It was billed as East meets West, a luncheon prepared by Ken Hom, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Maxwell's Plum in Manhattan. Their task was to design an Oriental/Western menu to show off Christian Brothers' new chardonnay. It was one more example of how the wine trade has become the patron of the food arts.
It really was West meets West. Okay, so Hom cooks Chinese food, while Peel and Silverton -- husband and wife team of chef and pastry chef -- cook Western food, California food to be more accurate. But Hom teaches and writes in San Francisco, and Peel and Silverton are formerly of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Spago in Los Angeles, though they now live in New York. Hired by Maxwell's Plum last fall, they had just quit a couple of days before the luncheon, so they may soon be back in California (unless New York keeps them with a restaurant of their own).
Whatever the direction of the luncheon, there were two ironies in this East-West event. First, Hom and Peel's paths hadn't crossed in California, though both were part of what Hom calls the California Mafia; they were meeting for the first time in New York. Second, although Hom is known as a Chinese cook and Peel as an American cook, Peel's food was more oriental than Hom's. But that's new American cooking for you.
Peel did the hors d'oeuvres; the raw marinated salmon was a western presentation, served on toasted french bread rounds, but its seasonings were oriental -- lemon grass, sichuan peppercorns, sesame oil and soy sauce, as well as lime.
Hom made the appetizer, which was surely western: foie gras, in this case steamed in cabbage as Hom had seen it done by Alain Senderens of Lucas-Carton in Paris. "Foie gras is certainly not Chinese," admitted Hom, but steaming is a Chinese cooking technique, and sichuan peppercorns seasoned it in a Chinese way. He also used napa cabbage rather than savoy, which is distinctly more oriental.
As for the main dishes, there were two, one from Hom and one from Peel. Hom's Spicy Ginger Prawn Ragout was, he said, not something a Chinese would do, since its sauce base was reduced fish stock. But as a Chinese chef does, he marinated the prawns -- actually Louisiana shrimp -- with egg white, which protects them and keeps them moist in the cooking. "I think that what I'm doing is what the Chinese would do after the Four Modernizations China's updating program ," mused Hom, who was born in Tucson but raised in a very Chinese home by Cantonese parents.
Peel's cooking uses Chinese ingredients freely, but in ways unfamiliar to Chinese. The Chinese would never use sesame oil in an uncooked dish as Peel did in the salmon, said Hom. Furthermore, he explained, "Chinese would never have the salmon raw, but I like that. It's something I've learned to enjoy."
Peel's main dish was roasted squab -- both eastern and western. The squabs were blanched, then brushed with honey and vinegar and air dried for a day to crisp the skin before roasting, as the Chinese do with Peking duck. But since duck takes a longer roasting time, the skin would be more crisp. The Chinese would have deep-fried the squabs to crisp them, Hom later told Peel.
The accompaniments to the squab were not western, but southern -- those wild onions known as ramps, corn on the cob and corn cakes. But they were westernized by Peel's California touch. The corn on the cob was baby corn, still in the husk. The corn cakes -- combining fresh corn with the cornmeal, plus cream, egg yolks and chicken stock -- were a cross between polenta and spoonbread with a touch of corn pudding. And the ramps were braised, which apparently tames these powerful greens that Southerners claim keep people miles apart during ramp-eating season. "I've been eating ramps for two weeks now and my marriage hasn't broken up yet," replied Peel to the worry over ramps and sociability.
East commiserated with West as Hom was looking for the soy sauce and Peel found it for him, apologizing that all he had was Kikkoman, which is American made. They shared a wince. And Hom went on to saute a very French mirepoix of carrots and turnips for his shrimp while Peel stirred together a very Chinese cornstarch batter for his soft-shell crab hors d'oeuvre.
In the meantime, Silverton was quietly joining East with West for the desserts, adding preserved ginger to her European almond cake, sesame seeds to her paper-thin French tuile cookies and spooning Thai-style rice custard with mangoes into tart shells, then topping them as in creme brulee with a burned sugar crust. Chided Peel, "I tried to talk her into doing fortune cookies."
Nothing's safe from creeping California-ism, it seems. A man from Atlanta called to ask me to recommend a French restaurant. But which French restaurant of the dozens possible? "Something California French," he specified.
Why didn't Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton last longer at Maxwell's Plum? They attributed it to "creative differences" with owner Warner LeRoy. New York foodies speculated on those differences: LeRoy insists on "flaming things and sticking daggers in things," said one. Maxwell's Plum is a large restaurant that "brings in busloads for fixed-price dinners," said a cookbook editor, adding, "People like us don't want to eat in this kind of restaurant." Several said Peel and Silverton would have made a greater impact with their own restaurant. But a food writer suggested that New Yorkers are tired of California wunderkinds, and that California chefs "have gone to the well too often." They aren't the news they once were in New York.
Museum restaurants in this country have left a lot to be desired. The Smithsonian -- one of the greatest offenders -- seems ready to to mend its ways, though. It is seeking new operators for its food facilities, with food "which complements and enhances the uniqueness, refinement, and enjoyment of the museum experience." It wants "innovative and creative foods . . . prepared with the freshest ingredients available," concessions that are "non-institutional and an extension of the museum experience." As many as 40 companies are said to be applying. The question remains whether the museums' visitors will wind up getting more than chicken, burgers and hot dogs. KEN HOM'S SPICY RAGOUT OF GINGER PRAWNS (4 servings)
1 1/2 pounds prawns or shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 small egg white
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh red hot chilies
2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely diced turnips
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup Chinese rice wine
1 cup fish stock
2 tablespoons cream
1/2 cup peeled, chopped tomatoes
Salt and fresh ground white pepper to taste
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander
In a small bowl, combine the prawns and 1 teaspoon salt. Set aside for 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly under cold water and dry on paper towels. Combine the cornstarch, egg white, 1/2 teaspoon salt and prawns in a medium-sized bowl and marinate refrigerated for 30 minutes.
In a wok or medium-sized skillet, heat the peanut oil and butter. Add the shallots, scallions, chilies and ginger and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Mix in the turnips and carrots and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Pour in the white wine and the rice wine and reduce until the cooking liquid is nearly gone. Add the fish stock and reduce by 2/3. Add the prawns, cream, tomato, salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the coriander, stir well and serve at once.