We are currently on hiatus until March 1st but that doesn’t mean the blog is stopping. Thanks to our friend Christa Seychew, we will have a guest post every Sunday afternoon. Today’s post is by Chef Dan Borelli, you can see the previous guest posts by clicking here.
Rather than a single ingredient or technique being the trend of 2014, I’d like to see people eating and cooking in the period we’re in.
Let me explain.
We’re living in a pretty unique time. The “2s” (nose/tail, farm/plate) are such no brainers that any restaurant advertising those philosophies as selling points—and not treating them as foregone guiding principles any respectable chef should strive for—is immediately suspect.
A shifting perception of luxury in fine dining has demoted traditional high-end commodities like caviar and foie gras to components. Extravagance today is based on scarcity, meaning it’s best found with ingredients you can’t just go and buy. No matter how much money you might have, unless you’re willing to go out and get your hands dirty you’re not going to have ready access to ceps, lambs quarters, ramps (pictured above), royal blossoms, lemon balm, or any of the myriad of herbs, plants, and flowers whose availability and “value” can only be measured by the brevity of their own life cycle. Very baller, indeed.
On the other side of things, people serious about dining are no longer afraid of “modern cooking techniques” (used here as shorthand for the countless advancements made by the Adrias and Blumenthals of the world), and people serious about cooking now recognize these techniques as legitimate tools for creating delicious food, rather than a gimmick to attract the wealthy and jaded, or worse, an end in and of itself.
Given the ever-expanding vocabulary a chef in 2014 is free to use, it is interesting to consider how those on that bleeding edge choose to elevate an already world-class dining experience. In my experience, they do so by focusing on the parts of a meal most often maligned, things we’ve all been gradually demoralized by. That is, with coffee and bread.
I’m too young to remember a time when there weren’t countless coffee roasters producing quality beans, which were in turn, available in every grocery store in America. And considering “good” coffee’s ubiquity, the novelty of getting even a decent cup outside of your own kitchen today is remarkable. Coffee might be the clearest example of an exceptional product not being treated with the respect it deserves or the treatment it requires in order to render its best result.
And bread, good bread, is so rare that when I read Chad Robertson, owner of Tartine in San Francisco, describe the flavor of good bread as “haunting”, I couldn’t think of anything more apropos. It’s like a tune you can’t get out of your head. A tune you don’t know the name of and you’re lucky to catch a few bars of scrolling through the radio dial.
I was lucky enough to dine at two really extraordinary restaurants this past year, restaurants that exemplified the disparity between the agreeable and the undeniable of these most ordinary of staples.
The first was Matthew Lightner’s Aterea in TriBeca. The most challenging, envelope-pushing, beautiful, and surprising meal of my life began with my own personal stick of butter, to be used as liberally as I wished, on three mind-fucking bread courses. It ended with Cafe Grumpy Coffee (whose selection and provenance were explained by our sommelier with the same passion and expertise with which he approached our wine pairing). It was served ground and Chemexed to table, one Chemex per diner.
The second meal took place last summer at Paul Liebrandt’s Brooklyn restaurant, The Elm. My friends and I were seated with a view of their beautiful, open kitchen, which I always enjoy. And while I snuck peeks at Chef Liebrandt holding court over his immaculate staff (alternately plating food so perfectly presented and excellently prepared it made me want to put my head on the table and cry), and pulling trays of tiny rye baguettes from oven to speed rack to our table (perfect and elegant, magically maintaining the flavor of caraway–without being seeded!–and the texture and crunch of a perfectly baked lean dough), I also saw a Michelin starred chef personally pulling and inspecting every shot of espresso that went to table. It did not disappoint.
Like a lot of cooks, I’m no fun after a meal like those I’ve mentioned above. Everything feels like research, and these two shook me up, particularly in what they offered. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to think of coffee and bread as a means to a general raising of the bar across all culinary fields.
Let me explain.
My executive chef, Jennifer “J.B” Boye, and I talk a lot about how “technique” hasn’t had a moment in some time. Which isn’t all that surprising. Classical French cooking always felt like a one-way conversation to me, and at most, peeled grapes in coq au vin communicate sadism and nothing more. Which is not to bag on it too much, those techniques are the fundamentals of good cooking. But the best chefs seem to want to engage their diners in a way that precludes perfectly executed classics, instead they favor creating recipes, respecting and reconsidering flavor and texture, and drawing heavily on their own aesthetic and experience to create something more personal. And obviously, approaching menu creation from that angle doesn’t leave a lot of room for referencing other people’s work.
It’s staples like bread and coffee that lessen that burden. Elevating things the majority of us consume daily is the easiest way to see where our own expectations lie, and, how on the occasion when those expectations are exceeded or transcended, what truly fine technique is all about. To feel the quality of something that you know intimately and which is so often crap—even if we don’t know it—is an amazing feat. I might never eat fried moss again, but I will have another cup of coffee, and (sadly) I now have an impossibly high standard with which to measure it by.
Having these extraordinary bookends affords a chef and their team the flexibility to put whatever they want in between those two courses and still have the foundation for a memorable meal. It’s easier to have a personal aesthetic when you have the leeway of a remarkable starter and closer, and I’ll always favor a chef who’s bold enough to put his own fingerprints on a dish (metaphorically!) over one who considers “cooking” the re-creation of some long dead Frenchman’s recipe.
An author I admire is fond of saying: “style is the caliber of the bullet.”
It goes without saying that chef’s like Liebrandt and Lightner are on a different level than most. And it’s unfair and cruel to compare Buffalo with New York, a place with arguably more money, talent, and drive than any city in the world. But, like it or not, they’re the vanguard. They set the standard we should all strive for, even if we don’t have access to their resources.
I work at The Mansion on Delaware Avenue, a place I’m afforded a lot of creative freedom. I’m also largely self-taught, so the gaps in my education are more like howling chasms. As soon as I took the rudder, I realized how easy it would be to make something that stunk. I begrudge no one who focuses the precious time and effort it takes to maintain a decent place on the foundations of good cooking. But I find it uplifting that there are chefs and restaurants who are trying to raise the bar here in our humble city, because once the bar gets raised it usually stays there.
Start with coffee and bread.
Dan Borelli is the sous chef at Mansion on Delaware Avenue and won last summer’s sous chef battle at the Taste of Buffalo (see below).
Trout with a dried spinach and candied lemon crust, kombucha steamed spinach lightly dressed with herbs and flowers from the Mansion’s garden (nasturtium flowers and leaves, lambs quarters, marigolds, purslane, sage flowers, tarragon) with rye granola, freshly made goat cheese and smoked trout roe.