Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Chef List unveiled

NYSD welcomes Lourdes Castro with her first edition of THE CHEF LIST (which she will be updating regularly):

Why do chefs wear white? Having donned a chef jacket before, I would have thought a darker color would have been the obvious choice to traditionally represent the top half of the uniform that universally states “This person cooks.” Regardless of the owner’s culinary skill, food items tend to land themselves a spot (no pun intended) on any bit of clothing they can –— double points if it’s on a crisp white chef coat. And yet, though counterintuitive, white has been the traditional choice for over 400 years — way before the advent of Tide stain remover.

The white chef coat owes its origin to the gastronomic grand-daddy Marie-Antoine Carême, who in the middle of the 1800’s took it upon himself to redesign the chef uniform. As a way of denoting kitchen cleanliness, he selected the color white for the jacket. Although today I count on the health department to convey such information, I still expect to see chefs walking around in pristine white jackets. Subconsciously, it gives me a feeling of wellbeing — despite its obvious impracticality.

But back to the uniform.
It seems Carême was very much into “the look” of the chef as he also made his mark on the hat — a.k.a. toque — used by them. You don’t see toques much these days unless you are standing in line at a buffet or are attending a function hosted by a culinary school. They are tube shaped hats made up of small pleats. As a way of distinguishing a chef from cooks (yes it’s true, there can only be one chef in the kitchen), Carême thought hats should be of different sizes – the tallest belonging to the chef.

As the story goes, Carême anointed himself with an 18-inch tall toque! Just imagine trying to roast a chicken with an 18-inch tube on top of your head. Well, he did — and in the process cemented his place as one of the greatest chefs of all time.

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, I 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.
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.