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Beyond Borders

I can still miss it something awful, but there are now times when I'm glad I'm no longer a chef. When it's 103 degrees on a Friday afternoon and I remember deep in my blood and bones the crushing, slaughtering heat of summers spent working the line, I don't miss it. When I see dead-empty dining rooms in busy neighborhoods and imagine the guys in the back, twisted with bitterness, all done up in their whites and watching the clock creep, cooking staff meals and practicing their brunoise just to make the time go, I don't miss it. I can imagine them because I've been them. The only thing more depressing than working in a dying restaurant is owning one, and I've worked in some truly terminal galleys in my time. I don't miss them at all.

I don't miss bricking grills. I don't miss investor meetings. I do miss almost everything else (and sometimes even the heat). But now and then, I'll have a meal -- or see a menu or meet a chef -- that makes me think I got out at just the right time.

As a cook, I was born Italian and raised French. And in my day, that was enough. As a matter of fact, that was double enough when I was coming up, because I could both whip together a perfect red sauce deep with notes of pork fat and espresso for dinner service and babysit a veal demi through the night, tending to it like a sick child. I could make my own pasta and break down rabbits for a selle de lapin. I could do grilled polenta with black truffles and sole meunière with equal facility.

But I was a brigadier from the boots up, happy within the militaristic hierarchy of the French system, so therefore I had some big blank spots in my training. To this day, I can't bake. Even the language of bakers is foreign to me, which is why so much of their craft seems like magic. I can't make an aspic, I struggle with torchons, and I'm fascinated by savory mousses and gelées because as an apprentice, my time spent at garde-manger was mercifully brief and, later in my career, I simply had the wisdom to hire guys who knew better than me. As a poissonard, I was never any better than good, my menus always leaning toward simple and straightforward presentations of fish -- the better to cover my lack of subtlety and finesse.

Still, on sauté, as a saucier, on the grills or at prep, I was valuable. As a sous, I was Patton in the Ardennes. And even as a full-blown chef, I was solid -- though perhaps somewhat lacking in the charm and savoir faire needed to move comfortably through the world outside my galleys. Regardless, I had a nice little career going. I had my French and Italian down, I knew a little Vietnamese, a little Japanese, had some North African and Chinese tricks I could pull out in an emergency.

But now I'm a dinosaur at 33. Were I still in The Life, I'd be like some big, dumb, half-drunk brontosaurus with bloody whites and ruined hands, stomping through Manhattan (or Tampa or L.A. or Denver) and cursing -- in French, of course -- at all the young, punk, upstart mammals underfoot who'd had the good sense to evolve. French technique and classical training are no longer enough. Today it sometimes seems like a chef needs to speak a hundred culinary languages just to get his foot in the door.

And a lot of those languages got lost in the translation of my lunch last week at Aji Latin American Restaurant in Boulder, the very successful, year-old side project of Sara and Lenny Martinelli (veterans of the Dushanbe Teahouse), Sue DiPaolo and Gerald Manning. All of the partners are restaurant professionals, experts at operating unusual concepts, and Lenny'd been thinking about a South American kitchen for years before this space opened up. But sitting in the rustic, brick-and-native-art dining room, I kept poking disconsolately at my plate, wondering just what in the hell I was eating.

Technically, of course, I knew what I was eating. It was a plate of chilaquiles, Mexican comfort food as orangey-red as crayons melted in the sun, with slices of chicken breast and chunks of summer squash all lost in an abstract and jagged mountain range of tortilla triangles topped with a drooling snowcap of white Mexican crema. Before this, I'd had taquitos that weren't taquitos, but actually just tacos done in a classed-up norteño street-corner style with plain pork, beef that had been drenched in a blazing, smoky chile sauce that tasted like peat and Sriracha, and greasy shrimp with hot sauce, onions and sour cream that were hot, greasy and excellent.

I'd eaten papas la huancaina -- a Peruvian specialty -- that were awful, just eight baby white potatoes boiled whole with the skins on, then lined up on a long white plate and drenched with a cheese sauce that tasted of 3 a.m. nachos from 7-Eleven. But the Salvadoran arepas con langosta had been fantastic, even if the arepas (flash-fried until they puffed into hollow, bright gold disks of crisp, sweet cornmeal) were unlike any arepas I'd seen before, and I'd initially mistaken the subtle housemade butter for weak housemade sour cream. I could have eaten three orders, balancing chunks of expertly poached lobster on corn cakes that tasted vaguely of perfect pommes frites made of corn, and smearing everything with the light and billowy white butter. And I certainly would have traded in my platanos rellenos (purply black-bean purée sprinkled with sour queso fresco and spread thickly on slabs of roasted banana) for a fourth. To my way of thinking, banana and black bean don't play well together. Nor do banana and cheese. Could be that these are acquired tastes and that in whatever town, whatever country this presentation was borrowed from, people eat this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But I don't plan to go there anytime soon. I'd eaten one banana, mashed up a second and pushed the third off onto a side plate, ready for my chilaquiles.

For my chilaquiles and then an overwrought burrito desayuno (with mashed beans, asadero, sausage, potatoes, scrambled eggs and green chile) that was like a breakfast burrito in the same way that sole meunière is like a Filet-O-Fish sandwich from McDonald's, and lomo de puerco Cubano that was delicious, well-prepared and nicely presented, but not Cuban in any way I could possibly imagine. It was pork tenderloin done to a beautiful mid-rare and sliced, then mounted over a puddle of sour orange-and-garlic mojo with black beans and bittersweet planks of sliced chayote squash. This was an exemplar of that worldbeat, fruit-and-meat, smash-and-grab cuisine that attempts to translate a culture through the commingling of flavors that speak to an image of it, if not the real thing. To make the plate honestly Cuban, the kitchen could have just removed everything but the pork and black beans, sprinkled the remainder with a little sofrito and called it a day.

Aji bills itself as a Latin American restaurant, and its menu is a grab bag of Peruvian, Mexican, Argentine, Cuban, Brazilian, Salvadoran and Caribbean influences, all rubbing up against one another, trading paint like bumper cars, and presented in varying degrees of authenticity, from slight to not-at-all. This is post-modern fusion of the sort most frightening to born-and-bred classicists like myself, a cuisine indicative of a time and place where anyone can jump on a plane, do a whirlwind tour of all of Latin America, and be home before the credit-card bills come due.

And although none of it made any classical sense, I had a lot of excellent plates at Aji, as well as some that were less than excellent. The torta medianoche on the lunch menu was a Cuban sandwich with ham and roasted pork and pickles and mustard and cheese, but screwed up with mayonnaise, while the hamburguesa Cubana was a pretty good hamburguesa Americana, with tomato, onion, mustard and mayo and a patty made of ground beef and pork.

At dinner, my order of the grandly named pequeño lomo de vaca con mole verde picoso brought a petite beef tenderloin done in a rough tournedos style, plated over thick disks of roasted sweet potato and dressed in both a green mole and a tomatillo salsa. It was Mexi-Argentine-Costa Rican in temperament -- a kind of churrasco without the stick, mixed with nouvelle Mexican sauces and a Costa Rican resort presentation. But the tajada el rancho (ranch steak) was purely Mexican -- if you can accept the fact that the cowboys on this particular ranch were eating blood-rare tenderloin smeared with smoky red-chile barbecue sauce, chipotle-shot Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and perfect cubes of sweet tomatillo heart tossed in cornmeal and deep-fried like an American diner menu's fried green tomatoes translated way too literally into Spanish.

And I can accept that. I can accept that because there are times when I don't want to know any better, when I'm simply thankful that no owner is asking me to come up with a twelve-way fusion of all of Latin America's divergent mother cuisines that'll sell the way Aji's menu does on a busy Friday night. I can accept ceviche made with popcorn, ceviche made of nothing but vegetables, ceviche made in such a way that it would be right at home in some neo-Tokyo Ginza sashimi restaurant where shrimp and olives or lobster and bananas or tuna and mango can play together despite their obvious cultural and culinary frictions. I can accept salmon rellenos and duck confit served astride a tropical salad, and skewered jerk chicken served like Thai satay.

And I, the classicist, obsolete at 33, can accept all of this simply because Aji's chipotle mashed Yukon Golds are really very good, because I think the idea of serving lobster and banana ceviche in a bowl made of fried banana strips is pretty cool, because every diner here seems smart enough to order at least one plate of the atún enrollado en cacahuates y platanos fritos -- the peanut-and-plantain-crusted, flash-seared yellowfin tuna with bell-pepper salsa and fried bananas and a pyramid of banana-scented rice. I may be a dinosaur, but I'm not so out of touch with the business of running kitchens that I don't understand a full dining room when I see one.

What Aji is attempting (and largely realizing) is a güero-friendly Trip-Tik of Latino nouvelle, a reiteration of ingredients and flavors (if not techniques or combinations) that present Central and South America as a single place, possessed of a single, over-arching culinary gestalt. The fact that such a place doesn't actually exist doesn't figure in.

Because in fusion, truth never does. You just have to accept the fiction and eat.

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Aji Latin American Restaurant

1601 Pearl St.
Boulder, CO 80302

303-442-3464

www.ajirestaurant.com


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