In 1975, John McPhee published a story called “Brigade de Cuisine” about Otto, a chef who ran a 55-seat restaurant with no help except for Anne (his pastry chef/wife), their children (who served the food) and a dishwasher on the weekends. Otto, which isn’t really his name, is a British-born, Spanish/British-raised, German/Swiss/Spanish-trained firecracker. He is a perfectionist, a classic old guard hefe and an obsessively inventive European chef performing miracles en croute. “The man’s right knee is callused from kneeling before the stove,” McPhee writes. “He would like to see his work described. He would like to be known for what he does, but in this time, in this country, his position is awkward, for he prefers being a person to becoming a personality, his wish to be acknowledged is exceeded by his wish not to be celebrated, and he could savor recognition only if he could have it without publicity.” The location of the restaurant: somewhere in the region of New York City.
A lot of time has passed since “Brigade de Cuisine” was written, and even back then McPhee wrote, “Otto is a wave of the past. This is the age of the microwave and the mass-produced entrée ….” Certainly 30 years later, chefs like Otto — with poignantly humble personalities in a profession replete with egos the size of tuna bellies — have all but disappeared. Chefs have become “Chefs,” simply stopping whatever it is they do naturally, setting their sights instead on material goals. We have Chefs on reality TV shows, Chefs with designer footwear, Chefs undercover writing “tales from the trade”-type novelettes and Chefs that are too busy to care, by far the saddest and most pandemic of the lot. They have video monitoring in their kitchens at remote restaurants so the Chef can keep a steely eye on the maximum size of a micro green, the speed and direction of a swirl of sauce, the girth of a baby fingerling. These days, you don’t simply go to a Thomas Keller restaurant per se; you have The Thomas Keller Experience, and that Experience flattens all distinctions in time and space. Other than differences in municipal tap water, the meal has no context. Be it in New York, in Dubai or on the moon, your Experience is guaranteed to be identical — grade A, free range, 100 percent the same, each chewable note marvelously dictated and accounted for. This type of fine dining is thrilling, but pummels chefs like Otto about as flat as the octopus his cousin drives over with a car in McPhee’s story in order to break down its tough, fibrous nature.
At the end of “Brigade de Cuisine,” after 50 glorious pages, McPhee mentions the impending closure of Otto’s restaurant. Customers have heard the news and come bearing gifts: “a bottle of Château Haut-Brion, a tin of caviar, an authentic Habana cigar.” McPhee’s meticulous pacing is a dirty, agonizing trick. He’s sensed the line wiggling and has yanked up on the reel. “In a short time, [Otto] and Anne will be gone.” My idea of planning a quick trip to the New York City region — so titillating as one reads “Brigade de Cuisine” — blew up as I reached the scant few pages left.
Even in 1975, had I been able to scour Google Earth for the three-storied, multi-windowed structure, with its red tin roof and its long drive with dying apple trees, neighboring can-and-bottle dump, stream and “good-sized pond” to uncover Otto’s sacred whereabouts, and then jimmied my parents’ Ford Fairlane (I would have been 8 at the time) and set course for the outskirts of New York, it would have been too late. Winter would have fallen on the old white inn, and the sounds and aromas belonging to a new owner, a new tub of duck fat, a new blender would have welcomed me. On the second to last page of his book, McPhee writes of Otto and his family, “… they are not going far, not far from New York, no telling where.”
If Otto had indeed closed up shop, let his fiddleheads, blueberries and dandelions grow wild, sold his family collection of Queen Anne chairs, bullfighting prints and empty magnums of Chateau Margaux, and made a much longer trek past the edge of “not far from New York,” across the American Midwest and all the way to California, where the state made a parenthesis-shaped attempt to prevent his departure — if he then ignored the gastronomical purr of northern California and instead trickled south and signed a lease for a 20-seat restaurant in a crappy strip mall in Los Angeles, gave up his knee pads for a long black apron tied meticulously at the waist, swapped out his wife for a petite Japanese woman able to wear lavender and green eye shadow well, shrugged off several pounds and reincarnated himself as a wiry, lightly graying and far less argumentative Japanese man, then I have found Otto at last.
My Otto, Koh Kikuchi, is a one-man brigade. He controls the temperature of the bisque, the thickness of the rib sauce, the consistency of the fromage blanc. He eyes the width of the tomato slices, the cacao percentage in his ganache, the total square inches of gelatin in his panna cotta. He prods a piece of sirloin to see if it’s done, squinting at it like a graphic designer seeing if type is lining up properly. He calculates 2πR of a cake pan so he can construct the correct length of ladyfingers which will eventually go around the circumference of a pear charlotte. He decides the fate of matsutake mushrooms (“If there’s very little smell, I throw them immediately into the sauce; if the smell is good, I know I can serve them straight up”) and checks the color of bananas (“If the bananas are perfectly ripe, then I can simply sauté; if not, then I toss them in a little caramelized sugar. It helps with the texture”). He does all this practically at the same time. He saves cleaned carrot peels to make the stock for his smoked salmon and vegetable terrine, and deep-fries his parsnip peels into delicate crisps. “Never throw anything away.” He maintains a shiso plum salt (“It’s got a sequence: First you taste the salt, then you taste the shiso and plum. Put this on food and no one knows what’s going on”), a macha-and-salt mixture he serves with his deep-fried chocolate ganache and a shrimp salt he makes by grinding dried shells into a fine powder. He cooks fish on a piece of wood that has been soaked in wine for two days; the board is salvaged from the side of a wine crate, branded with the words Chateau les Grand Maréchaux. “Never throw anything away.”
At the market, he handpicks the vegetables. “Don’t buy the really straight green beans. Get the ones that have grown completely crooked. The straight ones have something wrong with them.” He tears scallops by hand. “If you cut them with a knife, the surface is too smooth and the sauce doesn’t stick to the sides. That’s the Japanese way of cooking scallops. I learned that from a book. I read a book on Japanese cooking once.” He’s learned that humans are made up of .2 percent salt and uses this knowledge to calculate how much salt to add when creating a marinade for his meats.
He hears a customer is coming who is from a particular region in southern Japan. “I am going to make a him a traditional dish from his hometown but throw in a French twist. It will be nostalgic and new. It’s funny, it’s actually a very traditional French dish called a quenelle. I’ll put a lobster sauce over it. I’ll put some mountain potato and some water chestnuts in. That will give it an unusual texture, but the pieces have to be the right size. If you leave the pieces of water chestnuts too big, you can tell what they are. I’m trying to be a little more sophisticated here.”