The US version of Hell’s Kitchen premiered on tv when I was twelve years old. Each week I sat in front of the tv in my parents’ bedroom to watch the Americanized caricature of Gordon Ramsay flail his arms in fury, spit flying from his face with every expletive hurled at a trembling line cook. I was mesmerized by it all- partly due to the fact that like many Americans that night, I enjoyed watching the public degradation of a person unfolding on television as a form of entertainment, but also because once in awhile there would be a moment of shaming in which Ramsay would brand golden rules of culinary wisdom that both viewer and shaking, hubris driven contestant would never forget.
The one that stood out to me the most during those Tuesday night television sessions was when someone hastily dropped a plate of risotto onto the expo table, hoping that Ramsay would be preoccupied yelling at someone else to notice its flaws before it went out. Me being in sixth grade at the time, risotto was only something I would see Giada make occasionally on Saturday mornings. I would later see Rachael Ray adopt it into her curriculum of 30 Minute Meals, exclaiming, “Risotto only takes 20 minutes!” between every shot as she fervently stirred her Rachael Ray branded skillet with her trademarked orange spoonula. Risotto was just something that kept popping up in food media, much to my disinterest as I wrote it off as nothing more than a dull, overly-tedious plate of rice. That was all until I saw Gordon Ramsay have his epic meltdown over the plate of stiff porridge that was presented to him on the expo table that Tuesday night.
Never before had I seen anyone so passionate enough to have such a breakdown over a plate of rice - I was suddenly enthralled and fascinated with how cooking such a humble grain could seems so finicky and easy to screw up, and I fell asleep with the scene of Ramsay shouting “IT SHOULD FLOW LIKE LAVA ON THE PLATE!” forever imprinted in my mind.
For the following year my oblivious twelve year old self attempted to make risotto at least once a month, each trial containing a myriad of errors: using long grain rice instead of arborio, undercooking the rice, using vietnamese pho broth because I was being lazy, or cooking it on such a whisper of a flame that after 40 minutes I was still left with a pan of starchy pebbles. With every failure, the grinch that was Ramsay kept shouting behind my ear, “IT SHOULD FLOW LIKE LAVA YOU DONKEY!”
I thus added risotto to the list of kitchen obstacles I never seemed to be able to master (which included macarons, cornbread, pancakes, and red velvet cake among other things), and gave it up indefinitely in pursuit of learning Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.
It wasn’t until I began working in a restaurant, when we put risotto on the menu for a short bit was I reminded of that scene that used to play in my head. Once I saw that flow of rice, still with a distinct bite in the center, and suspended in a starchy, unctuous emulsion fortified with butter and cheese, I went home that night and immersed myself in a risotto making frenzy. There’s a magical feeling that occurs when something that seemed so impossible to master suddenly happens so very easily, and as I spooned a creamy ladle of risotto built upon a base of bacon and seasoned with a punch of white miso into its warmed, awaiting bowl, I couldn’t help but feel like a domestic badass. A seared scallop, something I also picked up from work, with its underbelly composed of a golden sear topped off the risotto, which had now become nothing more than my own form of self gratification in a bowl. —Andrew Bui