blue sea and clear blue sky taking up at least half of our viewshed.  
 Jamaica 2014
But it was glaring, nonetheless.  Like thorns on a rose bush in full bloom. 
          I did take a few pictures of gorgeous and interesting-looking Jamaican natives.  So many of them are stunningly beautiful people.  One well-dressed, coiffed professional woman even had a manicure matching her aqua patent-leather high heels.  Some carried gorgeous Michael Kors and LV (knock-off?) handbags.  
          But I took no pictures of the many folks lining the sidewalks who were unclean and missing most of their teeth, smoking.  
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Another thing I simply could not photograph were the animals.  Jamaicans mostly expect their pet cats and dogs to scrounge for food rather than feeding them regular meals.  The plaintive howling and whiny, snarling, fighting barks of the dogs at night is more than a little bit disruptive.  It is almost sickening.  Although the two conditionally-friendly German Shepherds guarding our Charela Inn had relatively healthy-looking coats and appeared well taken care of.  Only one of them was a little thin under her ribs. 
           The horses offered up like toys for rides on the beach were gaunt, clearly dehydrated, and sway-backed.  One little buckskin had a severe open wound on his rump, a bite from another horse or a wild dog I guessed, that I couldn’t even look at.  I carried home so much guilt for not buying that horse some food or a bucket of water. 
 
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In the larger towns the alleys between buildings have a square-bottomed, open concrete trench running down them toward the nearest river.  Full of trash.
          Interestingly enough, the beaches and yards around the resorts are meticulously swept clean of leaves, seaweed, and other debris early in the morning and again before dinnertime.  The perfectly manicured walkways and sandy areas feel and look as clean as the floors and carpets in our house.  But the leaves and other things swept away are disposed of each night in black plastic garbage bags thrown across the road into the brush to rot under the hot sunshine.  Plastic bags.  To contain the seagrape leaves swept off the sand.  To give us tourists a completely false sense of immaculate serenity.   
          Even though the only place one can find true, uninterrupted serenity is far beneath the surface of the sea in the silent company of delightful critters like this stealthy hermit crab.
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This issue disturbs me to the point of sleeplessness.  See, underneath the sugarcane and wild tangle of tropical weeds, the island is very rocky.  The island lacks good soil to cultivate for agricultural purposes.  Why are they not composting to create more fertile soil?  Why are they not encouraging scientists to develop affordable desalination technology and reverse greenhouses?  Negril has a Burger King and free Wi-Fi in almost every chicken shack & beer joint, yet they fail to improve their agricultural resources and celebrate local foods.  Instead they import most of their produce, primarily (I believe) because the large resorts and hotels insist on serving a diverse exotic (non-local) menu to satiate the unreasonable expectations of foreign travelers.   
          My ruminations from this trip remind me of why my observations in Ghana in college made me angry.  Cell phones and text messaging were all the rage in Ghana – as in the US – in the ’90’s, but they still ran channels of sewage down the roadsides into natural streams which fed their drinking water sources.  Why do developing communities adopt technologies of convenience but not of sustainability?  They want to look cool but not be healthy.  They fiercely challenge their children to concentrate 100% of their waking hours to studying math, science, social studies, and literature, but we hear that their employers want to hire graduates from US or European schools.  Even though it sounds like the Jamaican educational system is actually more difficult than ours.  They encourage higher education, charge for it, and mothers work 3 and 4 jobs 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, to pay for their children’s education.  But the country does not have enough good-paying jobs.  So their highly educated young people are working in resort kitchens and hotel front desks, driving taxis, selling ganja.  They want to connect with the modern world through Facebook and Twitter but they don’t care about protecting the natural environment or their animals.  Yeah, yeah, I know:  “First World Problems.”  
          Like do I have my perfect Blue Mountain coffee on the beach or by the pool?
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So, by the miracle of Catholic guilt, I feel responsible.  By sharing only my prettiest pictures, I’m just perpetuating the false image the Jamaican tourism industry is promoting.  I turned my back (and my camera) away from the ugliness, the trash, the poverty, the sickness.  
          By expressing these thoughts, I’m afraid my friends who aren’t as fortunate to travel as much as I do will think I’m complaining or being ungrateful.  Yes, the surroundings were generally beautiful.  Yes, we were lucky to travel to the Caribbean again this year.  And yes, I’m still looking forward to our next trip.  
          But maybe next year, instead of traveling there, maybe we bring one of our Caribe friends’ kids here.  I don’t know, it’s lofty and again feels somewhat arrogant, but our friend Marcia’s daughter Moesha is just graduating from “Fifth Form” this year.  She might like to study law or nursing.  And she’s in the top five in her class of 40.  She would like to go to college here in the United States so that she can be a top choice for one of the select high-paying jobs back in Jamaica someday.  Honestly she wants to go to MIT, but we’re lobbying to get her to apply to Michigan or CMU.  I’d like to get her to apply to the college of natural resources at U of M, followed by a degree in civil engineering so she can take back home an understanding of how to manage refuse and water runoff.  Or to MSU to study agriscience.  Or Grand Valley to major in Hospitality & Tourism Management and learn about how protecting the environment and utilizing local food products is a way to revive Jamaica’s tourism industry.   
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All of this probably sounds uber-pretentious.  I’m feeling the same way I did during my trip to Ghana in 2000.  Like I don’t really know anything but I’m projecting my own ideals – and judgment – on another culture I hardly know at all.  What do I know about the agricultural potential of an island like Jamaica?  What do I really know about environmental protection or education?  Maybe our government has it all wrong.  Maybe recycling programs are a facade and landfills are just concentrated toxic sinkholes that will someday make the Earth implode.  Maybe modern sewage and water treatment facilities are the real cause of cancer.  Maybe our educational system is indeed superior to the rest of the world.  I don’t know.  
          What I do know is that no matter how frequently or far I travel, my favorite place on earth will always be the shores of Lake Michigan.  Ungroomed.  Wild.  Unspoiled.  Perfect.  (Except during that one week in May when there’s a plague of black flies.)  I also know that water sold in individual disposable bottles is the bane of the natural environment’s existence and I will never use one again if I can help it.  (We take empty Nalgene or metal bottles with us when we travel and fill them at the airport.  Or we just drink beer.  Draft beer to conserve on packaging, whenever possible.  It’s only the responsible thing to do.)  I also know that I love local produce when it’s in season more than any other food I could eat.  Especially Grand Traverse peaches in late summer.  Mostly, though, I know that God made this amazing place infinitely beautiful.  For us.  And we need to do whatever we can to honor it so that our children and their children can obsess over their own carefully framed photos of these beautiful sunsets and oceans.  
Jamaica 2014

 

Jamaica 2014