Thursday, March 12, 2009

Chefs at Work

Professional chefs have the reputation of being any combination of the following: moody, bossy, perfectionists, demanding, fun, and creative. I've worked around and with enough to know that most display some or all of these qualities on any given day or night at work. It's really the nature of the beast. A good or great chef must be creative and demanding of himself as well as his staff in order to create greatness. But, it's the personality and character behind the beast that really mandates any chef's behavior in the kitchen.

Thus, it was wonderfully fun and enlightening to witness so many nationally recognized chefs at work in the demonstration kitchen prep tent during last weekend's BB&T Charleston Food & Wine Festival. This year, as in the four years since the festival's debut, I've had the pleasure and honor to work as an assistant to visiting chefs preparing for their respective cooking demonstrations. Tasks can be as humbling as fetching ice and ramekins and as fascinating as assisting with chopping and organizing assorted mise en place. But, perhaps most fascinating of all was observing the chefs mannerisms, style and manners at work. Here's how it panned out for some of the visiting chefs I worked with and/or was able to observe:

Bobby Flay (Mesa Grill, Bar American, Bobby Flay Steak and Bobby's Burger Palace):

The Food Network darling and celebrated grill master needs virtually no introduction and was the headliner chef for the event. His demonstration was all about making the perfect burger. He strolled quietly and confidently into the prep tent about one hour before his demo in sun glasses, a blue jacket and khakis. He looked like the boy next door and quickly made greetings and shook hands (including mine) before getting to work with the blushing, young Trident Technical College assistant that was assigned to work with him. He struck me as being very businesslike and task oriented - as if this wasn't his first rodeo. Midway through his demonstration, his assistant flew breathlessly and flushed into the tent in search of Dijon mustard requested by Mr. Flay. Fat Hen's Fred Neuville (who oversaw the cooking competition) was able to rustle it up for her and on went the show. After that, I saw Flay strolling the grounds from time to time, making introductions or greeting various chefs. Other than that, the low-key, hard-working pro stayed hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, as if to avoid fans, fanfare and autographs.

Brian O'Donohoe (Primehouse New York)

O'Donohoe's resume includes working for six years under Eric Ripert's four-star and hyper celebrated Le Bernadin and working as executive chef at one of New York's best restaurants. For a chef of his elevated stature, O'Donohoe was remarkably down-to-earth. In fact, he was by far the most down-to-earth and relaxed of any of the chefs I worked with over the weekend. With his boyish good looks and broad smile, he basically created his own mis en place and prep sheet, occasionally asking for a whisk here or a bowl there. He insisted on carrying all or most of his stuff to and from the grill tent which was located a good five minute walk away from the demo tent. If this chef is spoiled or temper mental, he doesn't act like it. His knife and organizational skills were those of a well-seasoned, French classical professional, even if he looks (and he looks good, ladies) barely thirty years old.

Frank Stitt (Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega, Bottega Cafe and Chez Fonfon)

You have got to love a guy that brings his teenage daughter along with him to prepare for a demonstration. Both diminutive, soft-spoken, and polite, they made for an endearing team. I worked with both of them while they put together the ingredients for a bocatini, clams and greens pasta dish he was preparing to showcase as a recipe from his latest book, Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef's Love Affair with Italian Food. Despite the fact that we couldn't find ramekins, the planned rapini ingredient was limp, and that it took a while to track down a whole head of garlic, Stitt maintained his cool and calm, while gently persisting the importance of having each on hand. Eventually, we forgot the ramekins, substituted collards for the rapini and purloined the garlic from the competition stage. At the demo tent, Stitt lined up his ingredients in the precise order they would be needed in a restrained, gentlemanly and persistent manner. He personally thanked me afterwards for my help and even threw in a warm, fatherly hug for good measure. He and his daughter were discussing their afternoon plans, which included attending a yoga class together in Mount Pleasant. That's what I call good karma.

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.