The Menu Meeting
Posted on May 12, 2014
Before I started interning for the Rome Sustainable Food Project, I spent a saturday in the kitchen as a volunteer. I remember it was a crisp fall morning. Curious and ready, I reported for my shift at 8am, prepared to be swept up into a busy day. But first it was time for the Menu Meeting. A twice-daily ritual (held once before the start of the morning shift and once in the afternoon), the meeting is a sit-down exchange between the Chef and the interns on duty. Like a captain before an armada prepared to set sail, the Chef lays forth a plan of action for his ships. The waters may be rough (i.e. the head count may be high), but together we’ll make it through (i.e. dinner is going to be awesome).
We sat outside in the cortile, cappuccinos close at hand, as the Chef described how to make the dishes of the day. Twelve of them, detailed in rapid-fire succesion. The interns all kept pace, scribbling indecipherable shorthand in their tiny notebooks. I tried to keep up too, in my own tiny book, until someone gently suggested that wouldn’t be necessary (Which was true. They don’t often throw volunteers straight into the fire. Mine was a day of picking parsley and making applesauce). So I mostly listened.
I was amazed. There were no recipes. No hard and fast quantities. Each intern would have to scale their dish up or down, depending on the final head count, which we wouldn’t know for a couple hours. Coming from a background in pastry where recipes are essential, this meeting was crazy talk. It felt like a glimpse into a whole new world–and it was–savory cooking; where you must rely on your senses, your palate and a battery of basic cooking techniques in order to thrive.
My first Menu Meeting bewildered me, but once I joined the kitchen as an intern, I grew to love the ritual. I relished having such a potent, concentrated start to the day. And a mission. A clear goal. During those first few weeks, the morning meetings were a respite from the uncertainty that consumed me most of the time. During them, I had the chance to visualize a dish in its perfect form. No question went unanswered. Patience was plentiful. I tried my best to internalize the Chef’s instructions, so I could work as efficiently as possible once I stepped into the kitchen. We were assigned multiple dishes per shift, so I would try to chart out a choreography in my head. Which actions take precedence and which should follow? Months later I still found myself trying to perfect this ballet of cooking decisions. I think it only comes with practice.
Taking part in these meetings made me understand something very important about cooking. I realized that this way of describing a dish makes it possible to cook almost anything. No recipe = no problem, if you use common sense and some basic cooking techniques. I should offer a slight disclaimer, here: this is true for the food I like to cook. I prefer simple dishes with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, not molecular gastronomic creations that are more magic trick than real food.
To further illustrate the RSFP no-recipe method, here you go. A “recipe” from day six of my internship:
Zuppa con Broccoli Siciliani
- Clean and cut broccoli (including stems and leaves).
- Boil broccoli in small batches in rapidly boiling, salted water; until still green, but really cooked.
- Put cooked broccoli in an ice bath to stop the cooking.
- Don’t throw out the blanching water! It’s the base of your soup.
- Take broccoli water in pot, throw in strained broccoli and stems, then blend with immersion blender.
- Start out really thick, then use ice to thin soup.
- Soup stays off heat until 20 minutes before service.
- Season with salt and pepper as needed.
Note: This method makes a vividly green soup that tastes just like… broccoli. Imagine that! It’s a really simple, beautiful way to highlight the flavor of the vegetable. Two things to be careful of: over-salting the blanching water in the beginning and over-cooking the broccoli.