Good recipes are often the best souvenirs from some of life’s more bittersweet experiences. I have worked in what I consider a fair share of kitchens, ranging from a rundown, unair-conditioned seafood shack in South Florida to a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen equipped to the nines in a private residence. Regardless of location, each came with its own cast of characters and drama that unfolded amidst the inevitable highly tense environment of professional cooking. It is easy to get swept up in the frenzied blur of irrationality, high demands, time pressure and shameless swearing that characterizes the environment, but it’s the memories embedded in food and recipes that tend linger in my mind long after the drama dies down.
Two years into my career I moved out to Northern California to cook with the bounty of seasonal, variegated produce that can only be experienced wholeheartedly on the West Coast. Working in an open kitchen that sat atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific, I thought I had found my dream job. Every afternoon local farmers would file into the kitchen and stack box upon box of heirloom vegetables into the walk-in cooler. As a line cook on the vege station, it was my job to unpack these deliveries and organize each into appropriately labeled containers. While I loathed the amount of time this took out of the precious few hours I had to prep my station, I relished the opportunity to glimpse first hand the treasures that lay in waiting for their role in that night’s menu. Each box was packed gingerly with something different, such as rows of fleshy wild mushrooms with quirky names like cinnamon cap, royal trumpet, and hen of the woods. Or there were heirloom baby beets in garnet, gold or candy-striped patterns, and moscato grapes whose champagne skin blushed with the slightest kiss of pink. Each unpacking was a revelation, and each season promised something new to be discovered.
My hour in the cooler each day was a respite from the chaotic clamoring that filled the kitchen. As the Chef barked orders at us and put unreasonable demands on our two hour window of prep time, cooks sliced and diced hurriedly through their stations in fits of panic. While my fellow cooks did their best to focus as beads of sweat drew lines down their chef hats, I sat hunkered in the cold dark corner of the cooler for a few precious moments everyday, where I pored over produce.
It is these moments, and a friendship formed with a fellow line cook, Lisa, that remain vivid in my mind from this time in California. As the blustery March weather promises neither certain warmth, nor tender Spring produce, I found myself resurrecting one of Lisa’s famous recipes from the old days in California that was perfectly suited for a damp, cold afternoon last week. Lisa worked the garde manger station at the restaurant and was responsible for creating a daily amuse bouche everyday that was unique, flavorful and utilized the dizzying array of ever changing California produce. Her celery root and tart apple soup, which she served in petite porcelain demitasse cups, became legendary and one diner remarked that not only was his palate amused, but his soul was enchanted by each sip.
The recipe is remarkable in its simplicity, which allows the mellow earthiness of celery root to shine through with bright highlights of snappy Granny Smith. Light on cream and aromatic garnishes, the flavor of the soup is pure and harmonious in a deeply satisfying way. I choose to drizzle a thin stream of toasted walnut oil over each serving to add the slightest hint of complexity, but adding too much more would ruin its charm.
1 medium sized celery root, peeled and roughly chopped
½ onion, roughly chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
4 C chicken stock
¼ C heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
toasted walnut oil for garnish
Heat a medium sized pot over a moderate flame or setting on your stove. Add the oil and butter then sauté the onion and celery until opaque but not brown. Add the celery root and apple and cook for another five minutes before adding the stock. Reduce the heat to a gently simmer and cook for about 20 minutes or until the celery root is tender. Puree the soup with the cream in a blender until smooth. Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste and add a drizzle of walnut oil to each portion before serving. Serve hot.