Archive for the ‘Industry’ Category

More Accolades for Dana

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

It seems like you can’t go more than a few days recently without having someone sing her praises. Of course, it’s all well deserved. Here at Tastingmenu, we’ve known how great Dana is for some time (even before she started writing here — in fact it’s why we wanted her to share her opinions on this site.) The latest praise is from the editor herself of Seattle Magazine. And since Dana would never post it, I will. Allison Austin Scheff writes:

“Dana Cree, the pastry chef at Poppy (and one of the Rebel Chefs from April’s Best Restaurants issue) is the thinking-diner’s pastry chef. She analyzes, tweeks, re-works (and Twitters about all of it @deensie) and all of her smarty-chef work really pays off.”

She goes on:

“The most intriguing thing I tasted was Cree’s sassafrass ice cream, made with anise hyssop and sassafrass root (plus spices). I kept taking small spoonfuls and catching intriguing tastes of this, no that. It didn’t quite taste like a rootbeer float, as our waiter had said, it was more like those little barrel-shaped rootbeer candies, with a strange, illusive heat somewhere that disappeared before you could nail exactly what it was. What a fantastic scoop of ice cream.”

And finally:

“…for a dessert that’ll make you think, that might leave you in awe or open your eyes to possibilities you might not have imagined, do yourself a favor and get to Poppy. Dana Cree’s a serious talent.”

Yay Dana! Go read the entire thing.

taking back the slight…..

Friday, March 13th, 2009

Under no circumstances will I open the number 10 can of worms that is all that we in the industry think of Yelp.

However, nearly every establishment has received reviews that are unnecessarily negative/rude/absurd. No matter how unreal untrue unbelievable they are, they eat at us. So we do the only thing we really can. We take them back, turn them into jokes, and quote them to each other in our daily routine of kitchen jokes.

A pizza joint in the bay area has done us one more. They have printed these outrageous statements on T-Shirts. At Poppy we too have joked about having T-Shirts made with our own yelp slights.

On the list…

“Poppy hates children, and Poppy hates cake.”

“I would never classify the menu as New American………EVER!”

“If Ikea and a Tootsie pop had a baby it would be Poppy”

“Poppy isn’t even seasonal (oranges in winter!)”


And on the list for Veil…..

“This is the worst asian fusion restaurant I’ve ever been to.”

“Veil is, umm, skanky.”

Diminished Aesthetics

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

The scene at Poppy is robust. As the dining room fills, it’s cavernous nature seems to amplify the energy of the 100 plus seats we fill every night. Large floor to 25 foot ceiling windows look out onto the bustle of the north tip of capitol hill’s main drag, Broadway, allowing the twinkle of lights, the passage of traffic, and the steady flow of passer-by’s to engage the diner. It’s less than intimate, speaking over the buzz of 40 other conversations, hearing laughter flow through your space, watching servers buzz food through the dining room at a dizzying rate. But feeling the room, the people, the life, is all part of being at Poppy.

The pace in the kitchen is much the same. Varying conversations cross the kitchen between the busy cooks, buzzing around each other, laughing, hustling. It’s an energizing to say the least.  Service is a rapid stream of orders flowing in and out, tickets lining the rail from 5 to 10, plates, and the large trays that are the Thali’s a constant cover on the pass.

With the speed and volume that it requires to keep up with this style of service, adjustments had to be made to the plating style.  In fact, coming from a girl who worked predominately the world of “large white plates, tiny tiny food,” I would say the visual aesthetic at poppy is virtually non existant. This, of course, is an over statement. However, the visual aesthetic of the dishes I plate at Poppy are completely and utterly at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The expansive canvas like plates we were used to working with have been replaced with diminutive Heath ceramic bowls, smaller than those I eat cereal out of at home. Rusty earth tones, oranges, browns, took the place of the high gloss white.  And the components are snuggled into their little bowls, or tiny plates, just big enough to comfortably hold them tight.

The modern plating styles I spent years developing, so exaggerated in the plates at Veil, are moot.  It was sad at first, not being able to stylize anything. But since then, it’s become a blessing of sorts.  With the dial turned so far down on the visual aesthetic, I have been able to concentrate on texture and flavor much more. If a component is no longer cut, shaped, made to look a certain way, the shape now primarily exists for it’s appeal in the mouth, and the way a spoon pressing into the bowl will pull at the component.

My little bowls of dessert have brought me quite a bit of joy, in fact. Take, for instance, my most popular dessert on the menu now, “Hot Date Cake”, a play on stick toffee pudding. A cake made of a copious amount of dates was designed to be very moist and sticky when cut in one inch cubes. Five of these sticky little cubes are warmed and nestled in the bottom of a little bowl, and soaked in a big one ounce ladle of warm butterscotch sauce. Scattered over this are pieces of medjool dates, and salty buttered pecans, cut to be just the right size to be spooned up, and feel big enough for textural appeal, but not too big that they need more attention from your mastisizing teeth than another component. A scoop of banana ice cream sits atop sized to melt just a little providing a sauce like layer and a nice firm cold portion of ice cream.  It nearly hides everything underneath from view.

If you are wondering, I take a good three hours a week hand cutting every buttered pecan exactly in half, and the dates in exactly twelve pieces. Sure, it would be easier to just run my knife through a pile of the pecans, breaking them up into approximate sized pieces, but that’s just not quite right. Some pieces would be too big, many about the right size, and then this layer of small pecan crumbs would stick to everything else in the bowl. And honestly, with such a humble presentation, the textures and flavors have to be even more correct.

Which brings us to the flavors. Rather than stretching them out over the expanse of a 10 inch plate, where they sit aside each other, the flavors in the bowl are compacted, right on top of each other, existing nearly with in each other. That means that if every single flavor added to a dish doesn’t taste perfect together, it won’t work.  It sounds like a big “duh”. Of course everything should taste good together. But when you are stretching flavors out over a plate, you don’t always get every single flavor on a spoonful, particularly not in the exact same ratios every time. It’s not that those large plated dishes shouldn’t make an effort to taste perfect together. Instead, it’s that in these little bowls of dessert, any subtle flaw or weakness in the flavor profile has no room to hide.

What I love about these tiny dishes I work with is that they exude comfort. It’s much like you would share a dessert at a friends house, at home cuddled up in the corner of your couch, around a pick nick table. And they are just so easy to pick up and share. And with the large, communal nature of the dining room at Poppy, the casual dining style, I feel these small layered dishes are the culmination of the experience.

It has brought to mind the question to me, how well would all of my stylized desserts have fared stacked in a bowl? Were the choices I made strong enough to stand up to such close quarters or did they favor a visual aesthetic that withdrew from the flavor pairings.

Michael Laiskonis wrote recently, referencing this same subject but on the flip side of it. He wondered if some of the stylistic choices he made added anything more than a visual aesthetic, and if not, did it belong.  He argued, and I agreed, that to a point, yes.  Components that add to the visual are appropriate, when used appropriately. When working in a restaurant which does use elegant plating styles to exemplify the experience in said restaurant, then a graphic line of sauce, a few dots, a sprinkle, used in moderation, absolutely belongs.

There are times when increasing the visual aesthetic is appropriate, and indeed increases the diners enjoyment of the dish. And to deny the importance of the visual aesthetic is to do a disservice to your customers experiences, and your desserts. Of course, the flavors must belong together. But drawing a line of sauce across the plate may not add flavor to every bite of your experience, the way a covering of the same sauce infuses every bite of my little bowls, it still belongs.

Desserts plated so stylistically are eaten differently as well, tentatively, with more awareness and caution, tasting a bit here, a bit there, not wanting to destroy the visual aesthetic more than necessary. So a line or dot of sauce offers the chance to dip the tip of your spoon in that flavor alone, taking it in, building the experience of taste as carefully as the dessert itself was constructed.

Of course, this is within reason.  I am sure most of us are quite glad to see the era of the sugar cage and bland white tuilles fading.  And can we also hope for the death of the duo of a mint sprig and dusting of powdered sugar????

I am a firm believer in loving everything for being what it is. A desert at Poppy, layered, snugly in it’s tiny earth toned bowl is Poppy, and is beautiful for existing there. The large expansive graphically presented plates from high end restaurants are equal, no better, no worse, but beautiful for being what they are and existing where they belong. One is not better than the other. You might prefer one to the other.  You might have had a higher percentage of good experiences in one format or another. But when done correctly, with respect to letting each be what they are, they are both beautiful.

Oh Yeah… My Co-Blogger is Famous and Stuff

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Generally we try not to toot our own horn here on Tastingmenu. And besides, what purpose would it serve, you wouldn’t believe us anyway. You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed Poppy (where Dana is the pastry chef). And believe me, it’s not cause I don’t enjoy eating her desserts. That said, once in awhile we do have to point you to some accolades. And since Dana would never link to it, I will! :)

I’ll quote the relevant parts from the article in today’s Seattle PI:

“Dana Cree, pastry chef at Poppy, made Bruno’s radar on her 2005 Seattle trip, when Cree was working at Veil. But Cree got this StarChefs’ call when she had been at Poppy just four days, with none of her creations on the menu.

She pulled mental ideas out of a hat. She prepared a talk on the Concord grape-rosemary sorbet that reflected some of her talents and interests. But she still didn’t feel prepared — and then, 90 minutes before she was scheduled to start plating her dishes, she began feeling nauseated and dizzy.

It turned out to be the start of the worst case of food poisoning she has had — and, she said, the luckiest. When she made her way down to the tasting team, they told her “we’ll come back in six weeks.”

When they did, judges wrote that Cree “impressed the hell out of us” with a bittersweet chocolate terrine paired with five garnishes, her “little black dress” of desserts that she makes to show that chocolate can go with anything, and an herbed-cider sorbet with pine nut “Crackerjacks”.

“She blew me away. This girl is one of the top five pastry chefs in the country right now, ” Bruno said.

The “Rising Star” recognition is meant for chefs who are 40 and younger and are “really making a difference in their culinary community,” Bruno said.”

Uh… kick ass! Yay Dana.

Snowed In

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Those of you staring into computer screen in the Pacific Northwest are well aware of the snow that has bound us to our homes.  Those outside this region, possibly from area’s accustomed to regular snowfall, might scoff at the mere 9 inches that has kept me behind my front door for most of the past week.

You have to understand, we just don’t get much snow here.  So when we do, we let the soft blanket slow our lives to a calm pace, tuck ourselves indoors, and enjoy the few days in which we just couldn’t possibly be accountable for the daily fuss that is city life.

Some of us are going stir crazy.  I am not one of those people.  It’s been nothing short of a lovely vacation here in my little apartment, with nothing to deal with outside my doors.  I don’t have to go to the grocery store, I dont’ have to run any errands, I don’t have to bother.  Instead I have caught up on those rainy day things that not even a rainy day in Seattle can prompt me to do.

In particular, I have caught up on the stack of cookbooks that I have accumulated over the last 6 months, finding the most inspiration from Elizabeth Faulkner’s Demolition Desserts.  It’s an interesting process for me, that of reading cookbooks by other chefs.  It’s not just a look at the pretty pictures, or a few post-its flagging recipes I might try if I ever get around to it.  I have to find their frame of reference in order to process what they have put forth.

While this is hard to do without tasting anything, without the visual clues given by plating and the restaurant itself, the dialogue written in a book is often more revealing than the actual experience.   Every dish in a restaurant is the culmination of  personal internalization and interpretation.  Thus, a chef takes in inspiration from common sources, sources we are all familiar with; flavor (cherry), texture (cakey), shared cultural food memories (fluffernutter, pumpkin pie) , the work of other chefs (Pierre Herme), color (bright orange), mood (serene), season (winter).  These all whirl around in a chefs mind, where they are filtered through their own personal life experiences, knowledge base, persona, and are interpreted, internalized, and eventually spit back out into a dish.

You should immediately recognize the original inspiration.  Simply put, if the inspiration for the dessert was meyer lemon, you should darn well recognize meyer lemon.  More complex, if the chef is inspired by fall, the dessert should invoke the season.  On top of that you can hopefully recognize the personality that has been infused into the dish.  In other words, set side by side, a meyer lemon dessert made by my process should be recognizable against one of Faulkner’s making.

We all know this is not always the case.  It is a rare tallent that can imbibe their dishes with their true spirit.  Hokey, I know.  But after flipping through the pages of Demolition Desserts, it is clear that Faulkner has managed to know herself through her desserts.  She has been able to present the information to us in a way that lets us in, lets us crawl through her psyche and see the world of sweet things as she does.

This point is not easy to reach as a chef.  It is the mark of experience, maturity, mixed with a spark not everyone is lucky enough to have.  It’s a rare teenager that knows who they are, just as it is a rare fledgeling chef that has come to this point of self awareness.  It comes with time, takes it’s sweet time, demands more time, but comes, provided this crazy industry doesn’t break you first.

How do these demolition desserts taste?  I have no idea.  I can make assumptions based on the pictures, the way the flavors sound together, the way the recipe appears to put things together.  But that’s never really the point with cookbooks for me.

Instead, it’s the chance to climb inside someone elses head for an hour or two.  A chance to find their point of reference, and look at the same things I see every day from their view, to see things I have never seen before in things I see every day.

I would be foolish to say I have come close to finding this in myself.  It’s budding, I can see that.  I can see a few of the same things coming back to menu after menu.  I have begun to be able to say things like, “no this is how I do it.”  Or, “That’s just not my style.”

I have found a creative process that works for me, and have put it to practice a few times in a row now.  I choose simple flavors, clean, stripped down to their core being then magnified, pair them with other flavors I believe they taste good with, and build a structure of texture around these flavor profiles.  I take successful dishes rooted in tradition, strip them down to thier essence, their base identity, and use those building blocks to create something new and old at the same time.

I can see traces of those chefs I have been influenced by shining through the fabric of my desserts.  I can see thick ribbons of Scott Carsberg’s minimalism, isolating and heightening flavors and letting them speak for themselves.  I can Heston’s philosophy hemming my work, framing the bigger picture that is the entire process of the human interpretation of physical stimulus into flavor.  I can see Stupak’s deep knowlege of texture and control threading it’s way through what I do, the same thirst for deeper understanding fueled by Chris Young, weaving the fabric tigher every month.  Sequins of Shannon Galusha’s playful love of americana scatter, a pattern of Jerry Traunfields deep and lenghty bond with herbs and spices is begining to show through.

I have beliefs about what my desserts are and aren’t.  I take in the entire experience the restaurant I work at offers, what it feels like to be in the dining room, what the diner feels like after their meal, what the decor says to them, the neighborhood, the chef’s work, how hard was it to park, wether or not they dress up or down for this experience.  I build the desserts to be the culmination of this experience, not just a sweet nothing to say goodbye with, an afterthought.

Thus, the dessert built of the flavor profile inspired by the nostalgic american treat, the creamsicle, vanilla, citrus, creamy, tangy, will be very different when built for a diner who has just spent three hours in a Phillip Stark plastic chair in the near steril, white, closely veiled dining room at Veil, than for a diner that has spent one and a half hours on the woven seat of the danish modern chairs hand crafted by a local cabinet maker in the booming, cavernous, racous dining room at Poppy.

I can see all this showing, I do hope, that above all, a small glimpse of myself is becoming present in the desserts too.  Hopefully those of you who have had desserts at all the restaurants I have worked at can recognize a twinkle of Dana coming through someday too.  But I am a patient girl, and this is something only time will show.

Restaurant blogs, where have you gone?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

As we rejuvenate our own little blog here I’m eager to link to and highlight the work of other restaurant bloggers who are doing a great job. When Tasting Menu started in August of 2002 it was one of maybe five or ten food blogs in existence. Now it seems like there are millions. And yet, despite all that explosive growth I am having a really hard time finding a set of good restaurant review blogs that post consistently and have good taste. No doubt, limiting myself to blogs in English isn’t helping, but there’s no reason to assume the pattern doesn’t repeat in other countries. And of course, the few that I’ve found are mostly centered on New York city. Duh. The restaurant bloggers go where the restaurants are.

I know there are lots of food blogs that review a restaurant experience here or there. That’s not what I’m looking for. I really want focus. Like a laser. On restaurants. As much as I appreciate and respect the home cook, most high quality chefs are always going to make something better than I ever could. I don’t fill my own cavities or sew my own clothes, and I don’t see anything wrong with trying to have a professional cook for me as often as possible.

Know of a kick ass restaurant blog? Let us know in the comments.

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.


Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

The New York Times food section featured an article today about a growing trend in dining that eliminates the service staff.  This is nothing new if you have sat at the counter at a small sushi restaurant.  However, this intimate scenario has become increasingly popular in newer restaurants, exemplifying the shifting trend in the diners desire for a food based experience, eliminating the middle man and interacting directly with the cooks.
When I first started working with Veil’s Chef de Cuisine Johnny Zhu, who’s recent homecoming to Seattle drew him from Chicago, he told me tales of a restaurant with no service staff what so ever, where the chefs not only cook, but take your order, run food.  A dining room where all beverages are on a bring your own basis, where they filled the house with hip-hop, the Ramones, what ever they liked.  A cooks kind of place.

I flew to Chicago just to eat at this homage to everything a cook is.  Schwa it’s called, a slang term thrown about in elementary school. I arrived alone, spent the next 2 hours chatting with the guys, cook to cook, while enjoying an immensely creative, if not a bit fragmented menu.  I might have wondered if there was a cohesive thread to the menu had the cooks not been at my table.  Two minutes with the chef and it’s clear that he is the cohesion to the meal, his invitingly spastic personality being reflected in the seemingly random progression of modern dishes.  The menu pulls you here and there, just like a conversation with the chef, but centers you with the joy in seeing food so clearly representing those laboring to create it.

With each course the cooks and I peeled back the layers, spoke of those we knew in common.  Chatted about the time both the chef and I spent at The Fat Duck.  Talked about Johnny, who had worked with one of the cooks for a while.  And when they found out I flew in just to see them, they gushed. Then while dropping my dessert, they invited me out for beers afterwards.   As a cook, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better dining experience.  It was worth every penny, the two days out of my life it took to eat there.
My friend Chris visited with a group from The Fat Duck, so we chatted a bit about the meal, and he dropped a bomb on me.

“It’s closed” he told me.  Apparently the day after Chris, Heston, and others dined there Schwa closed it’s doors.

A little devastated, I told Johnny.  We weren’t really sure what to believe.  Since then we have looked at each other and asked, “do you think it really closed?”  Or, “any word on Schwa, is it happening?”

We talked about cold calling the restaurant to see if anyone answered, “but no one answered when it was open,” we said.  “The website is still up,” we chatted with hope.

It was a beacon for us, even if it was far away, and a place we can only dine at with plane tickets and hotel rooms.  It was a place run by us, for us, so to speak.

Thank goodness for this recent article, which speaks of the sudden closing, and it’s reopening.  Just knowing Schwa is there feels good, it’s shear existence bringing joy to my little cooks heart.

One day, I think, I’ll make it back.  One day, I day dream, I’ll open something like it.

Thin Ice

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Shuna lost her job.

Shuna is a slashie like me. No, not a actor slash male model, silly Zoolander fan, blogger slash chef. Pastry chef to be exact. And she recently lost her pastry chef job.

I point this out, not to irritate what is a sensitive situation, but to shed light on the fragility of a pastry chefs job. Our position is a constant walk on thin ice, a weekly prayer that the ice won’t crack and swallow our position altogether.

It is a rare restaurant that can truly afford a pastry chefs salary, particularly outside hotel and restaurant groups, and in the small intimate passion driven restaurants I prefer. Labor costs on high end food run around 40 percent. What that means, is for every dollar that comes in the restaurant, 40 percent of that goes to labor. The goal for food cost is around 25 percent. That leaves a slim 35 percent of the gross income to pay for rent, china, equipment, tables, chairs, electricity, flowers, anything and everything.

And profit? 1 percent is considered successful.

The thing about labor cost, is that it’s flexible. Veil’s kitchen staff of 4 can put out 30 dinners, or 80. It costs the restaurant the same to have those 4 cooks/chefs in the kitchen, but clearly having 80 customers brings the restaurant much much more money. Thus, labor cost goes down the busier the restaurant is.

Equally, the slower the dining room is, the higher labor cost is. To create high end, fine dining it takes the same 4 cooks to run a moderate evening as it does a busy evening. To include a pastry chefs salary into labor cost, a restaurant needs to be busy, or big, or part of a large restaurant group, or a hotel.

So we watch numbers like a hawk. We count how many desserts were sold each night, how many covers we had, what percent of diners chose to have dessert. We keep our own food cost in check. We worry over slow days, weeks, months. We see the ice getting thinner, and the potential of our job slipping through the cracks.

I am fairly lucky, I was trained as a line cook long before I entered into the pastry world. I have versatile skills, which help to validate my salary. To keep my self firmly planted in the kitchen I could prep out the veg station, work the pantry, butcher, or cook on the line.

I could take a hourly wage and work part time. Or take a small salary and work 60 hours a week.

I could work for far less money than I know I could get elsewhere.

And I do, believe me.

I do all these things to work at Veil. I make all these sacrifices to stay out of a restaurant group, out of a hotel, out of a private club, out of large busy restaurants. I thrive in a small intimate kitchen, where quality can be absolutely controlled. I prefer to labor intensely for an owner who I know and like, who’s benefit I can see my work directly effecting. I like the security of personal relationships with all levels of management, who are the people see day in day out, inside and outside the restaurant.

I want to feel connected to the growth and success of the restaurant I work for. I want to feel connected to the customers I cook for.

I could care less about bringing in profit for a corporation. There is absolutely no motivation for me to break my body, work 60 plus hours for people who don’t know me. People who see me as a labor cost, not a person.

So I make sacrifices. I don’t want to be a line cook, but if it lets me stay in the kitchen and create the desserts I do at Veil, then I’ll do it. I don’t want to be broke, but if that’s what it takes to stay in a kitchen of integrity, intimacy, I will.

I do this, because above all, I don’t want to lose my job.

Today’s Secret Ingredient…. Heat

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I wish with everything in my little cooks heart that Harold McGee wrote for the NY Times every Wednesday.

This week we are treated to an introduction to an ingredient every cook uses every day with very little understanding. In this weeks article, he talks about heat.

Having been in the kitchens I have been in,  I have been exposed a bit to the thought of better using heat to cook foods.  Take sous vide, a word that we hear thrown around with trendy modern food is actually an exercise in the most efficient manner to apply heat to food.  Yes, the method of putting food in vacuum sealed bags and cooking it in water has been used for a few decades now.  However it’s the more recent study into how the energy of heat changes and effects the molecules in our food that resurrected this method from the depths of reheating catered dinners, introduced perfectly controlled thermobaths from laboratories, and brought it to the forefront of haute cuisine.

While much of the study of heats effects on food relate to meat cookery, where our use of the energy is at it’s most inefficient, the application I found most interesting was for potatoes.

Almost every restaurant has mashed potatoes on their menu.  It seems to be a game of chasing the white rabbit, that of making the perfect, fluffiest, creamiest, mashed potatoes.  We as cooks hear legend of different kitchens and their ethereal potatoes, like Joel Robechons, “passed through the tammis 5 times!  Mounted with twice their weight in butter!”  Every kitchen has their spin on making theirs better.

At WD-50 I saw something done to the potatoes that makes a cook scream, “yes!” A method of cooking the potatoes with an explanation using true understanding of the molecules inside the potatoes and the effects of heat on them.

The potatoes are peeled, sliced, and cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees celsius for 30 minutes.  The potatoes are transferred to an ice bath to cool completely.  At this point the potatoes are still crisp, seemingly unchanged.  Once cooled, the potatoes are cooked just as you would have had you just peeled them.  If the potatoes are seemingly unchanged, you might ask what on earth did they just do?

Well, working with a method used by the commercial mashed-potatoes-in-a-box companies, they use just enough heat to cause the starch granules inside the potatoes to swell.  Think of these granules as little sacks of starch molecules.  They absorb water, and the starches inside grow.  If they are mishandled, or bounced around by too much energy, say that of boiling water, these little bags break open freeing all those starch molecules.  These rouge starches are now free to retrograde, recrystallize and cross-link forming long gummy chains.  This is not good.

So, after cooking the potatoes in gentle heat, just long enough to make these starch bags swell, the potatoes are then cooled in an ice bath.  The starch in the potatoes are allowed to recrystallize, or retrograde.

Wait, didn’t we just say that was bad?  Well, it’s bad when the starches aren’t contained.  Because of the gentle application of moderate heat those little starch sacks are intact with swollen starches inside.  The ice bath forces these starches to retrograde, gel, set, what every you may, inside their sack.  Retrograde is permanent.  The starches are now cemented into place safely inside their granules, and you can now cook the potatoes with a more aggressive heat, and break apart the starch sacks by mashing and passing through a tammis, processing the potato.  You can manipulate these particles into a nice smooth, even mashed potato with out risk of releasing the starches from their containment.  No gummy paste, no stringy gluey mashed potatoes.

And the best part?  You can cool the mashed potatoes, and reheat them for service with no change in texture.

Pretty cool, huh?