Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chef Quote of the Week: Charlie Trotter

I've long believed that the adage about the customer always being right was never intended for restaurants.  It is meant (and I suppose true) for the service and retail industries, instead.  The main difference here, and certainly at Chef Trotter's level, is that you are dealing with the culinary arts.  At this level of restaurant (and those like it), you are experiencing food prepared by someone who has devoted their life to educating their palette, developing their craft and creating unique meals to be shared unspoiled.  

As I have discovered over the years, those with power like to exercise it to feel the full rush of what being powerful means.  Customers who like to flex that muscle and reconstruct a dish, substitute, omit and tailor a chef's menu to their liking are not, I repeat, NOT, getting what the chef intended, but some bastardized iteration that is akin to letting some unskilled orderly handle your delicate open-heart surgery.  Like giving your Mercedes to a hack mechanic and asking him to pimp it out and paint it cherry red.  Like ordering a diet coke with your breast of pheasant with morels and truffle.  There are those out there who disagree, and quickly bash chefs as egotists who are inflexible snots, simply because they believe they have the right to get what they're paying for.  I argue that those chefs have the right not to serve you, either.  

Charlie Trotter is famous (among all his skills) for being the first chef to go on record as saying that in order to perfect your product, service and brand- it's necessary to fire customers.  Get rid of those whose expectations don't meet your standards and focus on the ones who do.  At some point, the thinking goes, there will be enough customers who, not out of misplaced reverence, but respect for the chef and his vision, will frequent an establishment because of that vision, not in spite of it.  That was over 15 years ago.

A selection of amuse bouche from Trotter's September, 2000
If you care to read a bit more about Chef Trotter and his rare breed of customer service, click on the quote above that will take you to a recent article on the 51 year old chef and why he stands out (to some) as a genius and to others, a lunatic tyrant.  

Full disclosure:  I am a huge fan of Trotter's philosophy, his cooking, his books and accomplishments.  His style of cooking and commitment to excellence have shaped me and help me become the chef I am today.  I spent a week in his kitchen in September of 2000 absorbing, tasting, cooking and finally, partaking of his Grand Tasting menu.  It was, quite simply, one of the most unique experiences I've had in my career.  
The staff of Trotter's circa 2000. I am located dead center, (back) with the Cheshire grin next to my future buddy, and Top Chef Season 2 contestant, Otto Borsich.

The great artists are rarely understood in their time, and much of the article in The Times attests to that in its myopic view of Trotter as of late.  It attempts to psychoanalyze why Trotter is not in the press more or hasn't expanded his brand into multi-unit prostitution, or why he has failed in his attempts to do so.  In each of these scenarios where he tried to recreate the level of excellence at his restaurant in Chicago, there were contributing factors that didn't meet the standard of the original, and subsequently he pulled the plug.  While some call that failure, others would call it integrity.  
The copper pots that distinguish the tiny, talented kitchen.

As far as Grant Achatz is concerned, I have immense respect for him.  He is cut from the same cloth as Trotter, Adria and Keller.  Yet, I can't help thinking his publisher and/or partner pushed to create controversy to sell more books with all the volatile portions dedicated to his pent up angst toward Trotter- especially now, since he appears to have "a cordial if not close relationship" with him. But then, FUCT (F*$% You Charlie Trotter!, the acronym supposedly adopted by Achatz and his partner to emote his feelings about his post-Trotter's tenure) is pretty harsh, no matter how you slice it, and I believe somewhat unprecedented among chefs of such stature.  Achatz maintains it was included in the book to later draw a parallel between the two chefs and their shared commitment to perfection.  Still, the Golden Rule seems more apt among professionals.  
Van Gogh's The Golden Rule
Whatever your view, I believe there can still be room for an innovative artist and an artistic innovator in the same arena.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

Primo Piatto!

Sometimes, it can be a drag waiting for the weather and ingredients to catch up to the daylight savings time and budding bulbs.  I've been anxiously awaiting some decent artichokes to feature and wild morels to take the stage on the plate.  Ramps will probably be available this week, and, yes, my beloved striped bass is running (and running strong), but cold weather is cold weather, man.  What's a foodie to do?

One of my favorite "bridge meals" from Winter into Spring is the humble Risotto alla Principessa.  You really only need your base ingredients (rice, onion, garlic and stock), some lemon, a good parmesan and nutty-tasting, tender Spring asparagus.  And fortunately for us, Mother Nature is cooperating on the asparagus.  

The northern Italian dish of rice, asparagus and cheese is one of those subtle, classic dishes that focuses on good ingredients, simplicity and method.  The naturally creamy, light and lemony risotto is the perfect meal for when you're feeling warm in spirit, but still need that certain something to take the chill off the bones.  

  • Arborio or Carnaroli Rice  2 cups
  • Chicken Stock 4 cups
  • Dry White Wine 2 cups
  • Onion, small dice  1 small
  • Garlic cloves, whole  2 ea.
  • Bay leaf 1 ea.
  • Butter and Olive oil  4 oz. combined
  • Asparagus, chopped on a bias  1# (bunches are usually 2#)
  • Grana Padana or Reggiano Parmesan 2 cups
  • Salted Butter, cold and diced 1 cup
  • Lemon Zest 1 ea.(microplaned is best)
  • Fresh Herbs, i.e. basil or chives, chopped 2 tablespoons
  1. Warm the oil and butter in a sauce pot.  Add the minced onion and garlic cloves.  Cook until tender, but not browned.
  2. Stir in the rice until coated with oil and butter.  Add the bay leaf.
  3. Add the white wine and stir until the wine has dissolved.
  4. Add the chicken stock 2 cups at a time, constantly stirring over medium heat.
  5. You may need to add more stock, but when the rice grains have begun to "pop", add your asparagus and continue to stir on medium to low heat until the rice is no longer "al dente" (sticks to the teeth).  By this point, the asparagus will have finished cooking.  At once, add the herbs, cheese, lemon zest and butter.  Season with salt and pepper until you taste all the ingredients, not just one or two.  Add more of anything you think it needs to taste "finished".  All the colors should be bright and vibrant, not dull.

Variations include:
  • Pancetta or Bacon- add finely diced cured ham at the first stage, with the onions.
  • Peas or Favas- in place of the asparagus, quickly blanch your beans or peas and add when it calls for the asparagus.
  • Shrimp or Fish- adding a protein like shrimp or scallops enriches this dish; sear some of that precious bass and serve atop the finished risotto.
  • Change your Cheese- in place of parmesan, switch it up and add some creamy goat cheese, mascarpone or tangy pecorino.
  • Go Decadent- atop any of these iterations, loft a soft-poached egg.

Wine?  Lemony, dry, tart wines from any region like American Northwest, Italian Alto Adige, Austrian gruner veltliners, New Zealand sauvignon blancs or chalky Chablis.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Chef's Table is Set Again

Under a full Supermoon, the Chef's Table was born again.
One of the more exciting developments in my life these days is the revival of the concept of The Chef's Table, the restaurant I held in Old New Castle for just under two years.  The University and Whist Club, where I have been executive chef for the last 7 or 8 months, has enthusiastically embraced a multi-course (8, to be exact) Chef's tasting menu, beginning with a reception of Champagne and hors d'oeuvres and moving through appetizers, seafood, game, intermezzo, meat, cheese, dessert and patisserie, all paired with wines, of course.  When you're a chef who doesn't just cook but creates, this, my friends, is what you wait for.

The style of cooking I've developed over the years is certainly not one that is unique or ground-breaking, but it is distinguishing.  I like to cook clean.  I like build flavors, layer them, but  I want them to shine not get muddied from putting too much in the dish.  The more I work with food (and really great ingredients), the less effort, I find, it requires to make it taste great.  Yes, you can also make exciting, interesting food by purchasing a centrifuge, immersion circulator and sous vide machine, as you'll discover from the newly released Modernist Cuisine.  It's an anthology of cooking methods from the very beginning (that would be Escoffier, not cave man) to the present.  It's five volumes of gorgeously photographed and constructed food.  But, if I may be so bold, it's the construction that turns me off.  In these gleaming volumes some call "the most important cookbook ever assembled", the final product looks nothing less than absolutely- well, perfect.  I'm more a naturalist when it comes to dressing up food for its close-up.  I believe the right time to photograph your food is just before you're about to eat it.    

Last weekend was the Inaugural Chef's Table event at the club, and sixteen members ebulliently arrived for an evening of seasonally inspired cuisine.  I share with you their menu and some shots from their meal:

at the
University and Whist Club
Of Wilmington
March 18, 2011

Sea Bass Brandade~ Yukon potato, olive oil semolina toasts
Braised Pork and Pineapple Empanada
Nicolas Feuillatte, Brut NV

Amuse Bouche
Torchon of Foie Gras
on shrimp toast, tahini and macerated grapefruit
Royal Tokaji, Red Label, 5 Puttonyos, 2006
Silky Slices of Foie Gras Torchon for the Amuse Bouche

Admittedly an odd looking and sounding dish; yet, talk about UMAMI, mommy!

First Course
Medallions of Monkfish
chick pea puree, garlic-tomato confit
and crisp pancetta
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre, 2009

Second Course
Lasagnette of Rabbit
royal trumpet mushroom, young spinach,
petite basil
Antonin Guyon, Savigny-les-Beaunes, 2008
A bechamel bound with gruyere both binds and acts as a sauce for the dish; basil infused oil punches up the flavors

Margarita Sorbet
sel gris and lime zest
A scoop of margarita sorbet rimmed with gray sea salt.

Roasted Leg of Lamb
spring morels, minted English peas
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac, 2003

Cowgirl Creamery “St. Pat”
olive-raisin chutney, upland cress
This aged cow's milk is made in Spring and wrapped in stinging nettle leaves
Lemon Ricotta Cake
orange-cardamom glaze
Jorge Ordóñez & Co., Moscatel,2006
Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County, California provided the ivory colored, thick curd ricotta

Friandises and Coffee
White chocolate dipped hazelnut, dark chocolate Cognac truffle, pineapple-coconut macaroon and pistachio-caramel brittle

Thanks go out to sous chefs Andrew Ramage and Stephen Seth, pastry chefs Deb Saienni and Michael Preske, Beverage and Dining Manager Caroline Robino, Dave Stewart (Lil Dave) and Brad "Butters" Borton for his skillful photography.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Blood, Bones and Butter

Okay, I know I've given some time to Chef Gabrielle Hamilton on this blog already- but, I'm only on the third chapter of this marvelous memoir and I am rapt with my own memories of growing up, first food experiences, sibling rivalry and intense smell association.  In short, this is a chef's chef memoir, and I am devouring it.  More to come...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Root of All Good

Have you ever had a crush on an ingredient?  Smitten with its sheer, simple beauty, the way you remember that cutie from school days, but it only becomes obvious as a grown up.  Why didn't you see it then?  You can't answer, but you see it now.  And then, your second chance is handed to you, to fall all over again.  

I've always loved radishes.  They were usually on my family's table growing up (and to some degree, they still show up).  Right next to some briny olives, stinky cheese and a home made, baked stromboli of anchovy, orgeano and hot pepper flakes.  Sadly, they usually get thrown on the lowly crudite old school restaurants and country clubs roll out for banquets (and usually have to roll back in).  But, the rekindling of my romance with the radish came when I began to see it for its taste profile instead of where you might expect to see it, like on a relish tray.  Its natural zippiness, water chestnut-like texture and perfect "SNAP!" on the teeth gets me wound up sometimes.   Ok, not wound up, but this puny little vegetable is misunderstood, at best.  Kind of like celery.

Radish by Fran Henig
You can cook radishes (try a braise, or quick saute) in the manner of a turnip, with appropriate amounts of butter and a little stock.  You can julienne and toss in a salad or make a refined slaw to top tender and sweet striped bass. Or whatabout the all-the-rage pickling?  Money.  For an hors d'oeuvres, try a little hot/cold thing and toast pieces of sour dough bread with cream cheese or good quality ricotta until a slight color develops; slice radishes thinly and layer on top with some sea salt and chives.   DAMN, that's good eatin'. 

One of the simplest combinations, however, is salted butter and cold, raw radishes.  Those who know are nodding- and, those who don't are asking, "WTF?"  All I can say is get thee to the produce stand, with dispatch.  Use a quality butter and let it warm slightly until spreadable.  WINNING.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Monthly

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Chef Quote of the Week: Gabrielle Hamilton

“I’m going to eat foie gras...I’m going to have sex with whoever I want to have sex with. I don’t want politics to deny me these experiences. And I’m not having them every day. So it’s not rapacious or gluttonous. Please.”
Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune, NYC


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