How a young pastry cook inspired Blue Hill’s cheese plate,
and a worldview
By Dan Barber
Jane Austen wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And a chef in possession of good fortune is usually in want of a cheese plate.
At least I was.
But creating a cheese plate isn’t easy, especially one to get savvy Manhattanites excited about America’s artisanal cheese revolution. Restaurant cheese plates are usually conceived either austerely, without accompaniment (more brains than heart), or manipulated into a dish in the name of creativity (more heart than brains). If you want the triple crèmes, washed rinds and blue veins to not just enhance the meal but also to serve as a snapshot of our nation’s defining cheese moment, you’ve got your work cut out for you. And I did.
As luck would have it, about two years ago I ran past David Eng, our intriguing, if not enigmatic, pastry cook, on the way to the freezer. He was standing over the weekly delivery of a local cow’s cheese, so concentrated in his efforts of observation that he all but disappeared. It was not unlike David, in the midst of a crazed kitchen, to quietly contemplate what most of us would see as routine—like a stack of boxes.
“Hey there, Eng,” I yelled, as I stopped abruptly by his side, “Are you going to propose to it or are we going to serve it?”
“Ah…well…nope, no, no,” he said slowly, softer with each negative. I stared at him. “Ah, I guess I’m wondering about this Constant Bliss, actually. I don’t understand why the inner face is whiter than the outer face—do you think it’s that the enzymes decompose the calcium phosphate molecules more quickly from the outside in?”
It was the kind of question I’d come to expect from David, a recent Amherst graduate who returned to New York in pursuit of a culinary career. (His father, a cab driver and first-generation Chinese immigrant, had driven him back from school to their Chinatown apartment in a yellow taxi). David’s latest fascination was with cheese, and for the moment that was all he concerned himself with, visiting the library on his days off and reading anything related to cheese making and cheese history. With his near encyclopedic memory for varieties, regions and affineurs, he knew, in the span of just a few months, more about cheese than anyone in the kitchen, including myself.
“You know what Eng,” I said authoritatively, brushing aside his inquiry because I didn’t know the answer (I didn’t understand the question, actually). “Do you know what the problem is here, my friend?” He shook his head.
“The problem is taste, Eng,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder, giving it a paternal squeeze. “It’s all about taste. At a certain point you’re going to have to put down the books and pick up the fork—do you know what I’m saying Eng? All this rooting around the library for cheese facts is great, it is, don’t get me wrong, but at this point it’s time you gotta get your face in it.” I brought the soft cheese up to my face and pushed my nose into it like a gas mask.
David looked at me without blinking, as though he understood my meaning as no human being had ever before, so I kept going, fearing there was another question lurking I wouldn’t know how to answer. “Look, I want you to go to Picholine next week, and I want you to sit at the bar and order the cheese plate—better yet, I want you to order the grand cheese plate”—and here I paused for dramatic effect, “And I want to pay for that experience.”
I felt the way so many Manhattan fathers feel on writing that 20 thousand dollar check to preschool—nurturing, offering the gift of opportunity and experience that comes straight from the heart, and simultaneously patron-like, knowing in the back of my mind this was an investment that would end up paying me back someday.
Picholine, it turned out, was perfect, not just for the cheese, but because it was only a few blocks from an old Japanese independent film theater David attended religiously. I underwrote his first grand cheese plate and next I knew he had made cheese at Picholine part of his Tuesday night schedule. Each week he saw the 7 p.m. film, followed it with dinner in the commissary to save money (pasta salad with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, and an OJ) and headed over to Picholine for cheese.
Before his first visit, David wrote Max McCallan, Picholine’s fromager, and after a few evenings there, he befriended many of the staff. I learned only later that whenever he arrived at Picholine’s door, he gave whoever was working the cheese cart a good-natured challenge. One night he might have asked for three goat cheeses from Northern Spain and three from Northern France, or three washed-rind cheeses and three natural rinds.
David may have begun his lactic exploration in the guise of a Bohemian college graduate, but he ended them with the expertise of a cosmopolitan cheese connoisseur.
Crossing paths one night after a particularly grueling dinner service, David mentioned that the Japanese film season had ended so he was pursuing his other interest, American art. He told me of a visit to the MoMA to see his favorite painting, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. When I asked him why it was his favorite he said, “Well, did you know that Christina in the picture is crippled?” I told him I did not know that. “You see,” he said, receiving my remark with a tiny head bob, not at all surprised by my lack of knowledge, “It’s the most incredibly optimistic painting—here’s this cripple who can only crawl across her land. Everything is out of reach, and yet she still gazes at the beauty. It’s so expansive and inspiring.”
The same satisfaction was there, a few weeks later, as David described the latest cheese challenge he’d posed McCallan. “Last night I asked him to pick me three classic old-world cheeses—nothing esoteric in type, all made to perfection, like a Beaufort,” he said, pausing for effect, “And then I asked for three distinctive new-world cheeses that were directly inspired by those classics.”
Three new-worlds next to three old-world classics—genius, I thought. What better way to introduce people to the exciting American artisanal cheeses than through the European archetypes that inspired them? What could be more interesting than to give people a taste of how far we’ve come in the last decade, in both flavor and originality, than by tasting their original counterparts side by side?
The Blue Hill cheese plate was born.
Weeks later—thrilled with our new cheese plate, humbled that it sprung from the mind of a novice—I came across a Wyeth retrospective on a friend’s bookshelf. Flipping to the chapter on the famous Christina painting, I learned that the accepted interpretation is exactly the opposite of David Eng’s. Art historians see Wyeth’s Christina as a “Bleak work of art, charged with a sense of loneliness and portentousness.”
He got it wrong! I cried to myself, but it didn’t take long to realize he may have gotten it exactly right, recognizing himself in Christina’s image, showing that with no money and no experience in the kitchen he could still move along, use the public library instead of the bookstore, eat pasta salad to save money for a cheese plate, make connections with McCallan to taste better cheese—and absorb the beauty of all the experiences along the way.
I look at a guy like David and think not just how great it would be to be 22 with the whole world in front of you, but how great it would be to be 22 with the whole world in front of you and have the nerve—the pretension maybe, but also the cleverness—to see life, with its infinite possibilities and opportunities, to be within your grasp. It’s not just the gift of doing whatever you fancy, it’s to be decidedly fanciful in making it happen.
“That Valencay next to the Texas hoja santa…,” David commented smiling as we observed another of his creations leave the kitchen, his hand on my shoulder, mocking me without really knowing it, “who would have thought that a Texan could remake the quintessential Loire cheese by looking to a lowly Mexican herb as her muse? That’s so inspiring, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it is,” I said, “Who would have thought?”
Dan Baber is the chef-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.