Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Iron Chef America, the red headed step child or reality cooking

This piece is attributed to Andy Dehnart, MSNBC contributor
The chefs aren't completely surprised by the secret ingredient because they have been given a few possible options beforehand.

And on the day of the challenge, they can probably figure out which ingredient it is based upon which shopping list has been purchased for them.
The matchups are also planned in advance, with challengers choosing their opponents weeks earlier. All of that makes it possible for producers to order the right ingredients that the chefs will use to prepare their dishes with the secret ingredient, but it also makes the show somewhat less challenging than it comes off on TV.

Both of these facts were confirmed in a fascinating behind-the-scenes piece in The Journal News' Rockland Magazine by Peter Kelly, who defeated Bobby Flay during an episode of "Iron Chef America." He says he chose Bobby Flay in part because "beating him would be a big deal" and that in Kitchen Stadium, the other Iron Chefs are "actually silhouetted stand-ins," not the real chefs.
As to the secret ingredient, he says producers gave him "three possibilities: swordfish, pork or cowboy steak. So I come up with three separate ingredient lists — only one of which they'll actually purchase for the battle." Kelly also revealed that they actually knew the secret ingredient before taping on the episode began because they could see which ingredients had been purchased for them.

He and his sous chefs rehearsed multiple times with each possible ingredient, so the show is like a live performance of something that's had several dress rehearsals. Does that make their preparation of three dishes in 60 minutes any less dramatic? Perhaps a little, because they're not being instantaneously creative.

But as is clear from watching the show, cooking that much that fast offers plenty of pressure and drama.

The original Iron Chef is absolutely my favorite cooking show, ever. Everything about the show was foreign, unfamiliar, new and exciting. If the secret ingredient was familiar, how it was used was unique. If the secret ingredient was unique, it was used in a familiar preparation. The wholeness of culture and culinary practice was very impressive, but foreign. They prepared food in accordance with their seasons, holidays and traditions, which proved drastically different from our ham on Easter, BBQ for Independence Day, and turkey for Thanksgiving. Not only was the original Iron Chef a glimpse into a different cultures' kitchen, but in different cultures' culinary traditions.

On the other hand, Iron Chef America seems to be a well-rehearsed machine, and it is glimpses into the making of the show that re-affirm this notion. I remember on the old show, chefs cut themselves or burnt their hand or didn’t finish plating. Shoot, even our own national pride was in Bobby Flay when he electrocuted himself. On ICA, nothing bad has happened in all the episodes I’ve seen. Everything is smoother than an "Emeril Live" episode!!! No mess ups,not even a spill, a drop, a misplacement! Wow, no one failed anything! Not impressive. Is the kitchen too cozy? Are the chefs not challenging themselves because being on the show and not screwing up is publicity enough? Who cares about winning?

Perhaps I’m just being too critical. We have our own Iron Chef now in Michael Symon. I’ve eaten at his restaurant many times over the past 8 years and am very familiar with his style. Shoot, I glanced into Lola just 2 hours ago on my way home and got the, "hey, chef guy" nod from Michael while he chatted up a couple at his bar. Am I too familiar with ICA to trulyappreciate it? Is the original Iron Chef truly the best culinary TV show ever made???

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What's on TV

While I spend plenty of time in restaurants, kitchens, and bars I can’t seem to break the habit of staying tuned to any show on TV about food, restaurants, kitchens and bars. Sometimes I snap out of the trance in just a few seconds and change the channel, other times I watch up to a commercial break, and in very few circumstances I return after the commercial. I’ve found myself increasingly interested in Gordan Ramsey’s show on BBC America called, "Kitchen Nightmares" I’m not at all a fan of Chef Ramsey. I find him to have a foolishly large ego, an unpredictable passive-aggressive form of leadership, and a fake British foul mouth. I guess all these things show up in ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ but in these cases where he chooses to help restore a fallen restaurant to it’s previous glory it is inspiring.

Generally he wakes the restaurant up to it’s shortcomings. Then demonstrates how he thinks the place should be run, and damn he is very opinionated. Finally he sets them on a road to success. In the last few moments of the show they chronicle his return to the restaurant after a few months. This short piece is always a wow factor, either "wow, you listened," or "wow, you bloody ignored me."

The reason I return to ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ is because I find myself more often asking myself while at work "what would Ramsey have to say about that?" Upon this review, I most likely improve what ever I’m working on.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Poll Results are in.....

Thanks everyone for casting your vote in the poll. Looks like we better be ready this valentines day as it appears this day, like in the past, is a day to dine out. I've always found these unique days in the reastarant kitchen to be very exciting, valentines day, new years eve, mothers day. In most cases these diners are easy to please, and the whole day is rather festive. In most cases it keep those of us in the biz from observing such holidays, take it or leave it, sometimes it's even for the better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Shortrib Epiphany

Sometimes it takes the smallest nudge to push the creative buttons, and sometimes that nudge comes from the most interesting places. I've almost always looked at beef shortribs as a braised meat that was destined for the center of the plate. But of all places, while watching Giada De Laurentiis make short ribs with tagliatelle it dawned on me to use the shortrib, to manipulate it, to turn it into something new. It would be a mistakefor anyone to think I'm at home watching the Food Network for inspiration. We all understand why a grown man would spend time watching Everday Italian, and it isn't for a lesson on bruschetta.

So far today I've made potato gnocchi stuffed with shortribs, and veal meatballs stuffed with shortribs. I'm thinking of making a fritter from the shredded meat might be a nice accompaniment for an onion soup. What about baking a piece of cooked shortrib in a terra cotta dish filled with cornbread batter? I can keep going, shortribs as stuffing, filling, ect. It all just seems very fresh, and tasty as I imagine it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

New Organic Truffle Oil

Be the first chef on the block to use daRosario Truffle Oil which is now 100% USDA Certified Organic. And it's the only USDA-certified organic truffle oil on the market. The NY Times likes it, and so should you. I've placed my order. For more info visit here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

What just happened???

2007, a year in review

My personal strides during the past 12 months seem to have come full circle, and I’m right back where I started. Much has happened, I left my post at Fahrenheit after making what I felt where great improvements to their operations. The Wonder Bar hired me to be their opening head chef, my first position with such a title. The E. 4 st neighborhood seems on the cusp of greatness, but without the simple gimmick, or big money backing of the current tenants the Wonder Bar has struggled with its internal hierarchy and shifting image. The news out of the kitchen at the Wonder Bar is almost all good, with reviews from the Scene and the Free Times praising the food as well as a cover spot for Cleveland Magazine, the underdog Camembert Mac&Cheese gets praise as one of the city’s most comfortable comfort foods. The kitchen has been described as “laughably” small, but I take pride in making it efficient, it’s mine at least, and I’ll do the best I can with it.

Enough about me, what did I see happen around me over the past twelve months. Most disagreeably the catchphrases of, organic, green, sustainable, and local have become so unlikely common that they are almost always unbelievable. When I was young in the kitchen, it bothered me that the menu said “homemade” gnocchi for example, when In fact we bought them pre-make , frozen from a purveyor. As I moved from kitchen to kitchen I found that this is the case more times than not. I’ve taken great pride in bucking this trend, and will pony up when something isn’t truly home made. I’ve also refused to use the green or local label where it does not apply. Unfortunately the culinary community has not been so honest with their approach and this is very troubling to me. I’ve talked with local chefs who don’t know where the farmers market is, but boldly claim that some things on their menu are purchased there. It is very disappointing to discover these things, very disheartening to work within my means so hard to keep things honest, then open the food section on Wednesday and see some smuck blabbing on about his local produce knowing full and well that it’s from Sysco, pre-diced at that!!!

Tapas, small plates, dinner snacks, an unsuccessful idea by any name. I’ve had my thought about small plates from the customer’s perspective posted here in the past. I felt that purchasing 3 plates that didn’t add up to an entrée in quantity but cost as much as an entrée was not in the customers best interest. From the chef side I’ve come to see that it is quite difficult to find someone willing to purchase 3 small plates, in turn making it difficult to squeeze out a decant profit margin. This is a new concept for Cleveland in any case, most likely a healthy choice we didn’t even know we were making, but it doesn’t pay the bills if you’re the restaurateur. It also isn’t inviting to the dinner time crowd when your dining room is sitting behind a 30 person bar. For this reason, we abandoned the tapas menu full time, turning to the faithful entrée as our savior. The small plates might work somewhere, just not here, not now.

Science, chemistry, and biology have all merged into the realm of food deeper and deeper this past year. No longer is ‘starch,’ what’s in a potato. We as chefs have deft understanding of smaller and smaller building blocks which we can manipulate to create a variety of culinary experiences. We have edible ink, vapors, centrifuges, and stills in the kitchen all pushing the limits, bolding going where Emeril has not gone before. A lot of what I remember from my time in college micro-biology laboratory seems common place in kitchens, and it makes sense to be. The end product is not to make what we know as food better, but to absolutely change what we know as food. I find this quite interesting. Has anyone wondered about the nutritional value of the edible ink, or the tomato foam? Why do we eat? Oh the times they are changing

In total contrast to the vast array of kitchen gadgets and food chemistry are two points, or perceived low points in food science this past year; first was a NY Times article and a response post by me on this blog that condemned every chef to ever use or appreciate truffle oil as a fraud, second we have the mostly ethical commotion concerning cloned food products. I don’t want to totally revisit each idea, you can go through the history of the blog, but how can you get excited about turning a perfectly good tomato into an air and water emulsion, while condemning the use of a chemical that smells exactly like a truffle? The cloned food issue is much more an effigy of education, or miss-education if you will. Personal ethical reasons withheld, the idea of using cloned food products make much more sense than pumping genetically inferior animals full of anti-biotics, and growth hormones. The question for the next year is which direction with this scientific influence push the culinary scene? Into a healthy, self-motivating, nutritional arena, or a flashy, Vegas style culinary scenario where a meal of ink and foam needs a fiber and vitamin supplement.

The next year will surely prove to be one of change once again. In an eager scramble through the rat race it seems every man is for himself. While deep financial hardship and disappointment have rained over the past year, hopefully hard work and determination will pay off in the future.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Wonder Bar Dinner Menu Re-Invented

In an effort t to attract more dinner time customers to the wonder bar we introduced a more traditional menu offering of appetizers, salads, and entrees. The style, quality, and creativity of the food will not change, only the portions size. If you like the small plates, don’t dismay they are still available during our happy hour 5 till’ 7pm Tuesday thru Friday. It is in the best interest that we made things as familiar to our customers as possible during the infancy of the restaurant. The small plates didn’t seem to be attracting any customers, but the people we did server enjoyed the food and experience very much. Getting people to try a new concept at a new restaurant might have been too much to ask. Also, the kitchen which is very small doesn’t miraculously enlarge due to our menu expansion, and for this reason I will need to be extra crafty with how dishes are put together. I am accepting it as a challenge. One that I fear might overtake me if things get very busy. There is no option here, to sit on my hands with the tapas, or move forward with entrees. The menu can be found here.

Poll Results are in.....

Thank to everyone for participating in the poll. Everyone but 2 of our respondents got what they wanted for Christmas. I did for sure, three days off, time with the family, a year subscription to Art Culinaire, and family day at the Lake Erie Monsters Hockey Match. What is around the corner well, you know, everyone does their own, “year in review” and mine is in the works. Also change, change is always good. For the last time, Merry Christmas