Articles in Restaurant
Most of the chefs I know love hot and spicy food. After work, they go out for a late night snack and order pad kee mao ”super Thai hot” or taco truck gorditas drenched in salsa de chile de arbol. But the hot flavors get left outside with the street clothes when they don their whites. What’s up with that? Why are hot and spicy foods relegated to a culinary ghetto? Is it because the French dominate our culinary training academies and the French have “delicate” palates?
There are a few fine dining chefs who have chucked the polite assumptions overboard, like Chris Shepherd at Underbelly in Houston. Shepherd serves a ballsy blend of Southern, Asian and Latino dishes organized around local ingredients, a style I like to call “Texas Creole.” You should try his rabbit and dumplings with fire engine-red Korean gochujang sometime. The Duck Tamale & Fried Duck Egg with Red Sauce & Pico de Gallo that Tim Byres serves at Smoke in Dallas is unapologetically spicy, too.
Heat Seeking Pilgrimage
But in the newest, hippest, “food as art” fine dining restaurants, there are no fiery thrills to be had whatsoever. For people with a serious chile habit, this can be a real problem. It’s a little shameful to follow a stellar fine dining experience with a crude pepper fix, but addicts can’t help themselves. Which is how food blogger Francis Lam and I found ourselves sucking down hot sauce-laced tacos after midnight at a Mission Street burrito joint after eating our way through a mind-blowing 12-course tasting menu down the street at Commonwealth. You have to forgive us, we were in San Francisco for a taco truck conference, after all.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at The Inn at Dos Brisas, a luxury dude ranch near Washington, Texas. The Inn is a member of the exclusive Relais & Chateau group, a portfolio of properties that includes European castles and Caribbean islands where very rich people go to chill. I was there writing a story about the extensive organic gardening operation and the rare heirloom tomatoes they grow. To my delight, superstar chef Raj Dixit invited my wife and me to dinner.
Touring the 24 acres of gardens, Raj told me that his father is Indian and his mother Filipino. Raj graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, class of 1998, and worked with the farm-to-table pioneer Craig Shelton at New Jersey’s Ryland Inn for nearly a decade. In New York, Raj served as Chef de Cuisine for Dennis Foy and David Bouley before a scholarship took him to Japan to study cooking in Sakai City. He was a big deal for such a young chef.
Hot topic: a spicy food confrontation
Seated in the bar at the Inn, sipping Veuve Clicquot Rosé, my wife and I chatted with Raj about dinner. He asked whether we had any dietary restrictions. And then he made a fateful mistake: He asked whether we had any special preferences. His face contorted slightly when I told him we liked extremely spicy food and that I was writing a book about hot sauce. He had an eight-course tasting menu already planned for the evening, and it included lots of heirloom tomatoes, but no heirloom peppers.
“But you have all those chiles growing out there,” I said. Finally, he capitulated.
“OK, I can give you something hot on the side,” chef Raj conceded.
Seated at the table, we were pleasantly surprised when the first course, a gorgeous composition of several varieties of heirloom tomatoes with tiny cubes of tuna sushi, assorted basils and a dusting of vache rosse parmesan. A trio of bowls were placed on the side. In them were two Japanese shichimi pepper blends and a bright red chile-infused sesame oil. I nursed the condiments with the intention of keeping them around for the whole meal. But I didn’t need to worry.
Succession of steamy escorts
Each course came with a freshly made hot sauce designed to accentuate the flavors of the ingredients. There was a fermented pineapple pique to go with the langoustine, coconut tofu, borage flowers and three preparations of cucumbers; a green curry chow chow to go with the porcelet (baby pig) with plums and mushrooms; and a smoked ghost pepper sauce beside the saddle of lamb with chickpeas, green olives and artichokes. The hot chile preparations were delightfully flavorful and pleasantly piquant, not overbearing tonsil-scorchers.
A tasting menu with a flight of accompanying hot sauces — it was all my fondest food dreams come true. I asked the sommelier to steer us toward wines that would resonate with the peppers. He responded with inspired picks including a Collio Pinot Grigio with the seafood and a Sonoma Pinot Noir with the lamb.
My apologies to Raj Dixit. He didn’t volunteer to serve as the poster chef for the hot and spicy fine dining movement; I forced him into the role. But I am holding him up for emulation anyway. If he can come up with a flight of hot sauces to match his tasting menu, so can other fine dining chefs.
I say it’s about time American chefs shed the Eurocentric attitude about chile peppers and liberate hot sauces from the culinary ghetto.
Photo: Author Robb Walsh. Credit: Laurie Smith
Three-time James Beard Award Winner Robb Walsh is the author of “The Tex-Mex Cookbook,” “Texas Eats,” and several other Texas cookbooks. He is the head judge of the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, now in its 22nd year and a board member of Foodways Texas, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and celebrating the diverse food cultures of Texas. Walsh is currently working on “The Hot Sauce Cookbook” for Ten Speed Press.
Lee Hawley reaches down to help me climb up the steep ladder so I can join him in the cab of his bright green combine. He guns the motor with authority, and we head off for a quick tour of his freshly harvested fields.
Personally, I’m a city person, more used to driving on Los Angeles freeways than I am cruising around on a farm. In North Idaho, I’m very far from home. I’ve made the trip at the invitation of restaurants here to see exactly what “farm-to-table” means.
This stop: North Idaho
Not far from Hawley’s farm, we stopped in Moscow, Idaho, to eat at chef Nikki Woodland’s Nectar.
Located in an area of exceptionally rich farmland, Woodland buys her produce from local farmers, explaining the key to her cooking is a sentiment heard frequently on the trip, “I like to source great ingredients, treat them simply and let people enjoy them without too much fuss.”
Hawley is proud of the food he grows, and Woodland is just as proud that her food is not only delicious but connected to a community of local farmers. She likes having her menu shaped by the seasons and what’s available locally, so she won’t buy vegetables out of season, and she’s fine with that.
The farm-to-table label
When we hear the phrase, “farm-to-table,” we imagine a farmer driving a beat-up pickup to the back door of a neighborhood restaurant to unload wooden crates filled to overflowing with leafy bunches of arugula, round and firm beets, thick stalks of celery, fat leeks, freshly laid eggs, plump chickens, freshly cured bacon, ripe apples, dark red cherries and juicy peaches.
That’s good farm-to-table.
Bad farm-to-table is a marketing campaign that pays lip service to those fantasies.
On a trip last fall to Spokane, Wash., and North Idaho, I discovered a community of chefs who really mean it when they say what they cook comes from farmers they know on a first-name basis.
In Spokane, at Italia Trattoria, chef and co-owner Anna Vogel relies on the abundance of small farms within a 100-mile radius to supply the restaurant with the majority of its produce, cheeses, poultry, eggs and meat.
Vogel lets the seasons craft her menu. When summer’s tomatoes disappear, she turns to root vegetables for inspiration.
At dinner, we had several salads. The best was a charred octopus salad. Vogel used a light mix of local produce — Italian parsley, thinly sliced new potatoes, celery and red onions, tossed in olive oil flavored with roasted tomato essence and lemon — to contrast with the bits and pieces of pepper-crusted octopus caught in the waters off the Washington coast.
Because this was the end of summer, the farms she relies on still had tomatoes, but they weren’t flavorful enough to be eaten fresh off the vine.
She roasted the local tomatoes to make a sweet-tart sauce for her potato gnocchi. A Dungeness crab risotto was decorated with thin parasols of heirloom tomatoes from Beanie Blue’s Farm located on South Hill in Spokane.
In downtown Spokane at Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie, executive chef Jeremy Hansen and sous chef Jeff Vance take their inspiration from country cooking.
To make their house-made sausages, sides of bacon, assorted charcuterie and jars of homemade pickles, chefs Hansen and Vance source their produce and pigs from local farmers.
From the charcuterie and cheese menu, we sampled the result of those relationships. Their cheeses, house-cured smoked trout gravlax, pork and duck prosciutto, sopprasetta, salami, toast rounds, flavored mustards and a selection of house-made pickles were all delicious.
Many chefs who work in large cities rely on farmers markets to connect them with seasonal produce. Again and again on this trip, we met chefs who have taken that connection a step farther.
Chef David Blaine at Latah Bistro walks the walk when it comes to farm-to-table.
On Monday, Blaine calls the farmers he buys from to find out what they are harvesting that week. Doing quick culinary math, he plans his weekly menu and puts in his orders.
For him, good cooking and community go hand in hand. As the chef, he closes the circle between suppliers, consumers and the seasons.
After two states, four days on the road, six wineries and seven restaurants, I had experienced the obvious, that farm-to-table can be so much more than a marketing label.
Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.
Photos, from top:
Chef Nikki Woodland in the kitchen at Nectar in Moscow, Idaho.
A tractor on the farm of Lee Hawley in North Idaho.
Credits: David Latt
Mitchell Rosenthal has three San Francisco restaurants –Town Hall, Salt House and Anchor and Hope — and another, Irving Street Kitchen, in Portland, Ore. I haven’t been to any of them, but I’m pretty sure I’d like them all. I get this feeling because, as I read through Rosenthal’s new cookbook, “Cooking My Way Back Home,” I found myself really liking him. He has a giving and appreciative spirit, which often makes for a good restaurateur. He’s thankful for the mentors in his life — Tony Plaganis, “a big Greek guy who was passionate about food” and who gave him his first restaurant job; Paul Prudhomme; Seppi Renggli at The Four Seasons in New York; and Wolfgang Puck, for whom he worked at Postrio in San Francisco — and for everything working in restaurants has afforded him: travel, friendships, adventure and good food. This kind of honest and enthusiastic attitude tends to infuse one’s endeavors, and I’m sure his restaurants are full of it. His cookbook, written with Jon Pult, certainly is.
Get out the deep fryer
The book’s recipes, which have a Southern bent to them and are mostly culled from his restaurants, are adapted for home cooks — especially those with deep fryers. You’ll need one to make Angels on Horseback with Rémoulade, a gorgeous appetizer of deep-fried, bacon-wrapped oysters; Crispy Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms with Basil Cream; and an oyster and shrimp po’boy called The Peacemaker. For those of us without deep fryers, though, there are plenty of other finger-licking recipes to make us (fat and) happy. “Cooking My Way Back Home” is no diet book. It’s a collection of manly recipes that will also appeal to women who aren’t afraid to eat.
Rosenthal’s style isn’t subtle. There’s spice and smoke and fire in his food. There’s cream and butter. There’s lots of meat. And it all sounds delicious. Apple-Glazed St. Louis Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Barbecue Sauce, for example, and Peanut and Tasso Crusted Pork Chop with Hot Mustard. Even the fish dishes, like Warm Sea Urchin with Crab and Verjus Butter Sauce and Herb Fired Rainbow Trout With Apple and Horseradish Salsa Verde are daring. I want to eat them all. And I will. The recipes are clear, well-written and don’t require zillions of hard-to-find ingredients. His introductions offer as much insight about the food as about him — he had a recurring nightmare about eating gummy gnocchi, poor guy.
Thanks to beautiful photography by Paige Green, the food looks tasty and the people — whether it’s a smiling Rosenthal with his goatee and colorful tats or a young girl eating a messy lobster roll — look like they’re having fun. And I get the idea that if I serve this food at a dinner party, all of my guests will have a blast. It has that kind of energy. Indeed, the Haricots Verts with Harissa Vinaigrette, Serrano Ham and Spiced Almonds recently made an interesting and welcome addition to a potluck dinner. (Who knew making harissa was so easy? I’ll be using that vinaigrette on all sorts of salads.)
I’m often dubious about cookbooks written by chefs who spend their lives — including mealtimes — in professional kitchens, surrounded by sous-chefs and specialty equipment. In the introduction to the book, Rosenthal comes clean. “I’ve survived much of the last thirty-five years on staff meals. The last thing I wanted to do after a double shift on the hot line was to go home and cook.” But, he explains, as he became more of a restaurateur and less of a hands-on chef, he started to miss the “simple act of cooking.” That’s when he stepped into his home kitchen, started replicating his restaurant recipes and writing them down for the rest of us.
We’re lucky he did.
Mitchell Rosenthal. Credit: Paige Green
Book jacket, courtesy of Ten Speed Press
“I may have spent most of my life working as a professional chef, but in my heart of hearts, I am still a passionate amateur cook, a craftsman in the kitchen.” — Greg Atkinson
It’s easy to discount a book about home-cooking coming from a food professional like Greg Atkinson. After all, he has an unfair advantage. As chef-owner of Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge Island, Wash., and winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, Atkinson’s knowledge of cooking should disqualify him for writing a book about his own home-cooking. I suppose I feel that it seems somewhat unfair for a chef to expect average folks to live up to the standards of a professional.
But when Atkinson writes in “At the Kitchen Table: The Craft of Cooking at Home,” about his devotion to home-cooking, I believe him.
Atkinson writes from the point of view of a person who cooks for love: love of family, real food and the places we call home. Each story and recipe strives to connect the dots between these very personal elements. And it is because of the many connections he draws between food, family and the environment that I believe his assertion that he is not only a professional chef, he’s a passionate amateur.
Storytelling and family
Atkinson’s love of craft is clear. When he writes about co-hosting a traditional Pensacola-style fish fry at his home on Bainbridge Island, he explains the logic of the process in a way that makes it seem ridiculous to try it any other way. After reading this chapter, I believed I could host a Pensacola-style fish fry in my own backyard. Atkinson has convinced me that I could succeed at something new, simply by following his instructions. That’s the sign of a true craftsman and a great writer.
The most appealing element of “At The Kitchen Table” is that each chapter begins with a story. The story may be about a particular food. It may be about a specific recipe. Or it may be about Atkinson’s interactions with the rich and famous of the culinary world (like Martha Stewart or M.F. K. Fisher). And while the celebrity tales provided an enjoyable voyeuristic pleasure, it is Atkinson’s stories about his own family that I found most compelling.
Atkinson’s concept of “family” is an embracing one that includes not only blood relatives but staff and colleagues who work beside him. His discussion of the “family meals” — those meals served to restaurant staff before the restaurant opens — made me want to try the recipes in my own kitchen.
He tells of the camaraderie in making Okinawan doughnuts for his staff at Canlis Restaurant in Seattle. The doughnuts were always served at the end of a hard shift, he says, because they “kept everyone in good spirits, even on the toughest nights.” The story made me want to make the delicious treat, not only for the taste, but in hopes of creating the same sense of caring and support he clearly felt for the kitchens he has worked in.
I can now attest that these doughnuts work wonders with unruly toddlers as well. I made them in my grandmother’s deep cast iron skillet, and the simple but satisfying patterns of deep-frying dough not only intrigued my youngest daughter, but the fluffy, crunchy, sugar-covered results satisfied us both. I was cooking for my daughter in the same skillet that my grandmother cooked many a meal, and that knowledge made the doughnuts even better. This is exactly this kind of culinary linkage that Atkinson encourages by telling us about his own family stories.
How food movements become unintentionally elitist
Atkinson also puts his “craft” into historical perspective. He begins the book by comparing today’s organic food movement to the Arts and Craft movement of the 19th century. Arts and Crafts designers produced hand-made goods meant for everyone to use. Sadly, these beautiful artist-crafted objects were so expensive to produce that they ended up primarily in the hands of the wealthy. As Atkinson puts it, “their efforts at egalitarian art became elitist.”
Much like today’s fresh, organic, locavore gourmet foods that, ironically, only the elitist can afford.
Atkins makes the case that the recent farm-to-table movement has indeed produced an alternative to mass-produced agribusiness food, but he questions the viability of the often-high-priced movement for the average consumer.
Atkinson’s solution to this dilemma is simple: To offset the additional expense of buying sustainable food, Atkinson suggests that we all eat at home. Or at least eat there more often. Atkinson’s book makes the case that meals that come from non-professionals, using ingredients and recipes that have personal histories, are far better than any high-end restaurant meal.
The stories made me want to dig up my own family recipes and start cooking them again. By sharing his own stories, Atkinson makes family food seem vital. And perhaps more importantly, he fuels my desire to develop my own repertoire of family recipes and stories.
The gap between restaurants and home-cooking
Ultimately, I think Atkinson’s book — and others like it — point out the growing disparity between the kind of food we want to eat in restaurants and the kind of food we want to eat at home. He also points out that we are increasingly comfortable with this difference. There was a time when many cookbooks were geared to teach people to cook “restaurant food” in their own homes.
If the economic downturn has yielded any positive results, it’s been that people are looking inward and realizing that what they have at home is pretty good after all. Many of us have given up trying to do what restaurant chefs can do better. Restaurants like Atkinson’s have entire staffs to help them produce spectacular food. What do we have at home that no restaurant can provide? Family. And the stories that families share.
Those ingredients of family and stories are the ones that Atkinson clearly values above all.
Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, she currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.
Photos, from top:
Author Greg Atkinson. Credit: Karyn Carpenter
“At the Kitchen Table” jacket cover. Credit: Courtesy of Sasquatch Books
Okinawan doughnuts. Credit: Susan Lutz
* * *
In recent decades, speed has been the name of the game in Shanghai, whether for business, buildings, fashion and food. At the launch of Slow Food Shanghai in December, through presentations from more than 20 farms, restaurants and producers, it was clear Shanghai is increasingly making sustainability a priority.
In some ways, the metropolis, with its population of more than 20 million by some estimates, is starting to see things slow down. Instead, chefs, restaurants and consumers are developing an interest in good, clean and fair food, said Rene van Camp, one of the steering committee members for Slow Food Shanghai. These values have some history in China, though these changed quickly along with China’s modernization and economic rise.
“When I was in school, my teacher told me, ‘We have a big country, and we can’t waste things,’” recalls Frank Wang, the training manager for all chefs at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, who studied Chinese cooking in the Shanghai Cooking School 19 years ago. “Things changed a lot,” he said. “We used to have bikes, but now everyone has cars.”
Once again, however, Wang sees people starting to save resources. In his classes, he teaches students to use resources very carefully. For example, cooks can save parts of ingredients that don’t look good or are too tough to the touch for use in stocks.
“Whether Chinese cooking [or] Western cooking, this is common in both,” he says.
Fang Chao, the chef at Le Sheng, a contemporary Shanghai restaurant that opened in November, said he is considering his cooking approach more than he did 10 years ago when he started in the kitchen. In terms of sustainability, he focuses mostly on the purity and cleanliness of water “as this affects the taste and quality of the final dishes I cook.”
He has become concerned about the conservation of wildlife, and though it is common to sell shark’s fin in a restaurant serving a traditional Shanghai menu, he and David Laris, the chef behind the concept, have eliminated the dish from their menus.
Aiming to bring a modern interpretation of Shanghai food to the market, Fang tries to produce food that feels “lighter, cleaner and in some cases, a bit more delicate,” while keeping dishes and flavors authentic. He cuts back on oil, salt and sugar, even though these are ingredients that have long-defined the local cuisine.
Vegetarian alternatives, like fake gluten-based crab meat or the rarely-seen vegetarian dumplings, are included on the menu. Braised crab meat and fish belly, a traditional dish, has been re-imagined. The original cooking method called for soaking the ingredients in oil followed by low-temperature frying. “I now prefer to soak [them] in water to avoid this dish being too greasy,” he said.
At the Grand Hyatt, Wang trains staff to be frugal and conservative with energy and materials.
“If they leave the kitchen, they need to turn off the light, the fire, the water,” he said.
The company is cutting back on printing recipes and, when they do print them out, it’s double-sided to save paper. They also try to recycle their delivery boxes, and when possible, use glass instead of plastic. The kitchen seeks suppliers selling “green” food, even if it’s more expensive.
For the most part, these chefs believe the sudden flood of attention on green food in Shanghai is a response to food safety scares in recent years. In one famous case, the discovery of melamine in baby milk powder, hundreds of thousands of children became ill, and scores died.
“This made the average person more aware and caused more people to at least wonder where the food they are eating may come from,” Fang said.
After the Slow Food Shanghai chapter was organized, initial research showed that the majority of focus group respondents “agreed that they would make a real effort to obtain good, clean and fair food,” Van Camp said.
Add to that a distrust of China’s health-care system. Many people seek ways to avoid going to the hospital and they see food as a big part of that, said Frank Steffen, general manager of a vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai.
As Chinese disposable incomes increase along with these trends, people are willing to spend more money being picky with what they consume.
China’s globalization has exposed its citizens to concepts already popular in other parts of the world. These chefs work in cosmopolitan environments and are exposed to the growing awareness of sustainability.
At Kush, Steffen aims to use this experience as an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and helping people understand that we’re all living on this world and must learn to work together.
“That is what sustainability means to me,” he said.
His all-Chinese team tries every new dish that is added to the menu, and “though they’re not yet vegetarian,” they care less about cooking with meat or not.
In a country that has experienced unheard-of upheaval and change in a short period of time, these chefs face the future with open minds. Fang thinks it’s possible to cook classic Chinese dishes in new ways because the idea of what is “classic” is also always evolving.
“People are thinking about habits,” he said. “And they know that habits have to change.”
He predicts that “younger generations can grow up with these tastes, and for them it will be classic.”
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photos, from top:
Spring rolls from Kush.
Shredded chicken, ham and bamboo served in broth at LeSheng.
Slow Food Shanhai participants, from left: Rene van Camp, Kimberly Ashton, Amena Schlaikjer, Alice Giusto, Allison van Camp, Mark Laabs, Paul Bergman.
Credits: Manuela Zoninsein
If you relish Indian food, most likely you know your way around samosas, biryanis, rogan josh, chicken tikka masala and daal makhani. But how about calamari ullarthiyathe or appam with stew or malabar shrimp curry? These (and several more) are some of the delicacies from India’s southwestern coast that are regularly featured in Chef KN Vinod’s acclaimed restaurants in Washington, D.C., area.
Chef Vinod, who hails from Kerala, works magic with the quintessential Kerala flavor combinations. The tartness of tamarind, fiery heat of green and red chilies, pungency of fresh ginger and mustard seeds, creaminess of coconut, the comfort of savory shallots and the delicate fragrance of curry leaves all come alive in his varied meat, seafood and vegetable dishes.
In his extensive menus, you will find not only dishes from his home state but other distinctive regional cuisines of India. Some of his new dishes delicately combine French cooking techniques with the mystique of Indian spices, something that is unheard of on Indian restaurant menus — pork belly braised with white wine, shallots and a mild blend of Indian spices and Maryland crabs with shallots, green chilies and coconut served in a roasted pappadum shell.
Vinod is a successful D.C. area restaurateur, executive chef and co-owner of three popular Indian restaurants — Indique of Washington, D.C., Indique Heights of Chevy Chase, Md., and the Bombay Bistro of Rockville, Md. Washingtonian magazine featured both Indique and Indique Heights among the 100 Very Best Restaurants of Washington in the January 2012 issue.
In January he was invited, along with Chef Ris Lacoste of Ris Restaurant, to host one of the Sunday Night Suppers, a fundraising dinner organized by Chef Alice Waters, Chef Jose Andres and cookbook author Joan Nathan to benefit the D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table.
Before coming to the United States in 1985 Chef Vinod, a graduate of the Institute of Hotel Management, in Chennai, India, trained extensively with various hotels in India. He attended the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. He further honed his culinary skills under many well-known chefs including Roger Moncourt, the French chef who introduced French cuisine to India. Chef Vinod has represented India at Indian food festivals across the globe. He is also a frequent guest at the Smithsonian Resident Associate Programs. Chef Vinod also volunteers his time to teach at the D.C. Central Kitchen.
In the following interview, Chef Vinod shares why he chose a culinary career, what inspires him in his culinary journey, his thoughts on his nation’s culinary heritage and the future of Indian cuisine in America.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
It was totally accidental. I joined the Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai, India. Cooking was a major subject in the curriculum. In one of the cooking classes, my dish accidentally turned out to be the best. From then onwards, I started taking a lot of interest in cooking and always wanted to stay at the top of the class. At the end of our final year I was selected as a management trainee by a major hotel chain and I was given the choice of specializing in the kitchen or the front office, and I chose to become a chef. There was much more satisfaction, fulfillment and contentment working in the kitchen.
What inspires you?
First, my mom — she is 77 years old and she loves food and loves to cook, experiment and literally play with food. Her way of relaxation is to cook. She is so open to new ideas, new ingredients and loves to experiment. I only wish that I had more time to spend with her cooking and trying out food. Her passion for cooking is amazing. Second, when I see my customers happy after having a meal in my restaurant, particularly those who are tasting Indian food for the first time.
Although Indian cuisine has gained mainstream acceptance in the United States, it still trails other Asian cuisines like Chinese, Japanese and Thai by a wide margin. How do you see the future of Indian cuisine in the U.S.?
I think Indian food is poised to be the next big thing in the U.S. When I came to the U.S. in 1985, there were only five Indian restaurants in the Washington metropolitan area. Today in the Washington, D.C., area itself there are over 200 plus Indian restaurants. New Indian restaurants owned and operated by professionally trained chefs have taken Indian restaurants to a totally different level. Personally, I feel that India is a vast country with such varied cuisine from region to region, there is so much variety to offer and you are already seeing more than the standard Indian fare at several Indian restaurants. Today, there is stronger focus on visual appeal, color palette, and presentation comparable to any top-class American establishment. I see some of the top American chefs embracing Indian spices, from Chef Wolfgang Puck to Chef David Burke, using Indian spices or have Indian-inspired dishes on their menus.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photo: KN Vinod. Credit: Nisha Vinod
I do not much care for celebrity chefs, their cooking shows or their glossy coffee-table books. John Besh, for those who have never watched the Food Network, “Iron Chef America” or “Top Chef Masters,” is a wildly successful chef and entrepreneur who owns a burgeoning restaurant empire and has won just about every food/chef award that exists.
So how did I fall for his glossy, large-format, new cookbook, “My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking?”
In a reversal of the usual “can’t judge a book by its cover” aphorism, this one’s Norman Rockwellian cover photo of a dimpled dad cooking with his two tow-headed son disguises what’s inside: a solid, practical collection of simple recipes, well-larded with personal history and strategy tips. It’s well-written and timely for anyone pressed for time And isn’t that pretty much all of us?
Besh begins by admitting that a passionate plea for home cooking coming from a person who makes his living by serving people who dine out may seem disingenuous. But he quickly settles any doubt about his motives by boldly stating: “Today a terrifying wasteland of food options lurks between our kitchen stoves and our favorite restaurants. The packaged foods we use are loaded with salt and sugar … our meat is shot up with hormones and antibiotics, our produce is sprayed with God-knows-what, and fast food options are the devil’s work.”
His sentiments echo those of the Slow Food movement, emphasizing the importance of cooking with seasonal and local produce, eating with family and friends, and eschewing processed foods, the kind Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.”
An inspiring conversation at home
But Besh’s reasons for writing this book turn out to be more personal than political. He explains that when he questioned his wife Jenifer (a lawyer and mother of their four boys) about the quality of food she was feeding the kids, she shot back that if he was half as concerned about feeding the family as he was about serving diners at his restaurants, he’d come up with recipes that are quick and easy to prepare, and things kids will actually eat.
Chastened, Besh thought long and hard about the problems busy people face when they want to cook healthy, delicious meals for themselves and their families. The results of his thinking are the recipes and strategies in this book, ranging from the super kid-friendly “Heat & Serve Chili,” “Sloppy Joe Sliders,” “Hearty Baked Pasta” and “Cauliflower Mac & Cheese” to family favorites such as “Perfect Mashed Potatoes,” “Sweet Corn Pudding,” “Braised Beef Short Ribs” and “Hummingbird Cake.”
But before launching into the recipes, Besh says that good home cooking, just like good restaurant cooking, needs two things: the best ingredients and planning ahead. By this he means stock your pantry. His own pantry is rather idiosyncratic, combining basics like pasta, Arborio rice, and olive oil, with more unusual items like harissa, pepper jelly, and pimenton (smoked paprika).
Once you stock your pantry and refrigerator with a few basics, you are ready to do reality-based home-cooking without worrying about buying specialty ingredients or mastering complicated techniques. In fact, with good basic ingredients and minimal planning, you can make great meals at a moment’s notice — and here’s where Besh’s book really shines.
I knew I was truly in love with this book when I browsed Besh’s “anything” recipes in the first chapter: “Risotto of Almost Anything,” “Creamy Any Vegetable Soup,” “Curried Anything” and “Warm Any Fruit Crumble.” This is not fetishized-ingredient, spectator-sport cooking, but open-your-fridge-and-make-a-great-meal-with-what’s-there cooking.
And it’s not just the first chapter that’s a winner. Other chapters chock full of great recipes and strategies, include: “Sunday Supper,” “School Nights,” “Breakfast With My Boys,” “Barbeque Wisdom” and “Fried Chicken (& Other Classics).” That fried chicken chapter is particularly good, drawing upon Besh’s Southern heritage and giving us not only his grandma’s recipe for fried chicken, but that of Miss Ruth, the woman who worked for his grandparents, and whom Besh clearly loved and admired. He writes: “She wouldn’t measure much or worry about temperatures, she just knew. She could tell when the oil was ready because she’d float a match in it and wait for the match to ignite before she started cooking. Apparently, those white-tip matches will light up at around 350 F.” He then adds (or perhaps his publisher’s lawyers told him to add): “I don’t recommend this method!”
Home cooking for love and for money
Putting the lie to the recent kerfuffle in the Slow Food movement about whether you can properly pay the farmer who grows good food and have affordable food, Besh shows how with one chicken, one pork shoulder or one pound of black eyed peas, you can feed a family for many days — and you can feed them meals that are less expensive and more nutritious than processed food or fast food.
For example, Besh says if you’re going to roast one chicken, you may as well roast two, and then use every part of the birds in great meals over the coming week. Use the meat for quick and easy Asian chicken salad with cabbage and noodles, or wraps, or pasta, and use the bones for stock for soup and other dishes. Similarly, Besh calls Sunday beef or pork roasts “money in the bank.” The leftovers are perfect for easy meals of pasta, soups, salads and sandwiches the rest of the week.
As if writing cookbooks and running seven restaurants and keeping up with his family is not enough, Besh also oversees the John Besh Foundation, which provides micro-loans to farmers. For minority students wanting to enter the restaurant industry, the foundation provides full scholarships to the French Culinary Institute plus a mentor, and a paid eight-week internship with a Besh Restaurant Group restaurant after school.
After reading “My Family Table,” I returned to the cover and saw it not as Rockwellian nostalgia for a bygone era, but as a picture of the kind of simple, mystique-free cooking that will lure a new generation into the kitchen. And when I returned to the dedication, this time I believed it. This is not just another famous chef’s “Hey look at my cooking-at-home book,” but a book that really is dedicated to his family and your family too.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Top photo composite:
Author John Besh.
Book jacket of “My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking.”
Credits: Courtesy of Andrews McMeel
The 18th-century French gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.”
This quote is usually interpreted in terms of a new restaurant dish or a new creation. However, let’s think about this quote in another way, as the discovery of a dish emanating from a culinary culture.
Although découverte means discovery, did Brillat-Savarin mean “discovery” or “invention?” To invent is one thing and to discover quite another. To me, discovery happens when you travel and eat something you’ve never eaten before. Invention is another matter. Among the many dishes invented in the last 50 years, for instance, consider tiramisu and carpaccio. The coffee sponge cake called tiramisu, meaning “pick-me-up,” was only invented in the 1960s (or the 1930s, according to the restaurant) by the chef at El Toula in Treviso in the Veneto region of Italy, although it is now ubiquitous in Italian-American restaurants in the United States.
According to Arrigo Cipriani’s 1966 book “Harry’s Bar: The Life and Times of the Legendary Venice Landmark,” carpaccio di manzo was invented in Harry’s Bar in Venice around 1950. It was first served to the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when she informed the bar’s owner that her doctor had recommended she eat only raw meat. It consisted of very thin slices of raw beef dressed with a mustard sauce.
The dish was named carpaccio by Giuseppe Cipriani, the bar’s former owner, in reference to the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, considered the early Renaissance’s greatest narrative painter, because the colors of the dish reminded the chef of paintings by Carpaccio.
Closer to home, think of the all-American sandwich invention called a muffaletta that takes its name from a Sicilian bread. You might have discovered this combination of olive salad, capicola and Italian bread after a night of revelry in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was created by the owner of Central Grocery when he needed a quick street-food-style dish to serve his market and dockworker clientele who liked to eat sitting on barrels around his shop.
Spreading discoveries to new lands
However, the discovery of a new dish means actually finding it somewhere and introducing it to a wider audience. Among the best example is another Italian dish: risotto. Risotto is now well known and ubiquitous, even in non-Italian restaurants, but that was hardly the case as recently as the late 1960s.
Up until about 1970, “Italian” restaurants in this country were actually Italian-American restaurants, nearly all of which could trace their heritage to southern Italy where there was no risotto, a northern Italy food.
Then American travelers and food writers started traveling and exploring culinary Italy. Up until that time, France reigned king in the culinary world. The Americans brought home a new understanding, the most important being that there was no such thing as “Italian food.” There were only foods from the different regions of Italy such as the risottos of Venice and Lombardy, which were until then little-known regions.
The discovery of a new dish does indeed bring happiness. It can happen in the most unlikely of places and could be a very familiar food to everyone but you. The last time it happened to me was in Solvang, Calif., when I stopped one morning at Mortensen’s Danish Bakery and had a kringle, a kind of coffee cake filled with custard, raisins and marzipan.
I had never had it or heard of it before, but later learned that the capital of kringle among Danish-Americans is Racine, Wis. I find stuff like that cool. When you’re traveling — let’s say you’re in New Orleans — and you see a muffaletta sandwich, don’t be forensic about it; just eat and enjoy. The moral of the story is to approach the eating of food without presuppositions — or fear — then look, point, order and eat a new food.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Muffaletta. Credit: Michelle van Vliet