The legendary chef answers the question…What did you eat today, Jeremiah Tower?
I was off the other day to help with a dinner at Mark Franz’s Farallon in San Francisco. The plane left at 8:30 so I was at the Santiago market (five minutes from my Merida,Yucatan house) by 6 that morning to buy enough bananas and watermelon to keep the huge and macho iguana out in the garden happy while I was away. What he wouldn’t finish, the Kau or Grackle birds would, probably joined by wild and screeching green parrots from the mamay tree just outside the dining patio. As for the three juvenile sopilotes or vultures who have taken to drinking out of the pool, they would not join, but rather stand by hoping the iguana would die. I grabbed a couple of morcilla (blood sausage) tacos and a pint of freshly-squeezed orange juice in the market, but my mind was on the croque-monsieur (and a glass of rather fabulous La Doucette) at Le Grand Comptoir at the confluences of the ‘C’ gates at Houston International airport–the only time I look forward to an airport unless it is the Cathay Pacific lounges in Hong Kong. It’s a ritual now whenever I am in transit through Houston. My fried ham and cheese sandwich whose secret is the very tasty smoked ham, real Gruyere and, as if the butter in which the rustic white bread is fried is not enough, lashings of mayonnaise on the inside of the bread just to keep everything juicy enough to need three napkins. I admit to a certain obsession with this heavenly sandwich and, as a way to make an airport livable, it has no peers, though the Harrod’s smoked salmon and caviar bar at Heathrow would be a contender if the staff were not so unfriendly as well as inept.
My croque obsession itself was overwhelmed by unstoppable thoughts about the menu Mark and I were to cook for the assembled Bay Area chef friends of Stars, the San Francisco restaurant where many of them started, beginning in 1984. I could not wait to try the percebes (goose barnacles) that Mark had found a source for in Chile, because after we both had them on my 50th birthday trip to Galicia for a pig sticking, we could never get enough of them. Now they are rare and very expensive, and surely bad weather would intervene (they are gathered from the rocks furthest out and against the open-ocean breaking waves). So my thoughts beyond the ham and cheese sandwich and percebes were focused on the hot in-bone beef marrow topped with chilled and very fresh sea urchin gonads or uni. Never tasted that combination, but Mark assured me it would be a revelation. It was, the two fats both cancelling each other out and enhancing each other. If that makes sense. It did. Mark makes as good charcuterie as anyone I know, and the pig head boned and rolled, cooked and sliced, was no exception. The squab, from impeccable farming sources, needing nothing more than light smoking over a fire, seizing in olive oil, cooling, boning, and blasting quickly in the oven to order, was like eating fattened thrushes. But it was the boned sturgeons filled with lobster mousse that caught my fancy. I boned, Mark stuffed and tied, and they were roasted whole. The sauce was a fish and shellfish stock, reduced, buttered, and then sturgeon caviar stirred in to order and spooned over slices of the lobster-stuffed fish. A little and a lot of Californian Russian tradition, decadence, and new vision, all in one dish. Exactly what good restaurant cooking today is all about. Sometimes minus the decadence. // Jeremiah Tower