Today’s post is by our friend Chef James Roberts, you can see our previous guest posts by clicking here.
In dining establishments all over America, there is a pattern that is hurting us. We, as Americans, are a nation of consumers, no doubt. We tend to like things big: big cars, big coffees, big houses, big buildings, big sodas, big macs, big deals, big flavors, and big entrée portions. These last two are the ones that concern me most as a chef.
I don’t know how many times I have heard someone here in Buffalo say “it hangs off the edge of the plate—all for $9!” when speaking of a “proper Buffalo fish fry”. Nothing about the quality of the fish, mind you, but the SIZE … HOLY MOLY. I bet that makes for an incredibly attractive presentation, that fish hanging off the edge of the plate intended to carry said fish in a sanitary fashion to your waiting appetite. And I am sure it was super fresh, line caught, day boat haddock from Georges Banks, too. Right? Not to mention the fact that it is probably 45% batter. Do you really think bigger is better? Wouldn’t you rather have a smaller piece of something remarkable? And who needs 19 ounces of fish for dinner, especially 19 ounces of crap fish? Why are we so enthralled by size? Quantity over quality—it hurts me.
Just so you know (this is an insiders tip), NOTHING IS FREE in dining. If it’s cheap, it’s probably because it’s terrible. Or you have paid for it in another way, which is an entirely different subject.
Back to the BIG
Big flavor! In young chefs I see a lot of the “let’s add this” or “wouldn’t adding this make this better?” tendency. NO! Just stop it right now. While you may think that blueberry gorgonzola, port wine, pecan, demi glace, butter sauce would be AMAZEBALLS on your pork chop with roasted brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, it’s not. It might—and that’s a BIG might—be edible, but for how many bites after the first one? After that, your palate is so blown out and overtaken by your brilliant concoction of flavors that you wouldn’t know if your sweet potatoes were made with paper pulp. Do you know that each cut of pork has it’s own taste? Or that each breed of pig has it’s own unique flavor? How about just cooking the pork chop perfectly and leaving it as is? I bet if you paid a little more for that pork chop, you wouldn’t have the need or the money available to drown it in your saucier sorcery.
The worst part in all of this is we are hurting the diner. They are entrusting every one of us to be experts in our craft. They give us the honor of serving them nourishment, hopefully in a wholesome (and possibly creative and flavorful) way. They think that pineapple balsamic Calabrian pepper relish with maple ginger fish sauce and stone mustard on their mahi mahi is the way it’s supposed to be, but only BECAUSE YOU SAID SO! So can you please stop? Can we get back to basics? In our region, we have some of the most amazing products in the world available to us at our disposal. Do you think a chef at the foot of Mount Vesuvius in Italy is wasabi beer battering his fresh summer tomatoes and stacking them with blackened chicken and pickled onion goat cheese balls held together with a flaming sprig of rosemary? No way, he is serving those tomatoes just as they were intended, perfectly room temp, maybe even on the vine, with perhaps not even salt, or maybe in an “as perfect as perfect gets” caprese salad—SIMPLY. The same goes for the tuna fisherman or the oysterman. You think he wants his oysters drenched in Heinz 57 and black garlic and broiled with a welding torch until they are but a whisper of that beautiful raw delicate briny perfection they once were?
As consumers, we must look at the entire scenario. Is that cheap fish covered with crap? Why? Is it crap to begin with? Do you really even know? Does your waiter know? Or how about the chef or owner? Do they know? Did you ask? Why not? Are you being fooled?
This is all I can ask of you. Find out if the person you are entrusting to feed you in a (hopefully) clean and wholesome way even knows what the hell he/she is talking about. Are they an expert? Do they want to be? Do you even care? If not, well then go about your merry blissful existence. There will always be $3 appetizer combo for you.
As chefs, we must consider the product before us. Try perfectly cooking a steak with just salt and pepper. How was it? Now go get a great steak and do the same thing. Was it better? Much better? Do you think your guest will like it better? Yes? Then serve that! If you can cook it consistently correctly, that is. Oh, you can? You can cook that perfect steak perfectly every single time? Prove it.
More is definitely not always better. That is not to say that a dish has to be one note. Once you have acquired fine product, and mastered the art of gently coaxing its natural flavor to the forefront to the delight of the waiting palates of your trusting patrons, then, perhaps, you can dabble with some complementary flavors and build a composition that highlights (but doesn’t mask) the ingredient. A perfectly seared medium rare piece of Nova Scotia halibut is amazing on its own, but with allies like chamomile, tart yogurt, a squeeze (or the oil) of fresh citrus, some salted and toasted almonds, and maybe even a light application of slightly piquant espellete, the halibut is elevated beyond being delicious and perfectly cooked, and instead is so delicious it could exceed the standards applied by even the harshest of critics—the fisherman and the fish itself. Mind you, that does not mean you should pile these flavors on. Instead you should lay them, ever so gently, next to one another, producing a harmonious symphony of flavors that the guest will savor with each bite, slowly discovering all the possible combinations until the dish has been devoured. Then more is not more, or even too much, but just enough, and even then, could assuredly be less.
And finally, all the components of all the courses of a TASTING menu should be able to be piled together (figuratively), fitting onto a single appetizer plate and a single entrée plate, not SEVEN FULL SIZE ENTRÉE PLATES. That’s why it’s called a tasting menu.
James D. Robert is the executive chef of Park Country Club. A culinary degree from Johnson & Wales enhanced several years of training and apprenticeships, including CEC certification from the ACF. Last year he was asked to speak at TEDxBuffalo to share his thoughts on mentoring.