Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Team Building in the Kitchen

A great deal of interest over the past few years has been given to team building. In this troubled economy it is more important than ever. The work force at companies has been greatly decreased making efficiency of the utmost importance. Companies are pinching every penny and trying to get the most out of every cent. Some offices send their employees on obstacle courses, climbing ropes, and pelting each other with paintballs. Perhaps dinner and a bottle of wine, might be more conducive to building positive employee relationships.

Cooking is one of the finest methods for team building. In the 1800's Auguste Escoffier, the Father of Modern Cuisine, instituted the brigade system. It served to eliminate the chaos that could result when workers did not have clear cut responsibilities. This system, in one form or another, is still used today. Each member of the team has a job to do and each builds on the preceding until the final products are deemed acceptable by the chef. If one member of the team fails in his responsibility, the entire project can go down in flames – literally.

We have seen coworkers who barely spoke on arrival learn everything about each other from childhood memories to favorite colors and of course favorite foods. Employees are teamed up and given various recipes and a limited amount of time to complete the menu. Another method is the "mystery box". Teams are given ingredients with NO recipes and told to make a dish or two. That is QUITE entertaining! You really find out who can and can't cook. We've seen some quite imaginative and tasty dishes - and some that weren't...

One of our most popular menus is Blue Cheese Chopped Salad, Balsamic Chicken with Tomatoes and Wild Mushrooms, Meatballs in a Burgundy Brown Sauce, Baked Asparagus Parmesan, Potatoes Romanoff, and Tiramisu - challenging enough, but not so difficult that it intimidates.

Everyone has a good time and good food, the group becomes a more cohesive unit, and for once we're the ones watching people cook!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food & Wine Pairing

A client approached us recently about a very unique opportunity. He and his wife had traveled to Sonoma Valley and made friends with the owner of Amphora a boutique winery. They wanted to have a wine dinner in their home to be attended by many of their friends from college. The winery sells futures on the wines they produce so when the wines are ready they ship directly to the purchaser. To prepare for the dinner the owner sent us a case of the wines to sample. I KNOW, right? To food people such as ourselves, this was like Christmas in March!

The case included a Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Merlot, and 3 Zinfandels (NOT White Zinfandel mind you). To get ready we spent 2 weekends sampling these wonderful bottles with everything from cheeses, to cured and grilled meats, to olives, and sweets. Those were 2 VERY enjoyable weekends!

With our yellow pads in hand, we set about the "unenviable task" of trying all of these wines with the different foods. You can obviously see why we split them up into two separate weekends. We recorded all of the different flavor profiles and how they interacted with the different foods we had chosen. Some meshed perfectly while others had a metallic twang that was less than pleasant. You can taste a wine by itself, but when paired with different foods a totally different flavor profile emerges.

We chose those that had a synergistic effect. Here is the menu we developed with wine pairings:

Amphora Cabernet Sauvignon - Tuna Tartar with Smoked Oyster Quenelle and Truffle Oil
Amphora Syrah - Beef Carpaccio with Devilish Quail Egg and Blue Cheese Stuffed Olives
Amphora Merlot - Goose Liver Pate' and Blue Castello Terrine with Leek and a Cranberry Cream

Amphora Zinfandel, Mounts Vineyard - Grilled Fan of New York Strip with Blue Castello Cream and Blackberry Barbecued Quail served with Haricot Verts and Risolee' Potatoes
Amphora Petite Syrah - Dry Aged Barrel Cut Filet of Beef with a Smoky Kalamata Demi-Glace served with Asparagus en Croute and Roasted Garlic Leek Risotto
Amphora Syrah - Grilled Veal Chop with Hudson Valley Camembert Cream served with Sun-Dried Tomato Caponata Relish and Gnocchi with Truffle Essence

Amphora Zinfandel, La Loma Block - Poached Pears with Raspberry Mousse and Double Chocolate Ganache
Amphora Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley - Dark Chocolate Mousse with Macerated Berries and Sugar Dusted Sweet Potato Dipping Chips
Amphora Merlot - Trio of Housemade Truffles with Kirsch Creme Anglaise (Triple Chocolate with Blackberry Dust, Dark Chocolate Thai Chili, and White Chocolate with Raspberry Dust)

It was such "hard work" tasting all of the wine and food, but it's what we do! We took one for the team... The hard work paid off. Rick, the owner, loved the menu. The food was a hit and Rick came away with a black book full of futures sold.

If you have a weekend (or two) to devote to indulgence I highly recommend you give your wine tasting and menu planning skills a shot... or call us and we'll take care of everything for you!

Salut and Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Rise of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an inherited, autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged from eating gluten and other proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats. Gastrointestinal symptoms include : abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, bloating, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, and a host of other symptoms. Other symptoms include: Anemia, bone and joint pain, bruising easily, depression, fatigue, hair loss,and the list goes on. This truly is a debilitating condition that seems to truly be on the rise. The condition is four times more common than it was 50 years ago, and only 5% of the people affected know they have it. It's estimated that 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease.

Where is the increase in this and other food allergies coming from? The Mayo Clinic did a study of blood samples from soldiers in the 1950's compared to those of soldiers taken today. They expected to find a comparable rate, but were surprised to find that it was extremely rare. The assumption is that something changed in the grain supply starting in the 1950's. I'm certainly not a scientist, but I do have an extensive background in chemistry and biology in addition to my culinary education. In the 1950's two scientists, Crick and Watson, discovered the structure of DNA molecules. I won't get into it to deeply, but suffice it to say these discoveries made genetic engineering possible.

When I was a kid, no one I knew had a food allergy but me. I was and still am allergic to milk. It's not life threatening and I can enjoy the occasional scoop of ice cream, but consume too much and it's not good. Does strange things to my metabolism among other things. Milk allergy is very common, relatively speaking, and is not a new phenomenon and is usually outgrown. So why today is there an epi pen behind every classroom door? Why is celiac disease seeing such an increase? I am by no means an alarmist. Genetic engineering has done wonders to increase the food supply especially to feed the starving in third world nations. It is one of those things, however, that makes you go Hmmm... Another possible factor sited could be environmental changes. This is all above my pay grade so I won't speculate further. On to the culinary options for celiac patients.

One excellent company for gluten free products is Bob's Red Mill http://www.bobsredmill.com/ I've worked with their products and heard good things about them from other chefs as well as celiacs.

We have been working with an addiction recovery firm for three years now. Part of thee program is a detox diet that eliminates anything from the diet that could cause an allergic reaction. In addition to providing gluten free meals, the diet eliminates beef, soy, corn, dairy, citrus, eggs, and sugar. As you would expect, this can be quite challenging for a chef! Two of the biggest thickening agents in a chef's arsenal are eliminated: flour and cornstarch. In the process of developing a menu, we stumbled upon quite a unique alternative in potato flakes. Yes, instant mashed potatoes! We're an upscale chef service using Classical French culinary techniques so this was a bit hard to swallow so to speak, but unique solutions were called for. One of the more popular dishes we prepare for them is a Country French Chicken dish. In the original dish, the chicken breast is dusted with flour and sauteed. The flour provides the thickening agent for the sauce. The dish thickens as it cooks and the stock reduces. In the dish for the special diet we actually thicken it by adding the potatoes at the end. To insure you don't wind up with chicken and mashed potatoes, add the potato flakes a bit at a time until the desired thickness is achieved. It's not Classical French, but definitely gets the job done! Another dish that we do that would normally require a gluten product for a binder is turkey meatballs. Normally breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs, or a similar binding agent would be necessary. Once again the potato flakes come to the rescue. The potato flakes not only help to bind the meatballs together, but also lend some extra flavor and nutrition.

We have a good friend, Alison Chapman, that is a chef and she also has celiac disease. We have learned a lot about substitutions from her. She contributed the following recipe for fajitas.

Chicken or Beef Fajitas


1 Tbsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cumin, ground
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/4 cup water
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 pound chicken breast, boneless, skinless, 2 whole chicken breasts OR ...
1 pound skirt steak, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
1 large onion, sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp sour cream
2 avocados
1 seasoning mix, no salt, for guacamole
1 Roma tomato
2 cups Cheddar cheese
6 flour tortillas, Teff Wraps (may be purchased here: http://www.glutenfree.com/index.cfm/manufacturer/La-Tortilla-Factory/952019-___-Ivory-Teff-Wraps.html)
2 limes
Romaine lettuce

Directions -
Chicken and skirt steak:
Combine chili powder, salt, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, cornstarch, water and (3 tablespoons) olive oil in a bowl. (Double amounts when making both chicken and beef fajitas.) Cut chicken into strips and stir in mixture to coat. Cut skirt steak into strips and stir in mixture to coat in a separate bowl. Let marinate for approximately an hour. To cook, heat a pan to medium-high. Lay chicken strips in pan and saute, careful not to overcrowd the pan. Turn and saute, then place in warm oven while preparing the skirt steak. Cook skirt steak in same pan as chicken, in the same

Peppers and onions:
Seed and slice peppers into julienne strips. Cut onion into julienne strips. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in pan set on medium heat. Saute until slightly golden.

Cut avocados in half, remove pit and scoop avocado into a bowl. Add seasoning mix and the juice of the lime. Cover tightly with plastic wrap to keep air off mixture.

Dice tomatoes. Clean and shred Romaine lettuce. Heat teff tortillas in oven or microwave before serving. Serve tortillas with cheddar cheese and sour cream.

Eating gluten free doesn't have to mean eating flavor free. It just takes some research and creativity!

Concierge Services Filling a Need

Concierge (N): a French caretaker of apartments or a hotel; lives on the premises and oversees people entering and leaving and handles mail and acts as janitor or porter. You've probably seen a movie that took place in a hotel and featured a doting concierge or doorman in the soldier type uniform, handled the luggage and made recommendations for where to dine.

Well just like chefs, who long ago were little more than indentured servants to royalty, the concierge has come a long way. Today the concierge has become an industry unto itself and considering the pace of life today along with the state of the economy, have never been more important. It's not just necessary to locate the desired service in the least amount of time, but making the right decision on WHICH service to utilize that will yield the desired results. This is what sets apart the mediocre service from the truly exceptional.

To the concierge service, contacts are everything. They live and die by the network of businesses with which they interact and recommend. One misstep or poor recommendation can mar the reputation and spread throughout the community they serve. Remember a person who appreciates your service may tell one or two in their network about your service, but a serious error can result in the client telling 10 or 20 about the poor service they received. One of our clients lives in a community that utilized the services of a particular concierge. We started interacting with their representative about 10 years ago. At that time he was working with approximately 10 households in this very exclusive community and his company's name was spreading fast. Ten years later we are still working with the residents, but his service was dismissed after one misstep. It started with one household and in short order he became persona non grata along with his company. Literally here today, gone tomorrow.

The services delivered can vary from procuring tickets to area attractions, to floral arrangements, auto detailing, limousine service and travel arrangements, event planning, to (my favorite) chef service and catering and many more. Their service is invaluable not only to the people who engage their service but to the companies they choose to utilize.

In the world of the Professional Concierge, it truly is "Who you know..."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sometimes Less is More

In the 11 years we've been in business, we've noticed a curious phenomenon. It seems sometimes people tell us what they think WE want to hear. Because many of the menus we do for clients (whether it is home meal delivery, private dining in our clients' homes or at the Castella Room, or catered events) are customized to suit our clients' palates, we often use an in depth food questionnaire. This tells us what our clients like and don't like. Sometimes we will submit a menu that, based on the questionnaire, is a little more on the adventurous side only to have to simplify it. I'm not sure if it's the rise of television shows about food, but it seems people don't want to appear to have simple tastes. If you want meatloaf and mashed potatoes instead of grilled ostrich with a blood orange hollandaise and passion fruit salsa we're more than happy to accommodate you. We've certainly made our share of meatloaf in 11 years! We even did a rehearsal dinner for someone that wanted meatloaf, green beans, and mashed potatoes. They even prefaced asking us to do the job by saying, "I don't know if you would want to do this but...".

Everyone has a unique sense of taste. It's what makes you you. Chefs on television have done the industry a real disservice, in my opinion, by pitching a fit and acting condescending when asked to accommodate someone with more simple tastes. So often I see chefs say it is their job to educate people on what they should be eating. I feel chefs are in business to satisfy their clients not educate them (unless of course they're asked to). Parents should educate their children about what they should eat. Chefs shouldn't treat their patrons as children. If someone reaches adulthood and knows what they like, who am I to force feed them softshell crab for instance (which in my earlier days as a chef I did). Our friend ate it, but I'm sure she hasn't eaten it since. It made a big impression on me because some 13 years later I still feel bad about it! We once did a dinner for a couple that had quite different food preferences. She was from the Midwest and preferred only beef, chicken, corn, potatoes, and onions. He would eat anything and was quite adventurous at the dinner table. We didn't try to force her to eat foie gras and truffles. We worked out a menu that made them both happy. As a chef, I feel that's what I'm here to do - make people happy.

So whether you like foie gras, sweetbreads, and truffles or chicken fingers and fries, stand your ground and eat what makes you happy because Sometimes Less is More.

New Specials

1. Artichoke and Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken

2. Alfredo Glazed Shrimp - Broiled shrimp with a topping of Parmesan and green onion

3. Salisbury Steak - Lean beef patty in a rich red wine mushroom brown sauce

4. Broccoli Polonaise - Broccoli florets topped with brown butter, diced eggs and bread crumbs

5. German Potato Salad - Warm potato salad with a bacon onion vinaigrette