For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

September 17, 2013

Morning Glory 

Wiping off the sweat from my forehead, I jump off my bike. Tuesday morning – a new week begins. Keys, where the hell are my keys?? I’m frenetically digging in my backpack.  Same thing every morning. There, I found them. The door opens. I’m still sweating.

“Good morning all! Nice weekend?” I greet my colleagues who are already fully concentrated on work. One is pulling off tender meat from the lamb leg that has been simmering in its own fat over night. The other is fileting trout that just came in as fresh as it gets. I receive no answer, just a firm nod, but I don’t mind. By now, I’ve learned that Tuesdays for chefs are like Mondays for normal people: Tired and moody. Better to simply let them work and start working myself.

A ten-liter pot of rye bread dough and a 2/2 GN-steel container full of beautifully risen wheat bread dough are waiting for me. Clothes off, clothes on. Quickly. One, two, three, four and five. I button up my mandarin collared jacket. Ready. Let’s go.

Rye bread, first up. I have to work carefully but fast: A seemingly impossible equation at first, but I’m getting better. After six weeks of doing it every morning, I should be better. The oven is already hot. I snap on a pair of disposable plastic gloves and gently push my hand to the bottom of the pot to grab the dough. There, now the firm yet soft dough is sitting on my hand. I need a moment here. This part is crucial: Under no circumstances is one to break the crust that has taken shape over night. Important rye bread cosmetics. Ok, time to do the lift. Steady now. My hand is just a tad too small, but I compensate with determination. I hold my breath for a nanosecond.

Damn it. A tiny part of the dough always sticks to the pot.

I’ll be better tomorrow.

I pat, I sprinkle flour, I pat again. I cut twelve equally big lumps. Cut, cut, cut, twelve times. The dough is sticky but I shouldn’t add to much flour. It’s perfect this way and it’s so alive. The mark from the cut disappears in split seconds. The dough keeps growing and expanding as I go.  A bit like a lizard that grows back its tail.

As much as I enjoy teamwork, this part of the morning is the best. I often get left alone to bake. It’s just me and a shit load of sour dough. Dough that technically is my worst enemy, dough that I can’t eat when done, but I don’t mind. I still give it my heart and soul. And it’s so worth it---

My thoughts stand still, I’m concentrated. I’m nowhere but there, here. Patting, shaping.  Salt, flour. There. Done. There are only a few things in life that give you the same utter satisfaction as manual labor does. To see the result of your own bare hands in a matter of minutes is priceless. Even though I’ve done it each morning for six weeks now, I still marvel over the little loaves of bread each time I make them. Such beauties they are.

Next up, wheat bread. No kneading at all – in fact, I barely touch it. It’s wet and elastic, almost wobbly, but it holds itself well. A strong smell of lactic yeast, bananas, yogurt fills the room as I pour the dough onto the wooden baking table. The dough is active all right. A complex gluten net formation is a very good sign. Long elastic gluten strings. I love to see them even though they are a threat to me health.

Dividing the runny dough was such a pain at first. Now, I’ve learned how to not get it all over the place. Scraping, cutting. I’ve become accustomed to use the bench knife as an extension of my arm. Scrape, snip, cut. Flour. More flour. Wet hands. It helps. Four mounds of dough, four bread loaves. I fold each dough mound four times and flip them over. My right hand rotates the dough as my left hand beats it gently – a wonderful exercise for your motor-skills. The bouncy, but tight dough bun is sexy as hell! I cover the beautiful sight with a handful of flour and under a baking towel they go.

At this point I’ve been working for half an hour. It’s the best Tuesday morning therapy. It gives my morning a rhythm, a continuity. I get to interact with something, use my hands and see immediate results.

I can only smile. I’m all doughy. The oven is still hot. I should run, take the rye breads to the oven, but I take a minute to enjoy it, taking it all in. When dough is involved even the chefs’ Mondays are filled with joy.

September 15, 2013

Publication in Est Elle magazine
September 2013

September 2, 2013

Finding Nordic Coconut 

It’s September in Finland. Nature is showcasing its abundance, it's harvest time, and the head chef Sasu Laukkonen and his team at restaurant Chef & Sommelier in Helsinki are enjoying it to the fullest. Since 1st August  I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the team as an apprentice. Yes, I have left steaming hot Italy, for the time being, in the need for fresh air, but also to put theory into practice. As we speak, I’ve been sweating and learning in the 9m² kitchen at Chef & Sommelier, alongside head chef Sasu for the past three weeks. Workingsixteen-hour  days, five days a week might scare most people off, but for me,even though it took some time to adjust, it has been a deliciously mind-blowing experience  and I still have six weeks to go..

Chef & Sommelier is much more than just a restaurant. Aside from it receiving the title “Restaurant of the Year” bestowed by the Finnish Gastronomes’ Association, I consider it a showroom of deliciousness, as the restaurant truly is a factory of new, exciting flavours with its ways of using Nature’s fruits. Sasu himself is the pioneer determining the restaurant’s firm philosophy. He belongs to a new generation of vibrant chefs who step out of their comfort zone, leaving pots, pan and knives aside in search for new edible delights to serve to the loyal customers. Many of those customers specifically travel  from places as far away as Australia, Korea and Japan,  to savour his creations. Believe me, he makes it worthwhile. Together with his farmer Janne Länsipuro (yes, he has his own farmer), Sasu and his team select their vegetables and greens from the very seeds. But it doesn’t just end there. A rigorous watering, farming and harvesting scheme has been put in place. Everyone takes part – naturally. This is about as intimate as one can get with the raw materials if you ask me.

When the final products start pouring into the restaurant, Sasu is like a proud father looking at his children. He smells, he tastes, he observes and then, he starts to cook. Magic happens. Watching him work is truly an inspiration. Since Sasu and his team have a firm rule on keeping food waste to a minimum, almost nothing is discarded. And why would you throw away carrot or beetroot stems anyway? Have you ever tasted one or the other? They’re delicious, just for the record.

But it goes beyond food waste. Since we just happen to find ourselves in the less sunny and warm side of the hemisphere, we simply don’t have access to certain raw materials that are taken for granted let’s say in Italy for example. It’s a fact and it doesn’t help whining about it. At Chef & Sommelier we just wine, we never whine. Sure it’s a bummer to not have lemons, artichokes, capers and coconuts growing in the backyard;  it would be nice. But what if I told you that there’s a Nordic version of each of these yummy treats? Read and marvel.

This is how it happened. If most people would have a fridge full of parsnip leaves (if they had kept the leaves to begin with) they would probably blissfully ignore them and end up throwing them away when they’re rotten.  Not Sasu. When he knew his precious parsnip leaves would only have a few more days left, something had to be done, quickly. Sauté and fry them? Been there done that. He needed something new. Ice cream? No kidding. He made the base using milk, cream, raw cane sugar and gluten free flour. Once done, he added a big bunch of parsnip leaves into the mix and switched on the blender. Vivid green and velvety. Just before pouring it into the ice cream machine he added a touch of caramelized butter to enhance the flavour – the secret ingredient? As the ice cream started taking shape and texture, a familiar smell filled the tiny kitchen. Could it be? Yes indeed. It was coconut. To check his judgement he had all of us taste it. It was coconut, no doubt about it. For the cherry on top, he grated some dehydrated parsnip from the late harvest last season. The result: a masterpiece that he baptised the  “Nordic Coconut”.

The Nordic coconut is just one of Sasu and his teamsgreat discoveries. Sunflowers picked when still about to bloom, preserved in oil before panfrying in butter, taste like artichokes; tagetes flowers that grow perfectly well here in the north have a citrusy flavour that easily replace the acidity of lemons; pickled dandelion buds are a perfect Nordic substitute for capers,and the list goes on. When curiosity meets talent and guts, anything is possible. Well, almost anything.
The work of a chef is extremely challenging, that has been made clear to me since the beginning. Numb heels, backache, cuts and burns are inherent, nothing to complain about. But the chef who wants to make it big today needs to not only master his kitchen but also become a farmer, a forager, a chemist, a fisherman, a researcher, a lean-mean-holistic-gastronomic-machine. The idea of a blurred threshold between the kitchen and the dining room has been Chef & Sommelier’s concept ever since they served their first customers in late September 2010. Today, Sasu is not only stepping out of the kitchen to personally tell the diners the story behind his raw materials. He  even stepss out of the restaurant to make the best food with the best raw materials. “There’s no other way, it’s essential and natural. How should I so it otherwise?”

That’s what he says, and I couldn’t agree more.