If you’ve ever wondered how I or most other chefs come up with original dishes, either in the hopes of doing it yourself or just to understand what the hell we were thinking, let me walk you through it.
Let’s use this lovely plate of food as an example. It’s a tranche of dolly varden, served with pickled devil’s club shoots, a spruce tip sauce, pureed matsutake mushrooms, pickled mustard seeds, preserved rowan berries, lingonberries and some angelica oil.
I know, I know. Super esoteric. Pretty much unrepeatable by anyone but me and a few other crazy forager-chefs I know. In some ways, that’s the point. Marcus Aurelius, the Bible and others have noted that there is nothing new under the sun. Except there is. I can guarantee you no one has ever put all these elements on the same plate before.
Using unusual, often wild ingredients, is one of the very few ways a cook can do something original. No, it’s not the cronut, but it’s certainly better for you. Another way to achieve originality is to use new cooking techniques, which is why the modernist wave was so popular for a while. It allowed cooks to do something truly new.
I know how to do a few of those fancy modern techniques, but I generally find that sort of cooking overwrought and soulless. Food that looks better than it eats.
Sadly, this lovely plate of trout and foraged goodies also looks better than it eats. But I am OK with that. It is a work in progress.
If you’ve ever heard of chefs like Rene Redzepi or Grant Achatz or the great Ferran Adria, you know that a new dish, something you are proud to put in front of critics, doesn’t just happen. (Or at least not very often. Sometimes lightning does strike.) No, it requires quite a lot of tinkering.
But even before the tinkering must come the idea.
An idea can come from anywhere. The most common source of inspiration is by seeing another plate of food that you like, but would do slightly differently. But I’ve had ideas come from smells, images, flavors of childhood or travel, from experiences. From places.
In this case, this dish is an ode to Southeast Alaska. I had a chance to fish for dolly vardens there with my friend Tyson and his boys. Dollies are a type of char, which is a trout relative. Fellow food blogger Heidi gave me a jar of pickled devil’s club shoots, which taste a lot like artichoke hearts, believe it or not. Armed with dollies and pickled devil’s club, ideas for this dish began swirling in my head on the plane ride home.
One idea centered on those glorious spots. See them on the skin of the fish? Dolly vardens got their name from either a Charles Dickens character who wore fancy clothes, or a fabric pattern of forest green and magenta named after that character. I suspect the latter. I gambled that those spots would still be visible after cooking, and I was right.
I had just the plate in mind: See the spots on it? Plates matter — it’s all part of the “eat with your eyes first” appeal of a fish. The fish’s spots also inspired me to think of small, round things to put on the plate that would carry over the spot theme.
Pickled mustard seeds were a given; they are one of my favorite garnishes. Considering this is was a dish from Alaska, lingonberries and rowan (a/k/a mountain ash) berries would fit right in. Why these? Well, they live there, for one. But that’s not good enough. Lingonberries add color reminiscent of the dolly’s spots, and are bright and tart. The rowan berries are slightly astringent, but also weirdly tropical And, well, they’re pretty.
I could have stopped there, but I chose not to. I wanted something substantial on the plate, and I came up with a mushroom puree. I had a matsutake frozen, and I always like matsies with fish, so I went ahead and pureed it after simmering it a bit in sake and soy sauce. This was my first misstep.
The matsutake was the wrong mushroom for this plate. The flavors fought each other. And the puree was too soft. I am thinking porcini would be a better choice here, and I would not puree it.
The puree’s softness also clanged up against the meat of the dolly varden itself. Dollies are soft. Nice, but soft. So much so that when you cut off a bite with your fork, the crispy skin held tighter than the meat, so you’d end up mushing the meat a bit. A problem.
What to do? Next time, I’d separate the fish from the skin and either butter poach or sear the fish, and then crisp the skin separately and use it as a chip on the plate for crunch. Live and learn. This was my first attempt at cooking dolly varden.
I really liked the spruce tip sauce, but again, it didn’t play well with everything else on the plate. It really clashed with the mushroom puree and wasn’t too great with the rowan berries, either.
Ditto with the angelica oil. I had made this by buzzing fresh angelica leaves with canola oil until it heated in the Vitamix, but the resulting oil, while pretty and green and smelling of angelica, really needed salt to bring out the flavor. An easy fix.
So where does all this leave me? Close. But not quite there.
This is that draft process you go through with any creative endeavor. The idea is good, as are many elements. But some need to go — the matsutake and probably the rowan berries — and some need to be tinkered with, like the issue of the dolly varden skin, and there probably needs to be one more thing to make the dish ready for prime time.
And that thing is crunch. There’s no serious crunchy bit here. Crunch isn’t crisp, remember. So what to add? Hazelnuts spring to mind, as they can be found in Southeast Alaska. I’ll figure it out.
That’s the fun of it.