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Spotlight on a Bespoke Meal (long)

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[Hello hounds! Pardon our long silences, we're on very strict diets (I've lost 70 pounds, Burke has lost more than 100!). But we took a break to have a great meal outside of our new home in New York City, so here's a review. Enjoy!]

I never knew the word until I met Burke. "Bespoke" comes from tailoring: the great British suit makers of Savile Row are called bespoke tailors, because they offer a "we make it specially for you" service. It dates back to when a bolt of cloth would come in on a ship from China or India or even from a particularly quality clothier in the Americas or Europe--you can't have a suit made out of THAT cloth, it's already spoken for; it's bespoke for the noble who ordered it. The term came to denote a tailor who makes a suit specifically to you. Not only do they use the particular bolt of cloth you spoke for (though actually holding the whole cloth is far less common these days), they measure you, cut to you, fit to you, sew to you, adjust to you, until you've got something unique, utterly designed to be perfect for you. It implies the highest quality, but that's not necessary. If your suit is bespoke, that simply means it's absolutely yours, to your request and your requirements and physique.

Burke chose this weekend's resort because they were the only one who offered a bespoke meal service. It's uncommon, despite the fiercely competitive luxury resort market, because you put the kitchen in a risky situation. People have strange requests, and though bespoke doesn't equate to slavery (you can't command them like servants, you can't demand something they're unequipped to attempt), people will expect weird things. This kitchen, for instance, was heavily French and American. What if a guest wanted a dish you have to prepare with a high-BTU wok? What if someone plans to abuse the system, requesting outrageous ingredients that cost a fortune? Sure, they'll just tack on an extra charge, but the likelihood is failure to a kitchen scrambling to fulfill ill-conceived requests.

Most of all, requests take the choice, the freedom and the chance to experiment out of the hands of the chef. These chefs have great pedigrees and huge salaries, they can probably cook anywhere, in the greatest kitchens in the most sophisticated cities; alienate them at your peril. Force a chef like that to bow to diet-mad, risk-averse and simplistic demands and the chef could pack up and leave, taking his/her crew and throwing your resort or restaurant into chaos. Get a reputation for bad food and you might as well close up shop.

Our first night we arrived too late to request a bespoke meal, so we sampled their normal fixed menu (one or two choices, it's a small operation, like most resort kitchens). They pulled off a very nice meal, with pork nicely braised and roasted, about what you'd expect (Berkshire pork in the Berkshire mountains, hardly a surprise). Lying in bed at night, I imagined simply saying to the chef, "I've always wanted to try filet a la Rossini (with truffles and foie gras)," but such a request basically turns the chef into a high-end short order cook, forcing him to make what we want, rendering the rest of the menu hard to integrate. I also considered telling the chef, "Well, we like X and Y and Z, surprise us," but that's not much fun for the chef either: sure they have creative control, but then, hey, if we want what the chef wants, why bother with bespoke, just order off the menu! There are a lot of traps with bespoke ordering, in suits or meals or anything.

So I hatched a plan and ran it past Burke. We'll feel out the chef a little, but offer him (turns out ours was male) a theme, a freedom, but a restriction. We did our research, we know this chef worked for Ducasse, for Boulud, in the grand French tradition. I figured he spent years learning how to master the elements of French cuisine, only to find no demand for it: these days of cholesterol fear and fat phobia, who orders a bernaise or perigord sauce? With gastronomes pushing menus to include freeze-dried tomato powder and white asparagus foam and super-fusion anti-courses like salmon ice cream appetizers and bacon lychee mousse desserts, who will make use of a French chef's skills? Who cares about a fine brunoise of vegetables (think super-fine dice, hard to pull off unless your knife work is top-tier), or a perfectly thickened gravy, or a properly sauteed carrot? We figured Chris would be itching to stretch those muscles again. What chef wouldn't be chafing under the restrictions of fashion? Who wouldn't like to buck trends for once? The next morning, after breakfast, we spring our surprise:

"Chef," I told Chris Eddy, executive of their kitchen, "I have a plan I've been fantasizing about for years. I won't request any specific food, you know what's fresh, what's available, what's good, I trust you. What I want is a style, a chance to enjoy a time long gone."

I sit up, and so does he. This isn't normal for someone who asks to speak to the chef to request a meal. Usually he gets the same old demands for a steak, or an I'm-dieting-no-fat-please or the only-meat-and-potatoes thing.

"You studied with Ducasse and Boloud," I go on. "You know the great French tradition. Take me back, before molecular gastronomy of these days, before the microgreens of the 1990s, before the tiny portions of nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s; show us old school, the cuisine of Escoffier, the great cooking of the 19th century which is out of fashion and no one does. Give us liver and offal, give us pate and slow poaching, give us butter and cream and the five mother sauces--dine us like the fashionable rich of 1890."

"Oh my God!" he cries. "You're like the un-guest! I never get a chance to do this! How many days are you staying? Why didn't I know you were coming earlier!"

I wish I could describe in words the light in his eyes when we laid out our plan. He blinked, his mouth hung open, he nodded so much I thought he might get dizzy. The only thing that bothered him was that he had only one meal to cook for us: proof positive we'd touched a nerve. So to honor his efforts, here is what Chris cooked for us that night.

AMUSE: Poached mackerel en gelee. These days, what's more declassé than Jell-O? Gelatin is boring. It's flavorless. It's got a long shelf life, it's got nothing special to it except a jiggle to entertain the kids. But for decades, even centuries, gelatin was so hard to manufacture, so difficult to prepare, so subtle in flavor it was prized by kings. "Aspic" was the choice of the ruling classes in Europe. You had to boil and reduce and boil and reduce the knees, ankles and hooves of horses to extract it. You had to filter and cool it properly or it would get cloudy. You had to take all that collagen and turn it into gelatin and mold it and melt it and reshape it. That's why foods "en gelee" ("in jelly") were the most high-class. So Chris poached small fillets of mackerel fish and overlaid them with aspic, real aspic. He even served it with tiny, perfect cubes of carrot, showing off knife skills. This is a dish that would never be served anywhere--a museum piece of a dish. It was heaven. WINE: A lovely pino gris whose name I failed to catch.

PRIMI: Butternut squash risotto with veal demiglace. A nod to local ingredients and a display of risotto skills. Risotto requires patience: you take the rice, you cook the raw, dried grains in garlic and oil, then you stir, add stock, stir until the rice absorbs the stock, stir, rarely stopping for more than a little while. It gets creamy, as the starch granules that rub off the grains of rice plump ("gelatinize"), creating a thickness. But you have to keep the grains tender and never so far as mushy. It's a chance to prove the chef cared enough to make a simple dish great. And there was nothing but the risotto, no shrimp or meat or anything. It was acting like the first course, the pasta course if this were an Italian meal (probably since the amuse was a fish). For richness, only a generous drizzle of demiglace, the reduced stock of veal that takes hours to make and is the very foundation of European cuisine. WINE: The pino theme continued, with a nice noir whose name I wished I'd caught.

FOWL: Wild pigeon. Here was a throwback to the landed gentry of the previous century, with a locally shot bird along with a crouton. Wild game needs a sweet balance, so he threw in some sultanas (think big raisins) soaked in wine. The crouton (think toast dry to the point of a long thin cracker) had a paste on it made of the bird's liver. This was country eating, hopelessly out of fashion, and astoundingly delicious. Why don't people order this anymore? WINE: A St. Emilion with a lot of berry and some tannins, a fine foil for the bird.

CARNE: Boeuf mode. You should call it beef "a la mode," but over the last century that's come to mean "with a scoop of ice cream," so now you simply call it "fashionable beef." The "fashion" in this case was a long, slow braise of an already tender fillet, served with a wine and stock reduction. The meat has no sear (that was considered low-class in the 1890s), but tender to the point of collapse. It came simply with a carrot, a celery stalk and a cipollini onion: an in-joke, because those are the three aromatic vegetables that form the base of all stocks. It was the chef playing with us, giving us a garnish we'd only recognize because we understood the basics of continental cuisine. The flavor and texture of this beef defy description. I love a steakhouse as much as anyone, but there are other things you can do with a fillet besides broil it, and for decades this was how the educated palette demanded beef. I'm stunned no one requests it any more. WINE: A surprise from Oregon called "Ancien," a real winner!

INTERMEZZO: Campari granité. You can freeze almost any alcohol with a little sugar and scrape at it with a fork so it forms not blocks, but small crystals. That's a granité (think granite, stone), and in this age of cheap and efficient sorbet and ice cream makers, it's a dying art. Ours was refreshing and light as a citrus snowfall.

DESSERT: Three in one. A small chocolate souffle and raspberry mousse were classic but not extraordinary, but the third was a bow to the pastry chef's inventiveness: a consomme of citrus fruits (think a broth that's somehow sweet) and a ravioli made of a wonton skin that had praline (thick caramel paste) inside. What a joy! Coffee and petit-fours rounded things out. WINE: Half a bottle of Rieussec 2002, and you'll always make me smile with a sauternes.

The real important element we took from this meal had little to do with 100-year-old French cuisine styles. We learned, once again, that art and craftspersonship require an active consumer, not a passive one. We worked hard as we wanted the artist to work, and we approached the artwork itself as a collaborative effort. That makes all the difference, in a suit, a meal, a painting, a building or a concerto. But it needn't lie with new art only: viewing a Picasso or a Van Gogh is a collaborative venture as well. Bring to the experience as much as you demand from it, and together you get something far greater. In that way, life itself is bespoke.

--Peter Wells
peter@tunecore.com

a Burke and Wells review

The Dining Room at Winvian
Litchfield Hills, CT

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