Could You Please Remove the Head!
“Yesterday, they were swimming their little hearts out on a fish farm in Northern Georgia, oblivious to their fateful end – a gourmand’s delight – well seasoned, crisp and seared, elegant and composed on a plate of bone white china.”
We have trout on the menu. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Andy “The Trout guy”, delivers twenty to thirty pounds of fresh, local, rainbow trout to the restaurant. The quality is exceptional; out of the water from the trout farm to restaurant, in less than thirty hours. Rainbow trout, cleaned, gutted and dressed for the dinner table.
Under the blinding glare of fluorescent lights, we fuss over minute details
Tweezers in hand, back bent low over the cutting board, removing pin bones thin as threads and trimming the fillets. This task is done quickly by cooks (from long practice), a forefinger along the flesh for bones, then- pluck,
It’s a dirty job, best handled in latex gloves and a zombies’ mindset. In automatic mode, your hand reaches over to grab the next fish and it slips back into the pile. Rainbow trout are covered in slime, as if the fish has been coated in aspic and their own juices. When cleaning twenty pounds of trout, the repetitive, sccrrpp, sccrrpp, sound of the French knife, scraping this oozing jelly from the cutting board, is as necessary as sharpening the blade.
Several species of trout are indigenous to the rivers and streams of North Georgia and the fish has become a staple on restaurant menus in metro Atlanta.
For the itinerant foodie, exploring the food pathways of the United States, it is easy to identify specific cuisines by the proliferation of unique ingredients, dishes, flavor profiles or style of cooking in that region (jambalaya in Louisiana, crab cakes in Maryland, clam chowder in New England, deep dish pizza in Chicago, key lime pie in The Florida Keys and pulled pork in North Carolina).
Trout, Apple Walnut Chutney, Frisee salad, beurre blanc sauce, because the dish was delicious, simple and easy to plate and serve.
Trout, quenelle of chanterelle puree, tempura cauliflower, frisee salad, port reduction, the flavor profile was off and the combination of ingredients over powered the delicate flavor of the fish.
Trout, preserved Meyer lemon chow chow, oyster mushroom fricassee, the prep was tedious and time consuming, I was happy when this was taken off the menu.
Trout, tomato fennel fondue, ancho chili clam jus, very bold, rich and assertive in flavor.
This has been our first trout preparation served with the head and tail on. On several occasions, servers have returned to the kitchen, dish in hand and sheepishly asked for the head and sometimes the tail, to be removed. Generally dumb requests from guests are met with laughter, followed by derisive comments like “it’s a fish; this is what they look like, @@##$$%^^&&!!!! Where do these people come from?” At which point whoever is closest to the offending dish, grabs the plate, rips the head off and sends the server on their way. The straw that broke the camels’ back was the guest who complained “that the trout looked too much like fish” and asked if we could remove the head and tail. We did, violently tugging at the head until it came off like a discarded rag doll, then the head was tossed triumphantly, basketball style into the garbage and the dish went back out.
What’s the problem? Its fish and these are parts of the fish, and yes, there’s lots of gooey goodness to be sucked out of the head, or just push it to the side of the plate and let it be. Have we become so estranged from our food sources that seeing them cooked and served without embellishment or camouflage makes us queasy? What is even worse, it happens in the kitchen. One of the pastry cooks shared the same sentiment about fish, in exactly the same words. Cooks should be the most adventurous gourmands of all. I’m disappointed. If passion brought you into cooking, then eat, taste, and ask questions about EVERYTHING. Not everything will appeal to your taste buds, you may spit it out, but for gods’ sake at least try it. Cooks may one day grow to become chefs in their own kitchen. But that growth, takes years of learning about our craft, ingredients, technique and food lore. Also, just as important, sharing knowledge as well as augmenting our intuitive taste and flavor profiles through eating and actively engaging our palettes. That immersion in all things culinary sustains us and keeps us progressing from restaurant to restaurant, until we are chefs in our own kitchens.
We have a new chef de cuisine; good thing is, despite the occasional outcry, we still serve trout with the head and tail on. Let them complain. At least, he has boldly decided to continue featuring rainbow trout. Respect the fish. Subliminally, he’s saying “this is your education on a plate; this is what your food looks like. Now shut up and eat it!”