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The Surface of Things


CDKitchen Cooking Columnist Amy Powell
Specialty: 30 Minute Meals
Education:French Culinary Institute, Cornell University
Lives: Manhattan

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Since before Lady Liberty made her home off the southern tip of Manhattan, New York City has been a melting pot of cultures and races welcoming all who made it past Ellis Island. Given the current state of the world, it may be more difficult than it used to be for immigrants to make a new home in the Land of the Free. Still, centuries of infusions of new people have made New York one of the most diverse cities on this planet. With new people come new cultures, and with that come new cuisines. And typically, along with that comes an abundance of unskilled workers eager for employment. This is why the restaurant industry, particularly in New York, lays claim to some of the most interesting mixing of cultures than is found in any other industry in the country.

Having spent some time the last several years popping in and out of restaurant kitchens, passing through dining rooms, saying hello to everyone from the waiter to the chef, I have often been struck by how the surface of things rarely represents the complexity of the infrastructure that makes the illusion possible. I mean simply that the theme of a restaurant, for example Italian, rarely is made reality by those who are actually Italian, These days, you might be lucky to find a real Italian (as in born in Italy) working there at all. This is not bad by any means. It is just the nature of our diverse populace and a reflection of an industry that employs many of the unskilled laborers who come to our shores seeking a new life.

Recently I stopped by one of my favorite French bistros in the West Village to have a chat with the owner and the chef. Inside Bistro Cassis the tiled floors, brassy mirrors, and shelves lined with Ricard remind diners of the best American idealized vision of a Parisian café. If I were an unknowing diner I would embrace that vision and enjoy it for all its falsehoods. Except that I happen to know that this restaurant is hardly French; the owner is Italian, the Executive chef may be French, but his Chef de Cuisine is an American whose background is primarily high-end Italian restaurants. This is not to mention that most of the cooking is being done by a group of exceptionally talented Latino men who have no formal training in either Italian or French cuisine and yet are the backbone of the operation.

I love listening to them communicate. The owner talks to the chef in Italian but will slip into French while discussing the details of a dish and then just as quickly slip back into English when a customer has a need. A line cook interrupts to ask a question, in Spanish, and so they all respond in his language and then back to Italian to finish discussing an important business matter. It is possible that restaurants have one of the highest percentages of multi-lingual employees to be found.

Needless to say I was hardly surprised when I asked the Chef de Cuisine, Damien Messina, at this bustling French bistro what he likes to cook that takes less than 30 minutes to make and his response was a very un-French "Ricotta Gnocchi." Gnocchi may appear complex but the ingredients he uses are fairly straightforward. This is startlingly simple given its elegant presentation and thus would be an ideal dish for a dinner party on short notice. Best of all, the gnocchi and the sauce can be made start-to-finish in under half and hour. It's an impressive dish certain to please your guests no matter what their nationality.


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