Articles in Chefs

Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

Fresh seafood is the beating heart of Chef Michael Cimarusti’s culinary universe. At his Michelin-starred Providence, named “Best LA Restaurant” by food critic Jonathan Gold for the last three years, Cimarusti turns the ocean’s bounty into delicate, edible art. That same super premium seafood is also on offer at his chowder and oyster joint, Connie & Ted’s. “We take fish seriously and want our customers to do the same,” he says.

That’s a challenge in Los Angeles, a rare coastal city far removed from major fishing grounds where both chefs and home cooks rely on fish shipped in from other regions. “People are always asking where they can buy great fresh fish,” says Cimarusti. “There are so many issues — traceability, the sustainability of various species. Concerned cooks want to buy fish with integrity. They want to feel good about what they eat and have it taste good. It’s difficult to know what to buy here.”

Cimarusti addressed that challenge head-on by opening his own fish market, Cape Seafood and Provisions, where he takes the guesswork out of shopping for fish. “All of our fish is wild caught, sustainable, and we can tell people who caught it and where it was caught,” he explains. “You have to be steadfast and stick to your guns with vendors. No compromises. People expect that from us.”

Bringing quality, sustainability

A fish case at Cape Seafood and Provisions, which is bringing sustainable seafood to home chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

A fish case at Cape Seafood and Provisions, which is bringing sustainable seafood to home chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

The secret to doing that for an affordable price is volume. Cimarusti serves the same quality fish at both of his restaurants and his fish market, which not only lowers his costs but also gives him access to more of the tip-top quality portion of a catch he needs for Providence’s specialized menu. L.A. home cooks shopping at Cape Provisions have access to that same product, he says, including Morningstar’s seasonal Maine scallops and the wild, line-caught striped bass previously only available to the city’s chefs. Plus, Cimarusti’s fishmongers cook in his restaurants, lending serious food cred to the serving tips they share with shoppers. “It’s what separates us from other seafood markets,” he says.

“We’ll be priced competitively,” he says. “But good fish is not cheap, and cheap fish is not good. Farm-raised fish is cheap. The methods used to bring that fish to market are questionable. People have to come to grips with the tremendous environmental costs behind cheap fish. And the taste? There is no comparison between farm and wild.”

Cimarusti is part of a movement among environmentally progressive chefs who are betting that a market-supported approach will rebuild threatened fishing grounds. Buying wild, sustainable, traceable fish, he says, supports the small-boat American fishermen dedicated to using managed fishing to bring back wild fish stocks and restore fish habitats. The higher price honors that investment and assures the economic viability of these small businesses.

In Providence’s hushed dining room, Cimarusti rarely discusses fish politics. The new market is his soapbox. Standing behind the fish counter, he explains to consumers how they can play an active role in restoring our ocean ecosystem. His message is simple: If you want to protect wild fish, you should eat wild fish.

Cape Seafoods is a double bottom-line business for Cimarusti, supporting both his restaurants and his values. The best part, he says, is the opportunity to share the stories of the fish he sells. “Consumers want answers,” he says. “It behooves us to supply them.”

Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016.  Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

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Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Steamed rice is a perfect side dish.  Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.

Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ  is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.

An unlikely path to becoming a chef

If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses.  Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.

Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.

He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up.  He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.

Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook.  A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.

Korean flavors for American palates

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.

Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.

Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg.  Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.

Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.

Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.

Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.

For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg

Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up

1 tablespoon sweet butter

2 tablespoons sesame oil

¾ cup chopped kimchi

3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese

Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt

2 tablespoons kimchi juice

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic

2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped

2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish

1 teaspoon furikake for garnish

Directions

1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.

2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.

3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.

4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.

5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.

6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.

7. Add scallions and stir well.

8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.

9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.

10. Serve hot.

Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.

I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

An ‘anonymous labor’

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.

And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.

But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.

A sense of fun

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”

It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”

I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.

The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove. Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.

Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

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Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gillman

I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.

There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.

Eating in China

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.

We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.

I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.

Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?

Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.

The best of both worlds

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?

L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.

N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?

L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.

N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?

L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)

Lessons from the trip

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: And what about the spice market?

L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.

N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?

L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.

Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

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Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Havana is back in the news. For more than half a century, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. With the reopening of the American Embassy in August 2015, tourists are flocking to Havana. The city is bustling with new restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and paladars, the uniquely Cuban restaurant created in a family’s home.

The paladar movement began after the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuba in what is called the “Special Period,” when the economy suffered greatly. The government experimented with private enterprise and allowed a few private citizens to turn their homes into restaurants.

In 1999, we ate at La Guarida, a paladar on the third floor of a dilapidated building with an auto repair shop on the bottom floor. Walking up the curved staircase, we passed tiny apartments, their doors open to allow for the circulation of air.

Made famous as the location for the classic Cuban film, “Strawberries and Chocolate” (“Fresa y chocolate”), La Guarida was a restaurant created inside a small apartment. Customers ate in what had been the living room. Another room had also been cleared of its furniture to make way for a dozen small tables and chairs. Plates of chicken with rice and vegetables were served, and I remember we were charged for bread. All in all, the food was good but not special except that by 1999-Havana-standards, the quality was very good.

Fast forward to 2015 and a return to La Guarida found the restaurant in the same peeling, dilapidated building. Cars were still parked inside the building on the ground floor and the restaurant was still reached by climbing up the broad staircase to the third floor.

But La Guarida no longer looked like a family’s apartment. The restaurant now takes up the entire floor with a large kitchen, sleek modern bathrooms and large, expansive rooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and quality paintings. Sitting in any of the dining rooms or the small bar, you could imagine you were in London or New York. The menu no longer has home-cooked favorites such as chicken with rice and vegetables. La Guarida’s fine-dining cuisine would be easily found in Paris or Berlin with prices to match.

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Like La Guarida, many paladars no longer look like private homes. Paladar Vistamar is in an upscale neighborhood of 1950s modernist houses. Located on the second floor, the restaurant occupies what was once the living room and terrace. The dining areas are framed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the ocean-facing side of the building. Eat outside on the covered terrace and you will have the best view of the ocean and the pool below.

When we had lunch on a sunny, clear day, the ocean still churned from a storm that had passed over the island the night before. Waves crashed against a concrete retaining wall and swept across the pool.

Pork, chicken and rabbit were on the menu, but given the proximity to the ocean, we chose seafood. A red snapper ceviche was fresh and bright. A green salad with freshly cooked shrimp and lobster was beautifully presented, although foreigners were advised to avoid eating leafy greens because of problems with the quality of the water. On the advice of the waitress, we ordered sides of the delicious, soupy black beans and steamed rice or as they are called here Moors and Christians (“moros y cristianos”). To finish the meal, a light flan with fresh fruit was served as dessert along with cups of Cuban espresso.

For Americans, a stay in Havana always involves conversations about the current state of relations between the two countries and what will happen when the embargo ends.

Walking around the tourist areas of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), you might be tempted to believe that Cuba has returned to a capitalist culture. That would be a mistake. Havana is a city living in two worlds. In the tourist sections of the city, capitalist-socialism is very much in evidence. Wide boulevards have been recently paved. Hotels are being constructed within sight of José Martí Square in Old Havana.

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The other Havana is a few blocks from the neighborhoods visited by foreigners. On those streets, the pavement is potholed and the buildings are in a state of decay. Of course there are beautiful suburbs outside of the Old City and Central Havana. But most of Havana suffers from the effects of poverty and the consequences of the embargo.

Part of a larger complex, El Cocinero is next door to one of Havana’s cultural sensations, Fábrica de Cubano Arte, known locally as F.A.C. or Fábrica. An artist collective originally subsidized by the Cuban government, Fábrica is the ultimate hyphenate. Café, art gallery, screening room, lecture space, dance hall and bar, the expansive former peanut oil factory has dozens of rooms that are filled every night by hundreds of young Cubans. When you visit El Cocinero and after you have eaten and enjoyed one of their delicious, light-as-air piña coladas, definitely follow the music to Fábrica where you can dance until 3:00 a.m.

Since the “Special Period,” paladars have blossomed into a subculture and have transformed the Havana culinary scene. Now the paladar is an iconic feature of the new Havana as much as the 1950s American cars that are everywhere in the city. As you make a shortlist of paladars you must visit on your trip to Havana, Ivan Chef Justo deserves to be at the top of your list along with La Guarida. The handiwork of two chefs who used to cook for Fidel Castro, Ivan Chef Justo is a soulfully curated vision of a traditional paladar. Family photographs line the walls along with portraits of 1950s Hollywood celebrities. Relying on small private farms for their ingredients, Ivan Chef Justo, like many paladars, is pursuing a farm-to-table program long popular in the United States but new in Cuba.

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

When we ate at Ivan Chef Justo, we were part of a large party. We were served family style with large platters filling the center of the table. Lobster stew with carrots, mashed yucca, Moors and Christians, roast chicken and, my favorite, roast pork with crispy lacquered skin, were eaten with relish.

During our week-long stay in Havana, we ate most of our meals in paladars. Talking with other travelers, we heard about their favorite paladars and we told them about ours. If you have friends traveling to Cuba, ask them which paladars they enjoyed and check La Habana online (www.lahabana.com). Because the more popular paladars are booked months in advance, email the hotel concierge to request reservations so you don’t miss out. And bring a lot of American dollars to exchange for the local currency called C.U.C.s (“cukes”) because, as of this writing, American and European credit cards are not accepted inside Cuba.

Paladars of Havana:

  • El Cocinero Paladar (Calle 26, Vedado, between Calle 11 and 13,  +53 7 832 2355)
  • Fábrica de Cubano Arte (Calle 26, between Calles 11 and 13, Equina 11, Vedado,  +53 7 838-2260)
  • Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, close to the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, +53 7 863-9697 and +53 5 343-8540)
  • La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, +53 7 8669047)
  • Paladar Vistamar (Avenida 1, 2206, between Calles 22 and 24, Miramar, +53 7 203 8328)
  • Rio Mar (Aveneda 3rd and Final # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar,  +53 7 209 4838)

 

Main photo: Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

I arrived in Shanghai dreaming of dumplings but instead was invited, by a generous friend, to a quixotic culinary experience that took much time to digest. Ultraviolet is a high-end restaurant-cum-theatrical show. It’s a self-described “multimedia experience” staged for a moneyed audience of 10 in a closed room whose environment is meticulously controlled.

The group was led into the dining hall and held captive at a large table for what seem like an eternity, like an existential scenario from a Buñuel film. A couple dozen tiny, refined plates from a never-changing menu were prepared and served, one after another, by waiters whose every move was carefully choreographed and scripted. Each dish, paired with a drink, was accompanied by projected images, music, even piped-in aromas, all feeding on a philosophical theme. The exhausting show took hours. Awards have been garnered — for the food anyway — which, by the way, is very good in a global, Noma/Bullí sort of way. The theatrical aspect is more dubious. It skirts the edge of ridiculous while managing to keep its intellectual head above water.

Chef Paul Pairet’s creation

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

It’s no accident that talented French chef Paul Pairet has brought this over-the-top evening of pseudo-avant-garde sensory incitement to Shanghai, one of the most unashamedly commercial cities in the world. Here, in the center of shopping and money, it makes sense. “Why not?” cry critics and gastronomes alike.

All encompassing, audience-involved theater is nothing new. From Strindberg’s difficult-to-perform “A Dream Play” to Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” a theoretical, unrealized experiment in avant-garde spectacle in which the performers would attempt to assault the senses of the spectators, artists have been attempting to expand theater beyond the stage. But never has audience participation been brought to this level, at least in a restaurant. The attempt to juxtapose high-end dining and individual introspection was, at times, jarring.

A parade of images

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

While we ate, a parade of images, meant to evoke collective memory, were projected on all four walls. They ranged from spooky to comforting to, at best, beautifully and playfully nostalgic. Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene from “The Gold Rush” was shown in its entirety while wintry dishes were served. Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was recalled during the “picnic.”

Walls were plastered with hundreds of images of Asian dry noodle soup packages (evincing laughter from the several Asians present) while a high-falutin’ version of that fast-food classic was served. Moving images on the wall made the room seem to rise and fall: At one point we dropped into a Dante-esque netherworld as the scene around us fell away. I’m not sure if the bourgeoisie, whose foibles were often brought to the fore — Chaplin, a running leitmotif of fast food — was being patronized or burlesqued. But one did have the sense that this Frenchman is well aware of what he is doing, deconstructing and commenting on the classic multi-course meal.

Then there’s the food

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

What do I remember of the food? Little more than theoretical insider jokes that tasted good. One of the very first courses was entitled “Paloma” — it was a light sweet-sour salad of pomelo served in a vitrine which, when lifted, unleashed a cloud of white gas — the dove of peace? The Mexican song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” was heard in the background.

Next a single oyster, dressed with caviar, pepper, lemon and sea foam, was offered while the walls become a calm ocean. At a “picnic,” for which the table was covered with synthetic turf, a dish named “fish Tupperware,” dressed in mayo, recalled simple American/English food, while projected images harkened back to a long-forgotten country outing of the 1920s. Henry Mancini’s campy theme from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” accompanied a faux American “breakfast” — a fitting, albeit ironic, paean.

Pairet, who is obviously trying very hard to do something new, an admirable but nearly impossible goal nowadays, has been quoted as saying that “pretension is my worst enemy” — in which case the enemy lurked behind every carefully constructed shadow. He tries hard to pair food with feeling, to create “edible theater.” I appreciated the effort. I enjoyed the evening immensely, and ate and drank very well indeed, but instinctively resisted the artifice intended to carry me to higher (or lower, for that matter) emotional planes.

In this sense, the experience did not coalesce. Critic Richard Gilman (who happened to be my father) wrote, referring to the avant-garde theater of 50 years ago: “It may be that nothing will come forward as new, unassailable creation. It is surely true that any art comes to find that its own historical momentum becomes the enemy of its renewable prowess.”

I’m not sure if we are heading down a creative cul-de-sac in the increasingly global gastronomic world. I hope not.

Main photo: Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The author wishes to thank Jeffrey Merrihue and www.foodiehub.tv who sponsored this trip to China and Ultraviolet.

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Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them. A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.

Like bananas, their sweet cousins, plantains are naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium.

Although they look like large bananas, they are not edible unless cooked. Primarily starchy, especially when green, plantains also have a stiff, bark-like peel. Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create delicious side dishes.

Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways — steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled. The same fruit is prepared differently when it is green than when it is yellow or black. The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skin. I thought the blackened fruit was spoiled. In point of fact, when the peel turns yellow and then black, the starches in the fruit have begun to convert to sugars.

Plantains, yellow or black, will never be as sweet as a banana, but when cooked in this ripened state, they produce a deliciously caramelized side dish or dessert.

In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated in a cooking video how easy it is to prepare plantains. In fact, they are so easy to cook, now that I am home, I make them all the time.

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The only difficulty with cooking plantains is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in many U.S. cities, markets serving the Spanish-speaking community will have plantains. Seek them out because besides selling plantains, the markets will also be a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chilies, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.

Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways. He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice on the wonderful Costa Rican dish called casado, which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.

Villa Buena Onda, or VBO as it is known locally, is an intimate destination. With only eight rooms, the hotel fells like a private home with a personal chef. The price of the room includes all three meals. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.

Navarette studied at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past eight years.

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked but was plated in the most beautiful, five-star way.

Aided by César Allonso Carballo to translate, Navarette was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to cook.

Cooking yellow plantains to use as a side dish or dessert is the essence of simplicity. Simply peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel or cast iron pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and then cut into 5-inch long sections, fry on either side until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes and the result is delicious.

The crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare but not much more so.

Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda

Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.

In the restaurant, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook plantains. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve the same result using less oil with an easier clean up.

The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.

Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Ricans say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 green plantains, washed

1 cup corn or safflower oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.

2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.

3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.

4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which should take about 5 to 8 minutes.

5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens, then do all the other rounds.

7. Place the flattened plantains back into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in a sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary in order to cook until lightly browned on all sides.

8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.

9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).

10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests can mix and match.

Main photo: Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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