My time at Menton

It’s amazing what real hard work can do for a persons’ soul. I’ve always looked up to people who have the truly tough jobs in life; fire fighters, bomb squad service men and women, the folks from those Alaskan king crab shows, and well now I can add commis to that list. What is a commis you ask? Under the french brigade system designed by Auguste Escoffier, a commis is a new chef, typically the term given once entering a restaurant after formal training, and yes smack dab at the bottom of the proverbial food chain.

Being asked to work for the best restaurant in town is a no-brainer, you say yes. Then you give yourself a few weeks to prepare, say goodbye to friends, the beach, your tan, and any money you might have because you won’t be seeing these things or the daylight for awhile. Small prices to pay for top notch training I’d say.

I entered Menton naive. If I thought my stage was an indicator of the work ahead I was kidding myself, in retrospect the stage was the easiest 14- hour- sweaty- busy- hectic- nerve- racking- day I ever had at there.

Since leaving Menton for a completely different opportunity at America’s Test Kitchen, my friends and family have been asking “what was it like?” “how’s Barbara Lynch?” And “do you want to be a Chef?” Let’s tackle these questions in a bit more detail…

Menton is a nationally known fine dining restaurant, world ranking even with its addition to the Relais & Chateaux standing of the worlds best restaurants. In Boston, we only have a few restaurants offering unique, seasonal, and well executed french technique at its best and Menton is certainly at the top of the list. It holds such a reputation because they give their diners the full experience. Not only is the food memorable, exciting, and visually different, the dining experience is top notch. I once had a friend (before I started working there) tell me that it was as if the waiter knew he had to use the restroom before he knew he had to use it. This might have been an exaggeration on his part, however, this was still the kind of impression Menton gave him. Most recently, Cat Silirie the wine director for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo just won a James Beard Award for her idea and direction of their wine program. Not only is the wine and food excellent, the staff, atmosphere and attitudes of the front of the house play just as important of a balance. Without them, the food would not matter as much, the wine wouldn’t taste as good, and the atmosphere wouldn’t play such a unique presence. This is why I came to work here.

Showing up for my first day of work was intimidating; I was nervous, excited and questioning my ability to be there, since, I had never actually worked in a restaurant before. I showed up in my own chef pants for crying out loud! Rookie move. I had to remind myself that Chef Colin and Chef Wyatt saw something in me during my stage and that they knew I could do it. Setting up my station in the midst of 10 industry toughed up, hard working dudes sent nervous twists to the pit of my stomach, but I knew if I showed it, I’d get eaten alive. In this business, if you are told to do something you do it, so that’s what I did. Head down, eager to learn, just.do.work. As a commis, a big part of my daily tasks was to get the list of herbs needed for each station that day, Chef de Partie (CDP) and Garde Manage, meat entremet, fish entremet, meat CDP, Fish CDP, and anything canapes needed. 7 stations ranging with a list from 5-20 herbs each x the amount of garnish per plate x the amount of covers = thousands of individual herbs a day. It’s amazing how fast these fingers can move now! The first few days I spent a lot of time finding out what each herb was. I had no idea what persulane, oxalis, or stelaria looked like! (Uh hello Culinary school.. herb identification beyond the difference between parsley and cilantro would have been nice to know). After 5 hours of scurrying and rapidly plucking plooshes, leaves, flowers, and micro greens, roughly 40-60 plastic black to-go containers would adorn a perfectly cut (not torn!) green label with the stations name on it. Out of the herb “weeds” yet again. Now for the hard part…

At 4pm each day we had family meal, which I most often dreaded, it meant I had to stop working no matter if I was finished with the herbs, that I had to sit and eat, and wait for our pre service meeting to adjourn. Between the end of this meeting and the start of service was do or die time for me. I had to finish my projects, and also sometimes those of the other cooks, peeling walnuts, turning artichokes, blanching asparagus, getting pots, pans, towels, oils, salts, stocks, more garnishes, you name it! It had to be done ON THE FLY!

Sweating, always, and running on pure, head-spinning, adrenaline is sort of a great feeling.

From about 6pm to close (typically midnight) I had to help the dishwashers run the clean and dirty pots and pans up and down the stairs. All Clad pots to be exact, very heavy, most often 400-500 degrees hot and spitting with oil. I cannot say this was fun, however night after night I had to make a game out of it, how much could I lift? How fast could I run down and back up again? How could I best NOT burn myself? After awhile I treated it as my workout, this part of the job wasn’t going away anytime soon, so I had to make the best out of it, and make the best out of my arms and glutes while I was at it! Look out Madonna.

After about 5 weeks, I was moved up to Canapes. Done with picking herbs and on to something new! This was an exciting day for me, however the work and hustle only got harder. My prep list included: make madeline mix and bake madelines, make onion macaroons, cut fish of the day tartare, fry potato chips, prep and make mushroom leek tarts, steam off clams for butter soup, make gazpacho, gather all my garnishes; fried capers, chive tips, chervil, goat cheese, creme fraiche, caviar, onion/carrot/herb powders and be set up for service at 5pm not a minute late. Afterall, my food was the first bite the diner would taste and I cannot make them wait. After slingin’ canapes for 5 hours I’d clean up my station and resume pot and pan running, although by now I’m a pro and carrying much more weight than I could during week one.

When service finally came to a close, we’d clean the molteni, polish, shine and scrub until everything sparkled again. Everyone’s remaining mise en place came downstairs again, the low boys were cleared out, the pass was turned off, and the mops hung to dry. And now for my favorite part of the day, beers. We’d spread out the dirty pass linen and throw hunks of cheese, leftover bread rolls and iced down cambros full of miller high life. Finally I stopped sweating, cold beer, even miller high life tasted like the best thing of earth. Left over cheese from the cheese cart felt like my first meal all day, and the bread rolls, oh the bread rolls. The day was over, we’d discuss prep and service, highs and lows, call outs and things to change, the cooks with visible exhaustion on their faces and their aprons, relished in their soon fate, sleep.

Looking back, this experience has taught me a lot. I couldnt write about it at first, I had to let the moments sink in, settle, and rest from it. It was physically tough, demanding, mentally draining at times, but it also was extremely rewarding, fun, exciting, and hilarious. It only took a few weeks to feel part of the family, and the camaraderie in that kitchen was the most fun I’ve had since playing sports in high school. Good people with common interests. But also because I was working with some amazing talent. Each person with their own story of where they came from, how they started cooking, where they’ve worked, traveled, eaten, and where they’ll go next. On the few days when I thought I wouldn’t make it, I was in the weeds, burnt badly, or just plain exhausted these guys would keep me going, they’d always say “get your shit done, but if you need help, no one will let you fail” and they never did.

I learned so much while working there, from even better work efficiency to meat and fish butchery to doing the best you can or not all. Simple things, like chive squiggles, shelling lagoustine, peeling walnuts- (yes they individually peel walnuts!), making pea veloute chlorophyll, and all things foie gras.

As my time at Menton was coming to an end, I was actually sad to leave. A part of me was relieved it was over, but another part of me knew that if only I had started in this business 10 years ago, it’d be amazing to see where I’d be today. But that’s life, things change. Personally, I feel accomplished with my time at Menton, I was pushed hard, worked harder than I ever have in my life, and also met some of the most amazing people. I wouldn’t change one day of it. I discovered that I’m f-ing great at time management and I can hustle. I can learn and be taught quickly on the fly, that my food memory is stronger than my actual day to day memory, and that I’m so happy I decided to change careers. Food, in whatever capacity that holds going forward, is where I belong. No, I don’t think I want to be a chef in a restaurant setting, perhaps in a private home, yacht (ha! one can dream..), or for my own friends and family but the restaurant world is tough and for the right kind of person. I’d rather keep being a rolling stone in this culinary journey.

meat room shenanigans

A big thank you to Chef Colin, Chef Wyatt, Johnny, Lou, Jeff, Clarice, Matty, Aaron, Oz, Brian, Chef Ian, Chef Chris, Chef Bethany, Kelly, Katherine, Creepy, Ben, and C, it was a lot of fun to work with all of you and thank you for allowing me in your kitchen.

Oh and thanks to Chef Barbara Lynch for employing such great people. Even though we were never formally introduced, your presence was noted and it was fun to see you around the kitchen.

Paris Gastronomique

Ah Paris. What an amazing city.  It was my first time visiting this gorgeous place and it couldn’t have come at a better time, my schooling at Le Cordon Bleu is just a week away from ending and my internship at a modern French Boston restaurant (Menton) is just about to begin.  The stars aligned for this one.

Throughout my life, I have formed opinions of how the French people are, most of my influence came from movies, books, and stereotypes. Even cartoons such as Pepe Le Pew when I was a child conjured ideas in my head about the snotty and rude French.  However, I must say, after spending seven days in this country I did not encounter one rude, maladjusted, or condescending person. I asked for directions, ordered meals, and participated in everyday language both in English and my horrible French without any problems at all.  Perhaps it was my boyfriend’s ability to speak French so eloquently that enabled us to fit in seamlessly, but, then again he’s English and that’s a whole other story. (Why the French hate the British).

We arrived in France on a rainy and cold afternoon, after finding our way out of the Luxembourg station in the 6th arrondissement, near St. Germaine De Pres we were steps from our rented Parisian apartment (Thanks Airbnb!). Although I was too excited by all the smells, sights, cafes, and well-to-do-frenchies, we decided it would be best to nap off our jet lag a bit.  I awoke to wine, brie, and a warm and crusty baguette…right! I’m in France! Yes I have the best boyfriend ever. I shook off my foggy head and got down to business with wine and travel guides.

After stuffing myself full of cheese, bread and wine, we went to hit the town around midnight. Although the French often eat later in the evening and restaurants’ usually stay open until 2am, this was not so much on a rainy Monday night.  We found ourselves just a block away at a covered outdoor café that faced the Luxembourg gates.  It wasn’t anything special, but my surroundings and company were, so we had a fantastic time.  The elderly owner was still fluttering about serving us and the few remaining Parisians that still imbibed sipping wine and smoking.  We enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Bordeaux until our teeth looked like wood and Dan splurged on a plate of frites while I took in all the sights and smells of the world around us. Our waiter/owner did not rush us albeit approaching two in the morning, he let us sit and sip and relax until we were the last people in the restaurant.

After three bottles of wine and ten hours of sleep we awoke without one trace of a hangover.  How can this be we thought! A spot of coffee and a few croissants later.. ok and a pain au chocolate.. ok AND a bit of baguette with jam we made moves.  Pastry overloaded and quite happy we decided to plop our carbed out bodies on a tour of the city by way of the Big Bus Tour.  Two and a half hours later we had seen all the major sights and scoped out our adventure areas for the week.

On Wednesday we woke up to torrential rain, it was not what we had planned for, however we were in PARIS and it didn’t matter.  After a few train rides on the metro, we ended up in the largest and oldest covered market in Paris. Tiny books stores, craft shops, wine boutiques, tiny restaurants, artisans, and the occasional empty space filled over 4 city blocks of undercover market places. It felt like true old world Paris.  I could feel the tinkers, butchers, and cheese mongers who formerly occupied this space. It was very special.

While most of the lunch spots were bustling with customers, we were starving and a bit defeated when we stumbled upon a rather fancy but empty looking spot; Passage 53, located at the 53rd address of covered arcade.  We entered a modern minimalist dining room adorned with simple art, and colorful place settings. The maitre’d greeted us in a smart-looking, sleek black suit, with a black skinny tie. He was very French looking minus the thin upper lip mustache, and with a bright smile he welcomed us. He sat us and quickly explained that there was no menu, only pre fixe gastronomique tasting menu; the lunch version, or if we wanted to go bigger, the dinner tasting menu.  But before we were to choose he needed to check with the chef to see if he could accommodate two more for lunch. He further explained that they run solely on reservations.  I started to get nervous. I felt under dressed; I was wearing a simple sun dress soaked in rain, and Dan in his t- shirt and shorts. I was convinced he was checking with the chef to figure out a way to tell us to leave. We were under dressed but that didn’t seem to phase the wait staff, the Maitre’d came back with excellent news that they had room for two more. To our delight, we began to discuss the menu options. Without question Dan and I went for the whole shebang, plus the extra course with caviar. We’re on vacation, bring it! My nerves were instantly calm, we had been accepted.  As guests started to arrive, we noticed their anticipation and energy flooding the room and we quickly began to realize that we were somewhere unique.

If I could eat tasting menus everyday of my life I would. They are such a thrill, a rollercoaster for your palate, and always an adventure of new flavors and products. What I am about to walk you through is an endless homage to traditional French cuisine but in the most simple flavors and modern techniques of our culinary culture to date.  It is and exquisite experience to eat such developed flavors and to understand their depths and difficulty.  Fourteen courses of pure amazingness; some simple, some complex, but all fabulously harmonious.

Amuse bouche #1-Grilled salsify, first poached in butter.

Amuse bouche #2- Veloute of fresh pea with a quenelle of pea ice cream

Course Un- Caviar alongside potato strings with chive and chive blossom

Course Deux- Crab, English cucumber, pea gratinee, horseradish cream, poured cucumber jus with verbena

Course Trois- Gentle poached langoustine with cauliflower cream with crisp cauliflower shavings

Course Quatre-White asparagus, Parmesan cream, crumbled egg yolk and parmesan crisp

Palate awakener- Veal Consomme with a 3 minute egg, sorrel mushroom, chives and asparagus

Course Cinq- Turbo with peas, lima bean, and butter poached wheat berries with wood sorrel

Course Six- Veal breast with fingerling potatoes, celery foam, fennel foam, cabbage, mustard micro green and mustard seed puree

Course Sept- Squab, pumpkin cardamom puree, a micro brunoise quenelle of carrots vichy

Course Huit- Crème Brulee with an isomalt crackle

Course Neuf- Lemon curd ice cream with a lime candy and a cold lime crème sauce

Course Dix- Burnt caramel ice cream with a shaved white chocolate crumble

Course Onze- Season cherries, cherry sorbet, grated white chocolate and cherry grantinee on top of a white cherry ice cream

Course Douze- Chocolate ganache tart with citrus honey

All in all; 14 courses with champagne to start and coffee to end.  Our bellies were full, our minds were swirling with excitement and my taste buds were dancing around in my mouth. It was one of the best meals of my life; simple, well executed, unexpected, and entirely memorable.

Paris Part Deux coming up soon!

Molecular Cooking; Beef Noodles.

Truly wacky, and mind bending, but totally fun and tasty.

I recently experimented with “beef noodles”.

It went a little something like this; “Chef, I’ve been working with beef now for 3 weeks in all sorts of ways, I want to change it up. Thinking about doing noodles out of meat, doable?”  Chef’s reply, “totally“… and so it began.

I started with a 6oz piece of beef shoulder that I had marinating in the walk in for over a week. It was scrap to me, so I thought best to try it out with this.  It was  simply marinated, salt, cracked pepper, a few lime wedges.

I rough chopped it and tossed into the food processor, pureed the heck out of it.

Next, I pushed it through a tamis into a bowl, cleared all the fat strings and discarded the waste.

With the remaining pulverized meat I sprinkled in Transglutiminase or “meat glue” to it.  Mushed it around with my hands (in gloves!) and repeated the process with another sprinkling.

Meat Glue used to create a checker board effect. Photo c/o http://ishadatar.wordpress.com

Lets take a time out to talk about what Meat Glue is: The scientific term, transglutiminase are a family of enzymes that catalyze the formation of a covalent bond between a free amine group (e.g., protein- or peptide-bound lysine) and the gamma-carboxamide group of protein- or peptide-boundglutamine.  Thanks Wikipedia.  In simpler terms it means that this magic powder can combine scraps of meat to make very nice looking cuts or specialty shapes.

I grabbed two 8×10 cryovac bags and evenly distributed the meat mixture to each, about 2.5 ounces in each bag.

I vacuum packed both bags in the cryovac to omit all the air.

Then, I patted the lumps down with my palm until I could run it through the flat rung of the pasta machine. I did this to get a flat, thin surface of the meat inside the bag.

After both bags were thin and even, I tossed them into the immersion circulator to sous vide over night at 131*F.

When I returned the next day, the meat had cooked through and had shrunk just a bit around the edges of the bag.

I removed the thin sheets very carefully and placed them on my cutting board. Using a pairing knife I cut the meat paper into 1cm strips, then reserved into a small metal bowl.

For service I gentle pan-fried a small handful of noodles and tossed them in a Thai chili sauce I had previously made.

Voila, beef noodles.

Technique: Sous Vide… What is it?

Sous Vide is magic.

It’s like a jacuzzi for meat.

What is sous vide [soo veed], really, you ask? Technically, according to www.epicurious.com it is “French for “under vacuum.”  Sous vide is a food-packaging technique pioneered in Europe whereby fresh ingredients are combined into various dishes, vacuum-packed in individual-portion pouches, cooked under a vacuum, then chilled. Sous vide  food is used most often by hotels, restaurants and caterers, though it’s expected to become increasingly available in supermarkets”

That is a boring definition. 

I would say that sous vide is the most exquisite way to cook a piece of meat. Picture this: You have 60 minutes left to live before the end of the world. Forget sex, calling your loved ones, or crossing off a bucket list item, you want to have your favorite last meal; perfectly cooked medium-rare, marinated steak on the grill. So succulent, juicy and flavorful, that you can die happy (am I projecting here?). Good thing, you miraculously have all the ingredients and equipment needed; a bad ass piece of beef, a really good marinade, a state of the art sous vide thermal immersion circulator, a vacuum sealer, and hot char-coaled grill.  We’re in business.

The sous vide method works like this: Steak, in a vacuum ready plastic bag. Marinade, poured in. Pouch, vacuumed. Sous vide in an immersion circulator, 125*F for 30 minutes.  Open bag, place on a high-heat hot grill, sear to perfection, 3 minutes. 7-10 minutes of rest.

Slice.

Eat.

Enlightenment.

59:59.

Death.

Ok, so it’s not really the end of the world, but forget 24 hours of marinating, or “overnight in the fridge for best results” With the help of one of these you can have a little end of the world, steak party for yourself.

Joking aside, using a sous vide method under vacuum pack eliminates most of the air, allowing whatever marinade or spices placed inside the bag to be absorbed by the meat and to lock in flavors normally lost when cooking.  Cooking in a water bath, or thermal immersion circulator, of constant temperature penetrates the protein from all angles and evenly cooks throughout. Overcooking is pretty much impossible considering the constant set temperature.

One disadvantage that can be easily fixed is the lack of a caramelized (maillard reaction) crust. Because the protein is being cooked so evenly and not over an extreme heat, there is no maillard reaction of the protein surface caramelizing.  One way to fix this is to sear  on a hot grill after sous vide cooking. This will give a juicy evenly cooked steak the crusty texture and char it deserves.

Lets not forget about vegetables! Using the sous vide method on vegetables also has its advantages.  This method will thoroughly cook  the veg while maintaining a firm to somewhat crisp texture, the cell walls do not get destroyed by high heat, and the gelantinization of starch in the vegetable can be achieved without over cooking!

There are a few food safety risks with using the sous vide method, in particular botulism. Duh duhn duhnnn. Don’t freak out! It’s not prevalent but like any other food safety and proper handling are important. To prevent this bacteria from happening always remember to pack food under vacuum pack below 38*F.  The means, don’t put a 45*F steak in the bag if its been on the counter for 8 hours thawing.  Time and Temperature safety- just like all other foods we handle. If you are cooking meat for a long duration, it must reach 135*F within 4 hours and be kept there in order to pasteurize the meat. For example, 48 hour short ribs.  Sound good huh.. tender delicious and botulism free if correctly heated!

Buying a sous vide machine will cost you a pretty penny ($400-$1000 +), but if you are an avid home cook and like exploring new cooking techniques this will not disappoint.  Also to learn more about this cooking technique, pick up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure- you’ll be a pro in no time!

For accurate cooking times and temps here is a handy chart from TK; http://www.sousvidecooking.org/tag/thomas-keller/

Tomato Water Spheres with Basil Oil

The big ‘voila!’ moment when working with molecular technique, comes in 2 parts…

1. Wow, I pulled it off ! (Meaning, the science worked)

&

2.  It tastes good! 

Without both of these end results, molecular gastronomy techniques are useless.

Last night I decided to tackle spherification, again. The first time around I made balsamic caviar, not realizing that with the use of agar, (a tougher jelling agent) actually continued to solidify the longer it sat.  Agar did not give me the consistency of a fluid center like I had hoped, it rendered small jellied beads of balsamic vinegar.  After experimenting with agar, I now know that it could be better used to make noodles, fruit beads, or other solidified gels,  but necessarily the best product for liquid spherification.

To achieve fluid centers, there are 2 ways to do this, one that will hold as a liquid for a few hours before the calcium turns it into a complete gel and the other way, using reverse spherification, which will allow the spheres to hold fluid in the center for a longer period of time (up to a week). I will explain both.

Helpful tools to gather before starting: 

  • Blender or Vita Mix
  • Chinois
  • Cheese cloth
  • Small slotted spoon
  • Syringe
  • Calcium alginate
  • Calcium lactate
  • Gram scale

The Modernist Cuisine Recipe and Method:

Tomato Water: 250 grams

  • 1kg of Tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • Salt to taste
  1. Blend in a vita mix until tomatoes are pulverized.
  2. Strain through cheesecloth in a chinois, repeat if necessary, pulp-free tomato water should result.  Reserve to the side or refrigerate until use.

Tomato Spheres with Basil Oil:

  • 250 g Tomato water
  • 2 g Sodium Alginate
  • 200 g Grapeseed oil
  • 100 g Basil
  • 500 g Water
  • 2.5 g Calcium lactate
  1. In a vitamix blend pour in 250g of tomato water and start power, slowly tap in 2 g of sodium alginate, mix well for about 4 minutes on med-high speed. Press through a chinois or fine sieve, and refrigerate.  After this process, bubbles will be present in the mixture, to remove these let this sit overnight in the fridge or if you have a commercial vacuum sealer, vacuum pack it to quickly remove air for immediate use.
  2. To make the Basil oil, blanch and shock the basil. Combine with 200g of grapeseed oil in a vitamix, blend until homogenized. Press through a sieve, decant basil oil, and reserve in a syringe.
  3. To make the calcium lactate water bath, combine 500g of water and 2.5g of calcium lactate.  Pour water into the vitamix, turn on, then sprinkle calcium lactate into the water a few pinches at a time, blend until completely homogenized.  **Sprinkling in the powders into the liquids will prevent clumping and gelling.
  4. Set up 4 water baths: fill one with calcium lactate solution and fill the three others with cold water.
  • Fill tablespoon with reserved tomato water solution.
  • Tip spoon into calcium lactate bath to gently release contents.
  • Set in bath until membrane has fully formed around tomato sphere, about 30 seconds.
  • Inject approx .1 oz of basil oil into the submerged sphere.
  • Remove sphere from bath with perforated spoon.
  • Repeat procedures with remaining tomato water solution and basil oil.
  • Rinse spheres in each of the three cold water baths.
  • Refrigerate.

Reverse Spherification:

Using reverse spherification will allow you to hold on to the spheres in the refrigerator for a longer period of time, usually up to a week, but no later.
Follow the above instructions but switch Sodium alginate for calcium lactate in instruction line #1,  reserve in the fridge overnight.  For the water bath mixture, sodium alginate will be used instead of calcium lactate. The two molecular altering products are switched.  This allows the same molecular interaction to be achieved, but their hold times are both different.  In the first method, the spheres, if left overnight would solidify completely.  Using the reverse method allows for the spheres to remain liquid up to a few days.

The science behind it:

Spherification relies on a simple gelling reaction between calcium and alginate, a gumlike substance extracted from brown seaweed. The calcium chloride ions cause the long-chain alginate polymers to become cross-linked, forming a gel. Because the sodium alginate/tomato water mixture enters the calcium lactate in the shape of a droplet, the gel forms a bead. The size of the bead can vary dramatically, making it possible to create jelly-shelled equivalents of everything from caviar to gnocchi and ravioli.

For a visual experience and better understanding of spherification, follow along with Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Mark Bittman in the following video:

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