Friday, December 12, 2008

The Chef Debate

Chefs, Celebrity Chefs, Top Chef and Public perception.

My father was a Chef. As a young child it was a minor source of social discomfort and embarrassment for me. Growing up in the early 1960's my friend's fathers all had professions that us kids were familiar with. Either through day to day interaction or portrayed in countless television shows and movies. The only time you would see a male chef on television was occasionally on the 3 Stooges, not a good example. The experience my peers had with people who cooked for a living was limited to contact with school cafeteria ladies or the women at the Woolworth's lunch counter. If children did get to go with their parents out to a fancy restaurant, the kitchen was a place of mystery behind closed doors. Women cooked, men barbecued. I knew different, I had been in my father's kitchen and visited his chef friends at work. There were certain days during the school year when a friend's father might come into our class and describe to us his profession. I was always relieved that my father was too busy to participate. Today, with the abundance of high profile male chefs, celebrated in every form of mass media, a child would feel different.

"If you got into this business to be the next Emeril, you should apologize to your parents for wasting their money." Tom Colicchio

Bret Thorn, the Editor at Nation's Restaurant News, a trade publication, recently penned an article on his blog titled: "When is a Celebrity Chef too Much of a Celebrity?" The article was, in essence, more of a diatribe against the television show Top Chef than a dialogue regarding the role of celebrity Chefs today. Back in my father's time Chefs weren't really respected other than being in the kitchen. You rarely saw them in the dining room interacting with people. Now all of a sudden, people have started looking at chefs and saying, "Wow! That person really is a craftsman, is really a business person, they can do publicity, they can act". Some people do begrudge celebrity chefs their fame though. One major complaint is that some have too many restaurants and other ventures going on, so how can they be cooking for you? Even a Chef who is running a single restaurant, and is present every night, in most instances, will not be touching your food. If you bought a Karl Lagerfeld dress do you think that the great designer himself was hunched over the sewing machine making sure your seams were straight? In the majority of better restaurants the Executive Chef spends the brunt of his time administrating and hires well qualified people to execute, under his guidance and direction, the cuisine that he creates. Even then, it's still a life of long hours of hard work. So it should not be difficult to see why someone, who has spent many years working that hard, would want to trade kitchen time for P.R. work and travel, promoting themselves and their craft.

As for Top Chef, Mr. Thorn's beef was more with the fans of the show and the worry that it promotes egomania, fosters unrealistic expectations in culinary students and aspiring chefs and is detremental to the industry in general. He does admit that he doesn't watch the show though and his opinion is based on buzz and hype. In a New York Times article Frank Bruni commented that perhaps Mr. Thorn was being a little too grumpy. I have to agree. Rising to fame and fortune via reality TV is as likely as stumbling across a sack of money by the side of the road. I believe that most graduating culinary students are aware of that and have chosen culinary arts because they genuinely like food and cooking, even though some of them don't have the natural talent or aptitude to ever cook professionally. Yes, Top Chef does have some participants that are not likable, but that is no different than any other pursuit we might find ourselves in. What I like about the show is that it makes me think, as a chef, about the food and the cooking that is going on. What would I make in that challenge? What menu would I create with those given ingredients? What would I do to win any particular challenge? How could they screw that up? I wouldn't care to be on the show, but it does make me think as a contestant when I watch it. Mr Thorn, who I do respect as a writer, and someone who has a passion and love for the culinary arts, should give the show a chance and perhaps look at it as though he were a chef.

Nigerian Scam email for Chefs

I received this today. I have had a couple of Nigerian scam emails (I say Nigerian but this could be from anywhere, it's just that the Nigerians were the ones that made this style of scamming famous) in the past but never one that is Chef oriented. It does have the obligatory typos and charming coloquial English usage. What fun!

Hello There,
How are you doing today?.Thank you for your interest concerning our job position.We're opening a new resturant & kitchen in your location very soon & we cannot disclose the name for now due to some privacy issue.The resturant & kitchen will be open by january 2009,and i hope you can ACT very well and be one of our grate chef.You will be working 3 to 4 hrs a day 3 times a week,you will have to choose any days of the week and time that will be comfortable for you and without disturbing your full time job if you have any.We have our own cooking details and prescription for each kind of dishes that is to be prepare.Concerning your pay,you will be getting $500 per week.Your first week salary will be given to you as upfront to secure your service legitimately and to get yourself prepare and ready for the job.

You're going to receive a certified check for the payment,kindly go ahead and deposit it with your bank for verification so that the check can clear your account.Deduct your own fee for 2 weeks which is $1000 and you're going to send the rest to the interior decorator that will be furnishing the resturant.The reason why you're getting paid now is because we don't want any delay when the resturant is ready and understand that this is a help by sending the rest of the funds to the interior agent. So if you are interested in this position,kindly get back to me with the following details in order to facilitate the payment.


Thank you for your co-operation and i will be looking forward hearing back from you as soon as possible
Best Regards.
James Williams.

Does this sound too good to be true? I'll bet it is!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

From the Wonders of the Exotic to the Locavore Revolution

From the Wonders of the Exotic to
the Locavore Revolution

In 2007 the Oxford English Dictionary declared Locavore as word of the year. It came as no surprise to anyone who chooses cooking and dining as one of life’s grand pursuits. Books such as the Omnivores Dilemma, by Michael Pollen, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the 100 Mile Diet from Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon inspired many a foodie to babble the terms “carbon footprint” and “sustainability” any time the conversation turned culinary. The history of food trade and transport is as interesting as it is long. Throughout history foreign trade has helped, by way of shaping our diet, to define us both culturally and ethnically. A new moral thinking regarding the environment and animal welfare, combined with fears of a future Blade Runner-esque dystopia, and a societal shift towards a greener lifestyle, has people shying away from foodstuffs from afar. Call it hippy light. Call it what you want. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

Back in the day, if you were a chef, to be cutting edge meant getting the goods from as absolutely far away as possible. I recently listened to some archival recordings from the Canadian Broadcasting Company and found this piece about a luncheon given in Montreal in 1947 by the aviation wing of the Canadian Board of Trade to promote the air transportation of food. It’s ironic to hear the gleeful pride in the broadcasters voice as she reports the air miles traveled and number of airlines employed for the transport of each and every item. The grand total for this one meal, 92,271 miles. As a chef in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I remember how thrilling it was to get exotic foodstuffs from around the globe. Carbon footprints? Global warming? We had yet to grapple with these issues. It wasn’t as though you were chucking an empty soda can out of the car window. I did buy pigs and cured hams from a local farmer, Catfish and turtle from a man who ran a boat on the Wabash River and local produce when I could get it. However, as a chef, I really wanted to work with the foods that I had, up till then, only read about. Along came Walter Martin and Andrew Udelson, 2 young entrepreneurs, with a revolutionary startup called Flying Foods International. They flew virtually everywhere for items that a lot of us chefs never had the opportunity to work with before. Real langoustines from the Mediterranean, roe scallops from the Isle of Man, haricot vert from Tahiti, passion fruit from New Zealand, Belon oysters from Brittany, fresh truffles from the Perigord, the list goes on. You have to remember at that time, produce such as haricot vert and passion fruit were not grown domestically. Can you imagine, in 1983 dollars, paying five dollars for one passion fruit or five dollars per pound for imported green beans? Today chefs generate the same emotion by having products produced in their own back yard as they did thirty years ago with something from halfway around the world.

The experiments that some are conducting by only eating items produced in close proximity are interesting if anything. But how far can one go? Forge one’s own cutlery? Tan your own leather from road kill? We should consume more locally when possible but realize that, Époisses only comes from Burgundy, real balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia and Jamon Iberico from Spain. Terroir and tradition cannot be duplicated nor should it. We can't pick peppercorns or harvest cinnamon bark in Massachusetts but if you can find a good pair of shoes or shirt made locally go for it. And if you can get hand made pasta from a little village in Tuscany, go for that too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

America's First Ethnic Food

Isn’t it interesting how the current economic crisis has fueled more than a little interest in the great Depression? A topic that one is most certain to discuss when pondering the hardships of that time is how and what people ate. In the early 1930’s the average American family, unless they were immigrants, usually subsisted on a diet of seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, legumes and dry good groceries, nearly all of it unprocessed because processed foods, especially canned vegetables, were too expensive for many. Today, in stark comparison, those who are struggling financially subsist on a diet composed primarily of processed foods as the cost of fresh produce has skyrocketed.

One foodstuff that became a staple during those tough times was America’s first mass consumed ethnic food, spaghetti. During prohibition many of the boarding houses in the Italian section of New York City, who had recently had their supply of boarders cut off by immigrant restrictions, morphed into informal restaurants in order to make ends meet. These Italian immigrants, mainly from the southern part of Italy, where pasta and tomatoes were the backbone of their diet, finding the prohibition laws ludicrous, and contrary to their culture, served homemade wine and beer and moonshine grappa to their fellow Italian clientele. It was not long before Americans, seeking drink, started frequenting these establishments. By the 1930’s there were over 600 Italian restaurants in New York City.

Many other ethnic eateries opened their doors and flourished before the spaghetti houses in Greenwich Village attracted their first American customers. In 1828 the Delmonico brothers opened up a European confectionary shop and, 2 years later, added hot food, prepared in the French manner to their menu. French cuisine was so normal to the American cook that it wasn’t even looked upon as foreign but instead viewed merely as high class. The Chinese that arrived in San Francisco during the gold rush opened eateries, and with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, moved East and set up restaurants in New York’s Chinatown before the turn of the 20th century. Jewish, German, Russian and Armenian immigrants all opened restaurants before or around the same time as the Italians.

Despite all the different cuisines made available to the public, Spaghetti was the county’s first true ethnic food because it was the first one that the average housewife accepted, cooked at home and fed to her family. The depression was made to order for the popularization of spaghetti. In the early1930’s The Macaroni Manufacturers Association spent over 1 million dollars on a campaign promoting the nutritional and economic benefits of pasta. The food editors from newspapers and women’s magazines touted spaghetti as the ideal food and, when combined with tomato sauce and grated cheese, the most nutritiously balanced meal for it’s cost.

Unfortunately, when reading recipes from the cookbooks of that time, one comes away with the feeling that most of them would be an affront to today’s palate. Al dente was not a term familiar to Americans for some time yet. It was advised that spaghetti be cooked until soft and tender. These cookbook versions bore no resemblance to the Italian version, except the tomatoes and, in some instances, even that was bastardized. A typical sauce recipe would be tomatoes cooked with salt and sugar, however, it was not unusual to see a recipe calling for canned tomato soup seasoned with Worcestershire or a recommendation in an army cookbook of that time to substitute ketchup for tomato pulp. Thomas Jefferson had the first pasta machine in America in 1789 but it took the Great Depression to turn what was once an ethnic oddity into what is one of today’s most popular dishes.

Friday, November 7, 2008

From the Can to the Pan: part 1

The canning process dates back to the late 18th century in France when the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, concerned about keeping his armies fed, offered a cash prize of 12000 Francs to whomever could develop a reliable method of food preservation. Nicholas Appert conceived the idea of preserving food in bottles, like wine. After 15 years of experimentation, he realized that if food is sufficiently heated and sealed in an airtight container, it will not spoil. An Englishman, Peter Durand, took the process one step farther and developed a method of sealing food into unbreakable tin containers, which was perfected by Bryan Dorkin and John Hall, who set up the first commercial canning factory in England in 1813. As more and more of the world was explored, and as provisioning armies took on greater importance, the demand for canned foods grew. Thomas Kensett, who emigrated to the United States, established the first U.S. canning facility for oysters, meats, fruits and vegetables in New York in 1812. More than 50 years later, Louis Pasteur provided the explanation for canning's effectiveness when he was able to demonstrate that the growth of microorganisms is the cause of food spoilage.

Last night I opened a gift that I received, a can of Cassoulet au Canard (a duck, bean and sausage stew) from France. It actually tasted homemade. Upon looking at the ingredient list the reason was quite evident.

Lingot beans 35%
Grilled pork sausage 33%
Containing: pork, pork liver, water, salt, pepper.
Duck 20%
Containing: water, tomato, duck fat, garlic, salt, pepper

Pretty basic, right? Why then are the majority of canned foods that we get here loaded with products that, up until 25 years ago, did not exist.? Why are preservatives used in a process that doesn’t require any? My parents used to talk about cooking during the depression and substituting oats for half of the meat when making chipped beef. Today the food processors, thanks to the corn and soy based farm industry, have cut costs by incorporating fillers that serve no nutritional or flavor purpose. I thought that it would be interesting if I could find a domestic equivalent. Or, maybe it’s best to can my own main course meals. Canning isn’t just for jams, relishes and vegetables. Part 2 of this article will be a report chronicling my search and part 3 will have the details and recipes of my own entrĂ©e canning project.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Alinea the Book

With the release of Grant Achatz's new Alinea cookbook, and the companion website Mosaic, a great service has been done for those wishing to gain an understanding of Postmodernist cuisine.

Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, self published and by doing so, have achieved a level of control and freedom that is unprecedented in the annals of book publishing. And it is that freedom and control that is allowing them to utilize the internet as they see fit to create an online Alinea community. Also by publishing in this manner, they have been able to keep the price at $50.00 or under, no small feat when contemporary chef/restaurant books of this quality and scope sell in the $200.00 plus range.

To quote Kokonas, "What we are trying to do here is much more than publishing a book, because with the website, we're going to be adding to the book continuously after the publication date. What we're most excited about is the chance to build an Alinea community. We've already started to do that with the restaurant, and now with the book and the website, we can take that community to a whole new level."

For many the book will serve primarily as a portal into a genre of cuisine practiced by Achatz and other chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne and Homero Cantu, not to mention Feran Adria, whose El Bulli books are mind blowing in there owm right.
The New York Times writer Julia Moskin recently pointed out in an article titled "Some Heavy Reading, Recipes Included." covering several new cookbooks, that attempting to prepare many of the recipes from this book is a daunting task. Some recipes have over 20 sub recipes that require completion before assembling the final product. But there are also quite a few simpler recipes with easy to follow instructions, and on the Mosaic website, video tutorials. I hope that even if one does not attempt many of the recipes, a better understanding of creativity and craftsmanship and an inspiration to explore will be obtained.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pumpkin Time

Prior to grocery shopping last weekend I was looking through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls River Cottage Cookbook and came upon a stuffed pumpkin dish that I knew I had to try. This is pure, rustic, autumn country cooking at it's finest. He had hollowed out a medium sized pumpkin, filled it with Gruyere cheese and cream, then baked it until the pumpkin flesh was cooked through and the inside molten. Pretty simple.
I found miniature pumpkins at the market and decided to localize the ingredients by using aged Vermont Cheddar and dried cranberries but then then threw the whole localvore gimmick out the window with the addition of Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Tartufo.

I used 3 parts Cheddar, 1 part Parmigiano and 1 part Pecorino. I mixed in grated nutmeg, black pepper and a little salt with the cheese.
After deseeding the pumpkins I put a layer of dried cranberries in the bottom, filled them with the cheese mixture to the top, added cream, also to the top. placed the lids back on and baked at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes until the flesh pierced easily with a fork. As I said, this is about as easy as it gets to obtain something that tastes so good.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Inspiration for Oysters

A few days ago I purchased the book The Oysters Of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark.

Though first written in 1964 it is a book that I had not read before. I purchased a 2006 softcover edition with an introduction by Mark Kurlansky whose book, The Big Oyster, History On The Half Shell, is a more recent tome dedicated to humanity's favorite bivalve.
Written at a time closer to World War Two than present day, this book does much to capture an era and cultural lifestyle in Brittany that has come to pass.
The prose are in a style similar to that of M.F.K. Fisher sans the self importance and sense of entitlement. After reading this particular passage, quoted below, I was compelled to head over to my local fishmonger, New Deal Fish Market, and purchase a couple of dozen.

"It is briny first of all, and not in the sense of brine in a barrel, for the preservation of something; there is a shock of freshness to it. Intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes shiver you a split second from that little stimulus on the palate. You are eating the sea, that's it, only the sensation of a gulp of sea water has been wafted out of it by some sorcery, and are on the verge of remembering you don't know what, mermaids or the sudden smell of kelp on the ebb tide or a poem you read once, something connected with the flavor of life itself..."

The author is writing about the Amoricaine or Belon oyster, the flat one, the most prized and arguably best oyster in the world, the one which most Americans have never experienced. I knew that I couldn't get those but New Deal happened to have Island Creek Oysters of Duxbury Massachusetts on hand, a briny, buttery variety that garners much praise and attention from oyster aficionados.
I returned home with the idea of doing oysters several different ways. raw, roasted poached and fried but opted instead for the simplest most direct method for the ultimate in oyster enjoyment; on the half shell with a mignonette.

Ponzu pickled ginger mignonette
3/4 C seasoned rice wine vinegar
1/4 C ponzu
3 T minced shallots
1/4 C minced pickled ginger
black pepper to taste
2 dozen oysters

I hadn't had oysters in a couple of months, a negligent oversight on my part for which I have no excuse. Whether it's been 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years the effect of a freshly shucked oyster on the palate is an unrivaled taste sensation that I never grow tired of.