Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Chef List

THE CHEF LIST by Lourdes Castro:

So who among the very talented pool of chefs in NYC have earned the right to wear a tall toque? (I’ll let them decide just how tall they would like it to be.) These are chefs that have made an impact on the way we eat, the way we dine, even the way we talk about food.

They’re out there and each week, on The Chef List, we will post a bio along with interesting bits of information about the careers of those who are well worthy of a tall toque. Some who will appear may seem an obvious choice while others an odd one.

However, keep in mind the most important criteria for appearing on the list — these individuals have influenced, directly or indirectly, the way we eat. And hopefully they do so while wearing a crisp white coat.

This week's additions: Thomas Keller and David Chang.
Thomas Keller
The French Laundry, Napa Valley
Per Se, NYC
Bouchon, Napa Valley
Bouchon, Las Vegas

When speaking about Thomas Keller it’s easy to get distracted by all of his awards and achievements and forget that he must have gotten his start somewhere.  As the only American chef to have two three-star Michelin rated restaurants and the only one to have been consecutively named Chef of the Year by The James Beard Foundation, its easy to overlook the fact that there must be mentors, dead end kitchen jobs, failures, even firings making up the obligatory rite of passage that most – ok all – good chefs must endure. 

No need to focus on his resume or experience; a quick google of his name will give you that.  Instead, I’d prefer to focus on his method (or as some may say, his madness).  His “no short-cut” motto and respect for the integrity of ingredients is stuff of legend.  How he stores his fish (upright, as if they were swimming) to how he trained his wait staff (hiring a ballet dancer to choreograph the movements), exemplifies this point. 

But if you really want to understand Keller’s food and menu, all you have to do is read the declaration of intent he hands out to his staff. “With each course we want to strike quick, mean and leave without getting caught.”  It sounds like a presidential cabinet meeting until you keep reading – “All menus at the French Laundry revolve around the law of diminishing returns. That is the more you have of something the less you enjoy it.” Hence the reason for so many tiny courses – like some twisted S&M game, by never satiating you, he keeps you coming back for more. 

It was only after spending 25 years behind the stove that Keller began to venture out of his kitchen.  A notorious micromanager, before he allowed one coronet to be approved by eyes other than his, he hired a corporate coach to help him learn to delegate.  As a result, he doubled the amount of tables available for a reservation and placed half of them on the east coast.  Yet despite the 100% increase, one must still perform telephone acrobatics to score a seat – a de rigeur for all good foodies.
David Chang
Momofuku Noodle Bar, Lower East Side, NYC
Momofuky Ssäm Bar, Lower East Side, NYC

A Lower East Side Asian noodle bar built from plywood sounds like a place where you’ll regress back to your budgetary challenged college days when the ramen you were exposed to consisted of the instant kind that were not only priced like cat food but grew faster than a Chia Pet when hot water was added.  However, a trip to Momofuku – Noodle Bar or Ssäm Bar – will not only teach you how sophisticated the simplest Asian dishes can be, it won’t be too progressive on your wallet either. 

(Photo: Hans Gissinger)
It was during a semester abroad in London and a meal at Wagamama – you know, the noodle chain with an address under Harvey Nichols - that David Chang, Momofuku’s Korean American chef and owner, first contemplated cooking professionally.  No matter that was he studying religion at Trinity College nor that it would be a few years before he would decide to enroll in the French Culinary Institute and begin his climb up the New York kitchen ladder.  He was hooked.

Mercer Kitchen, Craft and Café Boulud.  Despite the training and know how he acquired at these hot spots, he knew there was something he was still lacking.  So he packed his bags and left for Japan where he spent several months working for a soba master who had been making soba for 20 years. The hyper-focused training and unwritten rule of repetition for the purpose of betterment might have influenced his cooking, but the Japanese food culture of eating well at all price levels changed the way he thought about restaurants. 

In August 2004, he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village and since has single handedly begun a movement of small unpretentious restaurants manned by talented chefs working with prime ingredients from small local farmers. While both his restaurants draw the culinary elite, it’s his second restaurant, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, which has become a late night stop for off-duty chefs looking for after-hours nourishment (its kitchen is open until 2am).  His pork buns (steamed and served with hoisin sauce) have developed a cult following with fanatics calling in and reserving some in advance.  An innovative concept designed to secure some simple Asian cuisine. 
David Bouley
Bouley, Tribeca, NYC
Danube, Tribeca, NYC
Bouley Upstairs, Tribeca, NYC
Evolution, Miami Beach
David Bouley at work in his private test kitchen.

When I heard David Bouley was teaming up with a nutritionist to open healthy oriented restaurants, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was going to close his famed Bouley once again in order to embark on a new culinary journey like the one he did back in the late 1990’s when without much notice he closed the door of arguably the most popular restaurant in NYC. Luckily, he’s not. Bouley, Danube, Bouley Upstairs, even Evolution (his South Beach restaurant) are not going anywhere.  He is just pursuing a good idea.

It made me wonder just how many good ideas Chef Bouley has had. After all, you don’t take over the four corners of a Manhattan city block without some first-rate thoughts. Take for instance the Green Tarp Restaurant. The brain child of David, the restaurant was constructed near the devastation of ground zero and fed rescue workers 24 hours a day for almost 4 weeks. 

While a master at French technique, he puts the classic recipes on the back burner and instead focuses on creating fresh and seasonal ingredient combinations with an emphasis on the clarity of flavors. His mentors (Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon, Gaston Lenotre) and his resume (La Cote Basque, Le Perigord, Le Cirque, Montrachet) may have instilled in him work ethic, skill, even intuition, but his awards and accolades have all been won as a result of his culinary vision and philosophy.
Dinner at David Bouley’s private test kitchen. The chalkboard illustrated with the recipes for the night; First course ready to go; View of the library.
Among those are 3 stars by the New York Times for both Bouley and Danube, each of which earned a Michelin rating of 2 and 1 star respectively.  The original Bouley also holds the honor of scoring the highest mark ever for food (29 out of 30) from the Zagat Restaurant Survey.  And the recognitions keeps going and going.

So what is it about this Connecticut born chef that keeps him exploring without falling victim to the promises of global culinary empires?  Maybe it’s his insatiable curiosity (could he have picked that up at the Sorbonne where he studied?) As a sort of thinking lab, he constructed a test kitchen down the street from his 4 corners where a fully-equipped state-of-the-art environment is dedicated to testing and refining cooking techniques and recipes.  Whatever it is, I hope he keeps exploring and coming up with more good ideas.  The test kitchen seems the perfect place for him.
Wylie Dufresne
Executive Chef, WD-50
50 Clinton Street

He’s the executive chef of the 70-seater WD-50; a play on his initials and the restaurants address (50 Clinton Street on the Lower East Side).  Wylie is also considered a techno-chef, which is just a euphemism describing his affinity towards expensive kitchen gadgets which he uses to achieve the best tasting (and looking) dishes that his very creative mind can think of.  That creativity is evident in the way he marvels his guests – including many top chefs - with unexpected textures, temperatures, and flavor combinations that make them wonder why they didn’t think of it first.

But Wylie’s the one who thought about it.  Just read a few items off his menu and you’ll see that he has been thinking and cooking - and thinking some more - for quite a while.  Hangar tartare, pickled Asian pear, amaro, bearnaise ice cream (appetizer) Mediterranean bass, artichoke, cocoa nibs, brittle (entrée). If you’re particularly observant that night, you soon realize that the menu gives no mention of the cooking method used for each dish. The question then becomes if that was done on purpose as a way of beginning the string of surprises you’ll encounter throughout the night, or maybe he just likes to reserve the right to change his mind regarding the way he is going to cook your meal (could he be that spontaneous?).
Wally' s team outside WD-50; The main dining room; Private dining in the wine cellar.
Born in Rhode Island and raised in New York, Wylie studied philosophy at Colby College in Maine before finding his way to the French Culinary Institute in NYC.  After graduation he began his trajectory in Jean Georges Vongerichten’s culinary empire – JoJo’s, Jean Georges, Prime (Las Vegas).  Eventually he landed his first starring role as the executive chef of 71 Clinton Fresh Foods – a 30-seater restaurant located up the street from WD-50 that his father was an investor in.

With Jean Georges Vongerichten and Phil Suarez as partners, Wylie opened WD-50 in April 2003.  It has been awarded 2 stars by The New York Times and currently holds 1 star by the Michelin Guide.