I cannot remember flavors. Perhaps someone who was a cook shouldn't say such a thing, or at least not admitting it, but this is the case. I really cannot remember flavors, but I remember the whole experience. Flavor, smell, place, atmosphere and - people, of course.
However, there are some dishes that are part of experiences whose flavor is charred on my taste buds and is kept in my tastetrack folder. What do you mean "what is a tastetrack"? If there is a soundtrack, there must be a tastetrack, right?
These flavors will throw you back to the first time you tasted them, and since then they're there. You could taste the same dish tens and hundreds of times, but it won't be exactly the same as in this specific experience.
This part of the website is all about my favorite memories gathered along the years from here and there.
I understand that you might not be able to taste exactly what I tasted, but at least you can imagine it.
The dish that is charred in the deepest sense is the calamari and onion salad of the restaurant "Chimichanga" (may it rest in peace).
You may safely assume that if I had tasted this dish as a patron it wouldn't have left such a strong impression, but luckily I had also the chance to work in the restaurant for seven years. Seven wonderful years that only looking at them from afar I can say how wonderful they were.
The "official" name of the dish on the menu was "Calamari and charred onion salad in dark pasilla chili vinaigrette", but stripping it of this title and entering the kitchen it was known simply as "calamari and onion".
Pause. Imagine everything you are about to read from now on with this song in the background, one of Chimichanga's playlist old-time favorites.
As any other cook in Chimichanga I started to work at the first-course station, or the "cold pass" as it's called in any other restaurant.
Yet this station earned its name rightfully since the kitchen is a hot place, regardless the name of the station. From the fryers to the grill, through the plancha all the way to the stove - it's hot.
So I started preparing for weeks and weeks the simplest dishes: hundreds of liters of Guacamole, thousands of quesadillas and chimichangas and buckets of fried calamari. These dishes really didn't have anything to do with cooking but mainly making sure they're not over-fried or under-charred.
Already on my first week, I came across the magical flavor of the calamari and onion salad, which was underestimated until I had to personally prepare it. To be more specific - to prepare the sauce that accompanied it.
The rumors circling the sauce were that its recipe was written on two different pages kept in two different places, and only when the time came to prepare it the sous-chef would combine them, and under his close surveillance, you could prepare it.
The recipe, in fact - and pardon me for ruining a good story - was written on one page, yet it had more than 30 ingredients. Different types of fresh and dry chilies - with Pasilla, naturally, among them, different kinds of vinegar and oil, ginger and lemongrass, onion and garlic, just to name a few.
Just collecting the ingredients from the kitchen's refrigerators and pantries was a kind of a ceremony, and when I had the privilege to do so it felt like entering "The Zone".
The true heroes, Pasilla chilis
You couldn't remember the recipe by heart with all these ingredients, and my assumption - which I've never confronted the chef Avi Conforti about - is that it started with a very simple one, but "something didn't feel right". So, he added more and more ingredients, layers and layers of flavors until it ended up with being a monstrous recipe that you couldn't prepare in less than 20 liters.
You couldn't avoid preparing that sauce at least once a month since the dish was one of the most popular ones on the menu, so you had also to taste it when it was utterly fresh. And then - such a joy!
All the flavors exploding in your mouth and sending your brain to different sweet-spicy-sour-salty corners. Hot peppers and ginger, lemongrass and apple vinegar, garlic and chili oil. A once-in-a-batch combination which cannot be perceived again even if following the exact recipe. Definitely unforgettable.
Preparing and plating the dish carried as much fun.
"Calamari and onion!" was the call in the kitchen, which usually meant more than a single dish per table, usually two, three, and even four and five.
100 grams of calamari on the plancha for 40 seconds, in the meantime, mixing grill-charred onion rings, deep fried beetroot and tortilla chips and some coriander, and of course, one ladle of the magic sauce.
At this point you can skip the calamari, only this combination was awesome!
Adding the lightly heated calamari rings from the plancha made the dish come true. Rings of onion and calamari, flavored with the rest of the ingredients and the sauce, building itself slowly but surely since the dish shouldn't be stable only on the pass but arrive safely to the client.
Around the small tower, you could have artistic freedom of drawing on the plate dots and stripes of deep-green coriander oil, purple on the verge of black beetroot vinegar, and glowing-in-the-dark red-orange chili oil. It looks pretty on a white plate, and it looks even prettier on a transparent plate over a white tablecloth.
It was one of the most beautiful dishes I had the chance to prepare in my short career as a cook, but for sure one I had the most fun preparing, from the initial prep stage up until sending the plate to the client.