Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Le Titi de Paris... Who's left now?

My wife & I both used to work at Le Titi, back when Pierre Pollin was Chef/Owner.  I had just left Le Francais when Michael Maddox was Chef de Cuisine, not long before Pierre retired and sold the restaurant to him.  I'm glad I left when I did, but I still regret seeing such a classic mainstay closing soon. 

There aren't many old school places left that haven't closed or reconcepted. 

I can think of a few survivors.  Le Vichyssois, Michael in Winnetka, Everest, Gabriel's, Le Bouchon & Les Nomades come to mind, but the French/Fine Dining connection is fading like a sad sunset out here.  Every once in while a big gun from NY comes down and thinks he can enlighten us, but it seems they always land hard and have problems getting back up. 

Meanwhile, a slew of younger chefs are giving away product to get people in the door, whoring out to any media outlet that'll listen to drag the remaining populace out to eat at their establishment, well knowing that the once the next hipster driven hot spot opens, they'll be left out and given the cold pork shoulder. 

And the sad thing is, I still want the dream.  To cook the way that I like to cook, and have customer enjoy every bite.  To be challenged to become more dynamic and interesting than my peers, ensuring steady business and success.

One can always dream, right?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ways I've seen people eff up lobster (an ode to B & Szaboo!)

I had a bit of inspiration this morning from a facebook post an old friend that cooked with me at Le Francais & Rhapsody put up last night.  He posted something about how his cooks accidentally condensed a container of lobster bisque he'd painstakingly taken the time to show them to make into a container of tomato soup, thus ruining the end product.  He made it sound like he was about to go Hell's Kitchen all over their respective, collective cocinero buttocks. 

B, take it easy on the guys.  Breathe in, exhale.  You burned five gallons of it once and we both got reamed.  You also liked to hide lobster knuckles in the walk in so you wouldn't have to clean 'em for the meat.  Hell, even though I wanted to kill you then, it's just soup and sea bugs.  Tasty, buttery, MFing sea bugs. *Drool*

BTW, B, as you read this I want to share a story about another chef I saw destroy lobster, to the tune of over $4,000 in crustacean claw, body, knuckle meat and various liquor/mise en place.  While working at a high end caterer in this lovely city of Chicago a few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a Danzig-loving Chef de Cuisine I'll refer to as "Szaboo!".  Humor me here, if you know him, you'll get the joke.

The *first* time he commited langoustine genocide, Szaboo! was trying to find a way to use all the remaining lobster pieces after a weekend where 2 large parties just had entrees with tail meat.  So we had lexons full of knuckle, claw & carcass that needed to be used, and he didn't feel like cleaning the meat (sound familiar, B?).  He decides he's going to make bisque, and starts with lobster stock in one huge batch, in the largest steamkettle I've ever worked with (I had to stand on a milk crate to look in, no joke).  The only issue is, he decides he's going to let it COOK ALL NIGHT and then strain it in the morning.  ("It's okay, Bob, I've done it before and it's turned out great.")  Even though I warned him away, the Executive Chef was unreachable at that time, and he proceeded to go with his plan.

In case you don't know why this is a bad idea, you just need to know one simple thing.

The longer you simmer lobster shells (especially the claw) the more iodine from the carcass leaks into the liquid base.

The kitchen smelled like tainted shellfish the minute I walked in to open shop, and the stock was the first thing I checked on.  It was dark.  It looked like fava bean cooking water.  I tasted it and practically vomited. 

Now, Szaboo! worked for some good restaurants, don't get me wrong.  He was no novice.  He'd worked at Mary Elaine's at the Phoenican, The French Laundry, & Trio to name a few.  Szaboo! was a conundrum wrapped in an enigma.  He also tried to blame me for the incident.  I'd e-mailed the proper managers prior to this however, as I didn't want any part of these shenanagins in the first place.  He got chewed way worse than me and B did a decade prior.

Why he did something similar a few weeks later, I still cannot fathom.  Szaboo! was one in million.  Hell, he even managed to poison himself with sterno once in someone's garage while cooking off site.  The second time, the stock was fine (in a similar batch size), but he burnt the flavor base he was making for the bisque.

He killed a megaton of mirepoix, fennel, tomato paste, a few CASES of sherry, pernod (not cheap), and brandy.  He didn't bother to deglaze in batches.  It looked like the Gate to Hell had opened up in a tilt skillet.  I still don't think the Ansel fire suppression system was working right, because it should've been triggered.  He scorched the bejesus out of the machine.  I think a small part of me died that day, because he still added it to the lobster stock.

He still added it to the lobster stock.

Wait, did I tell you he still added it to the lobster stock?

So B, just realize, it could always get worse.  I owe you a beer sometime, just tell me when you're free.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Chili Memories, Arizona Traditions

When I lived in Phoenix and worked at The Wigwam Resort, the younger employees often got together after work at someone's house/apartment and some form of party inadvertently started.  The bars closed early and no one seemed to actually be from Arizona.  This forced us to be more social in comparison to the culinary scene out here in Chicago, at least at the time.  When we were able to plan it, we'd all try to coordinate a similar day or evening off and get into trouble.  It didn't take long for some themes to develop.

Like chili night.  

It started with a cook from The Arizona Kitchen (Carlos, if I remember correctly), that began infusing habenero peppers in vodka and stashing them in his freezer.  Word was spreading that in a few weeks, once the stuff was deemed potent enough that he was going to throw a party and everybody had to do a shot.  Someone else suggested they make chili, and one of the pastry night cooks (Amy?) I think offered to make cornbread. 

They started cooking sometime like 10 or 11 in the morning, and by 8 pm, just about everyone was starting to show.  There is nothing quite as unique as a shot of freezing cold vodka laced with capsicum, burning both cold and hot though your digestive track.  The evening ended with my friend Byron shaking Amy upside down with some other guy until change fell out of her pocket.  I used to have a picture.  I guess you had to be there (and drunk). 

At least two parties (and plenty of stories) have formed around a bowl of red and/or wicked hot vodka since then.   

Today I finished a batch of chili that I started last night, and I want to think it's one of the few times I haven't timed it to include a shindig or gathering.  Kinda feels like something's missing. 

Anyways, the latest batch is incredible.  I started with 2 large onions diced and sweated in lard and EVOO.  I then added over a dozen cloves of minced garlic.  Once that got all happy, I added ground cumin, chili powder, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, a small can of diced green chilis, 3 diced jalapenos and 6 diced cubanelles.  Once that toasted a bit, I added 8#'s or so of pork fennel sausage I made from scratch the night before.

Yes, I made the sausage for my chili.  My mother-in-law just had her colon removed and I made a batch of fennel sausage sans fennel seeds so she could enjoy a sausage deep dish pizza on her birthday this Sunday.  I just made too much, thus warranting a chili extravaganza. 

Back to the recipe.  I then added an equal amount of ground veal and cooked that for a bit.  After it started to release its fat, I added about 6 bottles of Stella Artois, a bunch of canned diced tomato, 8 cups of coffee, and a quart of chicken stock.  I let that cook down all nice and happy.  By the way, if you've never cooked chili with coffee instead of water or stock, try it.  The same for BBQ sauce.  It adds a layer of complexity that just rocks.

After that I picked a few tablespoons of thyme & chopped about the same amount of fresh oregano and mixed that in, as well as a cinnamon stick.  Cinnamon rounds out cumin.  I find that it makes it taste less like you're making refried beans when you use the two together. 

I do confess to using canned beans.  I just didn't feel like destroying my kitchen at home with 3 or more dirty pots, plus containers for soaking beans.  I opted for kidneys, black-eyed and black for this batch.  And for those high and mighty chili purists out there, yes, I did add beans, and yes, if you have a problem, kiss my chef patoot.  If it tastes good, who the frick cares? 

I skimmed the Hell out of it too.  Some fat is okay, but too much is unappetizing no matter how good it tastes.  Well, if you're in the area, give me a buzz.  I have beer, crema & cotija cheese to accompany a big bowl of red if you're hungry.

No Fleas were harmed in the making of this article.  Good music to listen to when making chili btw, Breaking the Girl?  Hell's yes.