For so many these days its all about the limelight. Its about getting paid, getting respect, and being superstars. Easily forgotten is the idea that the culinary industry is first and foremost a service industry; an outpouring of familial hospitality extended to strangers, with food as the focal point.
Many who make the choice to do this, day in and day out, do so out of the respect they have for the food, and a desire to carry on what others who influenced them had done before. Having the opportunity to speak with Chef Marc Orfaly of The Beehive in Boston was a reminder that there are people who cook for the right reasons.
During our conversation we talked about some of Marc’s early experiences in the food industry, his suggestion to those interested in getting in to the culinary industry, and his personal food memory.
Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). As a part of that learning experience, I’ve been able to get to know more about some really fantastic individuals. One of those individuals is Chef Kelvin Fernandez, Executive Chef at The Strand Bistro in NYC.
Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). As a part of that learning experience, I’ve been able to get to know more about some really fantastic individuals. One of those individuals is Chef Kelvin Fernandez, Executive Chef at The Strand Bistro in NYC.
My first contact with Chef Kelvin was when I was researching a story about Terry Matsis, Kelvin’s culinary instructor at Long Island High School. I recently had a chance to check in with Kelvin. We talked about his start in the business, how he deals with food allergies as a chef, and a couple of food memories that exemplify his love for both food, and the industry he is a part of.
Foodie Journal: When was it that you discovered you had enough love for food that you wanted to actually make cooking your career? Kelvin Fernandez: This is a story I love telling. It’s actually a love story. I followed my high school sweet heart into cooking class. From then on I started picking up the love for making someone smile through something I create. I finally realized that this was going to be something special when I won a C-CAP Scholarship award to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
FJ: How did you get started out in the business? KF: I started out in the business in high school. They set me up with my first real paid job. Working in a restaurant at such a young age isn’t for everyone, but I would recommend it because that really is the best way to find out if you want to do this for a living or not. FJ: What ended up being your first real paid job in the kitchen? KF: My first restaurant job was working garde manger, so working with salads and cold appetizers, at The Waters Edge Restaurant in Long Island City in New York.
FJ: Obviously there are many paths to becoming a chef. You picked up a lot thanks to education. Can you talk a little bit about what your culinary education experience was like? KF: I was fortunate to start young. Both high school and college were two different, but very important times for me as far as exposure to the culinary world. I used each as a stepping stone, and a learning experience. High school gave me the tools and basics that set me up for the restaurant lifestyle, as far as knowing culinary terms and techniques. The CIA gave me all the tools to succeed in the real world. But, I think that without working in restaurants, none of that would be possible. What you learn working in a restaurant can’t be taught in school, even a great school like the CIA which has restaurants that you can work in through-out your program. I do feel that going through the path I chose was the best possible option for me. High school classes, working in a restaurant, then culinary school. In that order. I felt like I was able to learn, to work hard, to network, and also to work special events all at the same time. I think you also have to choose the restaurants you work at carefully. That ends up defining what style of food you will develop on your own. I started cooking French, then Italian, and now American.
FJ: Now, you actually have some food allergies. Can you mention what they are? KF: Unfortunately I am allergic to all shellfish. Lobster, scallops, shrimp, oysters, clams and mussels. Surprisingly that’s what I cook best! FJ: As a chef, how tough is it to cook dishes that include foods you might have allergies to, especially since you can’t always taste what you’re putting on the plate? How challenging is it? KF: It’s very difficult, I am not going to lie. I honestly owe it to my culinary mentors, George Masaraff, Alfred Portale, and Marcus Samuelson who all taught me that if you learn how to season a piece of meat properly, then you can season a piece of fish the same way. Other skills I was able to learn from working in restaurants, like how to properly cook a lobster or mussels. What certain items might taste like, their flavor profiles. When developing new recipes I just learn from others and what they like to pair with certain ingredients. For example, when I’m looking into a new dish, I will focus on eating that one dish three or four times and see what worked best so that I can create my own dish.
FJ: Everyone that loves food has food memories that they’re fond of. Could you share one of your favorite food memories? KF: I have two – one family memory and one professional one!
As far as family, something that always hits the spot when I am home sick is my mom’s lasagna. It’s so simple, yet so dear to my heart! I take it extra serious when someone at the restaurant wants to make lasagna for family meal. I must make sure its as close to my moms recipe as possible .
A restaurant experience I remember was when I was 17 years old. I went to Restaurant Daniel for the first time. It was my first “fine-dining” experience, and I will remember it forever! First time I got to experience amazing food, amazing service, and that’s when I knew that I was looking forward to being in this business. I am fortunate enough to say that I love what I do. It doesn’t feel like a job.
Kelvin Fernandez is the Executive Chef at The Strand Bistro, inside The Strand Hotel NYC located at 33 W 37th Street, in New York City.
Over the passed few weeks, my world has been slightly off kilter thanks to the singular word that any lover of food dreads: diet. A necessary evil, obviously, but every time I make the effort, I’m reminded of where my food allegiances lie. While I am an über fan of the savory, when the chips are down, the easiest fix I can find that will keep me out of the clock tower is a simple square of chocolate. No more. No less.
Chocolate can be found everywhere these days. For a quarter, you can get a handful of the candy-coated variety. A little more will get you a full bar. But, does checkout-line chocolate tell the whole story? Think of the work that goes in to chocolate from start to finish, or as Pam Williams and Jim Eber refer to it in their book Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolates, “gene-to-bonbon”. It’s easy to forget the hours of time, effort and money that goes in to producing chocolate regardless of its final form. A few months back I had a chance to speak with writer Jim Eber about where the idea for Raising the Bar came from, what the approach to writing it was, and some of the stories that really hammered home the need for more education on what the making of chocolate really involves.
Foodie Journal: Tell me a little bit about where the idea for Raising the Bar came from. Jim Eber: The idea was purely Pam’s, who has been in some form of the chocolate business for more than two decades. She has a school, Ecole Chocolat, in which she does classes for people who want to get involved in chocolate making and manufacture at any kind of level. Whether it’s a chocolatier, or whether it is someone who wants to go back to the very beginning, literally go down to the bean and go down to Ecuador, or go down to places in Latin America and see what it is like.
The school celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. Pam thought about all kinds of things that she wanted to do, and she realized that the single biggest thing she could do for herself and the industry that she loves would be to write something that would explain to people what the future of fine chocolate might be.
She could have done a party. She could have done any kind of huge blowout thing. She could have done a big PR campaign but what she’d rather do is put a stake in the ground for flavor because that’s where her future is tied to and those are the people that she loves. She started thinking about this at then end of 2010, beginning of 2011, and I came on board with her in June of 2011 to be her writer. She’s the guiding light and she tasked me with putting this together.
FJ: The title of the first chapter was my absolute favorite, “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine.” That sure is a pretty easy way to catch a readers attention right away! JE: It’s funny because that’s exactly it. This is written for people who love chocolate, and either need or want to know more, or are in this business and want to help people understand what they do. At the very beginning I was thinking, “How do I get people to read about the genetics of chocolate?” when even people in this business, their eyes start to glaze over when you start talking about it. So “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine” was just the way to point to that.
FJ: It’s a really cool idea, starting at such a base level. How did you approach the interactions with the different people that do this for a living? JE: That’s a good question. We played with a lot of possibilities. As craft chocolate and manufacture has taken off, the expression “bean-to-bar” has become fairly common right now. Pam and I realized that bean-to-bar is a perfectly logical progression. You start with a bean, you end with a bar, even if the bar is meant for consumers or meant for chefs or chocolatiers to melt down and start doing their own craft.
When we were thinking about that, we said, “Wait, all that’s missing is the very beginning and the very end,” so we decided that gene-to-bonbon … or in Belgium it’s praline, or what we would call in the United States, chocolates. We decided gene-to-bonbon was the way to approach it and we tried coming at it in different ways, like by working our way back. Get back to the center, to the gene, but we said, “You know what? It starts on the ground.” That’s where the deepest lack of awareness is for people who are eating chocolate.
Many people don’t even think of it as a food, let alone something that starts out growing on a tree. We decided to start with the genetics. That was a big challenge because also, it’s the least yummy. You can’t taste the gene. That’s how we decided to approach it, and the real challenge was, “How do we keep people’s interest in the first quarter of the book if we move linearly from there?”
FJ: You mentioned how many different people that you had the opportunity to interview and talk to in writing the book. Is there a particular story from the book that you working on? JE: Can I pick two? FJ: Yes, absolutely! JE: I think they cover the two extremes of what we really want to say. For all the problems that are going in the world of chocolate, for all the things that threaten flavor, the single most important thing to help keep the world of fine flavor growing, and the growth of appreciation and making it like the appreciation of wine or craft beer, is education. It’s the education of the consumer to help them appreciate the differences, and not to denigrate candy. It is simply essential that people understand where chocolate comes from. To that end, there’s one hurdle that people think is education, but it’s not, and it actually comes from a story you see in the first 20, 30 pages of the book. The first story about education has to do with the farmers.
When Brett Beach went to sample that tree in Madagascar, when that “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine” story, when he was taking it out there … we’re talking about farmers in Madagascar. We’re talking about a culture that is not literate. There is not a high literacy rate, and there is not a particularly high standard of living. We are talking about people who, nice as they can be, they’re just not an industrialized nation by any way.
Understanding what genetics are isn’t going to necessarily click, considering that Brett, himself, barely could articulate it in English, let alone Malagasy. When Brett told the farmer what they were looking for, the farmer walked right up to a tree and marked it. That tree was pure ancient Criollo. That tree was right on. It was something that was thought to not exist. They knew that it could, but it was thought not to. It was rediscovered that day. It was thought to be extinct, but he farmer knew exactly what it was.
Education for farmers is about helping them take that knowledge and get the best price they possibly can for their chocolate, helping them with systems that will improve their lives and be a win-win-win for everyone. It only works if you connect it to the second story, which is at the end of part two.
That was a story that Art Pollard told me. Art is Amano Chocolate; he’s out of Utah, has been open for five years, and is a part of the boom of craft manufacturers in the United States. He produces dynamite chocolate, by everyone’s accounts. He has been a mentor to some of the younger people in the business. He tells a story at the in a section at near the end of the book called, “’Cheap Chocolate’ should be an oxymoron.”
There’s no better emphasis than that, than Art Pollard talking about being at a food show with his chocolate early on in his work. A guy came up to him at a hotdog cart and said, “I really liked your chocolate, man. I’d like to buy some. How much is it?” He talked about the wholesale price was for his chocolate to go in there was $15 a pound. This guy said, “Oh my God. I won’t pay more than three.” Art looked at him and said, “I can’t even buy beans for three dollars a pound.” A bean is nothing. Have you tasted an unroasted cacao bean, Reuben? FJ: Yeah, once. Not something to make regular practice of! Like unsweetened cocoa powder. Very bitter. JE: Exactly. That’s not chocolate. It’s a bean. There are ten steps before it’s a chocolate bar. Yet this person wouldn’t pay more than three dollars. That story just indicated to me like, “Really? Really? Three dollars a pound is what you’ll pay for that chocolate?” Given the amount of labor and given what goes in to it? So, helping really educate, at both ends of the spectrum is really important, and something I think the stories in this book can do. There is great chocolate being made, and that needs to be appreciated. Once that appreciation starts to develop, then people will see that quality is worth paying more money for. At every level.
You can find out more about Pam Williams and Jim Eber, as well as additional information about Raising the Bar on the Ecole Chocolat website.
“Offal, huh? Must taste like it sounds.” Ba-dum-dum.
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard more than once, and quite possibly one I myself expressed multiple times many years back. Heart. Tongue. Brain. Kidney. The “nasty bits”, many wouldn’t consider sniffing at. How can it possibly be any good? I can tell you from personal experience, though, that when these cuts are handled by the hands of a capable chef, they can be good. “Offal” good.
One such chef is Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco. Having built a brand around offal, Cosentino is part of a movement of chefs that see the importance (and common sense) of utilizing every part of an animal. Waste not, want not! I had the opportunity to check in with Chef Cosentino, touching on where his love of food came from, the importance of passing on cooking knowledge, and writing his first cookbook.
Foodie Journal: Did you always love to cook? Chris Cosentino: Yes, I grew up around great cooks. My great grandmother, Rosalie Cosentino, was from Naples, Italy and my grandmother, Helen Easton, was an amazing English cook. Some of my most cherished childhood moments are with both of them in the kitchen, making great food memories and learning from them.
FJ: Where did you end up getting your start in the business? CC: My true beginning in the food business was at a ripe age of 15 as a dishwasher at IHOP. It amazed me to watch the 2 cooks make so much food with such perfect timing and execution. Ever since that first job I have craved knowledge of food and been passionate about cooking.
FJ: It seems like offal has really become much more common place in restaurants these days. Why did you decide to gravitate towards offal, and nose to tail cooking in general? CC: When I started cooking offal 10 years ago it wasn’t very common. Now, it is great to see it featured on so many menus in the country.
FJ: Do you have a favorite piece of offal that you enjoy working with? CC: Each cut of offal is so unique that I couldn’t pick just one. It would be like picking your favorite child.
FJ: I saw a web short from Breville where you’re out on the town with Chef Jamie Bissonnette in Boston, and you both touch on the importance of teaching others to cook. Can you just speak a little about why teaching others to cook really is so important? CC: Sharing with peers is extremely important because technique and product sharing can help change the way people work to improve the quality of food. If we don’t share our knowledge of cooking, we don’t see progression for the next generation. Like the many great chefs who came before us, it is our responsibility to make sure each generation is growing and making the food world better for everyone.
FJ: In line with teaching people, you just published your first cookbook last year. What was the experience of getting that out there like? Ready to get started on your next one? CC: It was a huge challenge. I was always a poor student so writing a book was a big personal achievement. I was always told that you should never write like you speak when I was in school and now everyone tells me to write so they can hear my voice! I learned so much from this first experience and I can’t wait to make my next cookbook even better.
FJ: The final question for you: Do you have a specific food memory from your life that you’d like to share? CC: I feel so fortunate to have so many great taste memories in my life. At the age of 12 years old I ate a raw clam on the half shell alongside my grandfather, Thurston Easton, for the first time. I had never had an uncooked clam so when he busted open the clam, drizzled on some lemon, and told me to chew it, it was a total game changer. It was crunchy with a huge explosion of brininess but it was also so delicate. I was immediately hooked and ate a dozen. To this day, I will always love them and think of my grandfather.
Chris Cosentino is chef/partner at Incanto, located at 1550 Church Street, in San Francisco. He released his first cookbook, “Beginnings: My Way To Start a Meal” in 2012.
With the proliferation of food programming on television, it has become common place for many to view the culinary profession as one of glamour. I mean, really. You whip up some food, fly away to enchanted lands to try new cuisines and cooking techniques, then return to instruct the world on how to replicate your results. Easy peasy, right?
Well, the truth of the matter is that any chef, any line cook, any one that’s busted their butt in the back of a restaurant will tell you the same thing. Cooking. Is. Work. Hard work, at that. I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Symon, chef, restauranteur, and author of the cookbook Carnivore: 120 Recipes for Meat Lovers. During our conversation we talked about what the life of a chef is really like, how he got his start in the industry, and his personal food memory.
Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized that cooking was something that you wanted to do as a career? Michael Symon: I grew up in a big food household. My mom is Greek and Sicilian. My father is Ruthenian, so food was a central part of our family. I was kind of always in the kitchen as a kid. Started working in restaurants when I was 13, almost 14 years old, and just fell in love with the business and worked in restaurants through high school. Shortly after high school I decided I wanted to go to culinary school, and that was it.
FJ: In those early years, was it mostly like what a lot of other chefs started out doing, like washing dishes, or were you actually doing any cooking in those early days? MS: I was lucky. It was a restaurant that my buddy’s dad owned. I got to cook pretty early. I was doing a lot of prep early and I was working the line by the time I was 15. In that sense I was very fortunate. I just kind of fell in love with the camaraderie of it all.
FJ: Can you talk a little bit about your experience attending the Culinary Institute of America? MS: Well, I went to culinary school in the 80s. It was certainly a different time. There was no Food Network. There weren’t really celebrity chefs. That didn’t exist. I went to culinary school to be a chef. When I went, I was 18, 19 years old at the time. Most of the people in my class were in their late 20s, early 30s. Some maybe had been cooking for a long time already, and others maybe changing their livelihood. But, it wasn’t young kids that were aspiring to be chefs. For me it was tremendous because I got to work with so many people that were my seniors. One good thing was that I think it made me more mature, and two, I learned that good food all on its own is a good school.
Obviously there are great chefs that haven’t gone to culinary school, and there are great chefs that have. The one thing that culinary school gives you is it shows you a lot of different things. Every three weeks you’re working with a different chef. They all do things a little bit different. In the two years that you’re there, you get to see the opinions and techniques of 30 or 40 different chefs. You would never be able to do that in that amount of time if you were working restaurants. You can’t switch jobs every two weeks.
FJ: So, if somebody came up to you and said, “Hey, I want to be a cook,” what would your advice be? MS: I would say get as much practical experience as you can before you go to school. I had worked in restaurants for about five years, almost six years prior to going to culinary school, so I had a good foundation. I think too many people that go to culinary school now don’t have a good foundation when they get there, so they don’t get to learn as much while they’re there. I would say find the best chef you know or the chef that you respect most, and put in your year or two years with them to build a nice foundation so when you’re going to school you’ll really be able to get the best experience.
No one would ever skip grade school or high school, and then go to college. They’d never be able to keep up or they wouldn’t be able to learn as much. I think too many young kids watch Food Network or all kind of things and they say, “I want to be a cook,” or “I want to be a chef,” and they go right to culinary school with very, very minimal experience. They don’t get to learn nearly as much as they would with their schooling, because they’re always playing catch-up.
FJ: With the Food Network, and all the interest in the food industry these days, it has brought a lot more attention to cooking as a profession. It seems like many have started to see being a cook or a chef as being a glamorous profession rather than a craft. Do you think that’s a problem, or should people dream big? MS: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dreaming big. I think dreaming big is the greatest thing you could ever do. I do think there’s probably more schools than there should be now. When I went to school there was the Culinary Institute, and there was Johnson and Wales, which were both incredible programs. Now there are culinary schools all over the place, and who really knows how reputable they all are. I do think that too many people go to culinary school thinking that the life of a chef is a glamorous life. The reality of it is different. Thinking about the people that have been around for a long time, and have been doing the Food Network on and off since ’98, you know, like Mario, Bobby, and Emeril. All these people were chefs that were fortunate enough to eventually do television.
If you’re going to culinary school to become a chef and you’re expecting this glamorous lifestyle from it, the reality of it is that for over 20 years of my life I worked 15 to 17 hours a day on my feet in front of a 600-degree stove. I missed holidays, weddings, family events, weekends, all those things because my dream was to be a great chef. It never felt like I was missing anything, but it’s just the reality of it. I think a lot of kids get out of culinary school now, and unfortunately because of what they see on television they think that it’s this very glamorous lifestyle and it’s not. It’s one of the toughest businesses in the world. It was like my dad’s joke when I was working 90 to 100 hours a week and was in wedding parties, but could only go to the church and not the reception. He was like, “I told you you should have went to college.” You have to know what you’re getting into while you’re going into it. If you’re going to culinary school because you want to be on the Food Network, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re going to culinary school because you want to be a great chef, you won’t be disappointed at all. There’s just not that many chefs on television at the end of the day. I think you have to know what you want to accomplish when you’re going to school.
FJ: My final question for you. Everybody that I’ve spoken with that has a love for food always has a memory that they like to think back on. What’s your favorite food memory? MS: My favorite food memory is going to my Sicilian grandmother’s house, my mom’s mom on Sundays. The smell of tomato sauce cooking down with ribs in it, and sausage, and meatballs. Just this delicious ragout that she would make. I could talk about it and I smell it. It’s that Sunday dinner with my grandparents. That Sunday supper with my grandparents is to me really what food is all about. It brings family together. It’s delicious. It’s cooked from scratch. You sit around a table as a family and you break bread and you talk and you laugh and you cry and you enjoy a delicious meal.
Michael Symon is chef/owner of various restaurants, including Lola Bistro, located at 2058 East 4th Street in Cleveland, Ohio. He can be seen regularly on ABC’s The Chew, and on The Cooking Channel’s Symon’s Suppers.
Despite being only about 4 hours from New York City, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ventured over to the Big Apple, a situation I plan to rectify over the coming years. During our last visit, we relied on a couple of friends to guide us along the way. It was a delicious day, which concluded with a visit to Casa Mono, part of the fleet of restaurants from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Just a smattering of the deliciousness can be viewed here, here, and also here.
What caught me by surprise was the simplicity of the dishes. Nothing was overdone, each element on the plate contributing to the balance of well composed plates of food. One of the behind the scenes minds responsible for these dishes, and I mean “behind the scenes” quite figuratively as Casa Mono has a very open kitchen, is chef de cuisine Anthony Sasso. I had the opportunity to speak with Anthony, and we touched on how he got his start, some of his culinary travels, and his favorite food memory.
Foodie Journal: Can you tell me a little bit about when you discovered you had a love for food, and then in turn decided that you wanted to make a career out of cooking? Anthony Sasso: I think I’m in a different boat than a lot of people. I guess when they answer that question it’s always like, “Oh, growing up I had so much food around, so much great food. My mom’s a great cook.” I kind of had it the other way where my parents aren’t great cooks, so we fended for ourselves a lot. We’d always try out things after getting home from school. I was forced to learn a lot on my own, and I’ve kind of carried that through my whole career. I did go to culinary school, and got all the basic and technical training, but I think I did take a lot on myself by just study something, reading about it, tasting around and then just try to do it on my own. Do it my own way or something. It’s translated into a lot of the dishes at Casa Mono, where they’re fun, and they have the sense of humor of someone that maybe doesn’t take things so seriously. It’s just a fun way of doing things, like you would if you were just hanging with your friends in the kitchen and getting things done that way. I can’t give thanks to my mother, grandmother, or father. They just did not put amazing food on the table each night. FJ: I’ve actually talked to a couple of chefs now who have the same reaction! AS: Good to know! We grew up where it was convenience is how you ate. Whether you went out to eat or did take-out or whatever, but yes, I don’t have this huge glossary of great dishes that I now serve because it’s something I grew up on. It’s kind of funny where we end up.
FJ: You ended up going to culinary school. Where did you attend? AS: I went to ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) here in New York City. Mostly because it worked with the schedule that I had then. I graduated from college in the Bronx, got a job that I wasn’t too happy with doing every single day. As soon as I could, and as soon as I found a school that catered to my schedule and needs, I just signed up for it right away. The great thing about culinary school is that you don’t really have to apply. You just sign up, and if you can come up with the funds or the loans, you’re in. I went on the weekends for six months. It was one of the best kitchen experiences ever because they’re just throwing ingredients at you, and you either love it or you’re not into it. I knew right away that when we spent four hours sipping different olive oils, vinegars and spices, and it kind of just opened our eyes to a lot of stuff. I knew that school, from that point on, was going to get better every single day. It was a lot of fun.
FJ: From there, what was your first real exposure to working in restaurants? AS: I kind of grew up working in restaurants, but I would say my first real exposure to good food was moving here. Towards the end of school they tell you to do as much as you can to get into any kitchen, no matter what the capacity. I just went to all the places, and chefs that were being recognized at that time. My first job was with Rocco DiSpirito but I got a lot of time in the kitchens of Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne and Mario Batali. The first place that actually put me on schedule was Union Pacific for Rocco DiSpirito, and that was a great time to be in that kitchen. He had the same outlook as I do now where you’re using a lot of ingredients, and a lot of different cuisines, but building a personality for yourself with flavor. Trying to put an element of surprise in every single dish. Working a dish to the point where you know everything looks appealing and appetizing on the menu. It was just a fun, time and I really enjoyed being part of that camaraderie during that time.
FJ: Having worked with Rocco, Bobby, Wylie, and now with Mario, do you think its helpful for young chefs who really want to be successful to try to learn from those that are at the top of their game? AS: Doesn’t hurt! It’s kind of like you seek out the restaurants that are doing something special, or the chefs that are doing something new and inventive. If nothing else, they’re at least pushing themselves every single day. It’s not static, and they push their cooks. Everyone around you has the same philosophy. Thinking about what Casa Mono is now, it’s kind of fun. Ten years ago there weren’t a lot of open kitchens, there weren’t a lot of sushi counters, or small plate restaurants. There weren’t a lot of places that were playing with tripe, sweetbreads, calves brains, or veal tongue. So you pick up a lot from the chefs that are confident enough to at least try working with with the harder ingredients. I like to think I learned to be like that just from the time spent with the chefs that I worked for.
FJ: You recently did a trip to Portugal and Spain. Can you talk about some of the differences that you see at the moment between European style cooking and what people typically see as American style cooking? SA: Europe’s built this huge basis on cooking where they not only don’t waste anything, but they’re truly enthusiastic to eat food. I think here people are excited to go out to a restaurant for many other reasons besides what’s on the menu and what’s on the plate. It’s different in Europe. Like, in Spain, and I noticed it in Portugal too, half their dishes have blood sausage, or these really foreign ingredients that are a challenge to any chef. Over there, every diner wants to eat something like that. I hadn’t been to Europe in a while, so this last trip just reaffirmed that whole fact that maybe Europeans might have chicken livers in their refrigerators because they actually eat that stuff, whereas here in America, you can only get that at a restaurant. In Europe, I think it’s built into their DNA a lot more. There’s always fresh bread, there’s always at least a half full bottle of wine. There’s always something good in the refrigerator to play with, and it just makes the job a lot easier for chefs. Here at Casa Mono, we try to get people to focus, even for just a couple of hours, just on the food they’re enjoying, and little else. We try to captivate diners here, and try to get them to trust us, our food, and just go for it!
FJ: Pretty much everybody I talk to that loves food, has a favorite food memory; do you have one you wouldn’t mind sharing? SA: I remember one day I walked in to Bar Jamon, which is our wine bar right next door, and the first thing I saw on the menu was pan con tomate, which is as simple as it sounds. Just toasted bread, garlic, tomato, olive oil. I used to have that all the time! I remembered having it every single day, every single meal, at home, on the beach, or at a restaurant. That became the base for sandwiches. There was never a normal piece of bread again after that. To see that on a New York City menu, something so simple, so basic. It surprised me! If you weren’t Catalan, it’s most likely you never had this, unless you had bruschetta at an Italian restaurant, which is not even comparable to it. I think that’s what put me on to the idea that quality ingredients can make anything good. It just says so much about Spain. It wasn’t about technique, or anything like that. It was just simplicity, something good, and something simple, and anyone who’s a dummy can make it at home or wherever. I think that might be probably the closest thing to a food memory for me. It just clicked.
Casa Mono is located at 52 Irving Place in New York City. You can call 212.253.2773 for reservations, though I’d recommend getting there a little earlier so you can enjoy a glass of wine at Bar Jamon!
Update to the updated update: The Blizzard Bash has unfortunately been cancelled due to the continued difficulties stemming from the Blizzard of 2013. Considering the lack of public transportation and, lest we forget, the 2 feet of snow covering walkways and side walks, it seems the best decision. Disappointing, no doubt, but worth noting is that the Barbara Lynch Foundation won’t just be sitting back. In an email to ticket holders, Jeff Macklin, President of the Foundation stated, “It [is] our absolute intention to honor all Blizzard Bash tickets – both VIP and General Admission – at a culinary event this spring.” It will, no doubt, be more fierce than the Blizzard Bash will have been! :) Stay tuned for info about the spring event.
Chef Barbara Lynch is Boston through and through. A bit of an edge, but a big heart underneath, her contributions to the city of Boston have been extensive, far beyond the economical impact a restaurant would have on a city. Just this past year she founded the Barbara Lynch Foundation, all with the hopes of helping the youth, families, and communities of Boston have a brighter future through food education. So, what better way to raise money for a young foundation than to throw a kick ass party?
That’s exactly what’s going down on February 7th, and 8th; The First Annual Blizzard Bash! I had the chance to touch base with Chef Lynch. We talked a little about how she got her start in the industry, food memories, and what people can expect at the Blizzard Bash.
Foodie Journal: Is there a moment where you really figured that you wanted a career in cooking? Was it something you always enjoyed? Barbara Lynch: I really didn’t enjoy it in the beginning, mostly because I didn’t really know how to cook. For whatever reason I talked myself in to saying that, for my career, I wanted to be a chef, if that makes sense. So at age 12 or 13, I’d started talking myself in to the idea of being a chef. I didn’t really know what that would entail until I started cooking. I always thought that if I had a job in the food industry, as a chef, that I’d always have a job. Basically, that was the bottom line for me at the moment. But, as I started cooking, and being in charge of the dishes I was putting out, I noticed people liked it. That’s when I thought, “Oh my god. This is meant to be.”
FJ: What was it like when you were first starting out? Did you just learn by doing, or did the mentoring from the chefs and cooks you worked with help you along the way? BL: I was always playing catch up. Just being self-taught, I had no idea what a head of radicchio was. I had no idea pâté was. Being in the kitchen was an absolute eye-opener. So, I would just grab copies of whatever I could get my hands on and would just read, and read, and read! Of course, I didn’t understand it all, but my brain managed to somehow take it all in and store it somewhere. I was just going with the flow and whatever the chef told me to make, that’s what I would make. I really just got the basics down of chopping right, getting my mise en place in place by 5 o’clock and all that. Once I mastered that part, then I could understand things a lot more, and start to think about what kind of foods I loved in order to start creating my own dishes.
FJ: Having learned the way you did, do you have an opinion on what the best way for someone to learn would be? So, if someone just coming up through high school walked up to you and said, “I want to be a chef,” what would your advice be? BL: Before I gave them a definitive answer, I would tell them to actually check out what its like to work in a kitchen first. Spend a week in the kitchen. Take the time to see what the hours are like, and to see the discipline it takes. See the camaraderie and teamwork. That’s what it is. It takes teamwork, camaraderie, and discipline. If that’s what you think you need through school, then definitely go to culinary school. If it’s a passion though, and you eat, sleep and drink food, I’d say maybe hold off on school and step in to a kitchen. But, don’t step in to a [SALT] kitchen. You want to aim higher than lower. Accept a position in a kitchen, even if its just dishwashing to start. Observe, learn, and see what they do. If you’re passionate, you’re always going to be studying and trying to get better. I think culinary school is great to help some people learn how to become more disciplined.
FJ: So, clearly there are a lot of teaching opportunities in the kitchen, especially when you’re in charge. Do you enjoy the teaching aspect that comes with being a chef? BL: At first I didn’t like it at all. I had so much in my head that it would take too long to write things down, and show them. They’d always have to rein me in. I think any young chef is always trying to put more on the plate, do as much as they possibly can. Then as I honed in on my craft, I suddenly realized I wanted to take things out. It’s almost like therapy, right? You’re peeling layers off now, and then you’re perfecting, and perfecting. So when I became more established, opening my second, then my third restaurant, I learned that I couldn’t do it all. I needed to come up with tools that I could give to my chefs so that they could carry my vision out.
FJ: Do you have a favorite food memory? BL: I’d have to say it was when I was in Paris at this very avant-garde bistro. It was my first trip to Paris. I had ordered the lobster salad, and I can remember seeing this wonderful woman, Lulu, preparing the dish. I could see her in the kitchen with the live lobster, then her putting it in the pot, and then she chilled it. It was just perfectly cooked to order, covered with lemon juice, olive oil and fennel. It was the most incredible dish I’ve ever had. FJ: It seems like simplicity sometimes can really go a long way. BL: Yeah. And, she had like a 13 year-old commis working for her in the kitchen. It was just the two of them in the kitchen, and there were like 80 people there. It was pretty great!
FJ: So let’s change gears and talk a little bit about you, and the Barbara Lynch Foundation. You grew up in Boston. Your foundation was established to help the community. What does it mean to you to be established like that here in Boston? BL: Well, I never really moved away from Boston. I’ve always been a local girl, and I kind of always felt that the city was lacking some things. Take for instance an oyster bar. Before I had an oyster bar, I would always have to go to the north shore, to Essex, to get oysters or fried clams. I remember having fried clams at Kelly’s Landing in South Boston, but then all of a sudden we don’t have it any more. I always found it kind of disappointing when, in April, after a heavy winter, I’d have to go up to Essex just to have oysters and some great Chablis. I think pretty much everything I’ve tried to put in the city was always something I thought the city could use. And, it’s more nostalgia for me, than anything. Like, The Butcher Shop came from a memory I have of staying in Italy for two weeks. No. 9 Park was basically my first trip to Paris, and eating the restaurants there.
FJ: With the Barbara Lynch Foundation, what’s been your hope as far as the impact that the Foundation would have on the city? BL: The Foundation has amazing potential to become partners with larger companies. Over the last couple of years we’ve been able to work with some of the Blackstone Elementary School 3rd graders. I was inner city kid. I didn’t know what a cow looked like, had never milked a cow, and didn’t even really understand that food actually came from the earth. So, I felt it was important to teach those kids exactly where a tomato comes from, and that it doesn’t come from a ketchup bottle. We’ve been documenting the whole process in hopes that it can become a pilot program. We’re not only teaching them agriculture, but how to eat. We’re showing them what nutrients are good, basic nutrition classics, and urban gardening. They really seem to be enjoying it!
FJ: A couple of weeks from now you’ll be throwing the First Annual Blizzard Bash, all the proceeds of which are going to the Barbara Lynch Foundation. Can you talk a little about what people can expect? BL: The event is huge! It starts on Thursday, February 7th with the Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Gala Dinner at Menton. That will feature chefs like Daniel Boulud, Mark Ladner, Michael Tusk, and Joseph Lenn. Then, the next night, Friday, February 8th, the Blizzard Bash is being held at the Boston Children’s Museum. We have something like 35 chefs from all over the country coming. They’re donating everything, like their time and all that. It’s going to be one big fun party, but inside the Children’s Museum we’re going to have a lot of things going on, like, “How to Sharpen Knives” with Adam Simha. There’ll be areas for learning how to make honey, how to start a rooftop beehive, and all sorts of other interesting stuff. There will be a band too! So it’ll be one huge party. After that will be an after party at Villa Victoria, and there are separate tickets available just for that. The entire thing should be a lot of fun!