June 26, 2019

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  • Pulling the strings

    From left Ayman Samir, Moustafa El Refaey and Wesam Masoud.


    Someone with far more wit than me said “Acting is easy, comedy is hard”. That same aphorism can be applied to a professional kitchen; once you’ve learned the basic techniques, cooking individual ingredients can be a walk in the park. What’s hard is bringing all those techniques, ingredients and flavors together on one plate. It’s a balancing act that few can pull off, and even fewer can perform masterfully.

    Success in this endeavor is often difficult; people have different tastes and while the technical ability required to create a sublime chicken liver terrine is high, it is all for naught if the intended customer absolutely refuses to eat chicken livers. But there is a device chefs can use to circumvent the tradecraft of cooking and head straight to the artistry of gastronomy: the multi-course tasting menu.

    Recently chefs Ayman Samir, Moustafa El Refaey and I hosted our first Chef’s Table event at the Cellar Door. At our first sit down a mere week before the event, I pitched the concept: to create a seven course meal using our collective experience and talent — a culinary jam session of sorts. Immediately the conversation turned to something akin to a freestyle rap; someone would throw out an ingredient, the cooking technique would bounce back and someone else would riff on its supporting actors. We recounted past successful dishes and retreated to our kitchens to allow the ideas to gain form. This forum would allow us to produce an idiosyncratic menu, taking advantage of our individual strengths as cooks to convey our confidence to our guests and present a menu that intrigues and (hopefully) creates a food memory for all who attend.

    It is not a straightforward affair. Portion sizes, cooking times and the general progression of flavors and “fullness” of each course have to be weighed. After seven courses, the dessert needs to deliver on flavor but be as light as possible. The dessert course has the difficult task of being the last thing that our guests eat. It should end the meal on a high note, turning the diner’s face from the furrow-browed enjoyment of an umami-packed meat course to the serene close lidded face of sweet comfort food. Gareth Blackstock, fictional chef from the old BBC sitcom “Chef!” famously barked, “Restraint is the most important element of cooking”, and in no course is this more applicable than dessert.

    For our second Chef’s Table, we are showcasing lightness and late summer, in a one-two hit of lightness with creamy comfort: Japanese cheesecake and crème brûlée. A vibrant cherry compote brings both together in harmony, as well as paying homage to the best this season has to offer. This combination affords a range of textures and complimentary flavors in a simple and elegant presentation.

    Contemplate your favorite food. How many textures, flavors and tastes does it have? How easy is it to eat? These are the most important metrics we use when planning individual dishes. The thought process begins with a personal food memory, and then each one is morphed and twisted to create something new but familiar. Flavor delivery is a tool often misused by cooks in the kitchen; we like to include a palate cleanser to wash away the flavors of the previous course and also provide respite from the inevitable blitzkrieg of flavors our diners feel after five courses.

    During the rush of service, all the preparation, contemplation and apprehension falls away. There is only food being served on a plate. Orders barked, trays wiped down, flourishes and smears go on each plate seconds before the other components are added. The activity of the back of house oscillates from a simmer between courses, to a rolling boil during plating up. Properly planning the menu ensures that the service does not boil over into mayhem.

    At the end of the night, we walk out, thank our guests and our staff. Spent, but exhilarated, buoyed by the adrenaline of eight hours of flat out cooking and the smiles of every person in the dining room. One of the signs of a good dinner service is hearing boisterous laughter from the diners. Oblivious to the weeks of planning and prepping, they’ve enjoyed the show. It is from that experience that we draw our inspiration for the next time we have to do it all over again.

    Wesam Masoud is a chef at large and licensed physician. He has previously worked as Executive Sous Chef at Cellar Door Bistro followed by a stint as Executive Chef of the Cairo Jazz Club. He is currently chief consultant of his own restaurant consultancy company. You can find his food reviews and writings at  Nothungrycuziate.

    Don’t miss the next Chef’s Table at Cellar Door Bistro (9, Road 151, Maadi, Cairo) on Wednesday Sept. 26. For reservations, call (02) 23598328 between 4 and 11 pm. There are two showings at 7 pm and at 10 pm.  Go to the event’s page on Facebook for more information.

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