Five tasty reasons to get to know us better

If you know food, you can read the description of a menu item and know right off the bat how well the dish will eat. Flavors and textures that compliment, acid to balance and the right cooking technique all play a role in what lands on the plate.

When you cook at home or dine at a restaurant, think about these factors and most likely, you’ll hit a long ball each and every time.

1. Apple Rutabaga Parsnip soup – this creamless soup is poured tableside into a bowl with diced pork belly and fennel sofrito.

2. Caramelized onion tart with a gougere shell, beef vinaigrette, and the tapenade. It was a mixed inspired dish between French onion and a nicoise onion tart that has olives and anchovies. This is my bastardization of the two.

3. Deckle cap of rib roast with collard greens and trumpet royale mushrooms, meaux mustard sauce, polenta and a duck egg. Why duck egg? It’s richer than the ubiquitous kind. The classic sauce cuts the richness.

4. Lamb neck, left, with turnips and baby artichokes. To the right, lamb chop with a boned out porterhouse underneath and the two contrasting flavors of salsa verde and honey vinaigrette.
5. Lightly blackened red drum fish with octopus and potato chowder. The fish changes depending on what’s fresh and coming in from the docks where we buy direct.

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Seeing Stars

The big news this week was that the Michelin stars were given to Chicago restaurants. Every food writer, restaurateur, cook, foodie, etc weighed in on their predictions, and of course, the fallout. For chefs, garnering Michelin stars is a pretty big deal—it’s a helluva recognition that for so long we looked across the pond at.

I’m half Marco Pierre White and half Abraham Maslow on this. Maslow deemed it important for a psyche to have a sense of belonging in our development. The respect of others and the confidence instilled by stars is nice—I’d be lying if I stated that it wouldn’t be nice to be recognized that way. Maybe we can urge the inspectors to ride the “marathon” 26 miles outside of the city to our humble abode, or maybe not.

This is where the Marco Pierre White comes into play. Marco infamously gave back his stars almost in an act of perceived defiance. For me, the why behind the action is debatable, but the rebellious chef in me romanticizes it as a “who needs your stars anyway” stance. We as professionals know what we are putting out if we are honest with ourselves. I’m confident that we are putting out a great product 95% of the time. However, as we grow and develop in this restaurant, we have slip-ups where mistakes are made. I can’t stand when they happen, but I also reconcile with the fact that this cook will learn from this and be better for it. We are on a journey towards a destination named perfection that won’t ever be met. Thus, a critic giving me a star doesn’t necessary validate anything to me so much so as it does to the public at large. HOWEVER, Marco was able to build his career based upon those stars in the first place, so you tell me how necessary they are. I for one would love to be in the position where I could give them back, though I don’t know if I would.

For Chicago, collectively the outpouring of star love was minimal at best. Quite a few gripes have been expressed, while others are grateful and overjoyed. To the ones that didn’t, get over it. I think now the challenge has been thrown down. Dig in that much harder and push yourselves to get better. Don’t complain—that’s the worst. I’m the type of person where if you say I can’t, I say watch me. Use it as a motivational tool. I guarantee if chefs take that approach to drive to get better that the results will show next year—this area has some talented folks working in the kitchens. For the ones that received such high praise—congrats, now you have to feed the beast. The cycle will only continue.

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From autumn comes apples and a memory-making dessert

It’s a cool (pun intended) time of year when apples begin showing up at the market. It signals the ending of a season and the beginning of those heartier, feel good dishes. I am a big fan of apples and the versatility that they possess. From a salad to a soup, a side dish or a dessert, apples are an important player in fall dishes. Is there a more distinct fall taste than apples?

A few years back when I was still in the Carolina’s, some friends came to a restaurant where I was working. Of course, whenever folks that I know well come to eat, I go a little nuts and create dishes just for them. I will never forget what I served them for their first course on their first date— Apple Consomme with Fall Spiced Gnocchi.

The gnocchi was accented with hints of clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The consommé was beefed up by adding two of my favorites: Captain Morgan and Crown Royal. When I went out to the table to check on them, Kristin exclaimed, “This is fall in a bowl! Delicious!”

On 10-10-10, this couple is getting married and I am thrilled to be serving as my friend Josh’s Best Man. In honor of them and this wonderful time of year, expect to see us playing with this soup throughout the fall. This is how I love to cook—to evoke memories and to perhaps, if I’m lucky, create new ones.

This folks, is what it’s all about.

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Blue Hill Day Five: a reflective finale

Today, I went in to do pastry work. Sunday’s are all day affairs here—the crew all works lunch and dinner, so the pastry kitchen wasn’t in its normal production. Thus, the last day began with just baking off some flatbreads, spinning ice creams and sorbets, and slacking out a few hundred balls of cookie dough. During this cookie process, my mind began to numb, but it turned into a reflective moment. I’m not sure if the recent reflection came as a result of the anniversary of 9-11, but I began to ponder my life, my career, and my week at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

What began as a trip to see this wonderful operation ended as a means to rediscovering my purpose as a chef. It comes down to three basic objectives: To cook, to teach, and to inspire.

I love cooking. The process: working directly with the farmers, discovering and rediscovering products, the respect for those ingredients, the preparation, and the customer feedback —it’s a cool symbiotic relationship. The heat and intensity of the stoves while we passionately cook with a sense of purpose during service.
It’s fulfilling.

Teaching the staff what I know and have learned is amazing. To watch them grow and gain confidence and knowing that I may play a part on their way to success makes me motivated to learn more, to teach more.

It’s rewarding.

To inspire those around me is a lofty objective. However, all I’m really trying to accomplish is to let folks know that becoming part of doing something for the common good is quite accessible. Inspire those who I work with to get better. Inspire those who make decisions about food (everyone) to make educated choices based upon the resources and information available (and in some ways, I can provide). Doing right by each other and for the bounty of resources we have is something we should all be trying to attain.

It’s responsible.

To summarize, while I feel like I have added strength in terms of my operational mindset, I believe the perspective gained on a grander scale made this trip special. It is now time for me to get back and step it up, providing the staff that I work with, the folks that dine at the restaurant, and the family and friends that support me with the best I have to give. I am humbled by the good fortune of this experience, and excited about implementing some new direction and focus t SugarToad.

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Day Four: Farm-tastic, weed burning and rare pigs

I was amped to get to work. The plan was to walk the farm, check out charcuterie, and then see how the Blue Hill kitchen executes a wedding. Big agenda, and damn if it didn’t deliver.

The farm is amazing. Johnny, the liaison for the restaurant and farm operation who also goes to the markets in the city, was cool enough to take the time and walk me around. We started in the field, and fortunately, Zach, the field manager, happened to be there. He was crazy knowledgeable and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him. On that day, the fields displayed brussel sprouts, different brassicas, tomatoes, table grapes, okra, carrots, fennel, leeks, cabbage and just tons of beautiful stuff.

To top it off, I learned a new way to weed after seeing a patch that had obviously been burned. Turns out, one of the farm apprentices was weed burning, and it ended up getting mildly out of hand. The crew uses propane tanks with an attachment and burn weeds down. Zach informed me that the procedure precedes planting because new weeds can’t grow back since the top layer of the soil is covered by the burnt weeds. I can’t wait to try it bu if you happen to be driving down Route 59 in the next week or so, don’t mind me. I’ll be out there in my garden looking like one of the Ghostbusters kicking some weed a**!

From the field, we traveled over to the green house area—20,000 square feet. Some really beautiful greens grow in the greenhouse. They also have tomato plants. These beauties are grown vertically by training them from a young age. They have cords that are about 7-8 feet high, and they have rocks dangling down to about a foot off the ground. The tomato plants essentially just crawl up these cords—genius!

We tasted some of the tri star strawberries that are beautiful right now, and then headed into the woods to check out the pigs. These guys are living the dream – a wooded area where pigs can be pigs. It’s just awesome to see. The really cool thing is that the Stone Barns center has made walking paths where everyone can come out and see this stuff. There were people walking around everywhere, many of them families with the kids getting a first-hand education of agriculture.

After the tour, I was as happy as those pigs, and then got to chat with Chef Adam about charcuterie. Very cool conversation, and it led us to talking even more about pigs. It just so happens that they recently received three Ossabaw Island pigs, a variety that accompanied Spanish explorers some 400 years ago to Georgia. Emile DeFelice of Caw Caw Creek has been raising them for some time, and I think the world of his country prosciutto as well as his other products. I love this pig. The folks at Blue Hill had refrained from them because of their temperament and their proximity to families was a concern. However, when Adam took all of the cooks up to check the pigs out today, they, along with the Berkshires were just lounging in the shaded dirt looking like they were having the best time. The plan for these three boars is to crossbreed them with the Berkshire sows. However, as of now, they are too small to, well, sire the much longer sows. Good luck fellas!

After all of this sensory overload, there was actually work to be done. The wedding had some amazing food. The hors d’ouevres were passed on beautiful and unique wooden and slate dishes. Then, the dinner was an assembly line style plate-up with the food being cooked to order. For those novices out there, this is the exception. All too often, banquet style food is put in hot boxes and then served looking less than spectacular. Of course, this is not that kind of place. The dinner was in the restored barn center, and the staff all worked together to make this happen. Awesome to see. All in all, one helluva day. Tomorrow will be my last. I’m going to work in the pastry department with Chef Alex. It’s always fun to work in areas and in situations that you may not be as strong at as you are with others. It’s how you get better, and I look forward to getting better tomorrow.

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Blue Hill Day Three: New Day, New Station

Today I wanted to check out the cold side, and desserts. Called garde manger, this station has three to four people, each with specific tasks. The menu is set up so that the guests receive a lot of the farm fresh vegetables. What makes this station and the food truly stand out is the presentation pieces—they’re unique and dramatic. For instance, baby vegetables are served on a “fence,” baby tempura corn is served on skewers that are placed into what I can only describe as “large wooden dice,” and things like face bacon are arranged on these wooden towers with narrow slits. To see more, plug some of these words into google and go to images. You’ll see what I mean.

Salads are plated in glass bowls, charcuterie on slates of rock—these vessels truly make the food stand out more and bring some aesthetic presence to very simple dishes. The food itself is pure. Conceptually, the objective is to truly show off the ingredient(s) of the dish. I appreciate and understand this approach, and while I focus on doing this myself, it’s enjoyable to be able to look at it from another’s perspective as well. It just adds awareness in my own thought process, which is unbelievably refreshing.

Desserts are phenomenal. I don’t eat sweets often. When I do though, I kind of go on benders. Tonight was one such case. Sorbets, cakes, ice creams, syrups. Now I need to follow this path and work with the pastry chef Alex – a very talented man. Sunday will hopefully be my day for pastry, tomorrow I have a plan: charcuterie and walking the farm. I can’t wait.

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Of Fishheads, Eggs and Chicken Mushrooms

Spending time at another restaurant – what the French call a “stage” (pronounced “staahg) – is all about learning. The fish head that caught my eye the first day – cod or stripped bass – is served to guests sans eyeballs after it’s braised for 14 minutes. It’s awesome for a guy like me who loves anything
edible to see a kitchen serving this – a spoonful of this broth made me salivate for more – just delicious.

I chose Blue Hill for a stage after eating here last sumer. The most memorable thing I had was a dish featuring crispy egg with speck and charcuterie sauce. The egg was fried, but when cut into, the yolk was runny. As soon as I returned to work, I was determined to figure out how the cooks made it. We came up with boling the egg for 4 1/2 minutes and then letting it sit for 3 minutes befoe shocking it (putting the egg in ice water to stop the cooking). It turns out I was damn close. They boil it hard for exactly 4 1/2 minutes, and then shock it right away. Pretty cool to figure it out now.

Turns out that almost every table gets a farm egg (laid on the restaurant property) prepared in either crispy or poached form with the accoutrements varying frequenty. I’m a huge fan of eggs and their versatility, and I appreciate the focus put on them at this restaurant.

The highlight of my day was a chicken mushroom – a variety I have never encountered. These things are phenomenal. I couldn’t help but imagining giving these to my wife who holds mushrooms as necessities in her food repertoire. She would love them, and I – man, I am excited – about these things. I have already sent one of our favorite farmers an inquiry about the availability in the midwest! No wonder Chef Barber set these little beauties aside for the VIPs tonight.

Finally, I was able to try some charcuterie tonight, and the pate was quite good–texture and flavor spot on, but what set it off was this bitter chocolate-cocoa tuile. Crazy, but good. Thus, it was crazy good. Look forward to inquiring and learning about it more tomorrow.

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