THE DISCOVERY of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star." So wrote the French gastronomic philosopher Brillat-Savarin in 1825. He might have added a note on the equal importance of the discovery of an outstanding chef, capable of inventing not just one but a whole range of new dishes.
Recently, in Puerto Rico, I was very much impressed by the authentic, nontourist food I found in and around San Juan. But the most dramatic discovery was of the work of one particular cook who was classically trained in Europe but who somehow had absorbed into his techniques the culinary influences of the Africans, American Indians, Spanish and the other subtle elements of the Caribbean culture. And, most surprising, this was not some unknown youngster, flashing up out of his small bistro in a backstreet of the Old City, but an executive chef, Emil Graf, of the Caribe-Hilton International Hotel, where, on a good night, 2,000 dinners may be served and where Graf, in his conglomeration of kitchens, has a staff of more than 100 assistants.
I have met many of these "top administrative chefs" in their kitchen kingdoms around the world. Most of them have slowed down and have pretty well separated themselves from hot stoves. They sit at their desks in air-conditioned, quiet offices, writing out menus and work orders for the staff. But Graf is almost the exact opposite. He may be an administrator, but he remains creatively involved with the cooking. He is everywhere at once. He maintains his own small side kitchen, where he experiments and invents. In six days of being fed by Graf, I tasted a memorable array of new and exciting dishes.
I am convinced that Graf's creative ebullience comes from the interplay within him of the two cultures that now combine in his life. He was born in the Swiss city of Zurich, where his mother was a cook in a private home. On his 16th birthday, the first day that the law permitted him to enroll in the State Hotel and Restaurant School, he began his professional training. Four years later, since he wanted to "see the world," he took his first job in Istanbul. After that came London, St. Moritz, and then the discovery of his life, the Caribbean, in Havana. He fell in love with everything, including a beautiful Cuban culinary expert, Heidi, whom he married.
When Castro closed the Havana Hotel, the Grafs went to Cairo, but they longed for Caribbean crab and lobster and, very soon, Graf was in San Juan, with rapid promotions until he was right at the top.
One of the most memorable of Graf's inventions is a dramatic chilled cream soup, served in ice-cold, bright pink, individual conchs. This gorgeously rich soup, delicately green with pureed parsley and zucchini, red-speckled with the subtle bit of Puerto Rican chili peppers, is then garnished with the pink and snow-white beauty of lumps of Caribbean crab.
The soup can be a brilliant beginning to a party dinner, but is luxurious enough to stand on its own at the center of a buffet, a lunch or a supper. As with so many famous dishes, this one is a perfect marriage of its elements, but is so basically simple in its preparation that there seems almost to be an element of magic in it. Certainly, if all your ingredients are of the best possible quality and you have a good food processor to take on the physical labor of the pureeing, you will be able to work just as fast and well with one cook in your home kitchen as does Emil Graf with all his assistants. EMIL GRAF'S CHILLED ZUCCHINI BISQUE (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds zucchini (about 5 medium), peeled and cut into 1- inch squares 1/2 pound young potatoes (about 2 medium), peeled and cut into 1-inch squares 4 cups clear chicken bouillon 1 medium bunch parsley, leaves only 1 cup heavy cream Coarse crystal sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste 1 or 2 dashes hot red pepper sauce, to taste 1 or 2 pinches Puerto Rican ahi dulce (soft pepper), to taste, or Hungarian medium paprika 1 cup heavy cream, whipped 1/2 pound lump crabmeat, freshly boiled 1/4 cup green scallion tops, finely chopped Average time required: About 20 minutes to prepare vegetables, plus about 10 minutes for pureeing, assembling, garnishing and serving.
Put zucchini and potatoes into saucepan, cover with bouillon and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and keep at a simmer until vegetables are soft -- usually in about 8 to 10 minutes.
Let vegetables cool slightly, then transfer liquid and solids (in several batches) to the workbowl of a food processor with the steel blades in position. Add parsley and churn mixture to a smooth puree -- usually in about 6 to 10 seconds.
The next steps are best done in an ice-cold mixing bowl standing in ice cubes in a larger bowl. Transfer the bisque to the cold mixing bowl and stir in the unwhipped cream. Taste and season. Chef Graf's secret trick with his soup is to give it a very slight, surprising bit of gentle pepper. Stir in, to taste, salt, white pepper, hot red pepper sauce and ahi dulce or paprika.
Pour bisque into ice-cold conchs or soup bowls. Float a layer of whipped cream on top of each serving. Garnish with lumps of crabmeat and scallions. If desired, add pinches of paprika for color.