Food for Thought

Elements of a Dish

image001I have always felt that if you do something enough times, no matter how difficult (or enjoyable), you will inevitably become accustomed to it and its process, sometimes at the cost of the experience itself. Let me explain, as chefs, we are expected to create and innovate regularly as part of our jobs, and more often than not, with the intention of utilizing what’s on-hand or what components are considered appropriate (seasonal, trendy, traditional). Periodically, we are afforded the luxury of starting with a clean slate in the form of a new menu, and this allows for us to pick and choose what components, techniques, and inspiration to use. When it comes to conceptualizing a new dish, the sky is the limit if you have time. Recently, I found myself becoming almost indifferent to the creative process in developing and researching new menus. I had to remind myself that not every chef has this opportunity, and I should be grateful. To share the experience with my team of chefs, I decided to transfer a lot of the creative responsibility to them, so they can experience the pressure, delight and sometimes frustrations that come with creating new menus. By watching them go through the process, I found myself reinvigorated.

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For the sake of time and space, I will skip the rather involved processes of menu development like costing, flow, cross utilization and other often overlooked aspects of making a dish. Instead, I will relate the creation process from beginning to end. By answering my chefs’ questions, guiding them, setting rules and establishing standards, I was fortunate to see them create a host of new items, challenging them and affording professional development. I have come a long way in a short amount of time, since the first time I was given creative control in a kitchen. I admit, I learned valuable lessons during the early days that continue to guide me every day. Since then, I have somewhat forgotten just how exciting the process of transforming ideas to prototypes to finished products can be. Also, I’ve forgotten how much personal investment and courage it takes to put yourself out there trying to impress and create value in this industry.

2015-05-21-17-09-09This process, like any other, follows a pretty predictable flow, but albeit a fluid and sometimes unforgiving one, resulting in failures as often as successes. It all starts with an idea phase, when you are seeking inspiration. A spark of inspiration can happen in any number of ways and is quite unique to each individual chef. I have read interviews with chefs and talked to a number of industry professionals. The ways in which they find inspiration can vary dramatically. Some accredit music, while others draw inspiration from ingredients or the local culinary themes, and some from TV or media. I rely on journaling to help put my thoughts in order, both professionally and personally. More often than not, my past experiences guide me through the creation process. By logging my past ideas, successes and experiences in a journal, I can quantify the components driving me to determine what will work. Examples of journaling topics or notes include memories, menus, books, conversations, criticisms and such; however, they always end up in a list scribbled across my notebook, and I find myself drawing conclusions and paths between them.


I encouraged my staff to follow the same basic process. Regarding a seasonal menu, they were instructed to write down what they anticipated cooking, as well as anything they have been interested in trying, what they have done in the past that worked well, and what they were comfortable replicating and improving upon. This is a simpler version of what I use, but in my opinion, it’s the development of their own process they learned the most from and not from following my exact structure. The following week I collected their lists of ideas using them as the building blocks for a few dishes they would help develop for the next menu. The couple of chefs who saw their ideas make the first cut were proud to be part of the process and to assume some responsibility, at least initially. As it turns out, the easy part of my process is the idea phase. Next, it was time to figure out if the ideas would work and how to make them feasible. In order to do this, I introduced the next part of the process: how I decide what a dish needs, doesn’t need or when it is balanced.

Based on what I have learned, I breakdown a dish into necessary components: taste, texture, color, base and garnish. I imagine everyone has a functional familiarity of pairing tastes and how too much or too little of something can make or break a dish. Think sweet and salty, as opposed to bitter and salty. I admit, this is very important, and there are several instructional texts printed on this essential balance; however, in my opinion, it’s only the bare minimum. Of course, it’s possible to put a couple of things together that taste great and satisfy a craving, but will they impress? And if not, how do you make them impress? The following steps of the process establish how to do this and will help to meet or exceed the perceived value of a dish, and more importantly, its price. After all, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are delicious and work, but can you sell them as a dessert in their standard form? No.

2017-04-24 (3)The four components following taste (texture, color, base and garnish) are interchangeable and open to interpretation. An ingredient can fulfill more than one of these four aspects if done in a truly exceptionally way, contrary to its ‘typical’ function in traditional menus. On the other hand, to omit one of these components for simplicity sake or laziness is unacceptable. If the garnish can provide an unexpected texture and taste accenting the primary base ingredients, then you just saved yourself some time. If it doesn’t and it’s purely aesthetic, or worse even, inedible, then you have not added to the dish. Your base ingredients, like starch and protein, should be treated with creative respect, but they should work together to supply a foundation for your dish. The texture, color or garnish can come in any number of sauces or premade items, but they shouldn’t overshadow the base itself. Balance is crucial and probably the most important thing, and I am still striving to perfect it. I have utilized well wholesome foods prepared simply and finished with technique and classical structure, but traditionally, these items lack a balance in most forms. Think of that often too heavy application of ketchup to an otherwise well-made meat loaf.

2017-07-24 (1)Although a simple idea, I believe it’s important to try and sneak in a surprise into each dish, whether that is a contrasting flavor, exotic spice or unusual preparation of an ingredient. This final step is how you make classical or comfort foods standout. Just when my chefs thought they were done, I asked them what part of the dish was surprising. Unexpectedly, they offered several examples I overlooked, and it turned out most of what we worked on previously satisfied that component already. It was a pleasant surprise. I became aware that my teachings were internalized by my chefs, and they knew my expectations. By adhering to this process, my diners consider my steak and potatoes as better than others’, even though I initially didn’t think so. While it’s important to innovate and try new things, it’s also important not to overdo it. Usually during new menu tastings with my staff, I receive poor reviews due to over-thinking or over-processing dishes. I like to hope this simple four-part process helps me to know when to stop and when to keep going.

f4332a7b-4ee9-46e7-b49d-215b76b1bf2fOne morning in culinary school, I remember one of my chef instructors complaining that the new generation of cooks worried too much about how their food looked and not enough about how it tasted. Where I agree or disagree with him isn’t important; I understand what he meant. You must find a balance in what you create, and do not let your successes override your sense of the basics, like taste, value, etc.  My chefs have learned that whether you are working with peanut butter and jelly or caviar and truffles, if you approach them the same way with the same standards and a set of rules you always follow, you will stand a greater chance of success in satisfying your own creative needs, as well as the needs and expectation of your guests. Not to mention, waste a lot less caviar and truffles in your attempts.



New Seasons Bring New Ingredients

Anyone who has worked with me can attest that I get very excited about the change of seasons. I think that to some degree we all have a favorite season, but as a chef it is particularly hard to decide a clear winner. Each season impacts and changes what we eat and how we prepare our dishes. With Adena’s commitment to fresh, seasonal, and wholesome foods, I can say that I have never had such a unique and rewarding opportunity to embrace the seasonal changes in our food culture.

Springtime in Florida creates a unique environment ripe for delicious foods. Starting with happier, more comfortable livestock extending to more accessible and fresher seafood. For example, I have I can find pigs nourished by fall acorns.  I have already heard very good things about the shellfish harvest around Cedar Key and the Florida Panhandle, as well as great things from our local growers and partners.

Speaking with our local supplier at the organic herb farm, Adena will be expecting tons of high quality late-fruiting citrus, as well as an assortment of heirloom tomatoes and melons over the next few months. The sometimes unpredictable stormy weather in Central Florida typically does a great job in creating plump and full vegetables along with robust lettuces, herbs and fruits with its frequent downpour of rain. The long dry stretches can also favor a farmer’s crop under the right circumstances.

If last year was any indication of what to expect, this year will turn out to be a successful and delicious culinary adventure here at Adena! I am looking forward to sharing this adventure with you in the coming months ahead.

Chef’s Recipe: Braised Short Ribs or Pork Shoulder

We are going to transform a tougher, fattier and typically less appealing piece of protein into a tender and flavorful dish by braising it. Braising is a traditional technique combining boiling and roasting. This time of year, it is a favorite among families, since it typically requires very little preparation and is fairly easy to cleanup after. The most common version of this technique is the all American ‘pot roast’ that almost all of us can relate to and remember eating with our families.

If kept refrigerated, this recipe can be prepared up to two days before it needs to be served. Furthermore, it is a wholesome and healthy meal that can serve as a go-to idea for a busy family.

What you will need:

* A large stew pot or roasting pan (this technique works equally well in a crock pot or slow cooker)

* A frying pan or castiron skillet

* 2-3oz of oil

* Vegetables (celery, carrots, onions, and red potatoes)

* Braising liquid, see recipe.

* A fairly large piece of meat, typically a tougher and fattier cut like a roast or shoulder cut. These are typically labeled as such by the meat cutters at our grocers.

* Salt and pepper

How we braise:

1. Almost any cut of meat, if large enough can be braised, smaller pieces typically overcook too quickly and rarely ever reach the intended tenderness. I recommend 1lb of roast per two people to be fed; of course this can vary by appetite and taste. We start by heavily seasoning the meat with salt and pepper and then proceeding to sear the meat evenly on all sides to a deep and delicious brown color. You will need a medium hot pan and a small amount of oil. I usually use the roasting pan. Turn the meat every 60 seconds or so until most easily accessible edges are crispy and colored.

2. Next, we will need to make a simple braising liquid. This can be done when you transfer the roast to the roasting pan or slow cooker. Start with 1 quart of liquid, water is fine but stock is preferable, if you can find some in your grocer. Pour this liquid over the roast in the pot, and then add around one cup of an acid, typically vinegar or wine, for its flavor and its usefulness in breaking down the tougher parts of the proteins while balancing the fats typically found in most roasts. The total amount of liquid should only surround the roast and not cover it. We want to have some exposed to the air. Typically about 1/3 of the meat should be poking out of the liquid.

3. Lastly, adjust seasoning by adding salt, pepper and maybe a couple sprigs of fresh herbs, usually thyme or rosemary. This would also be the time in which you could incorporate vegetables or other root plants, like potatoes. This will add flavor and create a handy way to cook everything at once. Make sure that they are cut in large pieces and are all similar in size. This helps to cook them evenly with the roast and will help keep them from falling apart during cooking.

Cook the now completed meat at 240 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three hours until fork tender. The end result should be a piece of tender meat that easily breaks into portions.

Chef’s Recipe: Adena Crispy Skin Roasted Chicken

The focus for this recipe is to understand how to transform a relatively large and sometimes intimidating piece of meat (in this case a whole chicken) into an easy meal for 3-5 people. The steps in this recipe can be used for any other types of roasts, pork loins, rib roasts, duck or rabbit. Not only does roasting provide a flavorful and complex dish it can serve as a reasonably healthy cooking method. There is little to no fat added in this technique and what we do add is used sparingly to accomplish a great deal of flavor.

Learning how to properly roast is really just figuring out how to manipulate temperatures and cooking times to create the desired “doneness.”

My favorite part of roasting is the sensory effect that this dish provides by filling the house with anticipation; it’s a lot like baking in the sense that it broadcasts the meal beforehand.

This recipe can be prepared up to two days prior, if kept refrigerated, and can be a wholesome and healthy meal serving as a-go-to for a busy family.

– A roasting pan

– 2-3oz of oil or real unsalted butter

– Vegetables (celery, carrots, onions, red potatoes)

– 1 large responsibly raised and processed chicken – 3-5 lbs. (They call these “roasters” in the butcher’s section; “Fryers” are typically smaller and younger birds.)

– Salt and pepper

* Begin by pulling your chicken or roast out of the fridge about an hour prior to when you you plan to begin cooking it (keep in mind that cooking time is about an hour). This allows for the meat to temper, meaning to bring the meat nearer to room temperature before cooking, resulting in it cooking more evenly throughout. Rinse your chicken thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel, make sure to inspect the cavity of the bird and remove anything that may still be inside.

* Next preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit; anything cooler will impair the crisping of the skin or the browning of a roast. While preheating the oven, coat the now dry chicken with a small amount of olive oil or unsalted butter. Though chicken is a typically self-basting item, due to its layer of fat just under the skin, the healthier free-range birds will not have as much, so a little added fat helps out with the browning process. Season the whole bird with salt and pepper, including the cavity, a lot of the cooking process occurs within the bird and some seasoning can help to circulate throughout while cooking. For some added spice, you can place any type of aromatic within the cavity, rosemary and a squeezed lemon is a common and appropriate choice.

– Lastly place any other vegetables or small, even cut potatoes in the roasting pan around the bird if desired. The cooking process and the pan drippings will make a tasty side dish to complete your meal. If using vegetables, be careful with the amount of salt and pepper used. Too much can overpower the starch or vegetables.

* Cook your now seasoned and tempered bird in the oven for about an hour until golden brown and crispy all over. An internal temperature of the hind leg meat should reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a thermometer, look for clear juices coming from the cavity of the bird. This is a sign that the internal parts have cooked throughout. When completely cooked, allow to rest for 15-20 minutes and carve as you would a turkey.