Category: Uncategorized

Onions – The Most Important Ingredient

Two things occurred in the same week a few years back when I was the Executive Chef at a four-diamond resort. A server approached me when I was expediting and stated that a guest was allergic to onions and wanted to know what items on the menu he could eat. I thought for a few moments and had to respond “nothing”. I, of course, prepared something special for the guest, but up to that point I had not realized how important onions, and those ingredients in the onion family were to my cooking. That same week I was interviewed on a regional radio show as the host asked me what ingredient I liked to cook with more than any other. Without hesitation I said “onions”. He was a bit taken back until I explained how essential these ingredients were.

Onions are part of the Allium species of vegetables and include: brown skin onions, white onions, Spanish onions, purple onions, scallions (immature onions that have yet to form a bulb), Vidalia (sweet onions), cipollini, leeks, shallots, pearl onions, ramps, garlic and chives (there are numerous varieties of most items listed) .

I use brown skin onions in mirepoix for my stocks, soups and sauces; purple or Spanish onions for pickling and an accent in salads; Vidalia for those Bistro Burgers that everyone craves; scallions in stir fry and marinades; garlic in dressings, pesto, various saute dishes and bruschetta; cipollini in stews and with various braised items; ramps as an accompaniment to organic chicken in the Spring; shallots in just about everything that I can think of; and chives in numerous salads and maitre’d butter for steaks. The thought of cooking without Allium vegetables would be very difficult.

What is ironic is that members of the onion family are rarely thought of as a primary ingredient. We too often place all of the emphasis on the protein and rarely give credit to those ingredients that give the protein a unique flavor profile.

Onions and garlic define the most vivid aroma memories of life in the kitchen. The smell of caramelized onions can make you salivate. I recall working in a food operation once that was part of an office complex. The manager always made us throw onions on the grill just before lunch to fill the cafe with that sweet, intoxicating aroma. He was convinced that this smell increased sales.

The rich flavor of a perfectly made onion soup granitee’ can best be described as rich and full of umami (the taste of savory). Onions rings on a steak, lightly sauteed garlic in Pasta Vongole, Cipollini caramelized and served with a perfectly grilled veal chop, creamy shallots blended with the rich flavor of Osso Buco, and sweet ramps with roasted organic chicken change a dish from good to spectacular.

I suppose the reason that onions make us cry is a reflection of the onions disappointment in how they are treated in comparison to the more expensive proteins that take center stage. Treat those onions with care for they are the ingredients that define all of us as cooks.

The Spark of an Idea – A Restaurant is Born

Are you an idea person? Maybe you are more of an implementor. Or are you a bit of both? Does this picture represent you:
* I can’t stop my brain from working overtime
* I have lists of ideas everywhere
* I have many sleepless nights while new business ideas keep me awake
* I think about the next great restaurant while in the shower, driving to work, having dinner at another restaurant, preparing my mise en place at the restaurant where I am currently employed, or just walking through a number of unrelated businesses and seeing something that sparks that creative thought process.
* How many times have you designed that next killer restaurant on the back of a bar cocktail napkin?
* Do you scribble business ideas on a legal pad while suffering through another pointless business meeting?
* How often have you said, “you know what would work great in that building”?
* Maybe a friend, lecturer, announcer, business colleague says something that sends you into “another creative thought utopia” never to return to the original conversation.

The question is, what do you do with these ideas? How do you focus your creative thought process and move beyond idea to concept and bring that concept to fruition? What keeps you from being the next wildly successful entrepreneur?

When I was in the classroom I would ask young culinary and hospitality students how many wanted to own their own restaurant. The vast majority would raise their hands. I would always follow up with “I hope to convince you not to take that route”. Why would I ever say that? I felt justified because of the statistical data that demonstrated incredibly high failure rates among entrepreneurs. My job, I thought, was to help them put these thoughts of owning their own on the shelf and concentrate on becoming successful employees. Well, I was wrong!

Every decent chef that I know has or had a dream to be a restaurateur. It is, after all, the great American dream. Entrepreneurship is a right of every citizen and no country in the world is more open to welcoming private business than the U.S. What was terribly wrong with my classroom approach was attempting to stifle that creative gene that so many chefs have. That desire is an itch that needs to be scratched.

No one ever really gets ahead by playing it safe. A few will succeed and some will fail, but everyone should have an outlet for those ideas that keep them up at night.

So what keeps you from taking those ideas and running with them (hopefully it is not just teachers who are trying to help you to play it safe)?

Here are a few classic responses and solutions:
* I don’t have the money (find a partner who does and who believes in you)
* It is too risky and I am afraid (no pain, no gain). The beauty of being in the restaurant business is that if you fail at entrepreneurship, you can always go back to working for someone else.
* I don’t have the time right now (sooner or later you really won’t have the time – act on the idea now)
* I have too many current commitments (that will never change unless you begin to adjust some of your priorities)
* I have a well-grounded life-partner who tells me to chill and be happy with what I have (if they are truly your partner it is time to have that “I need to do this” conversation)
* I don’t have the business knowledge (go back to school and build that knowledge base)
* I lack the confidence to follow through (take the leap, learn as much as you can, practice and you will be impressed with how your confidence with change).
* I am too old (Please!!! There are many examples of entrepreneurs who started in their seventies.)

As I sit in front of the TV and watch another episode of “Shark Tank” I am really disappointed as the “Sharks” step on another dream and watch the rejection on their faces. To many, that great idea is what helps them to be complete. It needs to find a home or those sleepless nights will continue until they find an idea that sticks and builds enough traction to fulfill their creative dreams.

Do you have that next great restaurant concept tucked away in your subconscious? Light a fire under it, do your homework, find answers to those roadblocks and take that entrepreneurial plunge. Capture the excitement, it is what makes this country great.

IT’S ALL ABOUT TEAM CHEMISTRY

IT'S ALL ABOUT TEAM CHEMISTRY

I frequently remember a typical manager’s quote that tends to start my blood boiling a bit: “the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary”. This, of course, is suppose to act as a harsh motivator, but it rarely meets that expectation. What is lacking in this simple formula is the word “fun”. Let’s face it, we (those in the restaurant industry) spend approximately 120,000 hours of our lives working. That is a little less than 1/3 of our time between the ages of 20 and 65! Shouldn’t this time be somewhat enjoyable?

Fun and hard work do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is possible to actually get up in the morning looking forward to your time on the job. The magic that allows this to happen comes from effective team building and great chemistry among the players within your operation.

There is no task more important in a manager’s day than seeking, finding, training and supporting a team comprised of individuals with common goals, supportive attitudes, a service mentality and a love of people.

Whenever I have had a chance to work in an operation that strives to support this type of staff, the results are always incredible. Success comes from dedication, passion, skills and an occasional laugh.

Work hard, but set the stage to enjoy the company of your co-workers. Life is way too short to spend 120,000 hours trying to succeed without a smile on your face.

PROFESSIONAL COOKING IS A TEAM SPORT

The cadence of orders in a busy kitchen seems unrelenting. A staccato clicking from the point of sale printer sends out a drum roll of orders while the expeditor calmly, yet seriously calls out tickets in kitchen lingo to the battery of cooks on the line. They in turn signal back receipt of the order by either repeating it or simply saying “yes chef”. Ordering, fire, picking up, re-fire, I need an “all-day”, is part of the script that every professional cook understands and responds to with surgical precision. Orders are pre-fired and finished, plated as per the accepted design, edges wiped, placed in the window, inspected and finished by the chef/expeditor and passed on to servers in a seamless stream of syncopated and rehearsed activity.

To watch this interplay is truly amazing. The orchestration by the chef/expeditor is possible because everyone on the line is in sync. To allow this magic to occur every cook must be on their game. They must have impeccable mise en place (prep and organization), must know not just the details of their station but that of every other station, they must have the desired flavor profile of each dish embedded in their flavor memory, and must approach each single plate as if it were their personal work of art that makes a statement about their abilities and passion for food. Each cook must accept their role and understand how important their role is to the whole. They must respect the chain of command and never question directives from the chef, and must at all costs maintain the desired quality of their work. They must support those who are “in the weeds” and be comfortable asking for help when they see the same issue creeping into their station.

When it works, the busy kitchen is a beautiful thing. WHY? Because this group of cooks has become a team, not unlike any other professional body with a focused mission. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, the military, or for that matter any driven business adheres to the same “call to arms”: Understanding, acceptance, discipline, preparedness, practice, respect, passion and common goals = TEAM. TEAM = SUCCESS.

Contrary to what you see on these very un-realistic television “reality cooking shows”, kitchens cannot work when there is a lack of any one of the aforementioned components. Chefs who yell and belittle do not inspire great cooking. In fact, this will do just the opposite. This type of chef (and I use the term loosely here) will create an environment of winners and losers and survival of the fittest. The result will almost always be chaos, back stabbing, inconsistent food, and unhappy guests.

Effective chefs can learn from those leaders in any business who aspire to create a team environment. To do so will lead to a cohesive group of committed, proud, supportive and successful cooks. These individuals will relish the opportunity to work in such an environment and treasure their employment as a result. Great teams = longevity among a restaurants cooking staff.

Given the chance, every diner would benefit from touring the kitchen of a restaurant they choose to dine in. If the operation is clean, if the cooks seem focused, if they are able to occasionally smile and if the chef works like a coach whose job it is to support, encourage and orchestrated, then I can assure you that the food will be great.

Every Picture Tells a Story

Ever since I came across this photo I have not been able to get it out of my mind. The photographer caught what every artist and craftsman gets up in the morning to do: move people. Music, like cooking is an art form that can, if properly applied, move people. The beauty is that everyone moves to the beat of a different drummer. One person’s memorable experience with art is another person’s sour note.

I consider myself to be a person with fairly eclectic tastes in music, art, theater, and food. My musical preferences range from Bach to David Byrne, from Zappa to Bela Fleck and from Chick Corea to Waylon Jennings. In art I may not understand modern art, but I do find Jackson Pollock interesting. I love the impressionists but can find pleasure in trying to figure out Salvatore Dali. Food is, of course, my medium and even though comfort foods are inspiring to me, I always seek out restaurants and chefs that are pushing the envelope from Keller to Adria. What I like, however, may not be your cup of tea.

This picture is so telling because this sole musician has struck a chord with the young enthusiast and in that moment both the artist and art consumer are in sync. We all strive to create this same bond with those who consume our art.

The wine maker is in business to be profitable, yet that Robert Parker review and restaurant customer response to his/her craft is far more important than just dollars and cents. I have had the pleasure to work with many chef/artists who care deeply that the end-user is happy with what they have created. I will never forget the cook who stretches their neck on the busiest night to see if any food is coming back on the plates dropped at the dish window. I feel for the cook who loses sleep over the 1 dissatisfied diner even though a hundred more were perfectly happy. I give homage to a chef who grins and gets a bit choked up when that one customer peeks in the kitchen to say “thank you” that was an extraordinary meal.

What the young girl in this photo feels is what each and every serious cook strives for, day in and day out: to create a “moving” dining experience. When it happens, the world is a better place for all involved.

To those who cook for the paycheck, I say: you don’t know what you are missing. To those who cook for the opportunity to create that unique experience that can be registered as a memorable moment, I tip my hat to you.

I remember listening to Tower of Power perform at the Bottom Line in NYC when there were only 100+ people in attendance. The band played like it was a sold out crowd at Shea Stadium. Everyone was on their feet moving to an extraordinary musical event and the band was in their glory. They certainly didn’t pay the bills that night, but they were just as moved as the audience. The same has happened to me with a top shelf list of great musicians as well as in restaurants in the hands of Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Joel Robuchon, Marc Meneau, Marcus Samuelsson, Gavin Kaysen, Daniel Boulud and dozens of others. As significant as these events were, I was even more moved to watch my children perform in their school plays or play a solo at their annual high school concert. This is what floats the artists boat, an audience that appreciates their art.

I smiled when I saw this picture because I knew how the musician and the young girl felt.

Move people, it is what makes life worth living.

A LETTER TO CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATES

A LETTER TO CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATES

First and foremost allow me to congratulate you on accomplishing a significant goal: completing your degree. Know however that this is only the beginning of your culinary education. You have chosen to pursue a career in the greatest industry on the planet (yes, I do show a bit of bias), one that will provide you with maybe 40 years of challenges, excitement, opportunity and great satisfaction. Allow me to offer some (hopefully) words of wisdom as you cross the stage and pack your knives for this next phase in your professional lives.

1. Appreciate diversity: our industry is a melting pot of every ethnic group, race, young and old, straight and gay, tall and small, male and female, passionate artist and content job seeker, introvert and extrovert – providing you with a tremendous opportunity to experience the world every day you show up to work. Take it all in and appreciate everyone for who they are.
2. Know that every day will provide learning moments as well as opportunities to share what you know with others.
3. Remember that you must become dedicated followers first as you learn how to become the leaders you want to be. YES CHEF is still applicable.
4. Be patient with yourself and with others.
5. Be a team player – always.
6. Have your goals firmly established and choose your steps along the way with that in mind.
7. Ask yourself every day: “Is what I am doing right now bringing me closer to realizing those goals”.
8. Be in service of the potato. In other words, always respect the ingredients you work with and the effort that was made to bring those ingredients to you.
9. Every position in the kitchen is important and every person is a critical piece of the restaurant puzzle. You may have a different job than some, but every person in the kitchen is equal.
10. The foundations are always your friends. Never forget the basics that you were taught in school. They are called the foundations for a reason.
11. Shortcuts never produce the same results. “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over”?
12. Build your flavor memory.
13. Protect your tools –keep your knives sharp.
14. Sanitation and Safety is your most important job.
15. Look and act like the professional that you want to be.
16. Be a person of integrity. Be known for a person of high moral character and know that honesty is of consummate importance.
17. Be known for your dependability.
18. Seek to be trusted by all people who surround you.
19. Read and travel now.
20. Try to find balance in your life. Don’t look back and say “I wish I had spent more time with family and friends”.
21. Take care of your health. Eat right, sleep well and exercise.
22. And as Chef Michel LeBorgne would always say: TASTE-SEASON-TASTE!

Best of luck: now it is your turn to change the world.

Chef Paul Sorgule

A Letter to Culinary School Graduates

A Letter to Culinary School Graduates

First and foremost, congratulations on completing your formal education and welcome to the best industry in the world. Granted I have a certain amount of bias toward an industry that I have spent my life in, but I do truly believe that you have made a wise choice. You must, however, realize that your real education has only begun. The experiences that you will have over the next 40 or so years will be enlightening, rewarding, challenging and unsurpassed. Please allow me to offer a few (hopefully) words of wisdom as you move forward.

* Appreciate diversity. the food industry is a melting pot of every ethnic culture, young and old, every race, straight and gay, short and tall, type A personalities and type B personalities, passionate artists and complacent job seekers: they all make up a dynamic and exciting industry. Take it all in and relish the opportunity to work with others.
* Know that every day will be a learning moment and every day will provide you with an opportunity to share that with others.
* Be patient – you must become a loyal follower before you can grow into the leader you want to become.
* Every job in a kitchen and dining room is important. You may hold a different position but you are never better than anyone else.
* Have your goals firmly in place and choose the steps that you take to get there wisely.
* Be in service of the potato. In other words, always respect the ingredients you have the opportunity to work with and the effort that it took to get those ingredients to you.
* Be a team player. Your opportunities now and in the future are dependent on how will you support the team effort.
* The foundations will always serve you well. Remember the importance of proper cooking techniques and stay true to them.
* Never forget that you are in the SERVICE business.
* Protect your tools. Make sure your knives are sharp.
* Sanitation is the most important part of your job.
* Look and act like the professional that you strive to be.
* Read, travel and taste now.
* Never forget the people who help you along the way.
* Build your rolodex and your network of influence.
* Maintain your integrity, character and honesty.
* Try to find balance in your life.
* and as Chef Michel LeBorgne would say: TASTE, SEASON, TASTE!

Good luck. Now it is your turn to change the world.

RESTAURANTS NEED TO PAINT OUTSIDE THE LINES

What ever happened to creativity and the fun associated with developing something new, exciting, delicious and trend defining in restaurants. Certainly you could cite those handful of unique restaurants that grace the cover stories in trade magazines, win James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, and are home to chefs with names that are present on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but what about the other 950,000 restaurants in the United States along with business cafeterias, college cafes, and health care facilities? Are there exceptions to the rule, you bet, but they are few and far between.

Playing it safe is the rule of thumb, until someone creates that “ah ha” moment in restaurant dining that reinvents a segment. Do we really need another shop that serves Pizza Margherita, Ameri/Mexican restaurants with burritos and Chimichangas, white tablecloth operations with Shrimp Scampi or Veal Piccata? I have found myself many times referring to how important the classic dishes are and that they are always great to fall back on because after all – they sell! The problem is not their acceptability or the taste profile; the problem is that the industry is too boring. Did I really say that? Yes, the restaurant business is boring.

Customers play it safe, just like restaurants do, and thus the cycle continues. Those chefs and restaurateurs who try to break the mold gain notoriety among journalists, young chefs looking for excitement and that 2% of the population referred to as innovators, but walk down the street and you will find dozens of restaurants who are content (or stuck) with doing the same thing that everyone else does.

I am not a fan of what has been referred to as “molecular cuisine”; however, I am fascinated by those chefs who are head-over-heals committed to pushing that envelope. Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne are part of the pack of rebels who (forget what you think about the food) are trying hard to pull us out of our shells and learn to “think different”.

Steve Jobs was a genius. Some loved him and others despised him. Say what you will, but as the soul of Apple Computer he embraced creative thought above everything else. He had the uncanny ability to go beyond what people wanted or needed, he anticipated what they were going to need before they ever thought of it. So too is the case with a few contemporary chefs and restaurant owners/operators.

If Achatz, Adria and Dufresne are too radical for you, consider some who have been with us for a long time, treasure the classics, but who interpret those items in a way that breaks the barriers of “playing it safe”. Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, Charles Carroll, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Marcus Samuelsson and Cat Cora all continue to move their creative ideas to the forefront of restaurants that carry their signature while 950,000 others continue to ignore the need to be just a little unique.

Part of our job as chefs is to educate the staff members who work with us and the guests who choose to grace us with their presence. Of course, I am fully aware of the fiduciary responsibilities that go along with taking the helm of a restaurant and the fragile nature of restaurant economics. It is also our responsibility, however, to grow our business, attract new customers, and most importantly: exceed guest expectations with a food experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

To quote a culinary friend of mine from the past: “There is little talent in cooking a steak. Certainly there is a skill that goes along with timing and organization of a char-grill, but the talent is in preparing a chicken leg or inexpensive cut of meat in such a way, and presented with such unique grace, that its value far exceeds that of even the best steak.”

Please do not misinterpret what I am saying: I love classic Italian, French, Asian, German, Polish, Irish, Norwegian and every other traditional ethnic food. I sometimes salivate just thinking about that perfectly cooked steak, but how often is it that a restaurant experience truly excites and builds unforgettable memories?

Creativity is not exclusive to high-end restaurants. Starbucks was a real “wow” when they first began. The quality, the variety, the atmosphere were game changers. When was the last time that this type of change has taken our breath away in the coffee business? I would dare say that there is little difference between the Starbucks of 1990 and the one of today. Remember the first time you experienced an Au Bon Pain or Panera Bread and how it was fun to take it all in? Where is the next game changer hiding?

Playing it safe has a price. The price is complacency and transition of unique concepts into commodity restaurants. I am waiting for the next Steve Jobs in the restaurant business to catch everyone else off guard. Every once and a while we need to paint outside the lines.

WINE QUALITY IS A REFLECTION OF THE WINEMAKER’S PASSION FOR LIFE

WINE QUALITY IS A REFLECTION OF THE WINEMAKER’S PASSION FOR LIFE

I am far from a wine expert, however, as is the case with many things in life – I become more knowledgeable and appreciative as the years go by. I know what I like to drink, I know which foods I enjoy with certain wines, I am very open to trying anything new, and I have become very enthralled with the people who dedicate their lives to the grape.

Case in point, although I am not that fond of white wines, I am very enthused with Sauvignon Blanc, and in particular, those grapes that wind up as a Sancerre. Having visited the town of Sancerre many times and having built some familiarity with the Loire Valley, I consider myself to be a bit of a Sancerre advocate.

I have enjoyed the privilege of tasting wines in the private cellars of noteworthy wine makers in Sancerre and in particular that of Daniel Chotard. After many years I now consider Daniel to be my friend (even though his English is almost as shaky as my French – almost). I have hosted Daniel and his wife in Saranac Lake, have worked diligently with my other French friends: the Weissberg’s – to get Chotard’s wine on regional lists, and have had the pleasure of breaking bread in various bistros throughout the Loire with Daniel and a cadre of enthusiastic chefs and wine afficandos.

I read the following review of Chotard’s Sancerre; in this case a 2009, by the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker:
“90 points Wine Spectator: “Super fresh, with lots of chive, fleur de sel, lime and chalk notes backed by a strong flinty note on the bracing finish, which really stretches out. Drink now.” (12/10) 89 points Parker’s Wine Advocate: “Daniel Chotard’s 2009 Sancerre is diversely scented and flavored with papaya, grapefruit, cassis, and passion fruit. A distinctly saline overlay – along with bright acids – helps convey a sense of invigoration and refreshment and offsets the relatively bitter cast to a persistently zesty finish. I suspect this will be best enjoyed over the next 12-18 months.” (08/10)
Not a bad review; one that certainly would help Daniel move his wine into certain American restaurant circles, however it really doesn’t tell the whole story. There is something else about wine that is more social that taste, flavor and aroma. Certainly anyone who enjoys Sauvignon Blanc would find Chotard’s to be quite exceptional, but to me it is impossible to separate the wine from the person.
Daniel Chotard, and now his son to follow, is 100% dedicated to the grape and his wine. Whether it is Chotard, Mondavi, or Helen Turley, that passion is what really makes a wine sing. Whatever the situation, it is the grape that comes first. To a wine maker caring for the grape is comparable to caring for a child. It requires so much time, knowledge, passion and luck, that it becomes quite apparent that the wine maker must pass on some of his/her own characteristics to the end product. Just as a parent influences how the child evolves and the type of person they become, so too does the grape reflect this caring relationship.
Daniel Chotard is a wonderful, hard-working, dedicated, caring person who in turn produces a wine of unique character. As is the case with those who are as dedicated to wine making, as a chef is dedicated to cuisine, Chotard represents all that is right in the world of wine.
I would certainly encourage anyone who can find a bottle or two of Chotard Sancerre to saver it, but more importantly I would encourage you to plan a trip to the Loire and pay my friend a visit. I guarantee the wine will become more than a great beverage, it will become a reflection of the man and a memory for life.
Harvest America Ventures will be planning a Educational Adventure Wine Vacation to France in September of 2013. Daniel Chotard is one of the program contributors. Visit our website for more details as they unfold:
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
click on Wine Vacations

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