The job of the cold food artist is to put food on display to remain untouched and uneaten, for hours and appear fresh and appealing for each of those hours. My introduction to cold food last week wasn’t the prettiest. The day started at 1000 and forgot to end. I was still awake at 1000 the next morning- well, at least my eyes were still open. My eye lids were heavy, collapsing under the weight of frustration, exhaustion, and gelatin. Nonetheless, staying awake through the night was the least of my concerns; could I productively function through the night? I only half way knew what I was supposed to be doing, and trying to figure it out with my tank on E was of little effect! This was my first time practicing cold food and the only thing that seemed to stick from training was the gelatin. I remember whining to my comrades that I used to imagine the possibility of becoming a food stylist; this night in cold food, I was begging to wake up from that dream. But I’m sure there’s more to food styling than cold food. Yet seems like there’s not much more to cold food than gelatin. I learned that night how stink the pure stuff is. It smells kinda like a wet dog if I remember correctly.
Hold up! What exactly is cold food though? In the context of the Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event, the cold food table is a display table to include the following:
- a finger food platter for 6, featuring 4 items
- a festive buffet platter for – 3 main items with sauces, garnishes, and a salad
- Two 3-course meals reflective of selected regions of the US
- Petit Fours, the sweet little bites, for 6, featuring 5 varieties
The display will remain available for viewing for two days though and will therefore be generally inedible. They must appear in pristine condition, epitomizing consistency, precision, and perfection, sometimes shining under a coat of gelatin.
Savory jellies have been setting since the Medieval times! Cooks of old learned that as rich broths and soups cooled, it would set into an nearly solid gel, the proteins, primarily from bones, skin, and flesh, fortifying the mass. (Ever dug your fingertips under the rubber or plastic rim of the Tupperware lid until you discover the corner, bending it back to reveal last nights beef stew, its pieces congealed into place by the jus– the cooking liquid?) It proved to add variety and intrigue to diets. As you can imagine, blobs, scoops, or even cubes of jellied meat broth wasn’t the most appetizing. The development of the recipe continued until it arrived at combining meat, vegetables, or other edible garnishes with the cooling, protein rich broth in a bowl or the like and inverting when fully cooled producing a molded jelly- aspic. Cooks continued prodding, discovering that other ingredients and flavors could be preserved into delectable masses, such as dessert creams. The consistency of the gelatin was creating the option to simply glaze food in the flavorful gel, mold and slice it or coat it in thick gelatin-rich proportion for the sake of presentation only. Commercially produced gelatin came into use as a more sure and reliable means, cutting down on the time consuming and tedious labor of clarifying and setting the liquids its gel form…
And here we were in our modern day lab preparing platters, none of which, except maybe the petit fours, are without gelatin. We gathered the troops, established a gameplan, mentally preparing for the all-nighter. Stations were set, music booming, coffee brewing, blood flowing… It was game time. We melted a batch of gelatin and prepared the dish components that would later be dipped and set in it. (I’ll share with you all some videos that give you a picture of what the process is like. My picture selection is a bit limited until we officially present the dishes due to the nature of competition.)
We are preparing foods more concerned with how beautiful it appears than how delicious it tastes. I’ve expressed my passion for presentation, recognizing that regardless of how delicious a dish may be, if it doesn’t appear inviting, a diner may be hesitant to dig in. Yet in the case of cold foods, no diner ought to venture beyond presentation. Nonetheless, the table was beautiful, at least for our first trial run.