Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tales of a Food Stylist: The Cooling Rack Gets Hot

Forty-five recipes in five days, back to back. Yes, that’s right. Nine recipes a day for five days straight. Now imagine tackling that for a video shoot paired with a photo shoot on the side for [REDACTED], the brunette beauty reality star and judge of the hottest cooking competition show on television. It’s a big job and I am the someone who gets to do it. I’m the chef behind the chef.

A few weeks ago I worked on such a shoot with this seemingly impossible task. Frankly, I am still in shock that we got it all done, and done well. Procurement, prep, execution, plating, cleanup, not to mention organization and transportation for 45 recipes is no easy feat. Keeping track of all the equipment needed can be as complicated as the grocery list. And so it was when an important detail like grilled zucchini for a whole wheat pizza recipe got lost in the rush of organizing the day’s mise en place while working against a tight production schedule.

If my confession is not yet clear, I did overlook the need for a grill pan. When my first assistant asked me where the grill pan was for the zucchini and I realized I had never noted the need for such equipment I said, “Oh, just roast it with olive oil and sea salt. It will be great.” “Yes,” he replied, “but the instructions say the zucchini slices have to be grilled.” “Well, let’s just roast them and we can get the recipe edited for publication,“ I suggested. Then my assistant came back with the gut-wrenching combination of logic and my own standards thrown in my face: “But it will look better grilled, won’t it?” Ah! The Awful Truth. It will look better and it must be grilled. That was that. I usually would never forgive myself for such an oversight, certainly not without the requisite days of beating myself up about it first. However, this shoot came together two days before it began and we were buried before we cooked our first dish. Instead, I became focused and determined to grill these zucchini slices, and to do it immediately.

I thought my problems were conveniently solved when the owner of the set kitchen mentioned that he had a gas grill on his terrace. Perfect! How wonderful! An outdoor grill at my disposal! How I wished I had known about it dozens of recipes ago. That is, until I actually turned it on and tried to use it. A New York City sidewalk in August gets hotter than this “grill.” After 10 minutes of trying to get the grill hot, I began opening every cupboard on set, hoping to find the right pan. I noticed a metal cooling rack and instantly I knew what to do.

A chef in culinary school had told me once that the grilled scallops at Chantilly (a restaurant once on East 57th Street that I remember from my childhood) were not grilled on a grill, but on a metal rack. That made perfect sense to me. How else would one grill something so delicate and so small and get multiple grill marks, I remember thinking when I first heard it. Brilliant!

We put the cooling rack over the gas stovetop and set the oiled zucchini on the rack. My assistant asked if we were going to quadriller (make cross marks) the zucchini. “Don’t push your luck!” I told him. Enough time was lost averting this disaster. Besides, my unspoken mandate for this project was to style food that regular home cooks would make. Horizontal lines across the zucchini slices is subliminally less intimidating, I think, and equally aesthetically pleasing in addition to saving 15 minutes already lost.

Like all lemonade-from-lemons sagas, this method made even better grill marks than had I been using the prescribed grill pan in the first place – thin and black, sharply defined lines that popped on screen and in a photo.

Knowing when to follow the instructions and when to depart from them is probably the toughest part of my job. Grilling the zucchini – and grilling it just as I did on the cooling rack – was absolutely the right thing to do. So, too, was folding the zucchini strips to add height instead of laying them flat on the pizza as noted in the recipe. I am, after all, a food stylist. It adds a little interest, don’t you think?

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