The Asparagus and the Octopus: Ripert and Carroll at 10 Arts

Jen Carroll is a pro now. Working the floor at 10 Arts between seatings and courses during the special event dinner she was cooking alongside boss Eric Ripert, she knew just when to smile, which hands to shake, how to take to the gentle hand on her back and the whispered explanations from her floor managers and PR reps.

“This is Jack and Esther Humpwaffle, of the Atlantic City Humpwaffles…”

“This is Bob and Doris Fleeb. It’s Doris’s birthday today…”

“This is the new idiot they just hired at Philadelphia magazine. You can just punch him if you want…”

She was good–bouncing from table to table in her sneakers, energy in her like a coiled spring even with two turns of the dining room behind her already and the stress of having the boss in the house. She posed for pictures, chatted with strangers, and when she came around to my table and I asked her how she was doing, she talked about having to be on TV that morning, with Ripert, doing promo plates under the lights and bantering with the hosts.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I said. “Honest to god, I’d go crazy.”

And she just shook her head. “Well, you have to, right? You have to. It’s just part of the job.”

Then she smiled and ripped out a laugh. “Hey, at least I got to dress up for dinner, huh?” And with her fingers, she plucked at the short sleeves of the cheap dishwasher’s jacket she was wearing. There was no embroidered restaurant logo. Her name was not above the pocket. A dishwasher’s jacket is what a cook wears when no one’s watching–a bit of rebellion against the hierarchy of the kitchen, the benevolent tyranny of uniforms and positions and class. A dishwasher’s jacket is what chefs wear when they’re doing deep prep, maybe, in the cool of the morning and the house not-yet-awake, or when they want to be comfortable behind the swinging doors on a closed line. The white Bragard jacket, heavy canvas, with the black button covers and name over the pocket? That’s for when you want to look like a chef. A dish jacket is for when you want to work.

Jen Carroll, keeping it real.

Still, while TV, autographs, walking the dining room and pressing the flesh might be part of the job these days (especially for the celebrities, the burgeoning celebrities, the soon-to-be-bigger celebrities, or those trying to stretch out their 15 minutes of fame beyond its natural length), the real job of a chef is still to plan, to cook, to boss the line–to turn out beautiful plates and delicious food and earn, through sweat and harsh labor, all those fans crowding the floor and clamoring for a glance, a moment, a word.

Amuse bouche: An oyster. One single, small oyster, plus its liquor, loose in its shell and sitting atop a pinch of salt. As far as amuses go, I actually think this was a good idea because a cold oyster is a perfect, self-contained food, requiring nothing of a cook or a chef than the capability to step back and leave well enough alone (something that’s damn near impossible for a lot of them). This proved that even Eric Ripert, king of fish, the goddamn Aquaman of the galley, can keep his hands to himself when faced with nature’s most delicious critters.

First Course (By Ripert): An oval plate, laid with careful layers of thinly-pounded raw yellow fin tuna, speckled with chives like shards of jade and dressed only in a splash of extra virgin olive oil. This alone might’ve been enough–a plate that was delicious in its simplicity and lack of complexity. But Ripert jumped things up by hiding a stick of toasted baguette beneath the layers of fish, and mounding up that baguette with a thick smear of foie gras, as rich and smooth and luxurious as the fish and oil was spartan. Oddly, Ripert playing hide-the-baguette with my tuna had two effects. First, it made the fish that wasn’t eaten with mouthfuls of foie gras seem somehow less great than it had been before uncovering the prize at the center of the plate, which was tragic. Second, it made the entire presentation seem almost too large and too sprawling. There was far more fish than foie, and while I was happy to eat every scrap I could get, the yellow fin around the outside edge of the plate seemed like surplus–like extra laid on just for the sake of appearing generous.

Second Course (By Carroll): A soft poached egg, some roasted asparagus, fine herbes butter and…that’s it. This was a strange plate, mostly in that it seemed like kind of a waste of a course–of the opportunity to really impress people who’d come to 10 Arts to be washed in the glow of reflected fame, sure, but also (and, one hopes, primarily) to eat. To experience something elevated beyond the traditional or the known. And this dish was not that.

Don’t get me wrong here: one egg, perfectly done, can be just as amazing as any oyster or any other simple thing. But this was not a perfectly done egg. It was a bit undercooked, a bit slimy. The asparagus on which it sat, quivering, was woody and not grilled quite enough to have taken on the nutty flavor of asparagus at its best. But then there was the broken yolk, combining with the compound butter into a sauce that made all criticism (almost) moot. I cleaned my plate, but maybe not with as much desperate hunger as I did when presented with…

Third Course (By Ripert): …charred octopus in a muddled and totally crazy-pants combination of jarringly discordant ingredients that should’ve sucked like a Hoover but through some miracle (which obviously involved Ripert down at The Crossroads, selling his soul to the devil in a buyer’s market) turned out to be the best piece of octopus (with fermented black beans, squid ink, miso, pears and purple basil) I’ve had.

Like, ever.

All kidding aside, this plate was jaw-dropping. The smokiness of it, the octopus that had the texture of a rare tenderloin and the squid ink which (somehow…) had been turned from a stunt ingredient into something surpassing delicious? This was Ripert at his freaky fish-ninja best, doing magic tricks with fermented beans and ink that most chefs wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) attempt, but making it look easy. As he swanned around the room when it was his turn to shake hands and pose for photos, he just looked like a man at work on a Tuesday night. Nothing special. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not a guy who’d just done the impossible. Had it been me cooking that plate, I would’ve been jumping up on a banquette, waving my pants over my head and screaming at the crowd, “Yeah, suck it, you monkeys! Look what I did! Who’s the motherfucking fish ninja now, huh?”

Which is just one of the many reasons why it’s probably good I’m no longer a chef…

Fourth Course (By Ripert): Let me say this: If I was food, I would not want to be the dish that followed that octopus. Even if I happened to be a lovely, ring-molded and baked striped bass with carrot-herb salad and a poured miso butter sauce (which was so good that I wish it was sold by the Big Gulp), it wouldn’t be enough. That plate could’ve come with free pie and garnished by hundred dollar bills and I still would’ve barely noticed it.

Fifth Course (By Carroll): A classic presentation of rack of lamb, bones frenched and crossed, cooked a perfect mid-rare, was just what was required after all that fish–something with some blood and muscle to it. And with this plate, Carroll held her own–offering what was perhaps one of only a half-dozen sides of quinoa (with feta, done as a tabbouleh) I’ve ever had that wasn’t awful, and finishing the plate with a pomegranate jus which, in the hands of a less talented chef, would’ve come off as cloying, trend-humping or worse. Here, it matched perfectly with the salt and the savor of the meat, gentling the slight gaminess of the lamb, adding a bright spike of sweetness to the tabbouleh. I gnawed the bones like a savage and was happy to do so.

Dessert (By Monica Glass, 10 Arts pastry chef): I wish I could remember everything that was included in this broad, shotgun-spread of a dessert presentation. I remember a cardamom-yogurt sorbet that was bracing and surprisingly smooth, a bite of shortbread cookie, a taste of brittle, a square of lemon, a cloud of blackberry. Anything heavier and I would’ve just curled up beneath my table with a glass of Jameson whiskey and gone to sleep. Anything less and the meal wouldn’t have felt complete.

For some pictures from the night, check out the Twitter, @chefjencarroll and @ericripert

And to keep track of where I’m going and what kind of trouble I’m getting in, you can always follow me, too, at @Jason_Sheehan