I typically take my lunch to work, but every so often I grab a sandwich from a lunch truck or head up to the CHOP cafeteria on 36th and Market, mostly to look out at the view of the city. In a cafeteria run by Aramark, I don’t expect great culinary adventures, but every so often order the hot meal just for a change of pace. As Lisa and I walked in today, she read the menu on a table near the entrance, mentioning they had “grass fed lamb”. Her words went in one ear and out the other; I had tuna salad on my mind.
While I was checking out the hot foods offerings, she went over to the pizza area (which I rarely bother looking at) and came back telling me the lamb was served with polenta. Polenta?! You’re kidding, right? What do you mean with mushrooms? How intriguing. I stepped over to have a look and peered into the pot, wondering what it would taste like, when a voice broke through to tell me it was cooked with oyster mushrooms smoked over chamomile tea. Huh? Chamomile tea? How so? Because smoking over tea imparts a stronger flavor. Who knew? I asked if I could get a taste, still disbelieving that a cafeteria was serving polenta, and wondering what that chef guy was doing there.
Was pleasantly surprised with the polenta’s smokiness and soft texture. He then offered a taste of the lamb with his fig-cabernet reduction. Huh? Did he just say figs, Demeter’s “fruit of Autumn”? And did he really just mention that the recipe for his lamb came from Apicius (and why did I confuse him with Epicurus)? Which alter universe did I just step into? Just who is this chef guy? Didn’t anyone tell him that cafeteria food serves only to fill, not to please?
We struck up a conversation and I learned he’s a former restauranteur and native Italian-speaker, from Bologna, heartland of great Italian cooking. Che bello! Who expected a dose of mid-day Italian? He filled my plate with lamb, polenta and caponata, and my day got a whole lot brighter. I went back afterwards to ask him again the name of his brother’s restaurant in Buck’s county (Mamma D’s), and he shared his business card. Turns out he’s the Executive Chef at Abramson Cancer Center, all the way on the other side of campus. Drat. Caro Caesar(e) Desiato, won’t you teach the folks at Market how to create the magic? I do hope to taste your cooking again someday.
How the heck was I supposed to go back to my web conferencing software project with a palate that’s been awakened and a mind that’s been engaged? Great food is best left to the end of the workday. 🙂