Wednesday, April 15, 2009

You Light Up My Life...or lessons in flambe....

Fine dining establishments are not just about amazing food and impeccable service. They are about hospitality and entertainment. A person can go to a fabulous restaurant and have a wonderful meal with great service but without the added bonus of an attentive staff and some "WOW" factor, it's still just a good meal. Entertaining the guests is rarely the responsibility of the chef. They leave that up to the guests themselves or the servers in some cases. But, if you find yourself in a restaurant that offers tableside service - I must recommend that you take them up on it! There is nothing quite like having a chef roll a gueridon alongside your table and prepare a decadent dessert or flaming coffee right in front of you. For those of you who have yet to experience such a delight I will enlighten (and hopefully entertain) you with the experience by proxy.

At Ventana, the fine dining restaurant located at the Texas Culinary Academy - Le Cordon Bleu, you can experience this first hand. It may be your first time seeing such a show. It may ALSO be the student chefs first time performing! Tonight I was fortunate enough to have several tables who ordered the Bananas Foster. Needless to say, the diners "dominoed" after my first service. I heard alot of, "I'll have what SHE'S having". So out rolled the gueridon (that is the rolling cart with a burner on it) time and time again.

My first service was for a table of two and one of the diners was a former student. As I rolled out the gueridon I must admit my nerves were definitely twitching! I felt ALL the diners turn their attention towards me as I entered the dining room. They KNEW something special was at hand. I'll never know if it was just curiosity that had them turning in their chairs to stare at me or if they were hoping to see a horrible accident.

I had already prepared my quenelles of ice cream and had them in the freezer awaiting my nod to my back waiter to fetch them for service. I had my mise en place all brandy in a decanter, banana, sugar and knife at the ready. As I began to prepare the dessert I saw both of my chef instructors sidle up behind me and in front of me (one of whom was doing his best to intimidate me with furtive glances at me and my sautoir). The other students stopped what they were doing to watch as well. I was determined to perform flawlessly.

In order to provide tableside service perfectly one MUST obey certain rules. Rule #1: Never touch the food with your bare hands. Rule #2: Cook clean! Rule #3: Don't burn it. Rule #4: Don't just stand there cooking, serious as a judge...interact with your guests. Rule #5: Plate the dessert beautifully. Rule #6 (most important): Don't blow up the restaurant. I wasn't worried about Rules 1-5...I was concerned about Rule #6 and the unspoken Rule #7: Don't singe off your own eyebrows or a nearby guest's hair.

As I got further and further into creating my masterpiece I did start to have fun with it AND with my diners. My nerves began to abate and I got into a certain special rhythm. I was nearing the end of my performance and realized...Oh, my God! I'm about to set this pan of boiling hot melted sugar and butter on fire! Please, don't let me blow up the restaurant! I must admit I did flinch a little as I tilted the brandy soaked bananas toward the flame. As I lit it I heard a gasp from nearby diners with a few "oohs and ahs" thrown in for good measure. Or maybe that was me. In either case, I surreptitiously nodded to my back waiter who dashed to the freezer and emerged with my perfect quenelles. I must admit, time stood still as I frantically stirred the bananas in their decadent sauce waiting for the flames to diminish and finally extinquish themselves. This mind-numbingly LONG flame-out was orchestrated by a sychronized sigh of relief from nearby diners as they realized nobody was about to die.

Upon plating my PERFECT dessert I experienced an anticlimactic sense of relief. It was over and I just wanted to DO IT AGAIN! So, for those of you who are impressed with such a's the lowdown. It's EASY! So easy that I'm almost embarrassed to tell you how to do it. However, being the forthright near-chef that I proclaim myself to be, the recipe follows...

Bananas Foster

1 banana, peeled and sliced 1/2" to 3/4" thick on the bias
2 oz. butter
3 T. brown sugar
2 oz. Myers Rum
2 scoops or quenelles of vanilla ice cream

The following instructions are for near-chefs who want a good grade. For those of you doing this at home, just slice up the banana. Place banana on cutting board and cut off both ends. Discard both ends into hidden trash receptacle out of guests view. Choke up on the knife using your finger to keep you from cutting the flesh of the banana...score the banana on two sides. Stick fork into peel and roll the peel away from the banana and discard covertly. Using fork and spoon loosen the other half of the peel from the banana flesh. Slice banana on the bias. Turn burner on high. Add brown sugar. When the sugar begins to melt around the edges add butter, lower heat and stir together with sugar. Once incorporated, slide banana into your hand without touching the flesh. Spoon banana into pan and using a fork saute on both sides for a few seconds. Push all contents of pan to one side (closest to you) and pull pan halfway off heat. Turn flame back to high and count to ten (now would be a good time for a prayer). In one swift motion, pull pan away from heat, pour brandy into pan on the empty side (not over the contents), bring it back to the flame and FLAME ON! Stir until flames die and then spoon over ice cream.

I certainly hope that my disclosure of this seemingly EASY dessert does not negate your ordering bananas foster in the future. The anticipation of someone bursting into flames is worth at LEAST 15 bucks! Just cook fearlessly and enjoy!

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