Category: Uncategorized

IT’S ALL ABOUT CHEW

“Chew your food!” I am sure we can all remember hearing that from our mother and grandmother along with: “close the door, wipe your feet, wash your hands”. It was part of Parent 101 to state those requirements of existence sometimes for obvious reasons, sometimes simply because it sounded right. Human nature, for a rebellious adolescent was to ignore those directives or seek out an escape from their core meaning.

Restaurants accommodated that rebellious streak in various, creative ways: doors with automatic closers, advanced technology floor mats that suck the dirt off your shoes while you walk, latex gloves for staff to use in lieu of washing your hands 50 times a day (if I had only bought stock in latex 30 years ago), and food that requires very little effort to digest (chewing is such a waste of energy).

I can remember a steakhouse chain in the 60’s and 70’s called Bo…..za (named for the home of Hoss, Little Joe and Hop Sing) that advertised: “our steaks melt in your mouth” (steaks are not suppose to melt in your mouth). This chain used some type of tenderizing agent for their less than prime cuts of meat.

Real bread in the 50’s and 60’s became “wonder bread” designed to build strong bodies with a product pretty much void of texture and real nutritional value. The product was “manufactured” to be light, soft and white. Jell-O was the dessert of the decade (available in a variety of colors) – nothing to chew and if you work at it the gelatin might eventually melt in your mouth, French fries were made from cooked and extruded potatoes, hamburger buns were as light as pillows, and our shellfish became Surimi made from pureed and extruded fish stuff. Shape it, paint it to look like crab or lobster and voila – shellfish without the work.

What had we become? Were we a society of wimps who couldn’t even chew our food, wipe our feet, or close the door behind us? In the process we lost our ability to truly “taste” food. An important part of taste is experiencing the natural textures of a product and chewing brings out the flavor. Without chewing, we might as well just give up and drink Ensure. Webster offers a variety of synonyms for “chew” and none of them go beyond the physical process: to munch, chomp, champ, crunch, nibble, gnaw, consume. What these words fail to point out is that chewing is an enjoyable part of the experience of eating. Chewing certainly, as we all probably realize, helps in and begins the process of digestion, but more vividly begins the process of sending flavor signals to the brain. Chewing and taste do go hand in hand.

Fortunately, over the past 20 years chewing has experienced a come back as part of the American food experience. We have returned to the future and relish in the process of chewing wood-fired pizzas and intensely flavored artisan breads. Gone are the chemical meat tenderizers in steakhouses as we enjoy the fact that even Kobe beef must connect with the jaw to build the experience. Customers wait in lines to purchase those fantastic New York bagels and work hard at tearing and chewing this wonderful boiled and baked extraordinary (tough by design) hand food. Even fast food restaurants are trading in their ground and fabricated chicken nuggets for real pieces of whole meat. We “chew” a great red wine to build the full mouth attack on this beverage of the gods and have returned to “under-cooking” fresh vegetables, as they should be to preserve their color, crunch and nutritional value.

Thankfully we have come to our senses (I think chefs, dietitians and farmers had a lot to do with it) before we found ourselves without a need for teeth and absent any way to distinguish true flavor. Put the straws away, bring the steak knives out of storage, make sure your serrated knife is sharp enough to work through that dense and flavorful artisan bread, build up those jaw muscles and get ready to taste and savor food the way it was meant to be. “Chew your food” – now it makes sense.

BUFFALO – MY KIND OF FOOD TOWN

Yes, in case you have not guessed, I am originally from Buffalo. After you get all of the stinging quips out of your system let me tell you what Buffalo is really like. It is true that the press has not always been kind to the Queen City and it almost feels like Buffalo has enjoyed being the punching bag for the media. In reality, Buffalo is a very special city with tremendous history, unfaltering pride, and yes – even a healthy food scene.

OK, so the Bills never won a Superbowl and the Sabres have only gotten so far, but don’t ever try and tell a Buffalonian that these teams are not worthy. We have the right, as people from the city, to critique our teams, but other’s do not. We will defend them till the end of time (there, I got that out of my system).

Let’s talk about the culture of Buffalo. Many are familiar with New York as a true melting pot city with every imaginable ethnicity and race, pockets of ethnic communities within a city, and all of the food influences to match. Buffalo is simply a smaller version of that.

The area known as the First Ward is a thriving Irish community with bars and neighborhood eateries that reflect the heritage of the real “green community”. Allentown, although a mix of ethnicity, is a true bohemian artist community with a national reputation and an ever-changing landscape of bistros and bars. Just down the street on Main is the world famous Anchor Bar, where the chicken wing was born (they still serve the best). The area known as the Fruit Belt is the cities German community with its share of great sausages, pickles and beer. The Lower West Side is home to a deep-rooted Italian neighborhood and a growing Puerto Rican community as well. There is no problem finding some great Italian-American fare or influences from the islands. The Eastside is home to Buffalo’s Polish community. During my youth, the Broadway Market was one of the greatest culinary experiences with sausage makers, pierogi’s, fresh hams and lots of sauerkraut. Finally, the downtown area is encompassed by a vibrant black community with Buffalo soul food at its finest. The general make-up of the city is 52% white, 36% black, 7.5% Hispanic and 1.5% Asian.

The food scene is changing in Buffalo – for the better. It has been many years since I walked through the communities of the Queen City, but I still have vivid memories of uniquely Buffalo foods back when I was young. JaFaFa Hot’s was the best char-grilled, natural casing hot dog with their special sauce to be found anywhere. This was a treat when I finished up with a baseball game down at Grider and Bailey. A Roast Beef on Weck (a unique roll with caraway and coarse ground salt – not to be found anywhere but Buffalo) at Tin Pan Alley (some say it was horse meat) with loads of Weber Horseradish and a touch of au jus was truly to die for. Every Friday was fish fry in a community with heavy Catholic influences. Trautwein’s was the place to go for “takeout” fish fry – I can still smell the fish market. You can’t forget the baked Spaghetti at Chef’s on Seneca, even though it was not in the Italian neighborhood, it certainly was Italian. If you want to talk pizza, it has to be the Bocce Club, hands down, and of course there will always be the Anchor Bar for wings. Finally, let’s not forget the peanut stick donuts from Freddy’s Donuts (long since closed) on Main near Fillmore. You could watch Freddy’s donuts passing through the conveyor fryers pretty much 24 hours a day.

I worked at some great places where I developed my chops at an early age. The Statler Hilton apprenticeship program gave me the chance to work many stations from banquets to saucier, from the butcher shop to garde manger, and from breakfast to the hot line for the Beef Baron Restaurant. I spent a year at Shore’s Orchard Downs in Orchard Park (home to the Bills) and learned from a Greek immigrant who made a name for himself with his food. A short stint at the Cloister where I began to understand what it was like to serve hundreds of people prime rib and lobster, and even that diner where I received my first culinary exposure as an assistant short order cook at the age of 15.

The Buffalo food scene is maturing as young chefs are beginning to understand just what a special place the city is, how nice the people are, and how deep seated the culture. If you are a NYC dining scene fan you probably know about Gotham Bar and Grill, consistently one of the best-rated restaurants in the city for the past 25 years. The Chef/Operator is Alfred Portale who started his career in Buffalo. Before you write the city off allow me to make a few suggestions:

• Go to a Bill’s Game and make sure you tailgate with the locals (the best and craziest fans around)
• Buy a ticket to a Sabres Game and press your nose up to the glass (beer in one hand, local hot dog in the other)
• Take a stroll down Elmwood Avenue and pick a restaurant, any restaurant – they are all good
• You haven’t have roast beef until you have had a Beef on Weck: I like Charlie the Butcher for this delicious sandwich
• If you are a fan of wings- you must go to the Anchor Bar – it is the Holy Land for wing enthusiasts
• Pick up the local dining out magazine and read about some of the up and coming new Buffalo star chefs – they are all looking to make their mark

When it comes to my hometown I will always remain a fan and will always stay BUFFALO PROUD!
p.s. Maybe this is the year for the Bills.:)

DON’T MESS WITH MY KNIVES!

Masa Morimoto once said: “Japanese chefs believe our soul goes into our knives once we start using them. You wouldn’t put your soul in a dishwasher.” (or in the hands of another person…

WOW! So what is the deal with chefs and their knives? Maybe it is a deranged fascination with things that are sharp, or maybe it is professional pride. More than likely it is a respect for the tools of a trade – no different than an artist and their brushes, a photographer and camera, a musician and their instrument, a plumber and their wrench, or a carpenter and their hammer. It is, after all, the tools that allow a craftsperson to accomplish tasks and demonstrate their skill. I tend to think that with chefs it is more like a Hell’s Angel and their Harley (don’t even think of looking at my bike).

There is a very interesting bond between a craftsperson and the tools that they use. I would go so far as to say that you can tell how serious the cook is by how they treat their knives.

Let me point out a few personal stories with my own knives. The first real knife that I purchased was in 1968, a student of hospitality encountering my first knife salesperson. I had to have one! He convinced my to fork over (like the play on words?) what little money I had for a 12 inch, 100% carbon steel Sabatier French knife. It was a beauty. Nothing holds an edge like carbon steel and this one could be used to shave with. It did not always sparkle like stainless steel, but man could it cut. I had that knife for 20 years until it disappeared one day from my knife kit, grrrrrr. By the way, if the person who “borrowed it” is reading this post, I hope that bad karma catches up with you. When my grandfather was still alive (he was a pattern maker) he made a knife for my father who later passed it on to me. Again, carbon steel with a rosewood handle. This 10 inch chefs knife served me well for many additional years, but alas, it also grew legs and walked (a pattern is developing here).

I felt that I really came of age as a cook while working as the lead night cook at the Beef Baron Restaurant, part of the Statler Hilton Hotel in Buffalo. One day when I arrived the Executive Chef assigned me my own knife drawer with a lock. I was important and my tools had a home.

As time went on, I began to hone my knife skills, especially with detail garde manger work. I was pretty good with a paring knife and was able to tourne vegetables with the best of them. One day I was introduced to a bird’s beak knife and my life changed. To this day, no one can match my tourne skills as long as that knife is in my hands.

Another event that demonstrates how I feel about those tools happened while I was working at the Statler Hilton. I was 20 years old and working on a Kosher Wedding (the type where the Rabbi must be present, the ovens burned off to sanitize and all stainless tables covered with starched white linen). During service of a prime rib dinner (had to be hand sliced) my knife became dull so I reached for another trusty 12 inch slicer in my drawer. Just as the blade was to touch the meat, the Rabbi jumped up from his stool, grabbed the knife from my hand and threw it on the floor (it had not been blessed beforehand). That was probably one of the few times in my life when I came close to causing bodily harm to another human being.

Knives have not always been kind to me. I have more stitches in my hands than I care to count (well over 30) from various incidents when my knives turned on me. At one point I was on a first name basis at the emergency room. Now, those cuts serve as battle scars and the source of some interesting stories.

So, how do you choose the “right” knives? To me, there are only two parts to the selection process: how well it maintains and edge and how does it feel in your hand. If at all possible buy knives that have a healthy percentage of carbon steel in them (the blends with stainless look nice and stay sharp), I prefer wood handles, although the health department frowns on them and make sure that the bolster and tang are such that you can minimize blisters on you hand from repetitive motion.

I do have a pet peeve (having been in culinary education for 30 years) with way too young novice cooks owning $300 knives (Henkels or Shun). It would be similar to buying a 17 year old a new Mercedes after they get their learner’s permit to drive. You need to earn the right, through experience to have something that beautiful. Get your sea legs on something in the $50 range until you have cut yourself at least 100 times.

Another pet peeve is when others assume that your knives are public property and can be used for anything and everything (opening cans with the heel, servers using them to cut lemons on a stainless table, or dishwashers using your carbon steel French knife to breakdown cardboard boxes). This is when chefs and cooks might just go postal. Just watch the look of either disbelief or contempt when someone asks a chef if they can borrow their knife, or worse, simply grab it off of their cutting board. Be prepared!!!!!!!

Some people have more knives than they can keep track of. They need every special tool that comes out and can be seen wheeling in their Craftsman 20 drawer chest to their corner of the kitchen. The other extreme was my friend, and talented chef: Jose Faria who owned two knives that worked just fine for him.

Don’t mess with my knives is a message to all who enter the kitchen. These tools are more than just instruments to perform a task, there is an unusual and yes maybe a little creepy, relationship between a chef and a blade – don’t go there.

SHORT ORDER COOKS WERE MY HEROS

I can still remember that day in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was 10 years old and on a shopping trip downtown with my mother as we came upon that restaurant with a full picture window framing in the vision of a short order cook preparing lunch for a growing crowd. His movements were synchronized as he easily moved from the remaining breakfast items on the grill to sandwiches, fries, blue plate specials, and appropriate side dishes. No movement was wasted as he pivoted, grabbed plates, flipped burgers and rolled omelets in pans. Waitresses were lined up and did not seem to marvel at the poetic motion of a man in control of the situation – I guess they were simply accustomed to this daily routine. I was mesmerized.

Five years later I had my first job (working papers in hand) as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant in the Central Park section of the city. It was the summer, so without the pressures of school I was free to work and rub elbows with the cook. She was about the same age as my mother, maybe a few years older, and had recently lost her husband who was a real chef. When it became busy she would ask me to help by buttering danish to be grilled, toasting bread, cracking eggs and setting up burger garnishes. I watched as construction workers came in early to order coffee and danish or grilled hard rolls (apparently a big thing in Buffalo at the time). I marveled at how the cook was able to keep track of everything, still smile and carry on conversations with those sitting at the counter. Servers would call out: “2 scrambled, eggs over easy, 3 cakes with syrup, another grilled danish,1 western omelet, and as it approached lunch time – various sandwiches including the house burger”. This was the original “fast food” restaurant concept and my hero was at the helm. By the end of the summer she let me take over the grill during slower times so that she could prep for the next day.

I wanted to be a rock drummer (didn’t everyone), but my parents were smarter than me and strongly urged me to go to college. What should I do? My only other love was that job working the grill, so when I heard about colleges that taught hotel management and cooking, I knew that this would be choice #2.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself working in kitchens that were a bit more sophisticated than my first experiences at the short-order grill, yet it was that early training that allowed me to apply organizational skills and personality to working on the line. My responsibilities were to prepare items from the dinner menu in a 1,200 room hotel for an audience willing to wait a little longer and spend quite a bit more. This was invigorating, yet I still would marvel at watching our breakfast cook prepare food at the same speed and with the same grace as that first cook in the window of a downtown Buffalo storefront. I always had respect for the breakfast cook.

Throughout my career as a chef, a sign of stability in the kitchen was finding a breakfast cook who had the same passion, speed, grace and organizational skills as that guy in the window. Whenever I found myself without that stable force in the kitchen, things just didn’t seem to work well. First of all, I might need to arrive before 5 a.m. to cook breakfast which unless your body is in that cycle can be torture; and second, as you age it becomes much more difficult to wrap your head around the speed with which breakfast orders come in and fly into the “window” for pick-up. Still, there is nothing more rewarding than smelling bacon come out of the oven at 6 a.m., home fries on the grill, fresh brewed coffee long before most reasonable people are awake, and the crack of egg shells with one eye still closed. This is the time of day when even the restaurant kitchen is struggling to wake up.

After four decades of a food service career, I still remember that cook in the window and marvel at his skill. I don’t know his name but would love to thank him, if he is still with us, for introducing me to a business and starting the wheels in motion for a 10 year old without a clue what he wanted to do with his life.

Short order cooks rock!

The picture in this article was taken by Harold Feinstein, a professional photographer able to capture the spirit of people on film.

100 IDEAS A WEEK, IS ONE OF THEM BRILLIANT?

So here is the dilemma – I can’t turn it off! I can’t stop designing the next great restaurant concept in my head. Is this a problem? A good friend of mine, in a totally different field, suffers from the same disease: always thinking about the next great concept. His spouse told me once: “he has 100 ideas a week, and one of them is brilliant”. Are we all living under the delusion that the next great idea is just hiding under the surface and with a little nudge we can build the next Microsoft?

Here is an example of how relentless the process can be:
* I am oftentimes unable to sleep because I am planning a concept that came to me while I was having that last cup of tea before bed.
* I finally bought a pocket digital recorder so that when ideas came to me while driving, I could store them for later planning.
* I plan my part of family vacations around the restaurants I want to visit, not just to enjoy the food but rather to stimulate more ideas.
* I have more cookbooks than I will ever read, but they are there primarily to stoke the fires of creative thought: “how could I tweak this idea and make it unique to me”.
* I read quite a bit, but the majority of my books are written by chefs and restaurateurs about their daily routine. I am constantly using a highlighter throughout these books to point to ideas I might use later on.
* I walk through stores, not to purchase, but to look for ideas on restaurant decor, systems for delivery, service tips, etc.
* I have framed pictures in my office, not of scenery, but of restaurants, kitchens and chefs.
* When dining out, I always frustrate my wife when I am taking pictures with my cell phone.
* I walk 2-3 miles every morning and oftentimes find myself lost in thought about an idea. If only I could remember to bring that digital recorder with me.
* Even in the shower, I find myself drifting off with an idea about a restaurant concept.
* Empty buildings and stores are always fuel for the concept planning fire. “Just think what could be done with this space”!
* When in a restaurant with friends I need to work hard at keeping my focus on them and not spinning around looking at how they execute their system and how I might make it better.
* Although I am coming to the later part of my career and rarely cook in restaurants anymore, I still make my daily prep lists and market orders for meals at home.
* I even take pictures of my own food at home and post them on Facebook!

The whole process is like that annoying ringing I used to get in my ears after attending a rock concert in the 60’s. No matter how hard you try, it just won’t go away. How many ideas have come and gone? How many of them were brilliant or will the next one be the real winner? Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have never invested my bank account in one of these ideas. Then again, what if I had and it really was brilliant? I guess I will never know, but it is still fun thinking about and developing a cool idea.

Does anyone else suffer from perpetual idea overload? By the way, the photo is from “The Big Night”, a movie that I consider as great as Casablanca.

A PIZZA NATION

Originally posted on Harvest America Ventures:
Most Americans probably realize that pizza (in some form) is the number one entree in our country. Last year alone we consumed 4 billion fresh-made pizzas and another billion of the frozen variety. Many, unfortunately, look to pizza as the ultimate family-friendly convenience food and have thus turned their…

A PIZZA NATION

A PIZZA NATION

Most Americans probably realize that pizza (in some form) is the number one entree in our country. Last year alone we consumed 4 billion fresh-made pizzas and another billion of the frozen variety. Many, unfortunately, look to pizza as the ultimate family-friendly convenience food and have thus turned their attention to the plethora of chains that produce a product that is not always true to the origin of pizza.

Although pizza began as a peasant food in Naples, Italy (the baker credited with the first pizza was Raffaele Esposito) in 1889, it was intended to be an end product that was a result of using fresh, local, high quality, flavorful ingredients (great flour high in gluten, nature’s water, virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella, seasonal tomatoes and fragrant garden basil and oregano). When first consumed by the Italian King Umberto and Queen Margherita, pizza quickly transitioned to a wonderful food ready for every socio-economic group. In fact, the original version still carries the name: Pizza Margherita.

The first American pizzeria was opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905 and except for a short respite and subsequent move, Lombardi’s has been open for business on Spring Street in NYC ever since. Lombardi’s continues to fire their ovens with coal producing the super-hot environment for their crispy, thin crust New York style pizza.

Ira Nevin, after returning to the U.S. from WWII (stationed in Italy), worked with his family to produce the first gas-fired ceramic deck ovens that made it possible for pizzerias to open in every town across America. There are now over 70,000 pizza parlors in the US (according to the National Restaurant Association) with total annual sales in excess of $36 billion.

So, why is pizza so popular? I have not found any scientific data to support my theory, however, I will stick by my purely subjective beliefs:
* pizza is fun, a conversation driver, intense with aroma, balanced with multiple textures, regionally ethnic and adaptable to any cuisine and it comes with it’s own built in plate (the crust).
* pizza is one of those unique products that drives as much local passion and loyalty as professional sports. Don’t ever try to tell a Chicago native that NYC makes the best “pie” or vice versa. In fact, don’t even try to say that Manhattan pizza is better than Staten Island!

PIZZA HAS A RE-BIRTH

“What goes around, comes around” and those of us who believe that food is far more than just sustenance, can relish in the fact that “great” pizza is back! It is so refreshing to see the underground of true pizza wizards who are passionate about great crust, fresh tomatoes, beautifully fresh mozzarella, fresh grated Italian parmigiana, first press olive oil and pungent fresh herbs, take the limelight away from the big box chains. Above all else, is the oven: wood-fired if at all possible, but at the very least, gas-fired with a stone or ceramic hearth. Add whatever else you like, but I will take a simple, classic Pizza Margherita anytime.

I feel fortunate to have many excellent pizza shops within driving distance (it may not be NYC but I am just as loyal to these as a resident on Spring street is to Lombardi’s). If you are in my neck of the woods (the Adirondack’s of New York), try the following:
* Verita in Burlington, Vermont
* American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vermont (the original)
* Caffe Rustica in Lake Placid, New York

or, MAKE YOUR OWN! Try this simply perfect pizza dough recipe as a base:

– Unbleached all-purpose flour 2/3 cup
-Unbleached bread flour 1/3 cup
-Extra virgin olive oil 2 tsp.
-Active dry yeast 3/4 tsp.
-Warm water 1/3 cup
-Salt 1/2 tsp.

Mound the flour in a bowl, form a well and add the olive oil in the middle. In a separate bowl add lukewarm water and yeast. Allow the yeast to begin to bubble. Add the salt to the yeast and combine with the flour and olive oil. Fold together with your palms and then keeping your hands floured, knead the dough for 15 minutes. Place in a bowl (brush the top with oil and cover) and allow to double in size at room temperature. Punch the dough and allow to double again.

On a floured board, pull and stretch the dough to the shape you want. Place on a baking stone dusted with cornmeal. Top with fresh tomato sauce or fresh tomato slices, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan and fresh herbs.

Bake in a pre-heated 500 degree oven until crisp.

HOW TO FAIL AS A BUSINESS LEADER

It occurred to me this morning that my blog posts are always directed at ways to enjoy success. In fairness to the other side, I thought that I would outline the quick and easy steps that lead to business failure. After all, I want to be an unbiased equal opportunity writer.

HOW TO FAIL AS A BUSINESS LEADER:

1. Ignore all of the signs that point to problems in your business.
2. Make sure that you make most of the important decisions in a vacuum.
3. Hire great people, give them lots of responsibility but avoid empowering them with the authority to make change.
4. When your management team is starting to make progress, re-arrange the organizational chart and shuffle people around. Divide and conquer worked for early Nomadic tribes, why not in your business?
5. Take those same great people and through a process of slow and painful steps, give them every possible reason to leave.
6. At all costs, avoid developing delineated job descriptions. Let people figure it out for themselves.
7. Jerk your vendors around through delayed payments and avoid communicating with them at all costs. Maybe they will just go away.
8. Believe in yourself and avoid watching your competition. You have the right formula so why even monitor what they do.
9. Trust no one, especially those who organizationally are closest to you.
10. Read everything you can about Machiavellian style management.
11. If your product or service worked in the past, do not change it even if the environment that you operate in has changed.
12. Don’t advertise whether it be through traditional print medium or social media. Advertising is really a waste of money.
13. Keep doing the same things but always expect better results.

For those who own, operate or work in restaurants, I am sure you have experienced working for or with individuals who follow these steps with reckless abandon. There is little doubt that the owner/leader will eventually reach their pre-determiend goal: failure.

If, however, you would prefer to succeed, then post these thirteen steps on your office door and do just the opposite.

%d bloggers like this: