Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Favorite Chefs

One of the leading theories in pedagogy states that it doesn't mater so much the subject you are teaching so much as what and who your are being when you teach. The role model you present is more important than whatever trivia you are covering today.

A great science teacher presents a role model of how a scientific mind approaches a mysterious problem, devises a working hypothesis, and designs experiments to refute this hypothesis. In this way, you teach a kid how to do science, you don't tell him a story about science. A really crappy college political-firebrand presents a role model of how a really crappy college political-firebrand approaches a "problem", i.e. by screaming about it like a fool. In this way, you teach a kid how to scream like a fool. You don't tell him a story about screaming like a fool.

You teach the kid how to fish, you don't tell him a story about fishing trips.

So it is in cooking. It doesn't matter if one of the following five chefs is cooking some really nasty seafood with testicles, tentacles, claws, antennae, snails, clam shells and compound eyes floating around in the sewage. Although this is a dish I would never prepare myself, I can still watch anyway, because these 5 present a roll model showing how a great chef efficiently organizes the process of preparing complex dishes. Organization and fundamental technique in cooking is like blocking and tackling in football. Everything logically reduces to these two fundamentals.

Jacques Pépin

I love watching this guy work. He focuses a lot of fundamental techniques at the same time that he prepares some pretty sophisticated stuff.

He will go out of his way to show you how to properly crack an egg (on a flat surface). He role-models simple ideals, like selecting a knife just slightly bigger than the item you are trying to cut, or using a board just slightly longer in hypotenuse than your knife's length.

He is calm cool and collected as he cooks. He never panics. He loves what he is doing. He's not worried about getting it wrong. He is not bothered by the slight wobble in any given preparation of any given dish. Of course, this means you shouldn't worry about it either.

I also like the fact that he isn't afraid to use microwaves, and that he is a fan of French enameled cast iron. So am I.

He is also a dead-ringer for my Uncle Patrico. I mean these two guys look like virtual clones of one another. I'll bet my Uncle could easily sneak into a major cooking event in New York wearing a name tag that said "Jacques Pépin". A lot of people would buy that fake and never even suspect they were tricked. Of course, the Ecuadorian accident vs. French accident would give him away.

Tyler Florence

This is probably my favorite chef. Nobody on the Food Network does a better menu than this guy. I love the older shows where he travels around the globe (mostly to European destinations) to track down the most traditional and authentic recipes, and then do a slight American refry. His original Paella episode in Season 1 was utterly priceless. So was the omelet episode.

The new format for the show is encyclopedia of recipes I am going to put together one day. That Julia and Julia movie is going to be replayed as Tyler and Dave. Sooner or later, I am going to try every recipe in Tyler's book.

Tyler is a traditionalist. I like the fact that he doesn't go too far off the reservation. When he riffs on theme, he usually tries to do so culturally traditional ways. When I have prepared dishes for ethnic guests, I have done so from Tyler's vault, and the guests have usually been stunned that "I got it right". They wanted to know how I learned how to do Swedish Meatballs, or Indian food. Guess where I learned it?

Alton Brown

The arch scientist. The great teacher of organic chemistry principles. The guy who tells you "Why" and not so much "How". Some deride Alton as a geek. If so, I am a geek also. This is my kind of geek scientist.

I am a "Why" guy. How is interesting, but why is better and more important. If you know why, how can always be strategically improved. You also know when people are making mistakes in food prep. How so? Because you know why.

Alton's treatment of the Maillard Reaction was a major moment of revelation for me. The Maillard Reaction is ultra-important, but that was just the key, that wasn't the revelation. Nope, the revelation was that all cooking boils down to a series of chemical reactions. That was when I got my first good look at the whole iceberg. If I ever write a cookbook, it is going to be titled A Series of Chemical Reactions.

Understanding what chemical reaction you are going for, and how it can be screwed up, is utterly crucial to getting your results. For instance, I just put $1,200 in grilling equipment on my balcony this past Sunday. I did so for one specific reason: I realized I was not obtaining sufficient heat from my stove to produce a good and decent Maillard Reaction. I just dumped my aluminum cookware because I realized that just about all caramelization and seasoning processes work best on naked iron.

You won't learn why any of this is true unless you attend chemistry class with Alton. I can't agree with him about Shun knives and Kosher salt, but that doesn't matter.

If you haven't heard Alton's detailed breakdown of how Yeast works, you are just missing out on the finest things in life.

Sunny Anderson

Sunny has contributed two crucial favorites to my food menu: (1) Shepherd's pie and (2) Mac-N-Cheese.

I hate to say this, but Sunny's soul-food Mac-N-Cheese, beats up Tyler's French Mournay sauce approach royally. Frankly, it's not even close. I have to thank Tyler for the Panko bread crumbs, and the bacon garnish, but Sunny's approach is the more flavorful. Everybody seems to take the Mournay approach used by Thomas Jefferson. I think that is a mistake. Try Sunny's approach. It's better.

Sunny does Mac-N-Cheese by preparing a cold sauce with the following dry ingredients: flour, paprika, black peeper, cayenne pepper, mustard powder, sugar, salt. It also has the following wet ingredients: sour cream, heavy-whipping cream, half-n-half. She uses the following cheeses: Sharp cheddar, and Habanero Pepper Jack. She cuts the cheese into cubes rather than shredding it.

Just a few tips about Sunny's approach:
  1. Put some Thyme, Garlic and Savory in that cold sauce.
  2. The Mac-N-Cheese should be cooked in an Emile Henry Flame-Top roasting pan. Spread it out thin. Don't go tall. More surface area means more caramelized brown cheese crust at the top, and more Socorrat at the bottom. Both the crust at the top and at the bottom are crucial to flavor.
  3. 350F is not sufficient to trigger the Maillard reaction. Increase the temperature to 400F-425F. Reduce cooking time to 30-35 minutes. Finish in the broiler for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Cover the top with Panko bread crumbs. Garnish with well-browned bacon or panchetta, which ever you prefer.
  5. You might stuff ripped chunks of day-old bread into the top of the Mac-N-Cheese.
Sunny's Shepherd Pie is totally non-English. It is a soul-food respin on the process, but this is another dramatic improvement, much like her Mac-N-Cheese. She goes off the reservation by adding double-thick tomato paste to the hamburger, adding in onions, garlic, savory herbs to the meat. She develops a lot of flavor there. Instead of simple peas and carrots, which are good, she makes an elaborate vegetable layer including things like egg plant, squash, peppers, carrots, etc.

I made this for the first time about a day or two before my brother showed up unexpectedly for a weekend visit. I had a large glass Pyrex roaster full of the stuff. I had eaten one small corner of the dish the night before. My brother utterly annihilated that Pyrex. It was all gone by Sunday. I hardly had any of it. Ben turned down meals at the Goucho Grill and Mazzarino's Italian Kitchen for more Shepherd's pie. He went wacko over it.

I have to say, I like it too. I make both of these on a regular basis now.

Jamie Oliver

Nobody loves cooking more than Jamie Oliver. If you want to see a guy who loves what he does more than anybody else, watch this guy. You are watching an artist in love with the thing he is painting. Jamie is rejoicing while he is cooking. He's having a good time, and it shows. I think he would rather be cooking than doing just about anything else in the world.

It is fun watching a guy have fun. It is fun watching a guy do his favorite thing in the world. Jacques Pépin signs off by saying "Happy cooking!" to his audience. Jamie is that happy cooking guy. Jamie's roll model is an important one. He shows that cooking is a form of creative recreation and relaxation. You have a good time. You don't approach it with stress. It's like a video game: You are highly concentrated, but you are relaxing and having a good time.

The first time I ever saw Jamie Oliver, I was looking for a video manual on how to make Tagliatelle Bolognese. I had lost my episode of Tyler's Ultimate (it is time to replay that one guys) and I was jonesing for a refresher course. I decided to look at YouTube. Jamie's video came up first.

You may laugh, but I honestly thought I was watching a SNL sketch in which Nigel Tufnel, fictional leader of Spinal Tap, was doing a mock cooking show. Jamie does look like Nigel from Spinal Tap. Then I realized this was no joke. The dude in question had serious skill. He knew what he was doing. In just a bit more than 6 minutes, he gave up the entire approach to making fresh-cut, home-made Tagliatelle.

That was quite a revelation. I had no idea what made Tagliatelle distinct as a type of pasta. I knew after I watched the video. It denotes a hand-made egg pasta which is floured, folded, and cut by hand with a knife. This is not extruded or machine cut stuff. You make little tangly nests of pasta noodles with your hands.

Tyler did the show on the Ultimate Tagliatelle Bolognese, HOWEVER, there remains one key way in which you can improve the recipe. You don't buy the Tagliatelle. You make it yourself, fresh.

Incidentally, I just did that last night. I decided to baptize my grill by doing a grilled Tagliatelle Bolognese last night. The results were pretty sensational. I cut the Tagliatelle myself, just like Jamie did.