After getting over a bit of performance anxiety, I brought my butternut squash dish to work to be critiqued by the chefs at the restaurant I worked at. I did my best to appear cool and calm and slid the plastic to-go container holding the contents of my labors to the chef.
“Here’s that butternut squash dish I’ve been obsessing over,” I said with studied nonchalance. “Heat it up whenever you think you have the time.”
I started to walk away. Chef Bryant stopped me as I turned to leave.
“Hold up. We’re gonna eat it now.”
I quickly gave him my re-heating instructions and disappeared around a corner. I was hoping to see if Nancy Silverton, my boss and my culinary hero, was somewhere nearby. I scanned the back kitchen. The only people I could find were the dishwashers and some cooks prepping clams.
For a moment I considered slicing off a portion of sizzling butternut squash and bubbling Pecorino and bringing it to her, but changed my mind. I feared I’d look foolish or inconsiderate forcing a nugget of orange squash on the city’s most celebrated bread bakers. With just minutes before service, surely someone in charge would kill me for distracting Nancy.
So instead, I busied myself with preparing a frothy cappuccino. Anything to keep my hands busy and my eyes off the mouths of the chefs that were most likely eating my dish by now. I downed my caffeinated drink and returned to the floor of the Pizzeria.
One of the chefs, Joe, stopped me as I passed by. “ Hey–it’s good,” he said.
I stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t stem the rising of octaves in my voice. I practically sang a high-soprano “Really?”
“It could use a little salt. But it’s good.” He smiled.Suddenly bolstered by my critique, I stopped by the back prep counter to see what Chef Carla thought of the dish. Between slicing Brussel sprouts and sautéing them for the night’s antipasti, I watched her sample a bite of my squash gratin she had reheated on a sizzle platter in the pizza oven and had carefully hidden away by the bookshelf so no one could steal even one caramelized bite.
Just as I was about to get Carla’s feedback, Nancy appeared from the Pastry department. My heart fluttered with excitement.
“Nancy!” I called out. “Here’s the Pecorino dish I’ve been obsessing over.” I sputtered, all pretend laid-back. “Wanna try it?”
She nodded as I rushed to the bussers polishing area in search for a clean dining utensil. My hand landed on handle and in less than a half a second I had pushed a metal spoon into Nancy’s hand. She took a bite and studied the visual elements of the dish. And then, just to prolong my anticipation, she took a graceful bite of the gooey Pecorino that stretched across the platter.
“Yum.” She said. “Where’d you find the cheese?”
I smiled. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
You see, dear reader, I had been mentally preparing for this for days. I knew that if I ever got the chance to talk about this dish with Nancy, I should better have all the answers ready. I was not going to give a repeat performance of the night I had one too many glasses of wine after work and told her I was really into this great “goats’ milk cheese from Pienza”. GOATS MILK CHEESE? FROM PIENZA? God. How stupid of me. Everyone knows that Pienza, Italy is known for SHEEPS MILK CHEESE!!! God…Why must I suffer from stage fright/food dyslexia (calling an important food stuff something that it’s not out of carelessness and or fear)!!!???? Nancy was just so nice and only nodded at me. “Really? Goat’s milk cheese?” she said. “From Pienza?” It wasn’t I until I tucked myself in later that night that I realized my mistake. I bolted upright in bed and nearly screamed. My husband had to pat my head and whisper “It’s alright, it’s alright” for several minutes before I could calm down.
Anyway, the point of my little side bar, is that ever since that late night gaff, I’d been memorizing ingredients like my life depended on it.
Back to the story: Where did I get the cheese, you ask? I take a deep breath and say the follow words like a child that’s just learned how to say their first full sentence.
“From Joan’s on Third. It’s Pecorino Fresca. From La Tuccia.”
Nancy took another bite and smiled. “It could use a little salt,” I said and forced myself to walk away.
Later, when service had been in swing for a few hours, I snuck back into the prep area to talk to Chef Carla. In private.
“What did Nancy think?” I asked. Carla smiled and spoke to me in almost whispers. “She liked it. She said it could use some herbs, maybe. Or some spice…Maybe some honey.”
And then my mind started reeling with the different variations. Pecorino, butternut squash and mint. Pecorino, butternut squash, hot pepper flakes. Pecorino, butternut squash and honey…
That’s when it hit me.
A master had tasted my food. A master found something worthy enough for improvement.