I've been taking a few days off this week--doing some traveling and generally relaxing, now that The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese is formatted and safely in the hands of those who are printing and assembling the final product. You'll hear enough of that in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I'm finding that relaxation time is also a time when ideas get a chance to perculate.
For instance. Last night we had dinner in what has been called the finest new restaurant in America. It's in a venerable southern city and is noted for the chef's determination to use only the finest local natural ingredients. I had read all the reviews. It took us two months to get a reservation. Still, I don't think I was prepared for the meal of a lifetime.
When we entered, the first thing we saw was a huge pile of firewood, waiting to feed the open ovens of the kitchen. The decor was clean--very modern -- lots of mirrors and glass -- and dried stuff. The vase on our table contained dried okra pods. On one wall was a huge chalkboard, listing the farmers who raised every item we would be eating. Yes, there was Farmer X in Texas, whose cows provided the milk for the cheese in the pimento cheese spread, and Farmer Y in North Carolina, whose chicken laid the egg that topped several salads. We could learn the names and locations of their farms, if we wanted to check the quality.
Did we care? Did it make a difference? Yes, in fact it did. The ingredients were pure and fresh. The tomatoes didn't come from a hothouse--they were field-grown from heirloom seeds, and they tasted unlike any tomato I had had for years. The chicken had real flavor. the beef cut with a fork. My carrots were yellow, not an artificial orange, The orange flavor in my fennel and bibb salad came from individually-pealed satsuma sections grown in South Carolina. I won't make you jealous by reciting our whole dinner. But every bite held unexpected flavors and perfectly balanced combinations. Just one example: dessert was a "s'more" -- a bittersweet chocolate tart, baked in a graham flour crust (not cracker crumbs, note.), topped with a dollop of homemade marshmallow creme, and sprinkled with sea salt. Sound wierd? It was heavenly.
This chef -- the James Beard Chef of the Year in 2010 -- was following his own set of rules:
1. Keep it simple and pure.
2. Know every ingredient -- where it comes from and how it has been produced.
3. Constantly surprise the customer.
4. Don't be afraid to try new uses for familiar items.
5. Love every minute of what you do.
The meal was fantastic, obviously, but what sticks with me today is the realization that those same rules can be applied to all sorts of artistic endeavors. What wonderful books we would all write if we kept it simple, were completely familiar with the elements of our stories, tried to keep our readers guessing and eager to see what happens next, took chances, learned new techniques, and loved every key-pounding minute.