People lose track of the ordinary. It’s by design. Our brains push into the subconscious routine elements of life. The subway trip to work. Folding laundry. Tying shoelaces. All of them fall below awareness because it takes too much energy, too much time to be thoughtful about every turn, every fold, every loop. When you think about it, it’s quite an elegant system. The conscious brain is reserved for critical judgment. The rest falls into muscle memory.
It’s a good thing unless you are trying to make an impression. It’s precisely the trap that you face preparing a meal for people you care about on an occasion they should remember. Serve them what they like. Sure. However by plating what they know well, they will have forgotten the meal by the next morning. Test yourself. What was for dinner last night? Last month? Last year?
You sit so close to the stage you can see every move the magician makes. He takes a coin from his breast pocket and places it into the left palm. The fingers close tight. A word of incantation, then poof. The coin is gone. Or it’s a red rubber ball. This change of expectation can be seen from a mile a way. We know not to trust magicians. They are in the business of lying to us. Visually, at least. And still we crowd the halls or circle them on the street begging for more. The magician has learned to engage us by playing with expectations.
Chef Alex Kahn from Trento is lying to us. Chef Kahn is a magician. On the special menu that night is ravioli made with roast duck. Every succulent bite releases a dream of deliciousness from game on the inside. He has substituted the comfort blanket of salty ricotta with the trip into the wild. Crisp haricot vert lounge undressed nearby. A contrasting reprieve from the midnight hunt through the forest. And what lies on the forest floor? What lies at the bottom of the pasta bowl? Your eyes tell you its marinara. A deep, thick red no doubt from long-stewed roma tomatoes. Not tonight. Chef turns carrots into a sauce. He brings a new kind of earthy sweetness as a foil to the pasta. A light dusting of true Parmesan brings the dish together on the plate and into our memory. This dish cannot be forgotten.
So how might we learn from the chef magicians? Substitution. When company is coming and you ache to share affection, lie to them. Play with ingredients that look the same, feel the same, but add a new dimension to flavor. This stirs conversation and cements memory.
Chef Kahn could have easily stewed red peppers. The duck could have been leftover, smoked chicken. The haricot vert been broccoli. With a nudge of spices like coriander and clove, the trip in our mind could have been Morocco, and not Montalcino.
Tell us what magic you witnessed on the plate. Tell us what slight of hand you applied in your own kitchen. Use the comment field. Be honest about the lie. Your secret is safe here. We invoke the Magician’s Oath.