Have you seen the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table“? In short, you should.
Stylistically it’s brilliant, and completely unexpected in it’s depth and insight into creative thinking both from a film-making and culinary point of view. It delves quite honestly into the minds of some of the world’s best chefs and exposes them for who they really are: artists. I find it inspiring and frankly reassuring to learn more about the mindset of people who are anything but passive in their need to live creatively.
The first episode features Italian chef Massimo Bottura. One of his dishes was born out of an accident on the pass. As Massimo and his sous chef (Takahiko Kondo) were plating the last two lemon tarts, Taka dropped one of the tarts. It is as dramatically recounted as I imagine the moment to have been. Taka wanted to run from the kitchen. How did Massimo react to this ‘disaster’? He looked at the broken tart and declared, “That is beautiful!” They completely rebuilt the dessert into a deconstructed edible abstract painting and called the dessert “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart”. Taka was profoundly marked by the event. He relates, “That day I learned something. That in life, to move forward… you learn from mistakes. Maybe I did something wrong, but you learn from it.”
It got me thinking about my own approach to cooking. I’ve used it as an oasis, a method of self-expression I can combine with some of my other passions (writing, photography, …eating… ahem!) But there’s always this nagging reminder in the back of my mind. (Or is it front… or does it rattle around the sides? I digress…) A little girl in a makeshift apron wags her sticky finger at me saying “We don’t throw out food!” What is this aggravatingly pithy version of my smaller self getting at?
My family subscribed to the Waste not Want not ideology. Well that’s somewhat overly poetic. Makes it sound like if we didn’t waste then we wouldn’t be in want, but we were already in want. It was more Waste not Because if you do We will not be able to Replace it and the next Grocery run is in Two weeks so long as the Junk Yard Car doesn’t break down in the meantime. Yeah that still sounds too poetic. Oh well! So essentially, experimenting with food had little to no place in a poor kitchen. And there we have it. If I let loose in the kitchen and throw caution to the wind, what happens if it’s wasted?
This experience of Massimo Bottura and Takahiko Kondo made me realize something. When a dish (or a stage in our life) doesn’t go according to plan, it’s not automatically a waste. It’s an opportunity. An opportunity to create something new. Something unexpected.
So here’s what happened. I had some cheap tomatoes. That’s not a euphemism. I literally had some inexpensive, lackluster tomatoes that needed to be used. (“We don’t throw out food!” — Shush tiny me!!) But I felt like trying something new. So I sliced them thinly, sprinkled some salt on them, laid them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven on a low heat. And I waited. After flipping them I figured they looked sufficiently dehydrated so I switched off the heat. Then my father-in-law came puttering into the kitchen to strike up some chit chat. And I forgot about my experiment. Once I remembered I opened the oven door and saw the effects of the residual heat. They’d turned into chips! Some of the edges and seeds had even *gasp* burned. And you know what? They were delicious. I drizzled extra virgin olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar (a nod to Massimo) and we ate it with homemade bread. Of all the things I’ve served them since we arrived, Papa was most impressed with these accidental tomatoes. “I don’t know what this is,” he declared while dipping his bread into the bottom of the stack to get more oil and vinegar and plucking another tomato ‘chip’ from the pile. “but I love it! You can do this again.” Well OK then, I will.
Preheat oven to 145°C (293°F) Thinly slice any tomatoes you have on hand, and however many you want to use. (I used 3 medium-sized tomatoes.) Place a single layer on a parchment-lined baking tray. Sprinkle with salt and put in the oven. After 35 minutes, carefully flip the tomatoes over and sprinkle with a bit more salt. Cook 25 minutes more, then switch off the heat but leave in the oven for another 15 minutes. When ready, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and good quality reduced balsamic vinegar. Serve with crusty bread or in a platter with cheese and charcuterie. Yum!
I had tried something. When I thought it had gone wrong, we ended up with something surprising. And not only did we eat it, but we loved it. That’s right kiddo, we don’t throw out food. *Imaginary younger self five!*