Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
I often receive the question ,” how do you come up with the ideas for your dishes?”. I don’t believe I’m reinventing the wheel just interpreting elements of food or flavor combinations that many of my predecessors revealed to the world way before I was even born. Just don’t tell my mom, she still likes to think of me as her genius son. In my journeys I have logged either in my taste memory, mind or a more reliable notebook thousands of experiences, not just food ones, that have inspired future dishes I have or will compose one day. I revisit that notebook and sometimes I throw away an idea that was obviously born after a very heavy wine laden dinner but for the most part it’s the breeding ground that hopefully will come to fruition by utilizing the skills I have acquired.
Here is a story of a soup that has recently reappeared on my menu. March,1996 Ortimino Tuscany Italy. A once skinnier and younger aspiring chef takes the wrong bus because in that fine Italian manner there is more than one bus station in Firenze and they all go to similar sounding places. Ortimino could be mistaken with the desired Artimino for instance. I should have looked at every little town on the Tuscan map just to make sure. Have you ever seen a detailed map of Tuscany? It’s like reading a signed birthday card which was passed around an office of 100 people all clamoring for empty space to write. So the Italian lesson is” who cares if you will be two days late to your stage, your bosses are Italian as well and they understand. After trustfully getting off the bus in the middle of scenic rolling hills, middle of nowhere, I walked a few kilometers with backpack on my shoulders and hips to what I thought could be Ristorante Da Delfina believing that I was in Artimino. I reached a small unassuming trattoria with the looks of an everyday haunt for the locals. This couldn’t be the five star ristorante that I had corresponded with in my letters. Neon signs blinking and all, I had to go inside to confirm my suspicion. In my shall we say newly acquired tongue of Italian and after a good game of international charades with the proprietor we decided I was in the wrong restaurant and town. I had been living in Italy for 6 months prior to this and if there was one thing I learned it was that everybody and every hole in the wall cooked food that closely beats any sexual encounter you may have had. This being the truth I sat down to partake in some fine Ortiminian style cuisine. The soup an Almond and onion puree thinned with chicken stock, savory herbs like marjoram and oregano gently sailing on top releasing all their fresh perfume as the hot soup bellowed steam. Wafer thin toasted crostini saturated with homemade olive oil adorned a side plate. Very inspiring entry into my notebook that would not be forgotten.
Lets fast forward a bit to New York City, 1998. One day while I was out with my great friend and fellow kitchen comrade Caroline Fidanza, Now part owner and chef of Saltie in Williamsburg Brooklyn, having our usual pre dinner service luncheon , we stopped in to our familiar used book store not far from the restaurant. I found a unique Italian cookbook, Florentines, A Tuscan Feast by Lorenza De’Medici with beautiful still life paintings from 17th century artist, Giovanna Garzoni. Inside this book lies the recipe Crema di Cipolle alle Mandorle, onion and almond soup the same one that once restored my resilience along my Italian odyssey. The book had brought back the vivid experience I had eating that rich almond thickened broth, a perfect winter soup especially because of the scarcity of the farmers market during the winter months. I was then the chef of the upstairs dining room at Savoy in lower Madhatty and responsible for the market Prix Fixe menu at the time. I decided to try my first manifestation of this soup, which I have come to refer to as Ortimino soup. I decided to make it as authentic as possible with the sweet flavors of caramelized onion and richness of blanched almonds all pureed up into a smooth unctuous potage.
Present day, as a much older wiser chef I have been dissecting components of dishes and plating them in a manner that the diner can visually recognize the ingredients. Revealing each element, the diner can make the realization for themselves the harmony of eating them together. It is amazing the fact that you can have the same flavor profile and by rethinking technique and presentation have a completely different experience.
Blanched almonds are without their skins and these are the ones I use for this soup. I cook them whole in a flavorful chicken stock while caramelizing julienned onions until they are brown like nut brown ale. The almonds are then pureed with the chicken stock until white in color and have a tahini type smooth texture. This is mixed back to the remaining hot chicken broth. The onions are inoculated with fresh thyme and savory while doused with a Sauvignon blanc to flambé. A pile of these onions act as an island in the middle of the soup bowl while the hot almond laden broth is poured around it. The addition of, and I don’t know why it just seemed right to me, caraway seed in toasted rye bread croutons finish my modern day interpretation of Ortimino soup and make it uniquely mine. You should also try your hand at it and make this famous Renaissance soup your own. For the recipe visit my blog at http://www.cheftoddaarons.com
Visit Saltie at http://www.saltieny.com
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12.27.10 at 11:12 am |
12.14.10 at 7:28 pm |
11.4.10 at 11:12 am |
10.13.10 at 6:21 pm | “So who cooks at your home”, said with the. . .
10.13.10 at 6:21 pm | “So who cooks at your home”, said with the. . . (1)
December 27, 2010 | 11:12 am
Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
At 0800 hours meet with my contact. He said his product is the best and I will be getting a deal taking it out the back of his truck. Sounds almost sinister like a line ripped from a Mob guy, drug dealer or terrorist’s diary. When you’re a chef it pays to be the first to receive pristine produce and the great lengths you go to get that produce may teeter on the ethical tight wire. Have you ever gazed into a chef’s face while he is at a farmers market? All his senses are engaged, his astute attention is honed in to the finest and freshest as if he is a terminator and that beautiful Sicilian eggplant is Sarah Connors. “Remember you cannot elevate crap into excellence”, a fine mentor of mine once said. The potential of a great dish must lie in unlocking all the qualities of your ingredients and thus elevating them to shine. So we scour the earth and local farms to find these potential filled vegetables and fruits that allow our vision to come to life on the plate. It is an, healthy or not, obsession of every fine chef. This particular morning Farmer Alex Weiser has stopped by in his pickup truck. He has blessed me with Spanish yellow onions, Jerusalem artichokes, baby carrots, German butterball potatoes and Chioggia, gold and red beets all with their vibrant, succulent stems and leaves attached. Weiser Family Farms cultivates their produce in the Greater Bakersfield area, Tehachapi and the Lucerne Valley. Once our curbside transaction has transpired outside my house on a Sunday morning I quickly transfer the goods to the trunk of my car to throw off the authorities, just in case Alex was being followed. I did notice a plumbers van across the street, who hires a plumber on Sunday? The drive to the restaurant is occupied by the plethora of ideas bouncing around in my head. The clock is ticking the vegetables are at their peak and it’s my job now to allow their innate goodness to shine and the diner to be able to bask in all their glory. The greens and stem of the beets are the biggest treat and the most fragile of my farmers score. They will immediately be taken off the beet root stem and leaf separated and then cleaned. The stems are thicker and are thrown into the pan first for a little more cooking than the tops. Sautéed beet greens in a little Arbequina olive oil, garlic and finished with sea salt and a squeeze from a fresh lemon. Sublime chlorophyll green and earthy mineral flavors provide a palate cleansing effect when served with a fatty steak. Now for the beets themselves, all three slightly different from each other but all will benefit from roasting where these individual characteristic flavors will be concentrated. A winter salad is the idea that prevails. Aromatics? What aromatics to pair to play the supporting role to such a star. Garlic is a bit strong for these young beets and onions maybe caramelized could be good but if I go with green herbaceous flavors it will just be to sweet. Herbs are still flowing through the kitchen and truffle oil is heavy on my mind. Leeks with their subtle Allium qualities will be the best working party. Roasting the beets will concentrate their flavors and while they are still warm I rub them with a kitchen towel to reveal their brilliant gem like colors it’s like unearthing and polishing a precious ruby. The dish; grilled leeks, roasted beets some frilly mustard greens from McGrath farms which I picked up on my detour back to the restaurant and a chive truffle oil vinaigrette. After first tasting my kitchen team and I decide to add toasted pine nuts for a little richness and some Easter egg radishes to give the mustard greens a boost of horseradish like flavors that act as a counterpoint to the sweet beets. Mission accomplished. Check out my website for recipes. http://www.cheftoddaarons.com/index.html
Visit Weiser Family Farms at http://www.weiserfamilyfarms.com/
December 14, 2010 | 7:28 pm
Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
I know its true I cook food that people who abide by the dietary laws of Judaism can eat, others though have been known to enjoy it as well. Kosher, I have tried to expunge it from my brain. On a daily basis, the thought does not even enter my mind. The what may be viewed as confines of my culinary world force me to persevere in my quest of blurring any lines of kosher and non-kosher, but the world wont let me. Everywhere I turn I am reminded that it cannot be all that! It’s, it’s koshhh!er. I honestly try to forget. I don’t mention a thing about kosher on my twitter account although tweeters have lumped me in to groups named “kosher foodies” and “kosher”. Ah man! the gig is up. I do not cook matzah balls or gefilte fish but the LA Times and other publications find me to write recipes around the Jewish holidays only. Every listing or article starts off with the same statement, “who thought kosher and fine dining could go together?” and if I hear another person tell me that the lobster on my menu is not kosher I will insert a larding needle into their ear. Lobster mushrooms refer to the color of the mushroom they are not shrooms made of the crustacean. On top of it all I am often asked to compete in only kosher cooking contests. Listen up people, what my kitchen and I produce is food worthy of any professional culinary contest and only offends me to subcategorize my food. I see the merits of letting people know we are closed Friday evening and Saturdays being the primi giorni in the restaurant biz but beyond that let them just think we are pious Seventh-day Adventists.
It definitely is a human thing, the need to label and compartmentalize everything we take in. I guess it makes us feel more in control of the world we live in. Makes it less scary like when we had a clear line between the evil Russians and the West, cowboy Ronny’s west that is. My wise sous chef reminded me recently that we as chefs see ourselves as artistes. When one goes to view an artist’s work, the viewer SUBMITS himself to the artist’s /chef’s vision. My vision does not lack any missing components. In cooking I do not feel I am missing any key ingredients in presenting my story on a plate. The inference or label of kosher usually sets culinarians on edge, that the meal will be limited in it’s capacity to wow them. I have a dream, its of a world where porkless menus and snout & trotter filled menus are meritoriously seen as only an extention of what the chef has skillfully prepared for you to enjoy.
November 4, 2010 | 11:12 am
Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
The Days of Yore
It was once written by a well respected restaurant critic concerning an early restaurant that I grew up in “you get the feeling that the people who run it like food, like themselves and like what they are doing” These words obviously never left my thoughts. The core essence of what I and those that have joined me as a chef do is succinctly summarized by this statement. We live in strange times though where I’m sure not everybody is in this game or wants to be a part of the game nowadays for honest self evident reasons. There was a time when my colleagues and I after a hard nights work in the kitchen would stagger over to Cornelia Street in lower Manhattan and have a miraculous restorative meal at Po, at the hands of a young Mario Batali. Locked in my memory forever was exquisitely braised tripe in tomato sauce, the kind of dish that Italian farmers from Lombardy would rejoice with at the end of a hard days labor. We would end up sitting with Mario and his sous chef Andrew who were in the kitchen at the time and the only other table was the staff family meal going on in the background. I was in that moment of idealistic enjoyment where I was soaking up like a crusty piece of pain au levain the gravy of my existence as a chef in New York. It was a happy moment for me, the culinary world and all its traditions and history that the ranks of chefs before me had given birth to made me feel I was a part of a special fraternity, of course it could just have been the grappa that was making my head do cartwheels. This was a familiar scene and I was happy and honored to consider myself as one of its members. To my dismay I didn’t see the change that was coming to cloud my reality. The secretive usually misunderstood life of the chef would soon be revealed and the mystique would be over. After all that is the price of fame. Your anonymity and privacy are slaughtered first. Any honest enjoyment from your career choice will be diluted like a watered down drink with the attention you get until for some that attention becomes the fix.
First you could begin to smell it in the air and I’m not talking about Thursday nights in lower Manhattan when the garbage trucks took over the roads. . More and more cooks out of school would show up in our kitchens looking for something else other than the self gratifying love of producing great cuisine or just finding a home in this band of brothers. They were restless and not in a good way but the way a child wants it all right now without any effort. They had ulterior motives. I couldn’t understand nor fully embrace the need by most of them to be famous or be willing to scrub a kitchen floor with several other comis for a renowned TV chef. The gasoline that turned this smoldering ember into a bonfire was the television. Not to long after those great meals I shared with my co-chefs TV gave birth to the food network. I can remember watching with complete innocence the first episodes of Molto Mario where Mario was a little shy and nervous as he related his brilliance of regional Italian cuisine to an audience who got a firsthand glimpse into the myriads of information Mario had tucked away in his Chef brain. Television revealed to the masses like the bite from the apple in the Garden of Eden what chefs do in their unknown society and it was as if they became instant rock stars. People everywhere wanted a piece of that life, Just look at the choices of Halloween costumes for kids today. My choices never included a toque and apron. That moment in time we as chefs lost a little of our innocence and anonymity, our idealism had been tainted.
After all isn’t it about the brilliant food millions of great chefs produce in this world who don’t have TV shows, the infamous chefs that form the backbone of the culinary world who sometimes cook out of a hole in the wall, out of the way neighborhood or even a food truck. I grew up in the punk rock generation and the underground movement of food shares those ideals of breaking rules and shunning fame. TV has sensationalized yet again another gem of our society and made it feel like a whore. I know it was only a matter of time. Like when your favorite unknown restaurant spot hits the good morning show and you can’t get a seat there anymore. Some of you are ready to tell me even the Sex Pistols signed a record contract. I’m not saying that making a living is evil just don’t let it be the definitive part of your inspiration even Sid did it his way. Don’t let the sensationalism or the capitalism of TV be your guiding force. Remember your true intentions in this new world hopefully they were evolved from your love of cooking. Today restauranteurs hire those who have been on cooking shows even the ones that did not win in hopes that patrons will flock to their restaurant or you may see a list of famous people, not you, on their website that have eaten at their restaurant in hopes that you will want to meet Paris Hilton. The food scene has its struggle. Everyday new creative unknowns are honoring the traditions of chefdom and they do it because they like food, like themselves and like what they are doing, period, end of story. The struggle is to keep that focus and intention even when the Food network susses you out or the home shopping network pimps you to sell pans with your name on it. Escoffier would be a billionaire today with his own brand of cookware and do you think Van Gogh would be happy to know that I can get his life works on a coffee mug set on the home shopping network? No.
October 13, 2010 | 6:21 pm
Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
“So who cooks at your home”, said with the implication that I must edge out my wife from any cooking apparatus in my house because my profession is being a Chef.
If I had a dime for every time I heard that proverbial question. If I were to cook at home who would pay me?
Listen, only the ultra wealthy have chefs at home that cook for them. So you’re a proctologist who s@!*#% their f*@!#%$ up you’re a#$ at home? Is this a question you ask all professionals or is this question special to my profession only since cooking is an act of the domestic home professional as well.
The family has to eat - I wonder if the chef cooks at home? Just so my kids don’t starve, I do occasionally put a pop tart in the toaster or spread peanut butter and jelly or make that Bon Maman confiture on bread. I believe I have a heightened awareness of what is good and wholesome food, but nowadays with the amount foodies read and watch about the culinary world I’m not alone.
The act of preparing food as a normal function of home life does not fall under the definition of Chef. The question of what you make for the holidays is exempt from this line of questioning since our chef talents are put into effect for the sake of hospitality and the fact that we are off from our paid position that day. It is though rather insulting to make the parallel of what we do in the restaurant to the domestic production of food on a daily basis. “Well you love making food so you must do it all the time, whenever you get a chance right?”
If people would only stop and use their internal filters before actually vocalizing this question. Women in particularly want to know if there is a home kitchen rivalry between my wife and I. The answer is we both make reservations well. How fortunate I do feel that I enjoy what I do as a profession but that does not mean I need to do it after the 10 hour day in my restaurant kitchen when I get home. I am actually a very complex individual with other interests and facets to my life including long walks on moonlit beaches and needlepoint. if I go two days without hearing this question from an unaware patron again it will be to soon. Please be kind to the chefs you chat up table side as you enjoy their art and leave their home life aside from the inquiry. Chefs want to know that you respect them for what they accomplished in their professional kitchens and that you are pleasantly satiated after your meal.