Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Private Steak Dinner, Sept 5, 2010

the Mothership

I wanted to do a test run before inviting the world to our long-promised steakhouse night. In addition, friends have been begging for something good to eat, and my girlfriend is skipping town for the greener pastures and sensory delights of ... Rwanda. So it was last weekend or never.

I enlisted our close collaborator and butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter to procure some primer-than-prime, 8-week dry aged steaks. We went mostly with tail-end t-bones, which are essentially shell steaks, and one rib-eye, just for fun (actually, it was at Jeffrey's insistance ... "you and I will eat the rib-eye," he said). But in the chaos of plating, I have no idea who got the rib-eye.

Cooking perfect steaks for sixteen guests, with no crew and four burners, is beyond my art. So I borrowed a laboratory grade sous-vide immersion circulator from our good friends at A Razor, A Shiny Knife. A couple of test runs helped determine our final method:

We salted and peppered the steaks and bagged them with cultured butter; cooked them sous vide for 2-1/2 hours at 54°C; dried them, and brushed with a solution of glucose and sodium bicarbonate (to speed the maillard reactions that give a crisp, brown crust); seared on a hot griddle for about 45 seconds per side; sliced across the grain and served on hot plates.

Thanks to the ruthless precision of the sous-vide Mothership, the meat was perfect. Imagine a sous chef who never falters, never gets tired, and never talks. You get the idea: true love. Returning her to her rightful owner may have broken my heart forever.

The rest of the menu was merely made by hand. It included a cucumber gazpacho with mint and smoked salmon (an idea pilfered from Daniel Boulud), and financier cake served with raspberry-thyme sorbet and bit of cognac whipped cream. We served the steak on a bed of Israeli cous-cous made with wild mushrooms; sauteed baby bok choy with garlic; and a brown sauce made from a very intensely flavored beef coulis, mushrooms, and sage.

The coulis took two days to prepare, starting with a simple stock made from roasted beef and veal bones, and then a slow reduction with multiple immersions of meat, herbs, and aromatic vegetables. The coulis became a sauce shortly before serving, with the addition of shallots and reduced wine, mushroom duxelles and mushroom cooking liquid, sage, and a bit of arrowroot starch and xanthan gum to adjust the texture. There was no fat or dairy to mute the flavors, although the texture was similar to a butter-finished sauce.

Wine was BYO, and friends brought impressive quantities of delicious ones, including a Barberra that I tried to hoard between coarses.

Good times! The meat was spectacular—as good as any I've ever had—deeply beefy with all the funky, nutty, and minerally aged flavors you'd hope for from 8 weeks of dry age. It was extremely tender. I'm not sure if the 2-1/2 hours of slow cooking increased the tenderness, but I'd advise against going longer than this with these cuts; you'd risk the meat becoming too tender, if you can imagine such a thing.

For our upcoming (eventually) public steak night, we're going to go one better, and have Jeffrey procure beef from three of the best farms in the country. Right now we're looking at Four Story Hill Farm, Prather Ranch, Brandt Beef, Snake River Farms, and Hearst Ranch. All have different raising and feeding philosophies and reputations for extremely high quality. We'd like to put their offerings side-by-side on the plate for our guests to sample.

Stay tuned! In the mean time, to get your hands on beef like what we're showing here, go talk to Jeffrey at the Essex Street Market. You have two choices in New York: get it from Jeffrey, or go uptown to Lobel's and pay four times as much (no exaggeration).

For advice on cooking great steaks, check out our recipes here.

This dinner was made possible by generous support from
the Levy-Dangerscissors Corporation (tm) and its worldwide partners.

The t-bones and shell steaks
The rib eye

bagged, air sucked out, replaced with mounted, cultured butter.


the coulis simmering

sage chifonade for garnish

crisp crust and bright pink edge to edge

a little overindulgence in the saucing?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Day at Le Bernardin

I've been corresponding with Michael Laiskonis, Le Bernardin's executive pastry chef, for over a year. I found him through his blog, where he explains his approach and techniques with unusual eloquence. There are other pastry chefs with James Beard awards and three Michelin stars, but Chef Laiskonis is the first I've encountered with a combination of great vision, deep technical curiosity, and the ability to speak easily about both. Like many creative titans, and all of my friends, Chef Laiskonis is a poor judge of character; he invited me to work in his kitchen in spite of my obvious lack of credentials and housbreaking.

Such a rare opportunity demands preparation, which in my case consisted of a full week chanting, "don't knock anything over." I've had a chance to study Chef Eric Ripert's book, On The Line, which details everything backstage at Le Bernardin, including the 10 by 14 foot pastry kitchen that cages up to six pastry chefs and production people, who craft individual pre-desserts, desserts, tasting menus, and petits fours for up to 300 guests a night. The possibilities of elbowing a chef in the eye, stepping into a bucket of glucose, or capsizing an entire speed rack of tuilles and spherized pear nectar seemed almost infinite. Happily, the training worked; drama seekers will have to wait a little longer for posts about self-inflicted palette knife wounds or kitchen evacuations.

The greatest barrier between the average schmo and the kitchens of Le Bernardin may not be their standards but their architecture. Finding the kitchen required trips up and down different stairwells, U-turns through basement catacombs, and conflicting directions from a cook and an elevator repairman. I thought of the scene in Spinal Tap, where the band wanders the bowels of the venue in search of the stage. At one point Maguy Le Coze, co-owner and co-founder of the restaurant, stormed past me in a subterranean passageway before pushing through an unmarked door. She looked appropriately sleek, intense, and French; as one would expect, she didn't look up at the hapless stranger wandering the stairs.

When the kitchen doors finally appeared around a corner, it was only a matter of minutes before I'd been introduced to the crew and handed a chef jacket and propane torch. There was some mention of a tour, which never materialized (when I got home, 12 hours later, I realized that I never even saw the bathroom). Instead, production went into full swing. It was a slow night; the restaurant was somewhere around half capacity, but still every guest gets a pre-dessert, a dessert and a plate of petits fours*, and at least one table had arranged for a special dessert tasting menu.

I spent most of my day working on the petits fours, which consisted of a round financier with pistachio and a macerated cherry in the middle, a chocolate cup filled with praline cream and sprinkled with ground toasted almonds, a beignet, and a wafer of white chocolate topped with a duo of gummy cubes (mango, and ... something red). My accuracy on some of the ingredients may be off; I only nibbled on broken ones and that was during the tunnel vision of production and assembly. While the plate of petits fours comprises 4 bites, there are actually 10 components, each of which has to be prepared separately, sometimes in several steps, before final plating. The morning production crew had already prepared many of the ingredients and components for us to assemble. By the time you pop one of these scooby snacks in your mouth, it's probably been worked on by five or six people over the course of many hours.

The work requires some precision, but perhaps not as much as I'd first assumed. Ricardo, the sous chef, would typically show me one example and then cut me loose to do the rest. In my effort to perfectly duplicate his, I occasionally resorted to using tweezers where he'd used a plastic spoon. I loosened up a bit when I saw him laughing at me.

We cranked out the fours in waves, stopping when we ran out of plates, starting up again when a fresh stack came back from the dishwashers. I spent much of my downtime observing others plate the main desserts—a skill I would like to acquire, and one I'm ecstatic that I didn't have to fake in that setting. Every dessert has multiple components, some of which are delicate tuiles or disks or other brittle constructions. The saucing is a mix of geometric precision and loose brushwork and squeeze-bottle painting. The overall effect conveys sophistication and a bit of playfulness, and remarkably avoids the over-constructed, self conscious displays that were in vogue in the 90s (and never quite went away). I have philosophical issues with some kinds of saucing (like small dots of sauce, or piles or smears of dry powder), but when Chef Laiskonis uses these techniques he does so with restraint and to such great esthetic effect that I found myself wanting to steal some of his designs.

I spent some downtime watching the hot kitchen. Compared with some high end kitchens I've seen, Le Bernardin's is austere; it's about as small as imaginable for the size of the brigade (slightly smaller, actually ... the canapé station is a pair of wheeled carts with portable burners, tied to the end of the pass). The equipment is all solid and immaculate, but traditional and decidedly un-fancy. I saw no hint of induction hobs, anti-griddles, or rows of chefs plating microgreens with surgical tweezers. It looks like a restaurant, in the most traditional sense.

The hot kitchen feels like a war room compared with the pastry kitchen's operating room calm. All the cooks I watched handled the onslaught easily. There were no losses of control or focus or communication; everyone performed like a rock star. The sauté station in particular stood out. I have doubts if my wee brain could handle such simultaneous demand for volume, spontaneous organization, and perfection.

Back in the pastry kitchen, I handled some miscellaneous jobs like unmolding frozen goat cheese hemispheres (which would then be spherized in sodium alginate), and unmolding and cutting to size small logs of corn custard that had been formed with various hydrocolloids. Whenever I found Chef Laiskonis taking a break from running the ship, I pestered him with questions, on everything from his opinions on the Michel Cluizel chocolate varieties they use, to ice cream theory, to the finer points of reverse-spherification of fruit purées. His loyal lieutenants, Ricardo and Jesus, were able to shut me up a few times over the course of the evening by handing me a beautifully plated dessert and a plastic spoon. Of course, after indulging in such a creation I only had more to talk about. There are maxims about keeping one's eyes open and mouth shut; alas, there are also compulsions that keep one's life interesting while keeping one mostly unemployable.

One unexpected surprise was Chef Ripert's visit to the pastry kitchen. He was as gracious and charming in person as he is on television; he seemed like a boss who wants to create an environment where his workers feel comfortable and motivated to do their best work. I don't know how many chefs of his caliber spend as much time as he does in the kitchen ... I suspect not many. I didn't see him micromanage, but I saw him observe, and check in many times with the heads of various teams. When introducing us, Chef Laiskonis said, "Paul's been stalking me for about a year now." Chef Ripert replied, "I understand. I had to stalk Michael for two years to get him to come here."

Our final plates went out around 11:30 pm. We had already cleaned up most of the pastry kitchen; an easy task compared with the near-demolition going on next door on the hot side. Six pastry technicians making tiny sculptures just don't make the same scale mess as forty pirates slinging a thousand pounds of fish through a million BTUs of fire. And the line cooks are denied the most rewarding cleanup task of all, which fell into my hands: putting away the ice creams and sorbets. I first knew Chef Laiskonis as a long-distance ice cream guru. Having my hands on all dozen flavors of his daily stockpile felt like some kind of industrial espionage (except, of course, that I am without anything resembling an industry). I came away with two flavors I'd like to shamelessly ape (crème fraîche sorbet and praline citrus ice cream) and a much more rounded sense of what my guru's up to.

We said our goodbyes after Chef led me through the catacombs and back to the real world. I don't think I expressed enough gratitude to Ricardo and Jesus for their patience and friendliness in the kitchen; they helped make a potentially nerve-wracking experience both comfortable and educational.

I may have an opportunity to do a similar stage on the hot side of the kitchen ... stay tuned!

* literally "small oven" ... these confections were invented in 18th century France as a way to take advantage of residual heat in the coal ovens at the end of the night. Thanks to the modern convection oven, we can now work on them all f'ing day.

petits fours

Some of the little buggers in process and getting plated.


A typical dessert plating. Stolen off the restaurant website; I didn't want to get in the way with my camera.


Pantry Items include various sea salts, xanthan gum, sodium alginate, isomalt powder, dextrose, pectin, citric acid, locust bean gum, calcium lactate, and powdered microwave popcorn.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Manifesto Condemning Vanilla Sex

The expression, not the act: why would anyone, when suggesting blandness, invoke the most complex and exotic of spices?

At Underbelly, little turns us on like a dark, aromatic Madagascar vanilla pod.

Sometimes a pod is not just a pod.

Consider: Vanilla encompasses 100 odd species of the tropical orchid Vanilla V. planifolia. First cultivated by the Totanac Indians along the coast of Mexico near Veracruz 1000 years ago, the spice migrated north to the Aztecs, and then to France via Spain.

The vanilla orchid gets naturally polinated only by insects native to Central America; it couldn't be grown in the Old World until a Belgian botanist devised a technique for polinating it by hand, flower by flower. This innovation allowed the French to plant vanilla on the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and Comoros, off the southeast coast of Africa. These islands collectively produce what we call Bourbon Vanilla. Mexico and Tahiti produce the remainder of the world's highest quality crops.

Perhaps the misconceptions of blandness come from an ironic coincidence: the same colonialism that sent vanilla to the eastern hemisphere did the same for Christian missionaries (and their associated position).

Vanilla, you should know, demands prolonged foreplay: production starts with hand-polination and six-to-nine months of growing. The pods are killed, with great discipline, then cycled through alternating periods of heat and wet-wrapping for several days, to stimulate enzymatic flavor development. The pods are then straightened and smoothed by hand, air dried for several weeks, and finally cured for up to several months.

The result is the second most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron (which costs as much as $5000.00 per pound)

Some tasting notes: bourbon vanilla has a round, slighly sweet, deeply layered flavor. Mexican vanilla tends toward spiciness. Tahitian vanilla has the weakest flavor, but an assertive, complex, floral aroma. All of the vanillas are unusually layered and complex compared with other spices.

Vanilla has also been used for centuries as medicine. Clinical studies suggest antibacterial potential. Others show that vanilla stimulates epinephrine production, and can therefore be mildly addictive. In traditional medicine it's been used both as a fever reducer and (most significantly) an aphrodesiac.

If anyone describes you as "vanilla," thank them. Then politely excuse yourself from their boudoir / motel room / dungeon. They don't deserve to get into your pantry.