Today when I went to pull on my sturdy Ariat paddock boots, there was some sort of funk on the toe. I knew immediately what it was–lobster guts. Yesterday was my first day in the kitchen with Scott Howell of Nana’s in Durham, NC. We tore apart 120 lobsters and cut the bodies open to set aside the tomalley and the roe. Some of the gunk ended up on my toe apparently.
Why was I in Scott’s restaurant kitchen at 10am? He’s decided to write a cookbook and I am assisting him. There are obvious ways that I make sense for a job like this. I wrote my PhD dissertation on French culinary discourse and closely studied cookbooks for literally years. Also, before my PhD years, I worked in Paris for cookbook author and food critic Patricia Wells, so I’ve been around the food world in one capacity or another since 1994. But there are also ways that I make no sense at all. I’ve never actually written a recipe. And despite my knowledge of culinary history, trends, techniques, etc, I am hardly an expert cook or even an advanced cook. I’d say that like many folks out there these days, I’m an expert diner, a chronic if discriminating eater outer. Even at home, it is my new (and obviously well chosen) husband who does most of the cooking, though I suspect that is about to change. But in all sincerity, I actually think my unadvanced skills in the kitchen will end up being a plus rather than a negative. I don’t take cooking steps for granted and thus immediately hear it when Chef assumes the reader inherently knows what the experienced cook would be thinking/doing/seeing.
In other words, I’m educated enough not to need explanations of words like remouillage and mirepoix, but uneducated enough to need clarification on sensory descriptions like cook lobster tails till firm. What the heck is firm? Show me. Cooks tend to say things like, put it in a hot oven and cook it til it’s done. The rest of us say, how hot? how do we know when it’s done?
So yesterday the plan was to sit down with cookbooks and discuss what we liked and didn’t like and determine a plan. Instead, an order of live lobsters showed up. That became the immediate priority. I knew, of course, as does anyone who’s ever seen Annie Hall, that it’s quite common to throw live lobsters in boiling water. What I hadn’t seen before, and certainly didn’t wake up thinking I’d be doing, is the dismemberment of the live lobster. He picked up the first one while talking to me and while it was moving about, he just twisted off first one claw then the other, then snapped off the tail and put each part in separate buckets (all still moving). ACK! Is this really happening on my first day in the kitchen? What did I sign up for? I love animals. I’d sort of gotten complacent about the whole killing part again. Well you know what they say, if you can’t stand the heat….
So rather than just watch, I asked for a lobster, took a deep breath, and twisted off the claws, then broke off the tail and silently apologized and thanked it for its yumminess. Once the claws and tails had been boiled and ice-bathed and set aside, it was time to prepare the bodies for roasting (used to prepare the lobster stock). This entailed turning the somehow still moving lobster body, hard side down, on the cutting board and cutting it open to discard the stomach, then separate and set aside the tomalley and the roe. The messy guts are also not for the squeamish but after 50 or so, it’s just another chore.
As most people realize, restaurant cooking is not as glamorous as it looks on tv. The amount of work that goes into lobster risotto would blow your mind. 5+ hours preparing the lobsters, another 2 hours roasting the bodies and making the lobster stock, and that’s before anyone’s even thought about the risotto itself. And that’s where we picked up today and where I will pick up tomorrow.