A slightly edited version was published in

Richmond Magazine, December 2014

Are you going out to eat, or going out to dine?  Are you a guest, or a customer?  Is dining theater, or just another form of shopping?  Here is some food for thought.

 

  • I’ll begin with the tough one: No bread and butter on the table, for lots of reasons. Hopefully you’re there to dine.  If it’s a nice restaurant, don’t fill up with dough and fat even though it does taste so damn good.  Save room for an appetizer and entrée, maybe even split a dessert.  If it’s not such a nice restaurant, that roll or bread is the cheap stuff.    Fight the urge, just say no.  And if they have good bread, nothing is better.  But at the very least, wait until your appetizers are down before you savor the bread.  I remember back in our youth Stacey and I would go to Hogate’s on the waterfront in D.C.  After they took your order for a fried seafood platter, they started your meal with a huge brick of warm, iced cinnamon roll.  No wonder we lay awake half the night.

 

  • No free water. Enjoy a glass of wine, some good quality tea, or (my personal favorite) a bottle of San Pellegrino.  It has just the right bubbles and light sodium to taste delicious.  Tap water is filled with chorine and yuck, and it costs the restaurateur about the same as a soda (poison I tell ya).  If they get $2 bucks for $.17 worth of corn syrup and carbonated water, why free tap water?  They spend about the same money giving you a clean glass and ice cubes.  They have to make it up somewhere.  If they filter the water, that’s more cost to them.  Pay a buck.

 

  • No tipping. Wtf?  How does that work?  Well, the servers need (and usually deserve) a decent wage.  Tipping after the fact only adds to the drama.  Will you leave 10% or 25%?  Or nothing?  Does the server have to get all kissy kissy or do they come in to do their job the best they can?  Like the cooks.  Or dishwashers.  Gratuities are included in most European countries and service there does not suffer.  In fact, they are there to make a living, not run to the table to see how much you left them.

 

  • Stop focusing on portions. The bigger the plate of food served, the more the restaurant needs to buy cheaper ingredients.  A ginormous plate of spaghetti with cheap cheese, canned sauce and imitation parmesan dust is not ‘dining’.  It’s filling your belly with processed foods.  If a restaurant is out to gouge, oh well.  A rule of thumb for all you restaurateur s:  30% of your revenue goes to food cost, 30% to labor, 30% to operating costs (rent, insurance, utilities and a thousand other costs) and 10% to the bottom line.  It’s reasonable.  Bars can make much more money with a low beverage cost, low labor cost (tips vs wages) and cheap food.  You need to decide if you’re getting quality value, not quantity value.

 

  • Ban cell phones.   In this day and age?  Look around next time you eat out.  Holding a phone in one hand and a fork in another is spectacularly common.  Check your guns (phones) at the door and nobody gets hurt.  Good luck with this one.

 

  • Do not ask the server for recommendations. I know, I know, it’s what you do.  Don’t.  In a good restaurant, there should be no ‘bad’ dishes.  Follow your gut feelings.  If you’re looking at the lamb and the waiter suggests the pork chop, what to do?  It turns out the waiter has never had the lamb or doesn’t like red meat.  Who cares?  On the other hand, if you’re in a not-so-good place it might be a good idea to get steered away from dishes that everybody knows are awful.  When I was taken to a place in Bentonville, Arkansas by a firm I was consulting with, the host asked the server what he would recommend.  “Frankly” he said, “I wouldn’t eat anything here but the NY Strip”.  All eight of us ordered the NY Strip.

 

  • No ordering appetizers first and entrees later. This is large.  Clearly, ordering something right away sounds like a good idea.  And we can nibble while we keep looking at the menu.  This is a huge problem.  Serving really good food is an orchestration of a trained and talented kitchen.  To season and cook an entrée properly, count on twenty minutes. If you’ve eaten your appetizers and chatted before ordering the main course you are, despite what you may think at the time, going to feel like dinner is taking forever.  Most restaurants that can get it out faster do so by pre-cooking the food and warming it up, or deep frying.

Really, Really Good Coffee

February 6th, 2015

 

Without getting into too much detail, here’s how I make morning coffee.

 

  • Great coffee beans
  • Good grinder
  • Digital thermometer
  • Water filtered for chlorine, not minerals
  • Press Pot

 

All of these steps are very important:

  • Bring your water to between 200-204 degrees
  • Grind your beans while your water is heating up. You will want a grind somewhere between drip and espresso: fairly fine.  This will end up using less bean for better results.

 

I make a 48 oz. press pot in the morning.  For this I use a scant cup of beans, or about 80 grams (just under three ounces).  Put the ground coffee into the press pot.  Pour in half the heated water.  (Under 200 degrees does not bring out all of the flavor and oils.  Over 204 degrees and you will burn it.)  Using a neutral stirrer (wood spatula or chopstick), stir the coffee.  It will have swollen and released CO2.  Then add the remaining water.

 

Put the cover/plunger on but wait a good minute to let the coffee steep.  Then carefully push the plunger down.  Enjoy a perfect pot of coffee every time.

 

I’m Pretty Famous, Still

January 22nd, 2015

Yep.  I’ve been around a while, done a lot of great things.  Life is good.  Still, it’s nice to be acknowledged like I was recently on The Chew.  Michael Symon was demonstrating a unique crab cake, inspired by the “Great Chef” from The Frog and the Redneck.

A minor point:  He called me Jimmy Schmidt.

Tribute to Jean-Louis Palladin

January 16th, 2015

* I found this today, not sure when I wrote it or for what occasion.  Enjoy. *

 

I’ve been asked to say a few kind words about Jean-Louis.  Yet looking back on the years of screaming that I endured, I have to question why they chose me.

Maybe it’s because I love him anyway.

Perhaps no chef in our lifetime has had a greater influence on cuisine in America than Jean-Louis Palladin.  When he came to the States in 1979, he arrived as the only Michelin-rated chef to open a restaurant here.  AND, the youngest two star Michelin in history.  The Washington Post, by way of William Rice, ran a two page story heralding this great young talent.  Henri Gault, of the Gault/Millaut guide, called Jean-Louis the greatest chef ever to leave France!  Their loss, our gain.

It was a very exciting moment and, although we didn’t know it at the time, American Cuisine was about to come into its own.  What happened next was magical.  First, Pan Am air cargo.  Then UPS.  Then FED EX.  Any product Jean-Louis wanted, Jean-Louis got.  He heard about a guy in Oregon picking wild mushrooms in a National Forest.  He had them the next day.  Another guy, in Maine, had divers in bell helmets picking up scallops off the ocean floor.  Jean-Louis wanted them, forget the cost.  Today, that guy, Rod Mitchell, sells seafood and caviar to virtually every top restaurant in America, including most every chef here tonight.

As an eager student, I watched Jean-Louis take product he had never worked with before, and turn it into a culinary delight.  Like his corn soup with lobster.  Fresh Heart of Palm, Golden Ossetra Caviar, Squid Ink, Lobster Coral, Live Baby Eel, and of course fresh foie gras, became regulars on his nightly, hand written menus.  Nothing got in the way of his needs, even if it meant smuggling in the equipment needed to force feed ducks.  Or smuggling in tiny, defenseless little ortelan, 300 of them.  Or smuggling in seeds for a melon, so sweet that it makes your hands sticky just to touch it.  A melon now sold as the Palladin melon.  Product was king, and Jean-Louis the Master.

I started with him in 1982.  I was just a kid, horny to learn from a master, any master.  He was the old master, much older than I.  And yet, when I do the math, I am shocked to realize that I was 29 years old and he was 35.  Jesus.  How is that possible?  And to think, I was actually scared of him.  But I was there to learn, and learn I did.  I learned about the passion, something you seldom learn in school, and seldom learned about in restaurants, way back when.  Yep, Jean-Louis takes home the Olympic medal for passion.  Anyone who has worked with him, in his own kitchen or in someone else’s kitchen, has seen it.  (And heard it.)  He cooks with all his energy, every time, every dish.  I know that one of the hardest things for him these last few months, is not being able to work the stove at his restaurant.  This man was born to cook.  His talent so great he even made a chef out of me.

Jean-Louis has asked that I express his gratitude to everyone here tonight, not only for being here and showing your support, but for being the kind of customer he needed in order to succeed, for without great appreciative customers, there would be no great restaurants.  And without great restaurants, life would suck.  (My words, not his.)  Your love and friendship over the years have kept him energized and made his life whole.  He wants you to know that he loves each and every one of you, unless Shoffner is in the room.

Good Is The Enemy Of Great

December 14th, 2014

“Du beurre, encore du beurre, toujours du beurre.”

Fernand Point

 [As seen in Boomer Magazine’s October – November 2014 issue]

 Some 80 years ago, when asked what made French food so good Chef Point replied “Butter, more butter, always butter”.  Can it really be that simple?  I think not.  Think of it like money, more money, always money.  Sure, it sounds good on paper, but it’s hardly the whole picture.

Which begs the question: Just what is great food?

As a culture, Americans have quickly progressed from a kettle over a fire to Swanson’s TV Dinners, Howard Johnson’s fried clams (their corporate chef was once Jacques Pepin), big steakhouses and burger joints, Modern American Cuisine, and now, Farm to Table.

Chefs have been taught that great ‘western’ cuisine is based in six hundred years of French tradition and training.  The French wrote the book(s) on eating.  And rules there were: each sauce had a name and must be made exactly the same way each time.  If you tried to take a shortcut, you risked being locked in a cooler, or even slapped up the side of the head.  Why so serious?   Ask Escoffier, Carême, Brillat-Savarin and the other great (albeit dead) masters.  Or go watch Ratatouille again.

Then something changed; cooking became more about love than rules.  Do not misunderstand: French technique is a must.  It teaches us everything from flavor profiles to knife skills.  It teaches us that crushed shallots are bitter; but when cut with a very sharp knife they’re sweet and rich.  We learn the importance of seasoning foods at the right time in the process and what utensils to use for what results.

 

I learned a lesson nearly forty years ago while working at the original Le Cordon Bleu in Paris:  The chef had cracked an egg into a bowl and then, slowly and deliberately, he used his thumb to wipe the inside of the shell.  His reward was a smidgeon of egg white that would have been left behind.  He looked at me and said that one day I would understand why he did that.  I’m thinking, why bother?  It’s hardly worth the effort.  You know, time is money and all that.  Then, a few years deeper into my training I understood.  It’s not about economizing, it’s about respect; respect for the product.

 

So, if you’re looking for great food in a great restaurant, look for passion and certainly look for training and experience.  Good cooks can be self-taught, but great professional chefs cannot.  Like any great profession, you need to learn from those that came before you.

So what about the butter?  If you’re going to use butter, use good butter.  And use it in moderation.  Then add a bit more.

 

“If you stop eating butter, your skin will turn to dandruff.”

Julia Child

It’s Just Cheese

November 17th, 2014

Sometimes in life there arrives an iconic incident that defines our lives, or careers.  Such a moment happened when we were opening SugarToad Restaurant and the Hotel Arista in Naperville, IL a few years back.

My chef de cuisine, Geoff Rhyne, was directing a delivery guy to the back kitchen so as to unload his hand truck stacked with our first inventory of food.  Delivery guy then took the top carton of food and, in effect, threw it to the floor at which Geoff instinctively yelled “Hey, what are you doing?”

Delivery guy looked at Geoff and said “Relax, it’s just cheese”.

Jesus cried.

 

Kicked out of Disney World

October 21st, 2014

My good friend John Blazon is in town today.  Hopefully, we’ll grab a bite together.  He’s busy though.  You see, John is an MS, or Master Sommelier.  There aren’t many of them in the world, much less here in America.  He worked hard for it.  It took him four years to pass the test.

Now he works for a wine mogul.  But before that he was the wine guru at Disney World.  So when I was invited to participate in their Epcot Food and Wine Expo, I got to hang with my old buddy.  Well, not so much.  Disney provided my family with a VIP guide and we got to go to the front of the line on any ride we wished.  I highly recommend taking this route.

We had so much fun that when I spoke with John a couple of weeks later I told him I’d be glad to return next year.

“Not going to happen,” he said.  “Apparently you made quite a scene when you checked out, yelling and complaining about your accommodations.”

Now, I’ve been accused of a lot of things, none of which I will address here.  But yelling and complaining at a desk clerk?  Not me, not ever.  Something’s wrong here.  Anyway, it seems I’m banned.

Then I get a call from John a few weeks later.  It seems that it was a case of mistaken identity and the perp was one of the winemakers, not me at all.  Haha.  Joke’s on us.

“So,” I said, I’ll be back next year?”

“Well, not quite.  Remember the restaurant where you cooked dinner for 150 people?”

Yeah…..

“Remember when you began plating up, two of the cooks had disappeared?”

Yeah….

“And when they showed up 10 minutes later they reeked of cigarettes so you told them that if they were so unprofessional as to walk out to smoke a cigarette in the middle of service they were no longer needed, so you sent them home?”

Yeah….

“Well, one of them was the Executive Chef of that restaurant.”

Give It a Rest

October 18th, 2014

I have steaks on the grill as I write this.  I’m going to turn them, again, in a couple of minutes.  So wait… “The French” say that you should always sear a steak to seal in the juices, and turn them only once.  The logic is that since the juices (blood) move away from the source of heat they will rise to the upper half of the steak.  By turning them once, you now have the juices (blood) on the bottom half.  Perfection is achieved when the juices return to center.  Now, take them off the heat, put them on a rack and let them rest at least ten minutes.  THIS IS CRITICAL.  The rack keeps the steak off of a flat surface that would in effect keep cooking the meat.  The resting does magic.  It allows the meat to reabsorb the juices and ‘relax’.  It’s quite amazing, this resting phase, and critical.

Except this logic is flawed.

When Chef Guenter Seeger took me under his wing, he had ideas and techniques that ran quite contrary to what I had been taught.  For example he would take a nicely seasoned venison tenderloin steak and put it into a cold pan with a dab of butter and a smidgeon of grape seed oil.  A cold pan?  Stupid German, doesn’t he know the basics?  As the pan heated up he would turn the steak over, baste it, turn it again, baste it, and again and again.  Since the heat source kept changing, there was no place for the juices (blood) to go so they stayed put and cooked the meat from within.  Now, instead of driving the juices away and reabsorbing what you could, you kept all of the juice and flavor and ended up with a tender, melt in your mouth delight.  Who knew?

What I’ve really described here is rotisserie cooking.  Think about it.  A chicken on a spit slowly turns in front of the fire.  The juices stay inside and leave you with a succulent bird.  Again, letting the bird sit for 10-20 minutes does a world of good.  It finishes the cooking process.  When you roast your turkey this year, let that puppy rest a good half hour before carving.  You’ll impress.

Oh, another thing.  The flavor of a steak is in the juice, and fat.  I watch all these folks at Sam’s Club pick out the lean ribeye steaks, leaving the marbled ones for me.  Thank you so much.  Then, cook it rare plus.  Rare plus.  What the hell is that?  Somehow the new generation of cooks got off track on their temps.  If I order a steak rare, it comes out raw.  If I order it medium rare, it comes out medium.  I want it between rare and medium rare please.

 

Take It Off!

October 15th, 2014

I once sat on a panel with noted food writer John Mariani where we discussed the evolution of food. John got up and said “I have seldom met a dish that wouldn’t benefit from the removal of two or three ingredients”. I noted that if you took two or three ingredients off of my plate, you would have a plate.

As Coco Chanel famously said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.”

Tale of the $9 Dog.

September 22nd, 2014

I ventured afar recently with my mother, now 88.  We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that has been getting lots and lots of ‘blog press’.  I had a crab cake, moist with a crust, that was quite good, served on a piece of toasted thick bread.  $14, no sides.  But hey, good crabmeat is not cheap.  Heck, bad crabmeat is not cheap.

My mom wanted a hot dog, which luckily they had.  It claimed to be a Kobe dog, which meant nothing to Mom.  She wanted a hot dog.  It was brought out on a bun, on a plate.  No garnish, no chips, no pickle, just a naked dog on a bun.  $9.  When Mom asked for some diced onion she was told they didn’t have any.  Any what?  No onion in the kitchen or none diced?

Oh, and the waitress took our order while holding a stack of dirty dishes from another table.

Is there a lesson here or is this just what’s become of our industry?  As I told one stunned magazine owner, you do more harm praising a poor restaurant than you do dissing a great one.  The great restaurant will continue putting out great food and service at a fair price while elsewhere the standards get lower when you heap praise on mediocrity.

 

 

When asked how his day was going, he replied

“I’m sorry to say that today, mediocrity rules.”

Chef Rene Ryckenbusch 1979

Hot Dog