Archive for April, 2008

My kind of judge

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Top chef brings a parade of amazing guest judges each season. Most I know by name, many I know by sight, all make me nod with respect.

But last night I just about jumped when they brought out Johnny Iuzzini.

Iuzzini is on my team, the dessert team. He is the pastry chef at Jean George.

I have never met him, tasted his desserts, or come too close to any of his actual work, but what ever, I still admire him.  I have certainly worked with other cooks who have worked for and with him, and his reputation is formidable.

His website provides pictures to fill in the gaps in chatter I have shared with those who worked with him. It also provides pictures of him covered in some kind of white goo. Royal icing is my best guess, or liquid latex, but I think if that were the case it would be a different kind of site all together. Marshmallow fluff I’ve now been told, and I’ll resist the obvious urge to make fluffernut jokes.  His reel makes him look like a rock star, with clips ranging from winning the James Beard award to propositioning Martha Stewart.

Iuzzini’s first book, four play, cleverly nodding to the structure of his desserts at Jean Georges, 4 small compositions fitting together on one plate, is set for release this fall.

The quickfire challenge was the first in which all contestants were required to create a dessert. With only an hour and a half, even strong pastry chefs would be pressed to do anything to extravagant.

Richard, put up my favorite dessert, banana “scallops” with a sweet guacamole and chocolate ice cream. What made this my favorite was the acknowledgement that you don’t have to have a mastery of baking and pastry techniques to build a dessert. All savory chefs should figure this out.

Plated desserts in fine dining restaurants are so much closer to a savory course than they are to traditional pastry found in bakeries. However, once the lable, “pastry” gets put on something, most cooks begin to immediately disregard it. I call it the “not my problem” effect.

It was nice to see Richard bust out an amazing composition using the skills he had, rather than trying to fake skills and create a weak plate.

Cant make a souffle? Braise pineapple instead. Never made a custard? Whip up a sabayon with sweet wine. Don’t know how to balance a sorbet? Make a fruit soup. Don’t know how to bake? Make a gussied up french toast, or pain perdu, which when baked in bulk is really just bread pudding. Don’t have a tuille recipe? Fry wontons.

I know that all cooks can look deep in their skill set and compose a dessert. They just need to look at what they have, instead of what they don’t have, and know that a dessert in a restaurant to complete a meal, and an item from a bakery are not the same thing even though they both suffer the same title, “pastry.” Don’t hide behind the fact that you can’t bake.

You can do so many things, and bring to a dessert things a traditional pastry chef may never think of. While it took the pastry chef in me to make a great panna cotta, it took the cook in me to think of a sweet celery and strawberry relish to go with it. It was also the cook in me that made a killer braise of pineapple, or earthy chocolate and potato gnocchi.

And what the heck, watch your pastry chef and cooks, and recognize the components and techniques that you could easily do without being trained in pastry. Ask questions, be interested in what you are plating on the pantry. You never know when you will rack your brain, searching for every bit of pastry know how you might possibly have.

Taste vs. Flavor; Splitting Hairs

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

A student of writing learns early on to avoid using the same word too many times in a paragraph. Thus when writing about food, we look for various words to describe taste.

For example, I could write, “The strawberries I picked yesterday at Berringer farm tasted exactly like I remember them.”

The second sentence would avoid saying, “After one bite the strawberries’ taste transported me……” Instead I might write, “After one bite the red berries flavor transported me to childhood, and I was ten again following my grandmother through row after row.” To avoid sounding clumsy, I would substitute red berry for strawberry, and change taste to flavor.

Having written about cooking and food here for tasting menu, and before that Phatduck, my old blog, for nearly 4 years, I used taste and flavor interchangeably to avoid this clumsy repetition in my writing. I did this without a thought to the true meaning of these two words. But the more I talk about food, and most importantly, listen to people more educated than me about food, I hear these words used with more exacting definition. It may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s important to understand the fundamental difference between taste and flavor.

Taste is physical. Taste is one of our 5 senses. It is a sensory function, in which receptors, or taste buds, found mostly on our tongue receive chemical information. This chemical stimuli received by our taste buds is transduced into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. Once in the brain these electric signals are interpreted into information which we use to gain perception.

We can only taste 5 things; bitter, sour, salty, sweet, umami.

Flavor however, is the combined perception of food using all information received from all five of our senses. During the process of eating, we use all five of our senses to receive physical information from food. Once in our brain, this information becomes the perception. Thus flavor is cognitive, meaning that the recognition of flavor happens post-sensory.

It would be logical, that because we put food in our mouth, the sensory receptor for taste, that taste is the sense we use the most in perceiving flavor. But instead we rely most heavily on our sense of smell. While our sense of taste can only give us 5 pieces of information about a food, our sense of smell can give us a seemingly limitless amount of information.

Both taste and smell receptors receive chemical information. Our sense of touch receives pressure, which is detected by nerve endings in our skin that respond to variations in pressure. The sense of sound is received by a membrane in our ears that vibrates in reaction to sound waves (our ear drum.) Our sense of sight depends on our eyes to detect electromagnetic waves of light, which is transduced into information that we use to interpret images.

Taste is a mere 5 pieces of information, but flavor is infinite. Taste is chemical, while flavor is a mental construct that doesn’t exist outside our mind.

We can grow as cooks if we think beyond taste and recognize how influenced flavor is by the stimulation of all five of the senses. We can remember this not only when creating a dish, but when reproducing it on the line night after night. If a crisp element becomes soggy from improper storage, aural sensation will be diminished, and the crunch that makes the dish exciting will be missing. Without the increased stimulation of our sense of sound, the flavor of that particular dish isn’t as exciting. The diner may never know that they were missing this crunchy stimuli, but they will recognize better flavor, which we know we can manipulate by understanding how food stimulates all five senses.

Likewise, hot food tends to release more aroma, increasing the amount of odor compounds our nose detects, thus increasing the perception of flavor. So taking the proper steps to ensure that the food arives at the table hot, not just warm, will ensure that we excite the nose as well as we can.

When we practice our craft as cooks, particularly working on a line, it’s easy to become isolated from fact that the process of cooking is only half of an equation. Another person, a seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting body awaits our product, prepared to begin their own individual process of flavor perception.

Q and A

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

I like to troll Craigslist and other job posting sites for pastry jobs.


I like to know where other pastry chefs work and who hires a pastry staff.  I have always done this, no matter how happy or unfulfilled I am at a job.   I look at the listings in New York, Chicago, Portland, and the Bay Area for the most part.  I like to know my niche in the industry.  And yes, I am also a little nosy.

Clarklewis in Portland recently posted an add for a pastry chef and included a series of questions.   Since I am clearly employed and don’t live in the city, I won’t be sending them my resume or answers.  But I though it was interesting and thought I’d offer a glimpse into my own pastry chef personality to you.

I’d love to hear your answers too, whether you are a pastry chef or just an enthusiast.

Favorite 3 desserts?

To eat; butterscotch pudding, brownie sundaes with hot fudge, tiramisu

To make; composed desserts, tall proud American layer cakes, pies of all sorts

What would your last meal on earth be?

A big hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and chopped onion, plain potato chips, and an icy cold coca cola from a bottle.

-Name one thing you can’t live without?

For me; coffee

For my desserts; real vanilla beans

-Chef Pants: Checks, Stripes or Solid?

Solid black for chefs, checks for cooks, strips are tolerable, but NEVER anything with chili peppers or prints.  Never.
-What is your favorite cookbook?

On food and cooking by Harold McGee.

-Celebrity Chef?

A contradiction in terms.  Chefs work in kitchens, celebrities are personalities on TV and in the media.  Acting as a chef and acting as a celebrity are different things.

-Favorite farmers market?

The university district farmers market.  It’s big, it runs year round, it’s full of real farmers, bee keepers, cheese makers, foragers, orchard keepers, snacks, flowers.  It’s by my house, and I always run into people I know.

Gypsy, Seattle, Washington — DEAD

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

I’d say the following is the most dramatic subject line I’ve ever received on an e-mail:

“Please Read. We have been betrayed. The end.”

It’s from the folks at Gypsy, Seattle’s very own underground restaurant. We posted about it back in September of 2006, February of 2007, and about cooking and eating at its sister venture Vagabond in March of 2007.

Gypsy was super passionate, always fun, and often tasty. The best thing about the few times I participated in one of their dinners was that the Gypsy folks were having a good time and trying to make something special. Dana even cooked for them several times.

And now, according to their e-mail, they have to shut down. Here’s the e-mail:

Camelot has ended.

We wake up, we go to work, we come home, we occasionally eat out. Most lives are fashioned after this pattern. Most restaurant’s lives are as well: make food, sell food, clean up, go home. Sometimes, a very magical sometimes, restaurants are able to trancend the merely ordinary and in doing so, transform to some small degree the lives of its patrons.

Gypsy has been this magical place for many many people. New friends, new ideas, new love, a salon of creativity. But as with all things destined to touch hearts, evil waits to take it away. We have been betrayed. Gypsy as we know it was too scary a place to exist, so now it doesn’t.

We are going much deeper underground. Those who really know how to get ahold of us, please email (please don’t call us), we will start a new list, a more protected list. Dinners are cancelled for all intents and purposes. And to the traitor to the clan we offer you this: May you never sleep well, may laughter sound bitter in your ears, and may food always taste like ashes to you…this is our Gypsy curse. You have destroyed a good thing.

That curse at the end is a real doozy. Some random thoughts on this:

  • you’ll notice in the comments on my first post as well as reactions I got to it in person from former colleagues that the secrecy surrounding Gypsy was confusing to people. When I wrote about it trying to be vague I got accused of being a snob. (I may be a snob, but that’s not the right evidence to use.) When I told folks at work about it and was vague, the ones who already knew said “you mean Gypsy? What’s the big deal. Why are you acting like it’s a secret?” And for an underground restaurant, Gypsy actually was kind of confusing. They sent out e-mails. They had a website. etc. I always assumed it needed to stay secret and acted accordingly. But maybe not everyone felt the same way.
  • I wonder if someone really did try to get them in “trouble”, and if they know that for a fact. I can only assume they do based on the content of their e-mail. Why would someone do that? Lame.
  • And as Alex pointed out to me in conversation, it sucks when the government spends time and resources regulating things that don’t really need to be regulated. Not to create a whole debate here, but will an underground restaurant here or there really destroy society? Yes… I know about health codes, etc. I wonder if you could objectively rate every licensed restaurant in Seattle vs. Gypsy for absolute health code compliance where Gypsy would fare. I bet it would be among the top scorers. These folks were passionate about doing a professional job. And yes, I know you can’t necessarily count on the honor system with everyone. It’s still annoying though.

I hope Gypsy reforms. But I am surprised they announce that they’re reforming in the mail. Won’t the people they got in trouble with see their intentions? I guess I have a lot to learn about running a secret underground restaurant. Luckily, that’s not a requirement of my job. I just intend to eat there.

I wish the Gypsy folks luck, and I’m sorry someone screwed up a good thing.

The Flavor of Color

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

It is a fact that color has a drastic effect on your perception of flavor. The information received from our eyes will lead us to anticipate a flavor based on the color of a food or beverage, and that initial assumption can over ride the information we receive from our taste buds and olfactory system.

At The Fat Duck Heston served a disk of gelee, orange on one side, maroon on the other. The diner was instructed to taste each side of the gelee individually without being told the flavor. This little bite stopped people in their tracks. They were tasting orange and beets, but the red side was blood orange, and the orange side was golden beet. The recognition of the two familiar flavors opposing their expected colors teased the diner a bit, forcing them to recognize how strongly we associate a particular flavor with a color.

In Elementary school, our teacher gave us an experiment; blindfold our partner and give them two small cups, one filled with seven-up, the other filled with coca-cola. They were required to tell us which was which based simply on taste. In our youthful arrogance we laughed, positive we could tell. I mean come on, cola is like, so obviously a different flavor than lemon-lime. Duh. We tasted away, and our crumbling confidence became a new source of amusement as child after child was stumped. Without the dark color telling us what cola was, we couldn’t distinguish the sodas from each other.

Last week I was working on a bubble gum ice cream base for a dish coming out this spring. Not only am I flavoring the ice cream like bubble gum, but I am coloring it pink as well. As I had the cooks taste the nameless pink cream and tell me what flavor it was, all but one agreed it tasted just like they remembered bubble gum tasting. Ironically no one had tasted bubble gum in years, myself included.

Brian however, looked pained when I gave him a spoon of the pink fluid. He asked why I was giving him pepto bismol. After a little prodding and a promise that is was indeed something I made he put the spoon in his mouth.

He grimaced and said, “Yup, that tastes just like pepto bismol. It is, isn’t it. Why did you make me eat that.”

As soon as we stopped laughing and told him it was bubble gum, he relaxed his face and said, “Oh yeah, it is bubble gum.” His initial assumption that the spoonful was going to taste like the chalky pink fluid, based solely on color, was so strong that his olfactory gave in and agreed. It didn’t matter how strong the bubble gum flavor was, his eyes told him pepto bismol and that was that.

I will admit that the sauce was too brightly colored. A little color goes a looonnnnggg way. When diners do see my bubble gum ice cream, on a plate with strawberry covered bananas and a vanilla cream filled sponge cake, it will be shades lighter than what I was feeding my cooks. We wouldn’t want anyone tasting pepto bismol ice cream.

It sparked a conversation about the preconception of flavor based simply on color, and I told them about my own experiment I did earlier last year.

I made a fresh sour cherry sauce that while stunning in flavor, was an off brown color. I split the sauce into two batches, and colored one with a bit of red food coloring. Two drops changed the dull brown color into a bright, vibrant red, much the color of the unprocessed cherries themselves. I had the cooks I worked with taste both and tell me which one tasted better, citing a difference in method as the reason for the color variation.

Cook after cook named the bright red cherry sauce as the better of the two. Way better, hands down above and beyond, they all said in their own words. To them, the bright red was an indicator of real cherry flavor, a better product, better handling, thus the sauce tasted better.

This brings up a deeper question. If the two sauces were identical in flavor, one only varying by the addition of two drops of color, then could one possibly taste better than the other? In fact the sauces were the same composition of flavor and texture, but in perception they were different, so which one is true?

At WD-50 I was surprised to find bottles of coloring mixed in with the dry stores. But Alex’s argument was that people will perceive something to taste better if it is colored they way they expect it to be. Case in point was the sweet avocado sauce served with the soft chocolate dish. As the sauce was processed, it would begin to brown a bit, straying from our concept that avocados are green. One drop of color helped this sauce, made daily from fresh avocados, retain it’s identity as fresh avocado. No matter how fresh the sauce actually was, the faded color would lead the diner to assume it was passing it’s prime, and that information would change their perception of the flavor.

It’s a very strong argument for using coloring in your food, a practice that once seemed blasphemous. Color won’t hide the fact that your food doesn’t taste good, but it can help you ensure that your diners are perceiving the flavors in your dishes as you intended them to be.