When I was younger and living a different life in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, I was on the opening team for the restaurants that were part of the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox.
This was one of the most difficult (but character building) chef jobs I have ever had. While the main restaurant where I worked was large and could seat many people at one time, the kitchen was quite small. There were lots of us cooks running around all day, so we would continually bump into each other, get into altercations over whose turn it was to mop (or organize the walk-in, or go upstairs to the storeroom for potatoes, or clean the mussels – we argued a lot) and generally drive each other crazy for hours on end.
I should also say that I made a lot of close friends working there. We got through a lot of difficult, busy situations together, hence the character building. I also learned a lot about food and the restaurant industry there.
There was another strange little benefit to working in this particular restaurant. During the international film festival, we would often hear tell, of or even serve the celebrities who were there promoting their films. We never took advantage of these situations. We were well-trained in customer service and always kept our cool.
Except for me, this one time.
Part of me can’t even believe I’m writing this, because to write down the words means I have to relive the story. But, the thing is, I relive this story every time I make a Gateaux Basque, and those delicious little cake/pastries are always on our curriculum for Modern Skills for Modern Chefs, the course I co-tutor at the School of Food.
Anyway, this is one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. And it involves Gateaux Basque, one of my most favourite desserts of all time.
One day, I arrived at work at around 2:30pm. I was working the night shift, which started at 3pm. As I walked behind the hot line in our open kitchen, where I was working the pasta station, I saw a group walk into the otherwise empty restaurant. This was our quiet time, after lunch and before dinner.
My friend Jesus was their server and sat them directly in front of my station, and that’s when I realized who had just come into our restaurant. It was The Decemberists.
Here’s the thing: I LOVE THE DECEMBERISTS. They might not be as well known as other bands, but just a few months ago they were playing a gig here in Ireland. They are a very famous band in their own right, and their songs are very clever and well-written. I’ve always liked them a lot.
I was never starstruck before this moment. We had a few celebrities in, but I was usually too busy to notice they were even there and most of the time I wouldn’t have been too fussed. This time, I hyperventilated. They were sitting mere feet away from me; about to eat my cooking.
The chef who was on with me looked concerned when he saw me hyperventilating. He thought something was wrong.
“Did someone at that table do something to you?”, he asked, very seriously, when all I could do was point silently at the table. He obviously wasn’t a fan.
When I finally told him who they were, he laughed at me.
“Yeah, OK. I’ve never heard of them.”
Neither had anyone else in the kitchen. Jesus hadn’t either, and he was the only server on at the time. He told me they were a really lovely bunch and I should come over to say hello.
YEAH, OF COURSE I SHOULD, JESUS. TERRIBLE IDEA.
But I gathered my courage, managed to get the chef to agree to send them a few free desserts, and I brought the Gateaux Basque tartlets over to the table with Jesus when they had finished their mains. I wanted them to try these tartlets – crumbly, delicious sablee pastry tarts filled with perfectly luscious creme patissiere – because when I first tried them, they were an absolute revelation.
“Oh, hi,” I awkwardly addressed the table. “I wanted you to try these Gateaux Basque for dessert I’m a really big fan I really love your music I really wanted to make it to your concert last night but my credit card bounced when I tried to purchase tickets my friends went though and they said it was an amazing concert anyway thanks for coming in I hope you liked your food and yeah I hope I get to your next concert OK bye!”
The verbal diarrhea. It was so, so bad. It was so humiliating. The band was staring at me like I had seven heads. Only the drummer was smiling with encouragement and nodding at me, which only made things worse. Those several minutes were among the most awkward and painful of my life.
I walked away, flushed red and feeling so, so uncool.
As the band were getting up to leave, the chef came over to me with a spoonful of liquid.
“Hey, can you try this and check it for seasoning?”
I took the entire spoonful into my mouth before realizing he had given me a spoonful of dirty dish water, as a joke. Just as I spat the liquid out of my mouth and shouted “THAT IS F&*&%$^^ DISGUSTING!”, the band walked by, taking their leave.
The looks on their faces as they left. I’ll never forget it.
I couldn’t listen to The Decemberists for a long time after this incident. I couldn’t eat Gateaux Basque, either. I soon moved on to another restaurant and left TIFF behind, along with the painful memories.
In the last year or two, I’ve kinda gotten over it. I started making Gateaux Basque again, and, more recently, have been teaching the recipe to my students. It truly is a special cake… pastry… thing. And The Decemberists? Maybe I’ll have enough on my credit card to make it to their next Dublin gig. It might still be too soon, though.
For the Sablee:
1/2 cup/125g softened butter
1/3 cup/35g powdered sugar
1 large egg yolk
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups/160g plain flour
1 Tbsp milk, if needed
For the Creme Patissiere:
5 egg yolks
1 cup/250g granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup/60g plain flour
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp cinnamon
Zest of ½ lemon
½ tsp almond extract
Fresh pitted cherries (optional)
Icing sugar, for dusting (optional)
- Make the sablee: with a mixer, beat the butter and powdered sugar until well-combined. Add the egg yolk and mix. Add the flour and salt. Mix until combined, do not over-mix, you do not want to develop the gluten in the flour.
- Wrap the sablee in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
- Make the creme patissiere:
- In a bowl, whisk the egg yolk, lemon zest and sugar until light, pale yellow and ribbony.
- In the meantime, heat the milk, cinnamon, almond extract and vanilla on med-high until it reaches boiling point.
- Add the flour to the egg and sugar and mix until just combined.
- Temper the egg mixture with the hot milk by adding a small amount and immediately whisking vigourously. Then, add the rest of the hot milk and mix to combine.
- Return the mixture to the pot and return to the heat. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture up to a boil until it’s thick and glossy.
- Add the butter and mix well. Set aside.
- Roll out or press half of the sablee into the bottom of a tart pan. Add the creme patissiere to the tart, adding the cherries here if you’re using them. Roll out the other half of the sablee and cover the top of the tart pan. *PLEASE NOTE Depending on the size of your tart pan, you may have to double the sablee recipe.
- Trim the excess pastry and brush the tops of the pastry with egg wash
- Bake at 190˚C (375F) for about 45 minutes (check after 30 – some ovens are hotter than others).
- Cool and serve with a dusting of powdered sugar, ice cream, compote or whipped cream.