Women Win the Kitchen
Also: a most memorable meal. And a terrific new piece of kitchen equipment.
A couple of days ago I got a note about one of the many charitable organizations that Chef Mary Sue Milliken has introduced me to. Re:Her, an organization created to nurture women chefs, is announcing the launch of a new grant. Here is the gist of the note.
RE:Her is thrilled to announce the launch of our 2022 Academy, a new combined $20,000 grant and education program for women-identifying hospitality business owners in Los Angeles!
Full details about the Academy and how to apply can be found Here.
Reading that sent me back to one of the first pieces I wrote about Mary Sue and her longtime business partner, Chef Susan Feniger. Business isn’t exactly my bailiwick, but in the mid-eighties women restaurateurs were such an anomaly that Tables Magazine asked me to write about the two as entrepreneurs rather than chefs.
It was the beginning of a long friendship. These are two women I admire enormously; reading this piece, I understand why.
A friend recently posted a picture that reminded me of one of the most memorable meals of my life. Reading my notes I wanted to hop on a plane and head straight to Spain.
This is Aitor Arregi of the restaurant Elkano in Gaitara, just outside San Sebastian. And that is one of the turbots for which he is justly famous. If you can eat only one fish in your life, this is the one you want. But only after Aitor has explained it to you, for he can find the entire world in a fish
If only I could capture Aitor’s passion at the table, the way he talks about turbot. “I don’t like the little ones,” he will begin, “they need to be fat to get flavor.” He will go on to tell you that they are influenced by the temperature of the water, the time of the year, and mostly by what they eat.
I want you to see Aitor waving his eloquent hands to demonstrate how these flat fish swim. Turning the turbot he will show you the black skin on the bottom “the side that looks toward the sea,” and then over again to display the pure white skin on top. “This side looks toward the sky.” And yes, tasting carefully you do discern the difference, the slightly algal taste of the black side which has spent its entire life under water, compared to the more cosmopolitan white side, which has had the whole wide world to see.
Aitor will gently filet the fish, separating the left side from the right, pointing to his own body as he explains that the side with the organs – the liver, the heart – has a more complex flavor than the side that is pure flesh.
Pulling out the bones he will hand them to you, insisting you eat with your fingers, pulling the soft, slick flesh from the crunchy bones with your teeth.
Then he will take the larger bones at the head and crack them, exposing the marrow. “Taste,” he will urge, holding it out.
When you have finished you will not believe that a single fish can offer such variety. And you will never eat another fish without remembering this one.
Before the turbot you will eat cocochas – the tender flesh from the throat of the hake – whose gentle texture is like the most perfect oyster. He will offer it cooked in various ways, and you will love them all.
What else will you eat? Almost nothing. A bit of bread. Some of the restaurant’s wonderful olive oil. And perhaps at the end, their cheese ice cream with strawberry sauce.
Aitor will insist you drink the local txakoli, but from different years so you can taste the way it changes over time. You will drink another glass, and then another, thinking how lucky you are to be here in this wonderful restaurant.
As you leave you will have only one thought: how soon can I come back?
And yet… I find myself reaching for these glass dishes almost every day. They’re incredibly versatile. I use them as bowls for everything from pasta to salad. I fill them up and put them into the oven (with the lid on they’re good to 400 degrees). The covers fit so snugly that they make wonderful storage bowls. They stack beautifully so they don’t take up valuable room on your shelves. And, full confession, I have used them to cook a few microwave dishes. Those mashed potatoes? Really great.