The Chef Who Said 'Oops'

Doctors use the term "gray matter" for brain cells but Ayelet Hirshman, a food writer for the women's magazine L'isha experienced it otherwise on her way to a Rosh Hashanah holiday meal. "My job was to bring the gefilte fish," she relates. "I prepared a glorious tray and secured it to the roof of the loaded car. We got in and off we went... Of course, the moment we accelerated the four-wheel-drive behind us was treated to a shower of gray matter on its windshield."

Neither the car's occupants nor the waiting fish lovers were bemused. Yes, food columnists and chefs have a stock of mistakes. "I have a whole string of intriguing, elaborate errors behind me, though I must say, to my credit, that I don't repeat them," admits cookbook author Nira Russo, who has a weekly column in Yedioth Aharonoth. "Right at the beginning of my career, as a food writer, I ate a yeast coffee cake at the home of an extremely reliable, even meticulous, close relative. In my ignorance and arrogance, I thought I could easily write up the recipe without trying it out first.

"I wrote the directions in a very appealing way, but the instructions about combining dough with butter, and the amount of butter, were wrong. The first angry telephone call at 10 in the morning the day it appeared in the newspaper. There were dozens of such calls, and everyone said the same thing: 'I'm standing here with a puddle of butter instead of dough.'

"That was about 25 years ago, and I'm still getting heat on that column. It was an expensive cake, too." Her mistake? The original baker used measurements like "approximately so much" or "according to how it looks," says Russo, adding "and in baking, there is no such thing."

Russo remembers cooking for journalist Amira Lam, who was writing an article about her. "I always enjoy making a coulis from red, orange and yellow fruits. It's a mixture of mashed fruit and sugar. I carefully measured out a precise amount of salt instead of sugar, and so I treated her to a cup and a half of salt with mashed plums.

"But I reached the peak during the first Gulf War. I invited friends for a pear and almond flan, hot from the oven. It's as wonderful as it sounds on a wintry day, with the table nicely set. It looks great. I brought it out and dusted it with powdered sugar. But, suddenly, silence fell over the room, as though it were Yom Kippur. A friend asked why the flan tasted bitter, sour and salty, and if it was supposed to taste that way." For the war, a popular tip was to have baking soda handy "and that's what I sprinkled on the flan instead of sugar," says Russo. "My brother made a game out of it. He squeezed lemon on the cake and white vapor rose from it.

Food columnists say they assume that readers will understand their intent, as readers, too, are well-versed in the ways of cooking. Chef and cookbook author Israel Aharoni, at least as experienced as Russo, once offered a simple recipe for falafel in his newspaper column. "A few days later I met someone in the street who told me he had not managed to prepare the falafel. Every time he threw the balls into the cooking oil, they fell apart.

"I went over the recipe with him, step by step, and waited to hear where he'd taken a shortcut. But he followed instructions to the letter - shaping the balls, making sure the oil was boiling and the mixture was prepared exactly according to the instructions.

"At the end he said to me, 'Perhaps the chick peas from the can weren't fresh.' 'You used canned beans?' I said. 'You didn't say not to,' he said. And then I learned that what seems obvious to me is not obvious to everyone." Chef Erez Komorovsky has a supply of disturbing mistakes he remembers to this day. "About 15 years ago, I published a bread recipe, but I forgot one small detail - add water. Because it's a bit difficult to bake bread from a completely dry mix, I received numerous angry phone calls.

"Another mistake was when I catered for someone who had invited guests for an important holiday meal. Roast leg of lamb was on the menu. I cooked it at my place and added finishing touches, and I told the customer to heat it up in her oven for 15 minutes. But I made a mistake. I had only cooked it five minutes instead of 50. She heated it up and ended up serving lamb sashimi for Rosh Hashanah. It was a terrible screw-up. Since then, I've learned to check every piece of meat I serve. Without exception, I check with a knife.

Elinor Rabin relates a mistake she published in her food column at the start of her career. "There was a great restaurant in Jaffa called Mivne 2. I really liked the place, and when I tasted their dessert dulce de leche, I immediately asked for the recipe, which includes milk and sugar. Instead of 'liters' of milk, I wrote 'cups.' "Every beginner should know better." She didn't notice the mistake and received a flood of mail from South American Jews. "They took it personally and demanded redress. More than 20 years have passed, and I remember it as though it were yesterday."

And some have published mistakes in books. Fastidious baker Reviva Apple, owner of the cafe/bakery/bistro Reviva and Celia, tells about two mistakes in her book "Metukim" (sweets), published at Rosh Hashanah a year ago. "In one recipe I wrote '10' instead of '150' grams of egg white, an amount that makes no sense in any recipe. Another mistake was that I reversed the amount of flour with the amount of powdered sugar in a cookie recipe. These are mistakes that jump out at you, and still they remain. The only thing that consoles me is that people call the cafe if the recipe doesn't work. They call and ask for a correction. They have an address."

A story that bothers Apple even more involves catering a Shavuot dinner. "A customer ordered dishes for the holiday eve and specified Friday. But the holiday fell on a Thursday, and there had been a misunderstanding. She contacted us at 7:15 on Thursday, expecting 30 people by 9 o'clock. The pressure was enormous. We called the staff to the cafe and at 8:45, the food had arrived at her home. It was a traumatic experience but everyone lent a hand. The first moments were the most difficult."

Embarrassing stories are comical only when looking back. A mistake may become an eternal disgrace. Chef Nitzan Raz of the Sushi Samba restaurant once served as sous chef at Nouveau in New York. "My mistake was egregious, from every angle, because of the place, among other reasons. When a salad you've prepared leaves the kitchen in a deep bowl, and at the bottom of the bowl sit your large bunch of keys, it's terrible. When it happens in Nouveau in New York, and the guests are New Yorkers who have reserved a place and waited weeks for the meal, it's worse than terrible. Luckily, I had been there for a while. Otherwise who knows where they would have thrown me."

Chef Meir Adoni tells about a mother and child who came to his restaurant Catit when it was located in Kibbutz Netzer Sereni. "The boy ordered plain pasta, without even any olive oil. Apparently they'd spent a long day together, during which the child had become a pain in the neck. We brought out the pasta, and he started to cry that it was too spicy and he couldn't eat it. His mother was annoyed with him, because she saw only a plate of plain pasta. It went on and on until the sous chef came out and tasted it.

"It turned out two chefs had blanched hot peppers in boiling water, and the pot with the water - now horribly spicy - remained on the burner where water was boiled. In a strange and rare piece of timing, this was exactly when the boy's pasta was prepared, and it was thrown into this pot of water. The boy was right." Now Adoni always checks the water.

Chef Noam Deckers of Lilith, formerly sous chef at Mul Yam in Tel Aviv, who trained in France with Marc Veyrat, remembers a French chef who "sent the entire staff at one time to the refrigerator for butter, because he said there was not enough butter for the hot dishes. A herd of young chefs ran in all directions with blocks of butter, and it was a miracle the restaurant survived. I remember the feeling of tension and hysteria to this day."

Deckers also recalls an incident at Mul Yam "when chef Yoram Nitzan asked me to slice and arrange asparagus tops, and I threw the rest away in the garbage. I threw out quite an amount of produce, and if you didn't see my face then, you've never seen how anxiety looks."

One popular gourmet cook and television host remembers a mistake that made a show famous, one frequently rebroadcast. On his show "Oseem Shuk" (going to market), Gil Hovav demonstrated how to flour and season a chicken inside a plastic bag. "I always make this recipe and use an especially thick bag or doubled them up. But this time, in a broadcast, I didn't. I shook the bag. Of course, it ripped, and I was completely covered in flour. You can see the program now and then, to everyone's great pleasure."