It was a long ride from Manhattan on the A train (running local, naturally) to BedStuy on a cold Saturday afternoon. Exiting at the Utica Avenue stop, in a completely foreign neighborhood, there was one task at hand – to find Stuyvesant Avenue and a certain brownstone. Inside the brownstone, a group of strangers and grocery bags of mystery ingredients were waiting. It was a bit of a walk from the subway, down a quiet street with rows of surprisingly gracious-looking homes, passing the occasional deli or boarded-up building. At last, our destination: Up the stoop, past the door and inside, where, unbeknownst to us, we would spend the next few hours watching democracy in action.
Neither The Scout nor the rest of the people inside that stately brownstone knew what to expect that Saturday, as they gathered for the debut of an improv event. This wasn’t a comedy or jazz performance, however; this was the first-ever Cooklyn Improv. Eight amateur cooks with a passion for thoughtful food and top-notch ingredients, many of them strangers to each other, assembled in this home for an afternoon of creative collaboration, armed with sharp knives, a deep fryer and a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect and was a little concerned that I might show up and my level of skill wasn’t up to par,” said improv cook Marc Matsumoto, who writes the food blog NoRecipes.com. “I also wasn’t sure what kind of equipment or ingredients were going to be there, so I tried to come prepared for the worst.”
Cooklyn Improv host and organizer Jonathan Landau, who also runs Lab 24/7 – a space for creative projects and events – out of the cellar of his home, had gathered this group of marketing experts, pastry cooks, creative consultants and web developers as a first-time experiment. A few days beforehand, each cook was given a food category, such as dairy or vegetables, along with a budget, and was responsible for shopping for assorted ingredients of his or her choosing to bring to the event. To kick the afternoon off, each chef had a show-and-tell of his or her ingredients. There were dozens of items; everything from humble staples like eggs and breadcrumbs to the exotic and downright odd, such as sea urchin, black truffles, a smoked pig’s trotter and Ricola throat drops. Jonathan then explained the rules: Use as many of the ingredients as possible; divide into teams of two; create four courses; and be ready to serve the first course by 6:30 p.m.
And then the fun began. The eight relative strangers quickly began discussing the ingredients, throwing out flavor combinations, ingredient pairings, and suggestions for techniques, each person building off the others’ ideas. Personalities began to reveal themselves, test each other out and mesh. A loose menu formed, and the participants divvied up the work according to their strengths, skills and interests. They then headed to the kitchen – spacious by New York standards but still a tight squeeze with eight energetic cooks – and began slicing potatoes, cutting open sea urchins, and making dough for pasta.
“I really wanted to bring improv to cooking,” Jonathan said, as he watched his team of cooks go to work with a grin on his face, Iron Chef Chairman-style. “You have guidelines and rules, but everyone has a forum to express themselves.”-break-
Given his advertising background, Jonathan said he’s constantly focused on one question: “How do you get the best original thoughts out of people?” As a result, “democracy and improv are the bedrock” of his events, he says, whether he’s throwing an Obama fundraiser with a live drumming band or hosting “The Big Jerk-Off,” a cooking competition in which chefs created Jamaican-style jerked meats and vegetables for a cash prize.
For this event, however, there was controlled chaos in the kitchen as eight chefs, racing against the clock, working with unfamiliar ingredients, and getting acclimated to each other and a strange kitchen, began to find their rhythm. Someone mixed up a batch of cocktails. The ice cream machine starting churning. Sheets of pasta were being rolled out on the dining table since there was no more counter space. And then, suddenly, the table was set, wine was poured, and the first course came out at 6:30 on the dot (ok, it was actually an hour late, but no one cared). In lieu of grace, Jonathan read a passage from On Food and Cooking, considered the chef’s bible on cooking techniques. And then everyone dug in, relishing what they had created in such unusual circumstances.
The first course was a beautiful salad: layers of watermelon radish and goat cheese, topped with microgreens and a tart blood orange vinaigrette. Then came a pork trotter and apple soup with fried potatoes; slow-cooked egg with sea urchin in a dashi broth; kimchi and apples on a homemade chip, garnished with popcorn; homemade pappardelle with mushrooms and truffles; steak with a red wine-cranberry sauce and a purple and fingerling potato gratin. For dessert, a shot of gin with melted Ricola drops and herbs, and a tarte tatin with maple goat’s milk yogurt gelato. Instead of four courses, the over-achieving chefs had spun out seven inventive dishes, using nearly every ingredient that had been brought.
So how did Jonathan’s goals of democracy and creativity play out? “The event was pure magic,” he said a few days later. “Not because the food was amazing, but because the group collaborated so well. For me, the core of Cooklyn Improv isn’t about food. Cooklyn Improv is about creating a collaborative environment, where innovation can flourish, using the power of group improv and freedom of expression. That’s what happened on Saturday, and then some.”
That innovation and expression resulted in some extremely delicious food. Though the event was a collaboration, not a competition, the decadent homemade pappardelle dish got high praise, along with the slow-cooked egg and sea urchin. “I liked this [dish] not only for the taste and beautiful presentation, but because of the process by which the group came to developing it,” Jonathan said. "It was great to watch. Everyone was really adding their two cents, and it all came together so well."
“I liked the collaborative feel, particularly when people were passing dishes back and forth,” Marc affirmed after the event. “It was fun to have influenced most of the dishes and inspirational to see flavors develop in different ways as the dishes changed hands.”
The Scout’s own Aaron Quint was one of the eight improv cooks, and said he would definitely do it again if given the opportunity. “I really liked that there were no prima donnas or professionals,” he said. “Everyone was of different skill levels, but everyone loved food, loved cooking and had something to bring to the table in terms of experiences and knowledge. It was a learning experience, I ate and cooked things I never had before, and I’m better for it.”