Friday 28 February 2014

Episode 1 Kaiseki

The truth,

When it finds you,

Cuts like a hot hot knife.


Slashing faith,

Severing ties,

Stabbing through your heart.


Spurting a red river of lies.

Who has the will

The strength

To staunch it?

Season Two! It’s amazing to be back! 

             Back with the team at Hannibal -- that great roiling stew of wild imaginations and incredible talents cooking together until, unbidden, the unspeakable images of horrible beauty start to bubble and break surface in our collective minds. And back with you fabulous Fannibals -- smart, artistic, enthusiastic and wonderfully sardonically funny. We have got a lot of shocking surprises for you in Season Two. But really, I can't wait to see what YOU have in store for US.

 Kaiseki  begins...
The opening episode is called Kaiseki. I am hotly anticipating the food scenes because Kaiseki is the highest form of Japanese cuisine – which, even at its lowest form is more refined, symbolic and artful than any other. Based on a deep and ancient philosophy of nature and seasons, it is a dozen-plus course meal of small plates that are meticulously prepared and served in formal, codified order on antique dishes of subtle beauty. At about $350 per person.

All summer, I had been anticipating the food scenes because back in July, Bryan had asked for thoughts on Kaiseki and asked if any part of human flesh looks like sliced flounder. I responded that there are several formulae for bleaching flesh developed mainly for the poultry industry because consumers prefer breast meat to thigh. (A bit of hydrogen pyroxide is all it takes to bleach those low-rent thighs so they look just like breast meat!)

Having a vegetarian for dinner?

We tossed around ideas of what vegetarian food Hannibal could serve Dr Chilton who has lost (how careless) a kidney and is on a restricted diet. I suggest a marrow squash soup where the middle has been scooped out to look like bone marrow. See what I did there? Well nobody else did and this sketch goes into the shredder.
my first stab at Chilton's vegetarian dinner

At last, the first script of the second season is circulated. I tear into it the moment it arrives. Devouring it. Drinking in its images: orange-fleshed sea urchins and thinly sliced sashimi balancing on a fishbone. Ash-baked celery root smoldering in a coffin of salt. Dining on nightmares. Will. Wendigo. Wonderful.

Back to designing the food for the screen - making it cinematic, as Bryan says. I circulate sketches and get no response – this is not a bad thing – everybody is madly working on the next urgent thing, so no news is good news.  I call up Hashimoto, a Kaiseki master and go over everything with his son Mark. They generously offer to come to the shoot to make sure we don’t commit any crass transgressions of the multitudinousness of ancient Kaiseki correctness.
my sketch after reading the script

Pre-production will start in early September. Small problem: I’ll be at a conference in Buenos Aries. Big solution: coffee shops and hotel lobbies. I’m still in awe of how easy it is to get things done using other people’s WiFi.

Well, easy-ish…

We need live sea urchins so Mads can lift the orange flesh out of the shell when he’s making dinner for Laurence. Two searches, a phonecall, and a sinking feeling inform me that sea urchin is not in season. A week after the shoot, markets will be awash in sea urchins but when we shoot, there will be none commercially available. And they need to be alive because as soon as they die, all the spines drop off and what you have is the shellfish version of a Chinese Crested Hairless dog. Just that ugly.

West Coast fishmen to the rescue!

Over the phone, a nice person at the Sea Urchin Harvesters Association tells me about a tiny west-coast fishing town, Steveston where independent sea urchin divers with small boats are allowed to sell off-season to people at the wharf.  By sheer happenstance, I have a niece, Melissa, who is visiting her in-laws in that very town. She agrees to go to the wharf and finds a diver who will get the sea urchins. We are on first base!

I will not bore you here with further whining about how hard it is to ship sea creatures on a long weekend (Yes, it is a long weekend as shooting starts on Season 2). Even if you have a nephew who works for AirCargo it will take three days.  Sea urchins die in two and their spines start falling out from stress as soon as they hear they are flying Air Canada.

I decide that we need to mercy-kill the sea urchins when they are fresh and healthy then cure them in a way that keeps the spines on. Google says this is not possible but that’s not the answer I want, so I call my taxidermist at ProLine for advice. He is a true artist who happens to work in dead animals and he says No problem. Just bury them in salt.
sea urchins with heavy make-up
Melissa does the dirty work, haggling with the divers for the best urchins then killing, cleaning, and burying them in salt. Twenty pounds of it. We are on second!

But the wretched urchins won’t dry out completely in her humid coastal town. Plus they are no longer bright red. They’ve gone sad brown. So, emailing from Buenos Aries, I ask her to FedEx them immediately to my assistant Ettie in hotter, drier Toronto. She has agreed to finish off the drying process, glue the dropped spines back on and spray paint them glossy red. Two days later I get an email from Ettie that the urchins have arrived – spines intact! And quite dry. We store them with charcoal to eliminate the sea smell.

            We are rounding third, but for a home run, we need large fresh uni from the sushi supplier to place into the dried, painted shells. The (English-speaking) sushi supplier cannot get the big ones he had promised so I have to go to another (English-challenged). Which is alright since I have to switch hamachi suppliers too.

Hamachi? Problems there? Yes, this is to be expected – but hardly the fun-fest of getting the sea urchins. Just business as usual.

Kaiseki dinner complete. Now think about Will's nightmare when Wendigo watches over dinner and Will coughs up a few memories.

I know, Will...Wendigo always gives me acid reflux too.

Was it the pizza Will ate last night
that gave him such a nightmare...

The shoot goes great. Francisco (set decorator) and I collaborate on Will’s  Wendigo Hallucidinner. (What, ear again???) 

Would you like fries with that? I SAID WOULD YOU LIKE FRIES?

While we buzz around setting up the table, the camera crew shoots the sea urchin scene. The sea urchins look alive, Hashimoto trims the yellowtail  and shows Mads how to slice like a sushi master.

Kaiseki master Hashimoto with Martha deLaurentiis and me on set

 Laurence loves yellowtail sashimi and so does Mads -- their chopsticks flying through the retakes. We go through every last bit of hamachi –I had bought a few hundred dollars worth and it was just enough.

Francisco and I are still piling food flowers horns bones and bugs onto the hallucidinner table when the crew moves to the next food scene: Hannibal serving Chilton a Salt-baked Celeriac. It’s a dish made famous at Brett Graham’s Michelin-starred restaurant, The Ledbury. His celery root is baked in a shell of browned salt and flour dough but I decide to go with a shell of pure white salt rubbed with ashed celery leaves. I want it to look like a baby Wendigo hatching from an icy snowball from hell.
Ash-baked celeriac (celery root) in salt crust with Samphire (sea asparagus)

watermelon carpaccio with spiced feta cheese 

Up next...Hallucidinner. Did that tentacle just smell me? 

I'm down to my last few celeriac slices when the AD calls “moving on”. Which means we are finished that scene and are moving on to the Hallucidinner. The AD calls "Final touches" and we all rush in to make sure everything looks great. Glycerine is applied to meat to make it look juicy...water is sprayed on leaves and flowers for a dewy look...Fabreez is spritzed on the octopus to keep it smelling like a rose - after all, it has a "bit" in this scene.
the endless feast of Will's hallucination

We rush around doing Final Touches while at the head of the table, Wendiguy looks  more bored than ominous.

Wendigo gets a horn adjustment before his big dinner scene

More on roasting things in encased in salt 

An addendum to  Chapter Celeriac. Compared to faking live sea urchin, making the salt-baked celeriac in ash had been a piece of cake -- well, 36 cakes because of the length of the scene we needed three dozen celeriac roots. Especially easy for me because Ettie and John (my new apprentice and mixologist - every serious kitchen has someone in charge of cocktails) had gone ahead and baked all of them while I was away, snoring in a Buenos Aires meeting hall.

Salt-baking was used in traditional Chinese Hakka cuisine, you wrap your chicken in lotus leaf and bury it salt in a large heavy pot. Then you put it on the fire on low and go out to a Jackie Chan movie. When you get home, you take the pot off, throw out the salt, unwrap you steaming tender chicken and dive in with both chopsticks. 

This is a centuries-old country dish that previously was eaten only by wealthy salt merchants when salt was the sel in salary. Slow-baking in salt is something I usually consider a waste of salt. A travesty. Between the desiccating sea urchin and baking celeriac, I went through about 50 lbs of the stuff.

A salt-bake treat to impress your vege-pescatarian friends 

Lately, smarty-pants chefs from Copenhagen to Frederick to Sydney have been  putting salt-baked root vegetables on their menus. You can salt-baking everything from fish to chicken to beets and pears, but I think it works best with people meats. So if you want to try salt-baking, here’s an easy recipe for fish to try:

Jenny, co-host of Second Course  podcast, this recipe is for you!

Salt-baked Snapper

Serves two with roasted mixed vegetables and aioli or hollandaise sauce.

3 lbs. sea salt
1 egg white – or 2 if eggs are small
1 Tbsp water
1 T fennel seed

2 ½ - 3 lb whole fish such as snapper or branzino, gutted, gills removed
handful of herb sprigs such as rosemary, thyme, parsley
2  thick lemon slices, halved into semi-circles
4 T olive oil

1.  Preheat oven to 400.

2. In a medium sized mixing bowl, whisk egg white til frothy with a fork. Add water and whisk til combined. Add salt all at once and fennel seeds. Mix thoroughly til all the salt is damp and clingy  -- like sand when you are making a sand castle. To test consistency, take a couple tablespoonsful in your palm and make a fist, crushing salt together. When you open your hand, salt should hold together in a ball. If not, froth another egg white with water and add a bit at a time to the salt mixture until it holds together. Don’t add too much or it will be a struggle to crack the salt shell once it’s baked. Set aside.

3. Line a baking sheet with a sheet of baking parchment and place about ½ cup of salt mixture in the middle. Spread out to the approximate length and width of your fish. Tamp down to a thickness of about ½ inch. Rub fish with olive oil and place on top of the salt. Stuff cavity with lemon slices and herbs. Spoon the rest of the salt mixture on top and sides, pressing over the fish so the fish is completely encased in a ½-inch layer of salt.

4. Roast for 20 - 25 minutes. Remove from oven and rest for 5 minutes. To serve, transfer to a wooden cutting board and serve.

5. To serve: At the table, crack the salt shell by tapping with a mallet then carefully remove the salt shards, brushing salt bits away from the fish or they will make the fish too salty. Pull away the top layer of skin, using a sharp thin knife to detach the skin from the gill, fins, and tail. Using a wide fork, lift the meat off the bones and serve onto individual plates. When the top side has been served, remove the bone by lifting the head up and away toward the tail. All the small bones will come away with the spine. Remove the fin bones and serve the bottom half of the fish meat, leaving the skin on the salt crust. Have a martini. You’ve earned it.

And if you're still interested in laughing at my life, an interview with Deadshirt and one with MSN Entertainment 

Next week...

You really have got to see Mad's special way with Osso Buco. I"m not kidding. You have got to watch next week.