Another Day in Poe's Kitchen at The Rattlesnake

Chef Brian Poe shows you the world in the back of the house.

Menu writing: My round-the-clock ritual

Menu writing is incredibly therapeutic for me. Sometimes I compare the process to dog nesting; other times it’s as though I’m having my own lovers’ quarrel. In the first case, it’s an instinctive ritual: I wake up in the morning, have a cup (or three) of coffee, scan the paper, check my horoscope, then maybe have a cigarette or two while I putter around the house on pure nervous energy. Eventually I head out to the back garden; it’s nothing fancy, but it contains all my favorites—herbs, tomatoes, squash, grapes, peppers and some flowers to keep the bumblebees happy—and I wander the rows for awhile. Finally I settle down—doglike, in circles, with a sniff here and scratch there—to relax and write.

I turn on some music—today it’s classic New Orleans jazz—and light another cigarette. Even though it’s raining, the aura of summer is palpable; I’m feeling basil, strawberry, a little jalapeno, maybe some cherries. Beija cachaça—a Brazilian sugar cane spirit—and the white peach sangria that Lovewell (the Rattlesnake’s assistant GM) has been working on also pop up in my thoughts. Meanwhile I’m scanning the seasonal produce calendar and having a look at the latest lists from my fish purveyors. Now hunger pains are starting to worsen my nervous energy. Time to focus, keep it simple: raspberries and bananas, graham cracker crust, whipped cream…what about popsicles? Perhaps watermelon-basil popsicles with kiwi syrup? Hmmm. Now I’m thinking…

       popsicle ingredients popsicles in molds

Or not. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and all I’ve put in my gut so far is coffee. I’m starving, but I’ve got lots to do besides eat: for instance, stop by the bookstore to pick up The United States of Arugula, which I should have read three years ago (have you? What did you think? Comments welcome)—which means I’ll probably make an impulse cookbook purchase as well. (The cookbook collection in my home office spills over into the kitchen and basement—where every recipe I’ve ever written is crammed into a few filing cabinets.) I’m also going to pick up some watermelon, basil, kiwi, and popsicle molds. I’ll bring along a notepad, pen, and a pocket tape recorder, just in case any new ideas spring forth along the way. This whole therapeutic cycle itself makes me nuts—but I embrace it in the name of creativity.

So off I go…

My shopping’s done; I’ve got 45 popsicle trays and I’m going to use them—though I’ve dropped the basil in favor of rhubarb. So look for watermelon, rhubarb, and kiwi popsicles on this week’s Unleashed menu. I treat myself to my favorite day-off snack—a beer and a burger beachside at Tides in Nahant—and scan Fast Company, thinking about how far American food has come. In the late 1980s, Lee Iacocca wrote in Talking Straight of chefs as dungeon dwellers, with their dirty coats and messy duties. Now I’m thumbing through business magazines that put events like the World Pork Expo on their calendars. A few months ago The Economist had an article about the global clamor over chile peppers. And meanwhile, on page 13 of The Improper Bostonian is a full page ad for Poe’s Kitchen (along with our sister restaurants, Parish Café and Bukowski’s Tavern). Very humbling. Very exciting.

Ten hours later—midnight. I’ve since been to the bookstore, followed by the Omni Parker House for a drink. Next thing I knew I’d popped in to Eastern Standard for an oyster, La Verdad for a taco, Uni for sashimi, Sonsie to sample the scallops, Sel de la Terre for crab ravioli, the Back Bay Hotel to say hello, and Clery’s for a nightcap before heading home. Talk about a crawl! Now I’m back in my office and still honing the Unleashed menu, my head—not to mention my notepad and tape recorder—full of ideas. But it’s also full of questions. What works best? Does this fit with that? Will it be a hit? Does it matter? Are we moving forward?

This is where the lovers’ quarrel begins.

For me—especially now, as I try to strike a balance between upscale cuisine and comfort food, to marry fine dining with bar snacking—writing menus is like having an argument in a secure relationship. It begins almost by accident. First the wrong words come out. Is it too late to take them all back? Doors close; there’s silence. I pace the floors, wondering if this thing will ever work out. Then, just when I need it most, the apology comes, the passionate make-up—and the menu comes together! Poe’s Kitchen and the Rattlesnake are still in love!
From the inked scribbles filling five notebooks piled on the desk, a few make it into my final document as I quickly type up my favorite ideas. I’ll make a few phone calls in search of the best product on Tuesday, then get ready for a full morning of prep on Wednesday. I love being in love. I love being Unleashed. I love this business.

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