Monday, October 31, 2011

Japanese Conversion

I have been cooking professionally for 25 years and have been a dedicated Wusthof Classic Chef.  Classical utilitarian durability was plenty good enough and the lifetime warranty has accounted for several replacements in a long career of use and abuse.  Happily, I can witness that many knives have stayed with me through most of that time.
When the various Santuko style knives became popular, followed by the Global mini-craze and most recently the super-high end Japanese cutlery came into favor, I was not a fan of any of them.  Santoku  shaped knives were good for too few tasks, making them a poor choice for the "every knife".  Global’s offerings were just too "futuristic" and from a practical and ergonomic perspective - too light to be any good.  Not only did their hollow character fail to inspire confidence, their willowy feel required too much input from the user and were therefore, tiring.  The Japanese whiz-bang cutlery seemed reserved for trophy buyers, too pretty for the line, too expensive for 95% of the chefs in the field to afford.

So, after a demonstration at a W-S in Northern VA, I was able to enjoy a substantial discount and took a bite on a Shun Kaji, Western 8".  At nearly $300, regular price, it was far more than I would have spent if I were paying retail, but still substantially UNDER the top of the line Damascus, uber-unobtanium Shun Premier line.   The latter are more like presentation grade knives for those who are truly up their own ass.

For me, being a Southpaw, the full range of Japanese knives has been an uncomfortable and limited exposure at best.  The “D” shape to most handles being obstacle and the single sided bevel to the edge being the second.  The handle shape can be overlooked by some, but the bevel is a deal-breaker.  The Shun Kaji has both a classical and non-specific handle shape and an equal degree of bevel to it’s edge grinding.  Make no mistake, the Shun knives are ground for detail work – at approximately a 16 degree angle, the edges are best used for dissecting vegetables and protein, no hacking up a chicken.  I also keep a $9 China-Town special, one-piece cleaver around for the poultry work.

Having test driven this knife for a few weeks now, I can say without reservation that this is the sharpest, out of the box knife I have ever purchased.  Without a doubt one of the most comfortable to use all day with excellent balance, reasonable weight for repetitive chopping, yet light enough to work all day on brunoise. 

For kicks and to see how this knife would feel to a line-dog, I spent about 2 hours making brunoise mirepoix.  It's been years since I've done that kind of volume knifework and behold, not fatigue.  It may sound extreme, but if you notice the tool, it's not very comfortable for you.  Not that many line cooks are going to drop half a week's pay on a knife, but I do promise, those that do won't be disappointed.
The Shun is an instinctive pointing device.  My grip is very choked up on the blade and with the balance point just behind the bolster, I can easily twitch the point with my pinky finger and by using fine motor movements, one's body doesn't get as tired, as fast.

This is knife is well worth the price of admission.  As I was looking for a new French knife, the Shun Kaji is the best of both worlds.  An added plus is that this knife is built with a two sided bevel and ambidextrous handle - I am left handed, so this matters.   

5 Stars.

Monday, October 24, 2011

100% Tired of 99% Cry-Babies. Get with it - Create Something!


Q: You're one of the 1%? 

A:  Guilty, I guess by some observers, I may be part of the 1%. But what does that mean to you?  To me it signifies that I'm in the one percent of people who's bust-ass, never give in/up/out work ethic CREATED jobs last year. I am proud of the fact that my company gave out raises to 25% of our employees last year, bonused managers – twice - and is on track to grow both gross revenue and net profit. What did it take to do that? People.  People who aren't afraid, feel entitled or are given to sitting back and expecting salvation to jump out of their TV set and into their wallet.

I don't mind paying my fair share of taxes to support valid social programs. But, I especially don't mind national sovereignty and moveable type. I take great exception to layabout neo-socialists that want to re-distribute my get-up and go.

I don't make the magic $250K that has been bantered around the Hill as the definition of "rich", not by a long shot. Well under that. But, in lieu of bailing out of small business ownership and sending another 24 hard-working wage earners into the un-employment rolls, I looked outside my own company and took on another full-time job.  Yep, I’ve got two of those now!  Seems to be the "responsible" thing since my team relies on me to make sound business decisions and I value their contribution to my success thusfar. Now, which is a better and more productive form of altruism/philanthropy - giving a fish or teaching to fish?

I really didn’t want to take a turn toward the biblical reference, but it applies. I believe that my greater contribution is in the creation of things, not the DOnation. Our economic world is monkeyed with on a scale that I can't conceive - don't want to conceive - won't every be part of the congnoscenti who are allowed to conceive of it. So, I do what I think is right, dodge bullets and try to help good people tap in to their power to create, please and develop others to do the same. That's service I guess - to Man, Country, God, Baal, Buddha, whatever.

I don't see a movement at all. I see social media capable of creating an overnight bumpersticker culture and some social disorder. As you've seen me post lately - "the revolution will not be televised" - well, I don't think it will be on Facebook either. It's underway and it will not be announced.

The "99%" have no idea who the mythical "1%" are.  Everybody would like to be part of a group, but which group? Social responsibility is not a function of paying taxes or a numerical formula. Morals and ethics are the missing links.  My 1% hungry tired ass just ordered 99% pure Thai food from the family of immigrant entrepreneurs up the road. YES, even though I am a chef, we order take out! Should I have given the (likely meth addicted) vagrant kids in Crystal City my $45 dollars or the Thais? Who would create a job and who would create a bigger buzz?

I’ve quickly grown 100% tired of this red herring - catch-phrase, social media fueled, flavor of the month.  It will only take 1% more postings about “occupy ___” for me use 99% of my foot to occupy 100% of some lazy hippie’s backside.


Foie Gras for the Rest of Us.

A few years ago, I struggled with keeping foie gras in rotation on our menu.  No doubt about it, if you're a "serious" restaurant and you know what that means - you have to have foie gras on the menu.  By late 2000 I had studied Thomas Keller's French Laundry and practiced with my brigade the making of classic torchon de foie gras.  Oooh we were fancy with our Sauternes gelee, caramelized pineapple, rum raisin chutney, dried raspberries, hazelnut toffee, etc!  By the time our food cost began to catch up with our creative zeal we were stuck with several weeks and many hundreds of dollars worth of duck liver curing in the walk-in. The tied and bound liver filled cotton towels were a genuine nod to our hero, Thomas and the Old World.  It was hubris to behave this way - disrespectful to the duck to over-produce torchons like we did, but they were beautiful.  Unfortunately for all the beauty in the walk-in box, neither Chef Keller nor the ghost of August Escoffier were around to help us empty the larder. To the corporate chef and accountant, our art was a huge chunk of inventory dollars to behold and it had to go.  

In the restaurant, we served a 3 oz portion of foie gras for 17 dollars.  3 ounces is a lot of fat - given that foie gras is almost purely that, and $17 isn't a lot of money to give for that kind of portion in anyone's restaurant.  Even well adorned and at the nice-price of $17, I struggled to move more than a couple a night.  However determined I was to make it work for the menu, there was no mistaking that it went to the plate at a 43% food cost before accompaniments and shrink due to staff snacking and net loss due to yield. The ego cost vs. cache vs. movement vs. real food cost pointed sharply to dropping the most noble of innards.  

I knew that we couldn't afford to menu all the torchon that was curing in the box, but we also couldn't afford to sit on it as long as it would take to move it at an even higher menu price.  As I sat nibbling on some Mimoulette Francais one evening, I remarked at how by slicing thinly with a cheese plane, I could enjoy all the aromatics of the cheese without really consuming a lot of the product.  By making more surface area available in proportion to the mass I could maximize my flavor sensation by making more aromatic cheese surface available to my olfactory sense and minimize my cheese intake.  Reasoning that since your olfactory is nearly 75% of your sense of taste, "tasting with your nose" made perfect "sense".  

There was the "Aha!" moment.  Enter micro plane... enter stick blendor... enter foie gras as an ingredient for everyone.  And, enter foie gras as a profitable luxury.  Further still, foie gras on several dishes at once, not just flying solo.  I set to portioning the torchon into pucks that could be kept on the line in the ice cream freezer.  The torchon that had not cured fully, I reformed into "crayons" - thumb sized sticks that could be frozen and kept frozen - removed only long enough to manipulate for a dish then returned to the freezer.

Before service, several pucks were removed from the freezer and added to the saucier's mise en place.  He would use a stick blender to buzz a puck into sauce for duck breast.  A red currant duck demi glace went well over the edge when a foie puck was added - beautiful, frothy and mahogany red against pink Long Island duckling.  This sauce later  evolved into the sauce for the duck confit agnolotti and later rabbit. 

Again on the Garde Manger station, we would grate copious nests of aromatic and unctious duck liver into soups and even onto pasta.  David Chang of Momofuku cites that he and his crew use a similar technique to elevate their pork bun.  Diners attest that they have pushed the ethereal 

Todd Gray of Equinox once served me a very seasonally sensitive and inspiring cauliflour cream with fresh oysters.  I've tweaked that presentation and now frequently serve a a roux-less cauliflour soup made with minimal cream; the oyster is soaked in dry, white Sherry and foie gras is grated over the finish soup as it hits the pass.  The marks on this one have been very high.  Elevate sweet potato, butternut squash or the Sherried duck soup we've menued each fall.  It's a great hook to get foie on your menu.

And, in the spirit of the Italian trattoria, gloved waiters have presented fresh tagliatelle with walnuts, olio nuevo, Pecorino Romano, parsley and shaved-at-the-table foie gras from one of the "crayons".  There's no limit to what the guest may ask for as the foie fluffs  so when shredded, be generous.

As chefs, we want to get the most from every ingredient and we want to give as much as we can to each guests' experience.  We face a very tough dining economy and any advantage that we can achieve to set ourselves apart, to be more generous that the last guy, to give our guests just a bit more of a departure when they arrive in our dining rooms can make the difference between for-profit and non-profit status.  Add to that our beloved foie gras is on the ropes these days.  Don't forget that every time you serve foie, it's an opportunity to add to the legion of fans among the dining-voting populace.