Friday, January 29, 2010

The Chef of the Sea

In cooperation with Blue Hill at Stone Barns, The International Culinary Theater hosted a demo and tasting with Spanish chef Ángel Léon of Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa María. Chef Ángel shared the latest techniques in Spanish cooking, using the freshest ingredients from the sea. More than just a creative and forward-thinking chef, Ángel is also an avid ecologist and preservationist—things he shares in common with farm-owning Dan Barber (executive chef/co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and NYC). He works on using lesser known fish and marine life in his cuisine to promote biodiversity in the ocean through creating awareness and demand. Chef Angel's favorite fish are breca, zalema, and baila. He uses bi-catch from commercial fishing in his cooking, as well as sea plankton,which he harvests to make into a flavorful and nutritionally dense component in many of his recipes. Fish eyes are used to make sauces; microscopic algae to clarify broths. The demo was followed-up with commentary and discussion lead by Dan Barber about the importance of thinking about what we eat and how it is produced.

Chef Ángel discussed and demonstrated a variety of his techniques, one of which is grilling fish over olive pit charcoal. This imparts a distinct flavor and is also a good use of leftover product. It takes many hours of heating to turn the pits into coals. He used bi-catch fish and grilled them over his hotel pan–sized pit, using a blow-dryer to start the fire. He rolled the fish to make a roulade of sorts, then sliced them into small rounds after cooking for serving with a simple sauce.








Another passion for Chef Ángel is working with plankton. After two hours of dragging a net on the ocean floor, he could only gather two grams. So he wanted to find a more efficient way to harvest it. He now can produce enough plankton to use in his cooking. Plankton is extremely nutrition, and Chef Ángel was drawn to cooking with it because he, " was curious to eat what the whales would eat."

For traveling to the United States, Chef Ángel powdered the plankton, which he reconstituted during the demo. Here he serves oysters with plankton as a sauce and enrobed in lemon-infused egg white foam. He also showcased the plankton in a simple risottolike dish. His descriptor of plankton is that it's like "biting into waves." Salty, briny, and something fresh and more indescribable, it's, indeed, like tasting the essence of ocean in the best possible way.




This was a unique and interesting event. Participating in topical food discussions with top chefs in the industry makes you think more closely about your own relationship with food and how much food enters in too the political, economical, and social landscape of our lives. What we eat is important. Not just for our health or our pleasure but in many, many ways for the world around us.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Serving More Than a Good Brunch

Most chefs wear their heart on their plates—well, at least metaphorically. And on Sunday, January 24th, L'Ecole, the school's restaurant, served up a little more love than usual by donating 100 percent of the revenue from brunch service for the day to the American Red Cross Haiti Relief and Development fund.

It was a good experience for all: Diners were happy to know that they were doing something for others just by going out to eat, and the staff appreciated the opportunity to participate in the event as well.

Siobhan Spargo, a server at the restaurant, said, "People were very receptive when we told them that the proceeds of the day were going to charity. Many people didn't know beforehand that they would be donating to a good cause. Guests were willing to spend a little extra, buying plenty of drinks. Overall, people thought is was cool. And several employees from the school came in to eat because they knew the money was going to the relief fund. One diner and her friend came in to eat, and she wrote about it on her blog, The Skinny Pig. It was fun personally, too. Usually no one wants to work brunch and have to get up early, but it was nice working for a good cause; we were all in good moods!"

Daniel Low, who works front of the house, aptly stated, "The school could have given in many ways. It was ingenious to let our community participate [patrons, students, and employees] in something everyone believes in supporting. It was the perfect way to give back. It allowed people to have control on how much was given."

The French Culinary Institute is also lending a hand by matching employee donations to the American Red Cross, Save the Children, Unicef, and Chefs for Humanity.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Supper Club: Brooklyn Fare

I had the extreme good fortune of joining Rhonda Lynn in Student Affairs and The FCI Supper Club for an epic 16-course dinner last week at Brooklyn Fare. I feel a special connection to Brooklyn Fare: I live on Schermerhorn Street, just two blocks from the place. I watched it being built last year. Alan Richman’s recent article reminds readers that they have very little chance of getting in. Well, last summer, Brooklyn Fare actually called me with an invitation to dine. I took them up on it with nine friends and coworkers and enjoyed a stellar meal. Nothing had been written about it at the time, and we had no idea what to expect. We were blown away that night over eight exquisite courses.

I’m happy to report that it’s even better now than it was then. César Ramirez, the chef, is a great talent of the kitchen. And he’s old school. He doesn’t believe in slapping his name on a restaurant and then showing up in clean whites at 8 p.m. to glad-hand patrons in the dining room. He’s in it for the work. Every time I shop at Brooklyn Fare, I see him running around. He preps all day and cooks through service. FCI people develop a reverence for this kind of chef, after being exposed to the likes of André Soltner and Alain Sailhac. We know it when we see it, and César has got it. When students asked him for some general career advice, he bluntly told them that he was twice-divorced, and that you have to be willing to put your career first or you’re in the wrong business (this man knows how to work a room!). He said the minute he loses that fire, he’ll leave the kitchen.

Brooklyn Fare is one-of-a-kind in New York City, and certainly in Brooklyn. You enter right on a dumpy block of Schermerhorn Street and find yourself in a spotless kitchen. Gleaming stainless-steel tables stretch out before you; a hundred polished copper pots hang above you like an art installation. César’s minions have set the table with excellent flatware and overflowing baskets of bread, and your wine is set up on a rear table with several varieties of good-quality glassware. César and his assistant, Juan, are milling around, and no one is sure quite what to do. And then the food starts to materialize, seemingly out of nowhere. The place is so clean, you can’t tell that anyone has been cooking. The first canapé was a beautiful little shot glass of hot carrot and orange purées with salty Greek yogurt on top. Where did this come from, and how is it so bracingly hot in this little glass? The meal was full of mysteries. Juan moves around like a phantom, frying brains, retrieving items from the walk-in, sautéing things. César is a picture of calmness in his crisp white shirt, scooping caviar, piping crème fraîche, layering all the elements perfectly for the nine of us, all the while chatting away.

Standouts of the night included poached king crab with cold hollandaise and a heaping teaspoon of caviar; milk-fed veal with onions soubise; fried calf brains (César’s favorite) with smoked paprika sauce; a perfect Kumamoto oyster with crème fraîche and a disk of grapefruit gelée. I can’t get the bacalao and shredded black truffle out of my head. It was served in these bizarre magnetic cups on angled saucers. He told me they cost $130 apiece and that he’s the only person in the United States who has them.

César seems to basically get anything he wants to work his magic, from the dishes to the ingredients: bluefin tuna, Hudson Valley foie gras, the caviar, the truffles. It’s a parade of luxury under flourescent lighting, and a steal at $95 (and still BYOB). It’s the only place we know of where you get this kind of experience and connection with the chef. He constantly goes around the table with his eyes and makes sure everyone likes each dish. It’s like the dinner party of your dreams, the one that you can’t actually pull off.

The students who took the leap of faith ($100+? Brooklyn?) were glad they did. Level 3 student Catherine thought the meal was over halfway through (after the eighth canapé). Greek student Iris, a proud fish snob, approved of the freshness of César’s seafood. We were giddy by the end of it—pleasantly full but not stuffed. The conversation with the chef kept going over glasses of red wine, the students trying to gather as much advice as possible before heading back into the cold.

Brooklyn Fare is a special dining experience. The website still refers to the dinners as " classes," which hardly paints an accurate picture. Alan Richman describes it as "the most outrageously wonderful, unfathomably underpriced, and virtually unattainable meal in New York." They're expanding from 10 to 18 seats this summer, adding two-tops and four-tops, and adjusting the lighting a bit. If it were up to me, I'd keep it just as it is but jack up the price. It's a place to focus on the food, the chef, and the shared experience. But César knows what he's doing, and I trust that he'll keep the soul of the kitchen intact.

Leland Scruby works in the Student Affairs department at The French Culinary Institute. He completed the evening culinary arts program in 2009. You can keep up with him on Twitter:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Italian Days at The Italian Culinary Academy

On January 13 and 14, The Italian Culinary Academy and Dean of Italian Studies Cesare Casella hosted the launch of the 2010 International Day of Italian Cuisine (January 17).

The festivities started off with workshops and a showcasing of Italian food products with a VIP Gala Dinner (see photos below) with master chef Chicco Cerea of Michelin 3-star Da Vittorio in Bergamo, Italy. Italian and non-Italian chefs gathered after the gala to celebrate the excellence of Italian food and wine at the New York Chef's Night Out.

The festivities continued the next day with more tastings, cooking demos, and ingredient showcases. Guest chef Chicco Cerea made the featured dish for the event with chef Daniele Minarelli of Antica Osteria in Bottega, Bologna, Italy: Tagliatelle al Ragù alla Bolognese. It was a great way to celebrate the rich heritage of Italian food and cooking. Here are instructions for two of the dishes at the event. Buon Appetito!

Tagliatelle al Ragù alla Bolognese

Start off the dish by making a soffrito with carrots, celery, onions, and a little bit of garlic. Cook it in a hot pan with oil until tender before adding ground beef and pancetta. Continue to cook until the meats are brown then add tomato paste and a lot of olive oil. Cook over low heat for 2 hours. Just before the dish is finished cooking, boil some fresh tagliatelle in a pot of salted water. Drain the pasta. Strain the meat mixture. Combine pasta and beef in a large pasta dish. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and serve!

Fried Pasta Chips
1 lb. penne pasta
Canola oil, for frying
Smoked paprika
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil; add pasta; cook until tender (45 minutes to 1 hour). Drain pasta in a colander, and place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Let dry out completely.

2. Heat oil in a pot to 365°F. Add dry pasta in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan; cook until pasta puffs and floats to the surface (it should not take on any color), 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from pot with a spider. Season with spices. Serve immediately as an appetizer.

Gala Dinner photo gallery:

From left: Dorothy Cann Hamilton, school founder, with Cesare Casella and Lidia Matticchio Bastianich (TV show host, cookbook author, and restauranteur—Becco, Del Posto, Esca, Felidia, Lidia's)

Food Network stars Anne Burrell, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef (left),
and Claire Robinson, 5 Ingredient Fix

restauranteur Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque 2000, Osteria del Circo)

pastry chef Robert Truitt (left) and chef/owner Paul Liebrandt of Corton, NYC

Adam Corey with Mark Ladner chef/partner of Lupa and Otto and executive chef at Del Posto, NYC

Dorothy Cann Hamilton with FCI dean André Soltner

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Theater Junkie: Jennifer McLagan visits The FCI

The International Culinary Theater is host to many engaging events throughout the year, including a chef demo program, where top chefs are invited to come share their thoughts and talents with our students. I am still in staggered awe over the bûche de Noël demo Jacques Torres, Dean of the Pastry Arts Program, did in December. Deft and extremely tidy as he worked, he was also extremely entertaining. And there was no little of this and a little of that: Butter was added several sticks at a time, vanilla by the quarts, and enough alcohol in quantities to light up a building. And in all this what looked like kitchen magic, he churned out a beautifully decorated and tasty cake. Ron Ben-Israel, a guest chef at the school, had demo his masterful skills the previous day, and I didn't think it could get any better than that. Interacting with these talented chefs in such an intimate setting is an incredible experience for any foodie or chef-in-the-making. Watching, listening, and tasting gives you so much to learn. My 2010 pastry goal is now to whip out parchment paper cornets (cones), fill them with chocolate and pipe an entire snow village as quickly and dexterously as Jacques Torres and to make a fondant flower with the precision and delicacy of Ron Ben-Israel.

Ron Ben-Israel decorates a Hanukkah cake.

But with the pastry delights of 2009 in the fade, I have eagerly looked forward to who will be showing up in the theater in the New Year. And so far, the future looks bright. Jennifer McLagan of Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes fame came to extol the virtues of using animal products: fruit oils are good, butter is better, but why not go for suet (beef or sheep fat from around the kidneys), lard (back fat from pork), or duck fat? After tasting two tea biscuits, one made from suet and the other from duck fat, I would say, Why not indeed? The texture and taste were spot on. And, yes, my mother does roll her biscuits in hot bacon grease before baking them, but I did not feel one ounce of fat guilt after eating these baked goods.

Tea Biscuits made with suet.

Jennifer explained why animal fats can be healthy in a proper diet (nope, I won't give any book spoilers here). We even learned about the origins of Proctor and Gamble (brothers-in-law) and Crisco (cottonseed oil) and what makes it so bad for you (yes, you gotta read the book).

Jennifer then went into the merits of using animal parts—the subject of her next book. I have tried some animal fare outside of the norm, veal brain being one of the favorites, but I had never tasted duck tongue until now. Jeremie Tomczak and Jeremiah Stone (the theater chefs extraordinaire) served them cooked in chicken stock with soy sauce, mirin, sake, fresh ginger, shallots, carrots, coriander, star anise, honey, and vinegar (delicious!). Jennifer also recommended making a confit with duck fat: pulling the tongue out of the fridge as needed, frying them up in a little of the fat, and serving them with a salad of spinach and dandelion greens for the perfect instant meal. Yes, I thought, as I imagined coming home from work to a duck tongue salad with flavorful greens, this is exactly the instant meal I wish I had on hand.

An assortment of animal parts: tripe (far left), pork uterus (top center), goose intestine (top right), beef tongue (above plate), on plate: veal liver (top); duck liver (right); veal heart (center); duck tongues (below)

For our finale, we tasted duck heart and liver with salsa verde, while Jennifer showed us an amazing assortment of fats and body parts. Her recommendation for heart is to keep it rare in the center when cooking, and one suggestion for serving that I want to try at home is to grind beef heart with brisket for an excellent burger. The great advantage of working with these cuts is that beyond being very tasty when prepared right, they are cheap. When everyone else is buying up skinless, boneless chicken breasts, those of us fond of cooking pig ear and duck legs, can eat a plethora of interesting tastes and textures for a lot less.

Duck hearts skewered for cooking.

Jennifer also showed us how to beat cream to a thickened mass of yellow, drain off the buttermilk (the real deal), and pack it away to save for butter toast and baking. Important notes: Make sure your cows have been grass fed and don't forget that butter has seasons (it won't taste the same or have the same butterfat content in summer as it does in winter because cows will be eating dried grains instead of green grasses from the field). As any tongue will tell you: Fat means flavor. I can't wait for Jennifer's next book.

Jennifer McLagan makes her own butter.

Liesel Davis is the editor of and currently a pastry student at The FCI. Her favorite form of exploration is eating.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Exploring Food Frontiers

If you are into food, cooking, or baking at all, being in the kitchen is a great way to spend your time. And a great place to learn a lot. But the food world is deep and wide, and there is also much to learn outside of the kitchen. For students who want to enjoy trying different restaurants, checking out local purveyors, or discussing the latest round of cookbooks, the school offers a plethora of clubs and extracurricular activities.

Yesterday, a group of about 15 students and a few staffers traveled up to Kalustyan’s for an ingredients highlight tour with Dave Arnold, Director of Culinary Technology. Anyone who knows anything about Kalustyan’s and knows anything about Dave Arnold would place a safe bet that this would be one fantastic adventure. For those of you who may not know anything about either of these things, consider the experience somewhat parallel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but without the didactic candy experiences. In lieu of chocolate rivers and bubble gum dinners, we sampled immature walnuts, menthol crystals, celery bitters, sulfuric-smelling black salt, pandanus leaf, black peppercorns from around the globe (replete with baguettes and butter packed in from The FCI), ground black cherry pitts, Turkish delight, charoli nuts, stuffed dried chiles, and preserved lemons to name just a few. It was an entire circus of food wonders, creating a ping-pong of varying sensual responses.

Dave started the tour by smoking wild rue—used by Ancient Romans—for us to smell. He then proceeded on to a discourse on bitters, followed by several personal anecdotes relating to ingredients as he picked them up from the shelves. Dave has that vein of brilliant creativity and curiosity that is the mark of any true mad scientist and generously shares his enthusiasm for taking an ingredient he knows nothing about and trying to see what he can do with it through a proliferation of stories. He’s also a voracious seeker, perpetually reading, learning, and experimenting, which makes him interactive as he wants to learn from others in the process of sharing what he knows. As we have a rather internationally diverse student body, we were able to have a very dynamic conversation about products from around the world. The already interesting tour was even further enriched when a student had something to say about an ingredient that perhaps no one else had really used because it was part of their cultural food history.

Want to know what you would do with black salt that pungently smells like nearly-rotten cooked eggs? In India, it is added to cool water along with other spices for dipping stuffed and fried dough. Sounds pretty good to me. Asian students piped up about how they used pandanus (screwpine leaves). And a student from Turkey gave us the official word on Turkish delight. There was even a chile challenge, with one brave pastry student willing to take all the heat without shedding a tear.

What we learned was to explore and not be afraid to try new things. We also learned that the next time a recipe calls for fresh tamarind, we know where to get it. And although I have been to Kalustyan’s often in my 11 years in the city, I still found new things to cook and bake with and enjoyed the raft of Dave's random food facts and interesting side notes that went along with the tour.

Leaving with 80 cents worth of dried sour red plums (one of Dave's recommendations) in my bag to eat on the way home, I was reminded how fun it is to go where you haven't before—be that a new city, a new book, or just a new flavor experience.

Dave Arnold's Preserved Lemon Soda: mash preserved lemons with some granulated sugar in the bottom of a pitcher; top of with seltzer; strain into glasses; drink away.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Doing What You Love

For Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of The French Culinary Institute, this is what her life is built on. She sat down with Maria Sansone, a reporter for LX New York on WNBC, at the school's restaurant, L'Ecole, to talk about why she started the school, her new book Love What You Do, and on balancing her busy work schedule with being a mom. To watch the interview, "Momtrepreneur: Dorothy Hamilton," click here.