Belgium comes to 94117
Just over a week ago, on a clear and cool Sunday morning, I slipped into the pre-dawn air armed with a freshly sharpened chef's blade and a fully fueled butane torch, cruised quickly along the empty trellis roads that connect the scattered hamlets of central Marin, and scaled the Waldo Grade only to quietly descend into a still-slumbering and peculiarly vacant Lower Haight, through those fabled Dutch doors, to receive word of my next instructions. After having harvested one of the meal's ingredients the day before, my last directives had been simple: pack a nice blade and get a good night's rest. And thus it began.
Holding the key to my cheese n' beer loving heart.To backtrack a little... It's Belgian beer month, which means the taps at Toronado are currently loaded with things like, oh Cantillon Grand Cru, Ellezelloise Hercule, and Struise Tsjeeses. It was but a year ago when, in assuming that we'd be the early birds, first in line to tap a flight of David Keane's annual cornucopia of imported wonderments, Des and I headed down to Toronado at our first free moment only to find it shuttered up, thanks to some mysterious and hitherto unknown special event. But based off the scraps of information we were able to glean from some considerably bent and slurry patrons, who shared lusty tales aside proffered dregs of some truly luminous rarities, it was then that I declared I'd find some way - by whatever means, if you want - to be on the other side of those locked doors when the following March's lambs and lions had marched through: in April of 2009, I was going to somehow be inside that kitchen.
More abbey cheese than you can shake a censer at.
And as it so happens, with the rusty tubes of my waking synapses gradually flickering to life as the caffeine made its steady course into my consciousness, that was the spot I found myself: Inside a bar still resonating from the nightlife that had only just departed scant hours before, alongside some familar and equally tired faces, with the unprecedented (and encore) privilege of joining Mr. Sean Z. Paxton for what was to be the culinary equivalent of the Ring cycle, a six-hour long gustatory bonanza nearly a year in the making (that is, since the last one).
Stinky gnomes and Westvleteren. As it should be.
Sean, as a man considered by many to be the premiere visionary in the realm of marrying beer with modern haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, is no stranger to the spotlight in the foodie-beerie circles. A well-known mercenary chef-for-hire, regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine, a speaker at the National Homebrewers Conference, and one who's consulted regularly by publications looking to get edubacted in the art of cuisine à la bière and beer and food pairing, his moniker of "The Homebrew Chef" alludes to his simultaneous passions of brewing, cooking, and finding harmonious inroads between the two. Here, under the auspices of Toronado's Belgian beer month, he's made it his mission to pull out all the stops. In a way, it's his tribute to Dave Keane's fearless ambassadorship of the challenging, palate-expanding beers of Belgium, aside from being a chance to flex some creative muscle for patrons who like having their culinary horizons broadened.
I imagine he's still airing out the suitcase all this arrived in.
First, the beer: Not only were there twenty beers with which to pair, but another twenty beers with which all the courses were prepared. And lest you think we're talking beercan chicken here, note that some of the world's most highly regarded and sought-after beers - Scaldis Noel, Fantome La Dalmatienne, De Ranke Pere Noel, Halve Maan Brugse Zot - never even made it to the table for folks to taste, only existing as ingredients within each of the twelve courses. Lest anyone be concerned that the day's events were going to be a retread of the classics, though, the day began with the first public West Coast tapping of a keg of Duvel Green, the new filtered, non-refermented, draft version of the quintessential Belgian strong golden ale. The next five hours saw a parade of Belgium's rainbow of beer diversity make its way to the tables, from the light and hoppy to the dark and strong through all iterations between, with the closing bookend on the day the 2007 Saucerful of Secrets that Sean brewed himself with Firestone Walker.
Well, that's certainly a lot of caviar. Or is it?
And then, the food: One course which I got to have my hand in (hence the freshly sharpened knife) was the cheese course, consisting entirely of Belgian, mostly abbey cheeses hand-carried by Sean himself in a single, 60 lb. suitcase just days prior to the event. And thanks to the beauty of sous vide cooking techniques, much of the actual cooking had already been taken care of, with curing, infusing, marinading, and pickling all having been done in sealed plastic bags, which was a comforting convenience as Toronado, in case you'd never noticed, doesn't actually have a kitchen.
My, my, what are you going to do with all those black truffles?
Ah, but of course.
That's correct. Somehow, some way, the entire twelve-course meal for seventy-odd diners with prepared with nothing more than an immersion heater and a couple of propane burners. And if there's a real bit of artistry at work in a dinner like this that needs to be spotlit, I think it has to be the orchestration of such a massive culinary undertaking with such limited resources. Sure, there was the "wort honey", a batch of pre-hopped homebrewed beer that Sean made, reduced to a caramel-like consistency, and blended with a local honey. And sure, there was the homemade pork pate and duck rillettes. And yeah, there was the aforementioned Cantillon Iris and bone marrow gastrique. But seriously, managing to supervise an amateur staff in a room primarily designed for drinking, coordinating the delivery of the equivilant of 900 dishes of five-star cuisine via a space the Toronado staff lovingly refer to as "the birth canal", and singlehandedly bringing this menu to life with not much more than a pot of hot water, a couple tanks of propane, a crack torch and a syringe?
Now that, my friends, is kitchen professionalism.
If you haven't already, go ahead and mark off April 4, 2010 on your calendar, as you've now got plans that day.
Because if you were duck fat aioli, you'd be smiling, too.