Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is one of a series of Kitchen Meditations that Van Aken is contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Conversations for us.It seems the greatest flavors can only be obtained by the most menial jobs. When we start off cooking in the restaurant life, we “grunt cooks” are given those lowly jobs. In time, we might move up to other jobs that are less — some would say — “monotonous,” and more — some would say — “enriching.” I have heard Thomas Keller say that he loves the zen of “carefully washing dishes,” and how he still takes that task on from time to time — though he surely could delegate it to the young apprentices in his restaurants. For me, the menial job I still take on is being a ‘meat picker.’ This slow, labor intensive job means I am somewhere where folks still care about the longer arc of flavors only found in things like braising, stock-making, stewing, or 24-hour barbeque vigils.
I have known this job for nearly a lifespan. I have stood over a still-steaming bowl the size of a saucer sled a child would ride down a wintry hill upon…brimming with meat, bones, spent vegetables, errant bay leaves, scattered whole peppercorns, and the blasted stems of thyme stripped from hours of simmering many times — the meat now so perfectly tender an old man or woman could easily conquer it. My fingers smudged with the collagens of that meat and the winy essences of liquids taken down, down, down. To do this job, you have to feel more than you think. You gently search with the infinite knowledge of touch. Thank god for the radio and for the songs that played to take me away from the ache that would often visit me when my back or feet reminded me of how long I’d asked them to remain in one place — standing and stooping over the mining of meat.
I found my prizes though. When you are a very young cook, you are often too busy to really eat. When you are culling meat from a still hot chicken braise, and you come across a part of the thigh with a golden sheaf of skin still attached, you might do as I and place that morsel of magic on a paper towel, take up a fork, and break, just for a moment, to savor that meat and skin combo. Heaven! A few grains of coarse salt are all that is needed.
To do this job, you have to feel more than you think. — Norman Van AkenEventually I became the chef, and I taught our dishwashers to do this job. They worked standing up, too. They stood with their hats turned backwards and dish towel over a shoulder, listening to the radio just like me. I remember walking into a kitchen once run by Douglas Rodriguez in New York City in the early 1990’s; he had a cadre of women picking meats for empanadas, papa rellenas, pasteles, and more. He was taking Latin cuisine in new directions for the shifting foodtrend-loving denizens of Gotham. We walked among those women in Douglas’s wake as they happily chattered and worked with ancient skills. The invasive light of ascending mornings or…as the earth spun…the dimming light of late afternoons glided and skimmed across their focused faces just like those found in the light and shadow chiaroscuro imbued paintings by Rembrandt.
It was my job again the other day. We were cooking at home, and there were no others to call upon to do this while I attended to “loftier” tasks. This time, it was oxtails. As I picked the bones of the still hot oxtails and laid them on a sheet pan, I noted the similarity to my own bending spine with the four-legged cow’s tail in my hands. I marveled at the change in size as the bones altered in the anatomical progression from north to south — the interlocking aspects — the similar cartilage between our bones. The radio was on. Some songs are still much the same, thank God. Jackie Wilson’s “Love Keeps Lifting Us Higher” and Mark Knopfler’s guitar bends and ever lustrous notes around those “Sultans of Swing.” I know that all of the cats cruising the Ocean Drives or Magnificent Miles elsewhere on Earth might have that — but they are missing this.
Three bowls were arranged before me. One for the meat, one for the bones, and the third for the most prized piece of all — the concentrated liquids from the braise. I put that bowl far from the edge of my work space. I wanted it safe from any spills.
Some have noted that the lives of kitchen workers are marked by long hours. If measured by certain criteria, that is true. But if you are happy, then time is not beating you that way. And the silent satisfaction I’ve found in the pulling of morsels of meat from the bones — taking a sample from time to time — were (and are) some of the finest hours I’ve known. The smell of the long cooked meats and sauce on my hands is a cologne I would not trade for all of the sculpted and ribboned bottles in Paris.
The squeamish shoppers of our modern lives prize the boneless, the skinless, the soulless, and would cast a wary eye on the meat in the bowls of these picked meats. Those shoppers are not only clueless they are dangerous. If they relay such warped, unnatural values onto their children, the possibilities of “nose-to-tail eating” (humane and conscientious eating) are lost. If they had to live one single generation as farmers eking out a life that understands the sacred rhythms of bounty and deprivation, the world might reboot and become less doomed than many of us fear.
Some years ago, our son brought us his little dog to watch over while he went off to find out more about life elsewhere in America. My wife, Janet, would spend a solid hour or more after making a chicken stock picking out the meat for the pooch known as Bounder. It was clear to me that these efforts softened her pain from missing our wandering man-child. Perhaps that is the same vacuum we seek to fill with the ancient power and flavors we get in the foods we gather from our hands when we are meat pickers.