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Molecular Gastronomy: Making science, food and eating fun!

Molecular Gastronomy

Have you heard of molecular gastronomy before? No? You’re not alone, molecular gastronomy is a modern style of cooking, and practiced by scientists and chefs who take advantage of many technical innovations from scientific disciplines. Put more simply, think of mixing up drinks like Nitrogen Cooled Lemon Drop Martinis. Or whipping up Crispy Chicken Tacos with Chili Relleno Space Foam.

Dreamstaurant celebrity chef and judge, Ian Kleinman is a pioneering molecular gastronomist and owner of The Inventing Room, a unique catering and food entertainment company based in Denver, CO. His molecular gastronomy recipes include Super Cold & Creamy Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream, Floating Truffles, and Root Beer Floats with Liquid Nitrogen Whipped Ice Cream. Chef Kleinman believes food should be fun and every dining experience should have amazing food, pork bellydrinks and service but also contain an entertainment quality that makes you think about your food and how it’s made instead of mindlessly eating it.

Borrowing tools from the science lab and ingredients from the kitchen, molecular gastronomists concoct surprise after surprise for their diners. You may wonder ‘Can I really eat this?’ or ‘Is it safe?’ The truth is the chemicals used in molecular gastronomy are all of biological origin. Even though they have been purified and some of them processed, the raw material origin is usually marine, plant, animal or microbial. These additives are also used in very, very small amounts and have been approved by EU standards. Plus the science lab equipment used just helps modern gastronomy chefs to do simple things like maintaining the temperature of the cooking water constant (water bath), cooling food at extremely low temperatures fast (liquid nitrogen) or extract flavor from food (evaporator).

space foamIf you’re passionate about cooking, have a creative mind but at the same time have a scientific background, molecular gastronomy is something worth experiencing.

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Chefs: How To Decide Between Apprenticeships or Culinary School

Chef EducationHaving a formal education is a wonderful thing to be able to put on a resume. Training under an experienced Chef can also teach you just as much practical information. There are pro and cons to both. Culinary schools are more structured environments. Apprenticeships are more unstructured environments. If you have the opportunity to do both, I would highly recommend it.

Culinary Schools Pros:

* Culinary schools look good on a resume.
* Culinary schools give a more structured environment to learn in.
* Culinary schools give broad examples and teachings that cross different types of cuisines and styles of cooking.
* Culinary schools have valuable resources and the opportunity to research independently.
* Culinary schools give a person the opportunity to make future industry contacts.
* Culinary schools give what you get out of them.
* Culinary schools teach basic skills along with business basics.

Culinary Schools Cons:

* Culinary school classes can be unrealistic. Six or more people working the grill station in a restaurant is not the reality of what it is really like in the industry.
* Culinary schools can be very expensive. Evaluate whether you want to be paying off college bills for many years.
* Culinary schools may give students unrealistic expectations. Not everyone is going to become an Executive Chef after graduating from a school.

Apprenticeship Pros:

* Apprenticeships give a person a taste of what really working in a kitchen is like.
* Apprenticeships can give you the opportunity to work under many different types of Chefs, and work one on one with them.
* During an apprenticeship, you make money while you are learning.

Apprenticeship Cons:

* The lack of formal education may hurt you in some hiring environments.
* As an apprentice you may not learn as much about the business aspects as you will need to in order to become a Chef.
* Apprenticeship may lack fundamentals that a formal education can and will teach you.

My best recommendation would be to work (or when all else fails) volunteer to work unpaid in a professional kitchen for at least a few months if not longer before you decide to go to school. Unfortunately many people who go right into culinary schools out of high school have no idea what working in a “real” kitchen is like. Boy they generally are in for a big shock.

So before you go spending big bucks on a school make sure you are going to like the industry first before you dive right in. Not all culinary graduates get to be Head Chefs and “in the News.” If you look at the statistics, a year after graduation, over 15% of graduates do not stay in the field, over 40% are still line cooks and 15-20 years after graduation, many are burned out and have changed careers. I know that in my graduating class at CIA, approximately 50% plus are no longer cooking, many of us have migrated to other hospitality industry jobs: food sales, purchasing, product development, etc. but we are we are not sweating in our whites any longer.Chef Education

Half of the chefs and cooks I have worked with over the years have never been to cooking school and they are just as well trained, knowledgeable and talented as ones who have spent the money to be traditionally educated. There is no “wrong way” to get into the field. Regardless of what you decide to do, you get out of it what you put into it.

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Brazilian Chef Recognized On The International Stage

Chef Alex Atala, son of Lebanese immigrants and raised in Brazil, is himself a blending of cultures separated by huge geographical distances and divergent attitudes.  Perhaps this is why he is perfectly suited to bring the flavors of Brazil to global prominence.

Chef Atala achieved recognition by creating a hybrid cuisine from two very different worlds.  After receiving formal training in Europe, Atala returned to Brazil and began applying the French and Italian techniques he had learned to Brazilian ingredients like banana, maracuja (Passion Fruit), and tangerine. The result has been a refreshing, tropical take on traditional dishes like ravioli, mushroom consommé, and breaded oysters that has earned the rising chef an international name.

The tireless Atala has expanded to a new restaurant, called Dalva e Dito, which opened this January less than a block away from the legendary D.O.M.  The new restaurant features all the best dishes of Atala’s Euro-Amazonian cuisine, served tableside family style, just like a traditional French restaurant. The globalization of culinary techniques, ingredients, and flavors has led to unusual pairings like Atala’s Brazilian fare, with fascinating results.  A new generation of worldly chefs are creating exciting new cuisine that hails from very different cultures.  If the results are as delicious as Chef Atala’s, then the world is in for a golden age in fine dining.

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Italian Grandmas Run Staten Island Restaurant

Italian Grandmas Run The Enoteca Maria RestaurantThe Enoteca Maria restaurant of Staten Island, NY serves truly authentic Italian style home cooking every evening.  They can make such a bold claim, because anyone who ventures into the kitchen in this small 35-seat restaurant will find an actual Italian Grandma bent over the stove conjuring up classic recipes that have been passed down for generations.

Enoteca Maria employs eight local women, all of whom draw on their Italian heritage and culture to bring traditional dishes to the restaurant’s patrons.  Each chef designs and creates her own unique menu based on the food she has been cooking at home for years.

This genuine Italian cuisine gets rave reviews every time it comes out of Enoteca’s kitchen.  And the Grandmas love their newfound celebrity.  They regularly receive standing ovations from happy customers, which is much more appreciation than they get at home.

Enoteca’s nightly menu rotation (depending on which Grandma is in for the night), superb wine list, and cozy atmosphere has made for a unique dining experience that can only be created by a grandmother’s kitchen.

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Fish Fraud: Tempting, But Definitely Not Worth It

Customers love ordering good fish when they go out to eat.  Species with powerful name recognition like orange roughy, grouper, and salmon are great sellers on the menu and can be found in restaurants across the country.  But are consumers getting exactly what they pay for?  Some fish species, especially those with a light white meat, can be interchanged fairly easily without the knowledge of the customer.

It’s an age-old trick in the food service industry, and a recent undercover report by local television stations in four cities found that mislabeling fish species may be more prevalent than anyone imagined.  The practice has been dubbed “fish fraud,” and it has been an ongoing problem.  A study from the ‘90s revealed that 37% of fish served in restaurants was mislabeled.  And many industry experts believe the rate has gone up since then.

The most recent spate of reports about fish fraud were conducted by Scripps television stations in Kansas City, Phoenix, Baltimore, and Tampa.  The most common mislabeling involves farm raised tilapia and catfish sold as grouper or orange roughy and farm raised salmon sold as wild caught salmon.  Naturally, the farm raised species cost a restaurant pennies on the dollar compared to coveted wild species.  The restaurants in these four cities were busted after undercover reporters conducted DNA tests on samples of the fish they were served.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to regulate fish served in restaurants.  Enforcement of fish fraud violations have been described as lax at best.  Of course, the embarrassment of being caught on local TV is a powerful reprimand for any restaurant, but the opposite draw of making huge margins by charging $20 or more for a fish entrée that costs $2 – $3 a pound makes even the risk of getting caught seem small.Salmon

From a pure business point of view, the short term gains that come from making a high margin through mislabeled fish entrees is more than offset by the risk to your restaurant’s reputation.  As I have been emphasizing on this blog for the last few months, and what has been emphasized in the restaurant industry in general, is that customer loyalty is what gets restaurants through tough economic times.  And fish fraud doesn’t tend to build loyalty.  Sometimes it’s much better to take the long view when it comes to the reputation of your establishment.

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Menu Trends: Smaller Portion Sizes Seen As A Big Value

Menu Trends: Smaller Portion SizesNational chains like The Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, and T.G.I. Friday’s have rolled out smaller, leaner, competitively priced menu items that are having considerable success targeting two primary consumer concerns: watching their weight and watching their wallets.

For years the trend in the food service industry was towards bigger and bigger portion sizes.  The “bigger is better” approach worked as long as customers were willing to pay more for more food.  The financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn turned that strategy on its head, and the restaurant industry is starting to respond.

Independent operators can take advantage of this trend as well.  The best way to implement it is to take perennial favorites from your existing menu and trim down the size and the price, then feature these new items on a special menu.  This approach highlights the new items and gives your offerings a fresh look that will help get customers in the door.

And that’s been the most difficult thing about the current climate in the food service industry: getting customers to actually come out to eat.  A leaner, more affordable menu doesn’t do you any good if your customers stay home because they don’t know about it.  Getting the word out is vital to the success of slimmed down menu offerings.  If marketed right, your new menu should be the reason why customers go out to eat in the first place.

No restaurant can afford to look like they are out of touch with the times, and adjusting portion sizes kills two birds with one stone: addressing customer health concerns and dinner price points.

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Hungarian Pigs Are Cool Again

A Mangalitsa sow100 years ago, a Hungarian breed of pig called Mangalitsa was the preferred pork breed for restaurants across Europe and the eastern U.S.  Over the last century their popularity declined for a variety a reasons.  The Mangalitsa also fell out of favor with pork producers, because they require open pasture and high quality feed, as opposed to common breeds today, which can be raised in small pens on an industrial scale on cheap feed like corn or soy.

However, recently, the Mangalitsa has returned as a favorite in some chefs kitchens, because, unlike most popular breeds, Mangalitsa pork is marbled.  This gives the meat a rich, authentic taste that makes it unique among pigs.  This is good news for the Mangalitsa, because just a few years ago the breed was bordering on extinction, with numbers in the hundreds, as opposed to 30,000 individuals in 1950 in Hungary alone.

At least one farm has imported the Hungarian pig to the U.S., and Mangalitsa pork, previously only available from Spain, has begun to spread to other Western countries.  Restaurants like the Spotted Pig in New York city have begun serving the pork with much success.  Mangalitsa meat fetches a much heftier price than industrial pork, but for customers who value taste over price, the succulent marbled meat of Hungarian pork can be a satisfying experience.

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The Long Hard Road To Sushi Greatness

Matsuhisa Restaurant in Beverly Hills

Matsuhisa restaurant in Beverly Hills, CA

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa always knew he wanted to be a sushi chef.  From the first time his brother took him to a sushi restaurant in his native Japan, Matsuhisa he has aspired to make people happy with top quality sushi using only the best ingredients.  With 22 restaurants all over the world, and three new locations opening this year in places as far flung as Mexico City, Moscow, and Cape Town, he has obviously achieved his goal on a global scale.

However, this determined sushi chef didn’t find his success easily.  His career started when he was 18 with a seven year apprenticeship in Japan that included three years of nothing but dish washing and bussing.  Afterwards, Chef Nobu travelled to Lima, Peru to ply his trade in his own restaurant.  For awhile he was very successful, and lived comfortably.  His restaurant was popular with the many travelling Japanese businessmen who frequented Peru’s capital, and the city’s location right on the Pacific meant ready access to the finest fresh seafood.

But Matsuhisa’s business partner was more concerned with profits than making fine sushi every day.  He insisted the chef buy cheaper ingredients and reduce his operating expenses.  To Chef Nobu, this was an impossible demand.  He simply wasn’t able to compromise the quality of his work.  For three years they fought over food expenses.  Then he quit.

Sushi by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

Sushi artistry by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

After a few years working here and there, Matsuhisa got the chance to open his own restaurant again, this time in Anchorage, Alaska.  He worked tirelessly to make the restaurant a success, and even worked the first 50 days they were open without taking a day off.  He finally shut the doors on Thanksgiving day for a rest.  And that’s when his friend and business partner called in a panic to tell him their beloved restaurant was on fire.  They had no insurance, and Chef Nobu lost everything in the disaster.

After a short return to Japan, Nobu travelled to L.A. to work as a sushi chef in a friend’s restaurant.  It would take him several years to climb out of debt, regain his confidence, and find a restaurant that he could call his own.  Finally, Matsuhisa opened in Beverly Hills, nine years after the fire in Alaska.

Robert DeNiro became one of many Hollywood notables who were also regular customers.  After much cajoling, DeNiro finally convinced Chef Nobu to start another restaurant in New York city.  The two, along with several other investors, have since built the global sushi empire that Matsuhisa now runs.  These days the celebrated sushi chef contents himself with travelling the world and managing his restaurants.  He has finally seen success, and he takes great satisfaction in bringing the world his particular art, expressed through quality sushi.

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Menu Trends: Potatoes Make A Comeback

The Good Ol' Potato

The Good Ol’ Potato

Everyone remembers the bad rap potatoes got when the Atkins Diet was at its peak – too many carbs meant the potato should be avoided at all costs.  But times, and attitudes, have changed as more and more people realize diets are less about all protein and more about making healthy food choices.

Potatoes have zero sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and at only 110 calories per serving are a very healthy option, as long as you have the discipline to stay away from too many toppings like sour cream and cheese.

8 out of 10 people eat potatoes of some kind almost four times every two weeks, and that number has definitely risen since the ebb of the Atkins craze.  More and more quick service and casual dining establishments are adding or revamping their potato offerings – and the result has been solid sales.

While traditional toppings are still the crowd favorite, especially in winter Yummy Baked Potatomonths when comfort foods are the most popular, more and more restaurants are getting creative with their potato offerings with positive results.

Some examples include treating the potato as two halves of a sandwich – and filling the middle with tried and true crowd favorites like club sandwich ingredients.  Others allow you to build your own topping combination from the existing salad bar for some very tasty, personalized results.

Even some upscale places are getting in on the potato revival, with interesting and very delectable concoctions with shitake mushrooms, feta cheese, shallots, and skirt steak.

Going back to an old standby in tough times is comforting for your customer, and could also be comforting for your bottom line as restaurateurs all over look for creative ways to survive.  The traditional appeal of the potato doesn’t require any additional work on your part.

The best part is you don’t need special restaurant equipment to prepare great potato dishes.  Reminding the customer how healthy and tasty potatoes really are, and coming up with some great creative toppings to compliment old favorites is a great way to add value to your menu.

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Time To Move the Beef!

Prime beef cut prices are at 7 year lows!

Prime beef cut prices are at 7 year lows!

Some restaurateurs are taking advantage of a 7 year low in choice and prime beef to offer their customers some great values on more expensive beef cuts like sirloin, T-bones, and ribeyes.

As consumer spending has ground to a halt, expensive cuts of beef have languished while affordable options like hamburger have continued to sell at a brisk pace.  Hamburger prices remain the same, but the oversupply of prime cuts has driven their price down.

Adding to the oversupply is the increased quality of cattle coming to market.  This is because prices on the hoof have stagnated, so ranchers tend to keep cattle longer hoping for a better price, and the older the cow, the more likely it is to qualify as choice or prime.

With top cuts selling at 2002 prices, restaurants have a unique window of opportunity to draw customers in with a great value on prime beef.  Beef prices typically tend to rise in the spring as supply falls, and then again as the residential grilling season heats up.

Still, prices on prime cuts of beef should stay relatively low for about another six months as consumers continue to avoid more expensive meats.

This means restaurants can continue to take advantage of good prices and move some quality beef.

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