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Archive for March, 2009

I was ecstatic when my friend Rebecca (a culinary school classmate) emailed me to ask if I wanted to join her and Clare (another classmate) at an event at Astor Center featuring Eric Ripert, the executive chef and part-owner of Le Bernardin.  Ripert, who is also know for his frequent appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef, is one of my culinary idols.  Le Bernardin — one of only four restaurants in NYC awarded three Michelin stars — remains on the tippity top of my “to eat at” list.

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During the Q&A

Ripert gave a talk about his new book, On the Line, which takes readers into the trenches at Le Bernardin, showing them what it takes to maintain a New York Times four-star-rated eatery.  The format of the talk was an interview of Ripert by Christine Muhlke who co-authored the book.  

Ripert spoke for about an hour, and I was riveted the entire time. He then took questions from the audience.  When asked about his favorite foods and guilty pleasures, he cited dark chocolate (to eat) and black truffles (to cook with), and maintained that he has no “guilty pleasures” because he has no guilt about eating anything.

One attendee asked about leadership, not just in the context of the kitchen.  To answer, Ripert used the metaphor of sled dogs saying that the one who leads the pack is not the fastest (who might go too fast and burn the others out) or the oldest (who is past his prime), but rather the one who is most in tune with the rest of the pack and can pick up on all the signs and signals that the other dogs send.

He likened going out to eat to going to see a movie but better as, “you’re IN the movie.”

One compelling thing Ripert touched upon was when Muhlke brought up the current economic situation.  He talked about how Le Bernardin’s strategy to keep their tables filled has been to increase their marketing budget, and NOT reduce their prices.  He gave as an example the brand Hermes and how during last year’s recession they were the only luxury brand who increased sales, largely due to the reputation of the craftsmanship and quality of their leather products.  He said that when people who used to be able to afford five bags could only afford one, they would buy an Hermes.  He hopes that dinner at Le Bernardin will be the same sort of choice.  As people cut back and can only go out on special occasions, Ripert has faith that they will walk through his doors because he hasn’t compromised with discounted menu items or, “replaced black truffles with black olives.”

He even said that food blogs are great for the industry, so there you have it.

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Ripert signing Rebecca’s book

After the talk, Ripert and Muhlke signed everyone’s books, and even stopped to pose for some photos. What I’ve read of the book so far is quite good.  It goes into great detail about how a restaurant is run, from the roles of each person on staff to the way the walk-in refrigerator is organized.  It also includes several recipes, some of which are accompanied by charming little sketches and notes. Hopefully, some day, I’ll get to try the food firsthand.  

Until then, at least I have a great new Facebook profile photo.

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With Ripert

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Choco toast

Savoy (where I am currently a stage), is a block away from the Manhattan breakfast legend: Balthazar. My favorite menu item there is Le Panier, a basket of fresh baked breads, which includes one of my guilty pleasures: the chocolate bread.

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This bread can also be purchased from Balthazar Bakery, the small storefront adjacent to the restaurant. However, it is only sold at the bakery from Friday to Sunday and I don’t work on any of those days. Yesterday, however, while strolling downtown with Kay (who was in town visiting from Chicago) I found myself a few blocks from Balthazar on a Friday afternoon and had to take advantage of the opportunity.

Just when I thought the bread couldn’t get any better, I had an idea: what if I made it into French toast.  Better yet, what if someone else made it into French toast for me. With the help of my verbal coaching, Dave made his first ever batch of French toast, and it was stellar. I could get used to this not having to cook thing…  

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Chocolate stout cake

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I made this for Dave’s classmate David’s birthday party.  There’s Guinness IN the cake.

(That weird symbol is the logo for Columbia Business School.  It’s also the symbol for the Greek god Hermes.)

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Irene came over for dinner last night and I decided to make something a little special.  One of the newest additions to my cookbook collection is a wonderful book (which I fear may be out of print) called Curry Cuisine containing curry-based dishes from India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, as well as several “outposts” including Japan and numerous African and Caribbean countries.  After careful consideration, I settled on a Singaporean sour fish curry (local name above).

I quickly realized that a trip to Fairway would not suffice for all that I needed so I headed to Chinatown to Bangkok Center Grocery, a Thai supermarket. There I acquired some key ingredients including coconut cream, thai green chilies, lemongrass, and tamarind paste.  I had to improvise with the tamarind as my sour ingredient as the fruit the recipe called for (belimbing wuluh) was nowhere to be found.

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In order to make tamarind water, which is what I added to the curry, I soaked the tamarind paste in boiling water, let it sit, then strained out the pulp.

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Meanwhile, my dessert muffins came out of the oven just as I set my fish (which I had skinned and cubed) to marinate.

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Next, I made the curry paste — no short cuts from a jar this time — which got cooked together with the coconut cream, tamarind juice, and lemongrass.  Then I added the fish and let it simmer to cook and enhance all the flavors, done.

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As a side dish I served red swiss chard.  First I sauteed the stems (diced very small) together with the leaves (chiffonaded).  To the finished product I added toasted pine nuts and a balsamic vinegar reduction.  It was simple, quick, and delicious.  I also made some wild rice to soak up the neon yellow (thanks to the turmeric) curry.

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Dinner ended on a sweet note with my chocolate chocolate chip muffins, which I cut in half and stuffed with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Something tells me Irene will be back the next time she’s in NYC.  But, before that, she’s promised me a home-cooked Korean meal the next time I’m in Seattle (which will be at the end of April). Can’t wait.

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Singaporean Sour Fish Curry
Adapted from Curry Cuisine by Vivek Singh et al.
Serves 4

Ingredients
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp lime juice
black pepper, to taste
2 lbs halibut cut into 2 inch cubes
2 1/2 cups coconut cream
tamarind water (made by soaking 1 oz tamarind paste in 1/2 cup boiling water, then straining)
1 stalk lemongrass, cut in half lengthwise and then crosswise

Paste
6 shallots, chopped
2 small green chilies (or to taste), seeded and chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp peanut oil (coconut oil can be substituted in the case of allergies)

Procedure
1. Mix together the first four ingredients in a non-reactive bowl.   Add the fish chunks.  Mix fish so that it is evenly coated with the marinade and set aside for 10 minutes.

2. Blend together all of the paste ingredients and 2 tbsp water in a food processor until smooth.

3. Put 3 tbsp of the coconut cream into a saucepan big enough to accommodate all of the fish chunks.  Heat over medium high heat for about 5 minutes then add the paste and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.  Add the tamarind water and the lemongrass.  Add half the remaining coconut cream and bring to a boil.  Allow the mixture to simmer rapidly until it has reduced by half, about 8 minutes.

4. Add the remaining coconut cream and bring back to a boil, then add the fish.  Simmer until the fish is cooked through, turning the chunks once in between, about 6 minutes.

5. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning to taste.  Remove the lemongrass.  Cover the pan and allow the fish to sit in the sauce for another few minutes.  Serve immediately with rice and a vegetable side of your choice.

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