The saying “never trust a skinny chef” made perfect sense to me before I actually became one. The thought is that most good cooks like to eat, and if they are not pleasantly plump from tasting their own food, maybe the food is not all that good to eat. However the reality is most professional cooks I know have lost at least ten pounds during their first job working a restaurant line. The pace is frenetic, the pressure high, and time is scarce. Tasting the food you prepare, mainly for seasoning, is integral to good cooking but it is never more than a teaspoon here or there. It hardly adds up to a meal, and the amount of frantic effort it takes to get your mise en place set is sure to burn off any residual calories. Of course at some restaurants there is a what is called a “staff meal”. Supposedly the team of cooks sits down around a communal table to enjoy a house made meal. In my experience, this is more of an exception than a rule.
During the first month of my job as a line cook, breaks for meals were few and far between. My fear of under-performing kept me distracted from the hunger, and I often brought in a turkey sandwich in to inhale while I was getting my prep done. But one evening something miraculous happened. At the end of the dinner shift, while us cooks were in the process of scrubbing down the line, the head chef burst out of the office and joined us. Often this could mean bad news, like he was coming to inspect our stations and demand a deep clean of the freezer. And when he began to rifle through the coolers, I was sure a late night was in store. Instead, he began pulling out odds and ends of produce, seafood and pasta that was past its prime. When the stove was re-lit, and two skillets set over high flames, I realized the ingredients were going into a meal. To my amazement, a deep bowl of steaming pappardelle was set on all of the stations, including mine. Still too busy to eat, I scooped the pasta into a container and later carried it home.
A truly enjoyable meal for me has a few components. It goes without saying that the food must be flavorful, but ideally there is also a comfortable place to sit and enough time to savor the food. If there happens to be a complimentary glass of wine alongside, all the better. This meal had it all, and probably stands out in my mind because it was rare during that phase of my career. I can still remember how tender and rich the Chef’s handmade ribbons of pasta tasted and the nuggets of lump crab meat that were browned and crispy on the edges. The sauce was light, and hits of flavor came from the speckles of herbs and plenty of tart lemon juice.
When I sought to recreate this dish, I knew I would keep the ingredients simple and to a minimum. Instead of making homemade noodles, I opted for Trader Joe’s lemon black pepper linguine. I never feel like a meal is complete without a few veggies so I also added medallions of roasted zucchini. A few slivers of fresh chili went in for heat along with plenty of chives and basil. After a quick sear in the pan, the crab and hot pappardelle were tossed in with a little pasta water and extra virgin olive oil to create a sauce that just barely coats the pasta. I can’t say with much accuracy how my version compares precisely with what I tasted ten years ago, but as I twisted my fork around the remaining pile of pasta in my bowl, and greedily sopped up the remaining bit of delicious sauce, I hardly cared.
Pappardelle with Crab, Lemon and Chili
1 lb of dried or fresh pappardelle pasta
1/2 lb lump crab meat
2 large zucchini, sliced and roasted
1 small Thai bird chili, thinly sliced
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 Tbsp thinly sliced chives
2 Tbsp thinly sliced basil leaves
zest and juice of one lemon
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil
Method: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over high heat and add enough olive oil just to coat the bottom. Drop the pasta in the water and cook until al dente. While the pasta cooks, saute the crab in the skillet until it is evenly browned, being careful not to break up the lumps. Add the shallot and garlic to this and saute for another minute. When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Add the pasta, pasta water and remaining ingredients to the pan and toss everything together. Serve immediately.
Wine Pairing: A spicy Gruner Veltliner from Austria is a great match for this dish.