A Comparison of Two Gourmet Artists
Sorry I haven’t posted in a while! I haven’t really been in the mood…
Anyways, this post is a little different, since I’m using this compare-contrast theme as an excuse to catch up on past meals that I haven’t written about yet.
I think I mentioned that part of my dad’s job is curating Chinese contemporary art. In Chicago, he’s a professor (most of our “family friends” are grad students), but here he hangs out a lot with hip, young artists. They mostly invite us out to restaurants, but the certain artists who are skilled in the kitchen invite us over to their apartments for some intense creative fare. The two artists whose meals I’m about to describe are so different, I was laughing through the second meal thinking about the differences.
ARTIST #1: Zhao Gang, painter
Info: prefers the “western” lifestyle. Smokes countless cigars and drinks vats of wine. Lived in New York, allegedly also worked at a Japanese restaurant there. Two 12-year-old daughters with different mothers, just got remarried.
Apartment: minimalist, spread out, zen. Tiger skin rug, but other than that, everything else is white. Music playing is usually jazz or classical.
Cooking style: very spur-of-the-moment. He actually invited me over to be his “sous-chef,” but mainly I just ended up watching him cook, which was okay because it was interesting.
He was late carrying groceries, then forgot his key and had to get someone to open the door for us. Once inside, he pulled out a huge slab of raw fish and began slicing it into sashimi. I had never seen the entire sashimi process before, so I was fascinated, especially when it turned out to be yellowtail, MY FAVORITE sushi fish of all time!
Weirdly enough, before the inner, more edible layers of the fish were revealed, the flesh was dark, like mackerel or swordfish. First he removed the bones and harder, darker bits, taking care to slice THINLY (he sharpened his knife first). Then he soaked the fish in water to get out most of the blood (ew). After that, he basically continued to thinly slice off any part that didn’t look totally edible. Then he put the slabs in the refrigerator and waited to slice them before serving. He also froze the bones and other parts in case he wanted to use them for a fish stock.
The next dish he made was really rustic and bizarre… a kind of baked dish of frogs legs and chicken. I have never seen anything so simple… and by this time it was almost time for everybody else to arrive, so he really was leaving everything to the last minute. He put the frog’s legs, a whole chicken, halved purple potatoes, rosemary, and salt into a casserole dish and baked it. Halfway through, he took off the lid and added a lot of olive oil, then put it back in.
By this time, everybody else was here, so he got to work on the sashimi, which had gotten a bit too hard in the fridge, so we had to thaw it a bit. Then he sliced it expertly into sushi restaurant-esque pieces, arranged it on a plate and decorated the plate with streaks of wasabi.
We also made a salad– just a normal frisee salad with walnuts and cherry tomatoes, but his dressing was very strange and surprisingly delicious: equal parts olive oil, balsamic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and a little sugar!
While the chicken/frogs were cooking, he randomly decided he wanted to make a side dish. He began to saute carrots, shallots, olive oil, and a pinch of sugar (he didn’t seem ever to use salt or pepper). “Do we have any cream?” he called to his wife. She rifled through the fridge and only found butter. “I guess that’ll do,” he said, and preceded to throw a few tablespoons into the pot. After the carrots had softened a bit he put them in the blender and tried to puree them, only to find out that the blender was leaking. He wiped up the leak and continued to blend. When this was done (he was stopping periodically to smoke his cigar and sip wine), he showed me how to make what I thought was the best dish of an evening: parmesan-crusted mushrooms. The mushrooms he used were a gigantic Asian variety: very chewy and perfect for pan-frying.
The recipe was so simple! All you did was dip the mushrooms in a combination of milk, breadcrumbs, parmesan (And he used Kraft!!), and basil, then fry them in a bit of olive oil. The crunchy outside was perfect with the rubbery texture of the mushrooms.
As for the other dishes, I really enjoyed the carrot-shallot puree, and sitting there, I already began to envision other purees… beet-ginger, parsnip-maple syrup, etc. etc.
Apparently the frog legs were stringy but the chicken was good. In all honesty, that dish didn’t look very appealing.
Zhao Gang isn’t really a dessert person. Everybody mainly just drank a lot of wine.
Artist #2: Chi Peng, photographer
Info: Don’t really know much about him. Young, speaks English, was a student of Miao Xiao Chun, another artist friend. Doesn’t smoke or drink at all. Has a really awesome apartment, seems to really like music and movies, and his cooking has even been featured by a few magazines! He’s really into entertaining… apparently once he filled his entire apartment with blue balloons. Also, he had a really awesome pair of gold converses in the front hallway…
Apartment: JUST REALLY AWESOME. Everything is wood, with a high ceiling and rooftop garden. While Zhao Gang’s was pretty empty, Chi Peng’s was COVERED in everything: CDs, DVDs, wind-up robots (which my dad collects), Hungarian handicrafts, antique German dollhouses, you name it. All his napkins and bedspreads he designed himself. Everything was covered in vegetation: his downstairs shower was filled with plants, and his counter was covered with them.
Cooking style: Professional and restaurant-like. We got there late, but he still had everything ready. The table was set beautifully with pristine white plates and creeper-like leaves, and he poured everyone fresh mint tea. He said we would eat now, and while he had a student to help him bring everything out, we barely had time to turn around before the table was covered with dishes. The presentation was breathtaking! Everything seemed to have been arranged effortlessly, but with the skill of a professional chef! Here is what we ate:
Shan Dong- style seafood soup: This soup was almost western-tasting– like a consomme with the Chinese equivalent of zucchini, bay scallops, clams, and other seafood. I tasted a slice of sea cucumber, which really just added texture. I don’t know what else he could have put in it to be so flavorful and light, but it was wonderful.
Barely-baked Salmon: The salmon was the best dish. It was so lightly cooked that it was almost like sushi, but the outside was encrusted with crushed garlic, basil, and thyme.
Egg custard/ ji dan geng: how did this guy know exactly my favorite foods?! This is a simple Chinese dish that my dad makes for me all the time. It’s basically just egg and water steamed and then drizzled with soy sauce. Qu Peng apologized for not putting enough water in his (it was a little hard), but he put shrimp in the center, which added a sweetness that my dad’s doesn’t have. Plus, he served his in individual rammekins!
Stirfried lotus root: I love lotus root and I love vinegar, so I loved this! Very simple, just lotus root, Chinese black vinegar and Sichuan peppers. It was great!
A soupy dish of shell-on shrimp, vinegar, and cabbage: This was my favorite after the salmon. I don’t really know how to explain it, except that it was so vinegary my tongue began to sting. While this was great for me, I don’t know if everyone else felt the same way. I love vinegar…
A very light but slightly spicy dish of those Chinese mushrooms that are so thin and stringy they look like noodles. There may have been vinegar here too, but I think there was a touch of chili oil.
Mashed Chinese sweet potatoes: Remember those Korean sweet potatoes I wrote about, the ones with the yellow/white flesh? They still eat those in China, but I always thought they’d be too waxy to eat mashed. Turns out they’re not, but it’s just a different kind of texture! He said he added a little cream and butter, but it really wasn’t overly rich or cloying. The yellow sweet potatoes are more mild than the red, so it was a perfect compliment to the vinegar-heavy dishes.
Salad: This was totally western, but still creative. It was just a salad mix of frisee, arugula, raddicchio, etc., but he added raisins and grated peanuts, and sesame seeds for some texture. The dressing was a simple vinaigrette of balsamic, olive oil, and mustard, like I make at home.
There was only one meat dish: I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s a typical Chinese pork dish. Whereas in America fat on meat is frowned upon, the Chinese love it for its texture. This pork is a bit like barbeque pork, but it’s so fatty that it’s almost gelatinous. My dad really likes it.
I even sipped a bit of red wine to go with this fantastic meal!
For dessert, we just had pineapple and watermelon, but he presented it with more flowers and garnished with ice cubes!
I still can’t get over the fact that he cooked ALL these dishes… I wonder how long it took.
So there you have it– two artist chefs. In this case, food was definitely art. I always think it is, but it must really help to be an artist as a profession and a gourmet as a hobby.