Monday, April 28, 2008

Tough Chefs

Chefs are tough. They have to be.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is one of the hardest jobs out there. The pressure is high, the heat is intense, and the skill set needed at the upper level of the restaurant business is earned more than learned.

A lot of people get into the restaurant business because they cook a good steak in their backyard. This is how it happens:

“Say, Joe, that’s a good steak. You ought to open up a restaurant.”

“You think so?” says Joe.

“Sure. You’ll make a mint.”

Then Joe opens a restaurant and quickly learns that being able to cook a good steak is about 5% of the knowledge needed to operate a successful restaurant.
Bankers hate restaurants. It’s because people like Joe are constantly opening restaurants and then going out of business.

I talk to a lot of kids with stars in their eyes. They have seen the Food Network and have romanticized the restaurant business. Most think that when they graduate from chef school or receive a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, they'll be floating around their successful restaurant's dining room, basking in the glow of their adoring and grateful customers, while later taking a seat at their private corner table for dinner.

They quickly learn the truth when they are filling in for a dishwasher who didn't show up for his Saturday night shift, or mopping up the ladies room, or learning that their chef career wasn’t supposed to include stints of pressure washing greasy mats on the back dock at 11:30 at night.

My title is Executive Chef, which is a fancy way to say, "He doesn't cook much anymore." Sure, I put in several years of 90-hour work weeks early in my cooking career, but the truth is, if I got behind my line tomorrow night, I would slow everyone down. My kitchen passed me up years ago. I might be bale to get my service chops back in a matter of weeks, but the truth is, I can better serve my company doing the "vision thing."

I am a dinosaur. I get to create nowadays. I work mostly in menu development, creating new dishes for my restaurants, and making sure that the dishes I created years ago are still being executed in the way they were developed.
The key to success in the restaurant business is management, management, management.

All problems in the restaurant business can be traced back to management, or lack thereof. Conversely, all successes in restaurants are due to a crackerjack management staff staying on top of food quality, service, consistency, and the “1000 little things” that require constant attention and supervision.

Again, cooking in a high-volume professional kitchen is tough stuff. Chefs have to be strong. Linda Nance, Chef De Cuisine at the Purple Parrot Café, graduated at the top of her class at the Culinary Institute of America in the mid 1980s. She has been cooking in kitchens across the country ever since. She hasn’t slowed up a bit. I’d put her up against any 25-year old male chef and she would run circles around him. She is a great example of how tough the women who cook for a living can be.

The Toughest Chef of the Year Award goes to noted New Orleans chef, Paul Prudhomme. Earlier this year, the father of the Cajun blackening movement was shot while cooking at the Zurich Golf Classic. True Story: A .22 caliber bullet hit just above Prudhomme’s elbow early in the morning while he was stirring seafood in a skillet. The chef felt a sting, shook his arm, and the bullet fell out of the sleeve of his chef’s coat. He kept on cooking for another six hours. Apparently, even golfing in New Orleans is dangerous these days.

Chefs are tough, but taking a bullet for your food and continuing to cook is taking one’s professional commitment and dedication to an entirely different level.

Cracked Pepper Filet with Mustard Cognac Sauce

6, 6-8 ounce filet mignon
2 Tbl N-Stick Grilling Marinade for beef
1 Tbl kosher salt
1/2 cup cracked black pepper

2 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp fresh garlic, minced
1 Tbl shallot, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup cognac
2 Tbl brown sugar
1/2 cup Veal demi glace (if you don’t have time, purchase a high-quality veal stock from a gourmet food store)
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbl Dijon mustard

Lightly brush the surfaces of the steaks with the marinade and set aside for 45 minutes, the steak should remain at room temperature while marinating.
Season the marinade steaks with the salt and firmly press the black pepper onto the surfaces of the steak
Prepare grill and cook steaks over direct high heat untildesired doneness, 8-10 minutes for medium rare. Turn the steaks once while cooking.

For the sauce:

Heat olive oil in a small sauté pot over low heat. Add garlic, shallots, and salt and cook 3-4 minutes, stirring often. Add cognac and brown sugar and cook 5-6 minutes, until thick and syrupy. Add demi glace* and cook until the mixture has reduced by half. Add the cream and cook until the sauce has reduced by half. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard.

Top each cooked steak with 1-2 ounces of sauce.

6 servings

No-Stick Grilling Marinade for Beef

4 Egg Yolks
1 Tbl Dijon Mustard
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup Canola Oil
1 cup Light Olive Oil
Warm water as needed
2 Tbl Lawry’s Season Salt
2 Tbl Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl Lemon Pepper Seasoning
2 tsp Garlic Powder
1 tsp Onion Powder

Place the egg yolks, Dijon mustard, and vinegar in a food processor. Blend on medium speed for 1-2 minutes.

Slowly drizzle oils into the mixture, one tablespoon at a time. If the marinade becomes too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons of warm water. Once all of the oil has been incorporated, add seasoned salt, pepper, lemon pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder until incorporated. Store covered in the refrigerator until needed.

2 1/2 cups

Veal Stock

4 pounds veal bones
1 gallon cold water
1 pound yellow onion, cut into large pieces
3/4 pound carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
1/2 pound celery, cleaned and cut into large pieces
3 bay leaves
1/2 bunch fresh parsley
4–6 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 peeled garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Rinse the veal bones under cold water 4–5 minutes. Place bones in a large stockpot, and cover with the cold water. Place over low medium heat and slowly bring to a simmer.

Using a ladle, skim off any foam that floats to the top and allow stock to come to a very slow simmer with tiny little bubbles gently rising to the surface. Once temperature is reached, and most of the foam has been skimmed, set a timer for 6 hours. Watch carefully and add more water to stock as it cooks.

After 6 hours, skim the stock to remove fat and scum, and then add the remaining ingredients. Top off the stock with water again and let it cook for 12–14 hours. Periodically, check stock to make sure the heat is keeping the stock at a steady slow simmer.

When the timer goes off, turn off heat. Strain the stock and discard all bones and vegetables. Fill sink with heavily iced water and place the container of stock in the ice bath to cool as quickly as possible. Once stock is completely cooled, remove any fat from the surface.
Yield: 3 quarts

When demi glace is needed, simply reduce the finished veal stock by 50 percent.

(In restaurants, veal stocks are cooked 24–36 hours.)

Monday, April 21, 2008


I know a man who never has to eat leftovers.

I grew up across the street from him. When he woke up in the morning, breakfast was waiting for his arrival to the table. In the middle of the day, he left work and drove home to enjoy a freshly prepared lunch. When he got home from work, dinner was on the table. Day in, day out, this was the routine, still is. He doesn’t eat leftovers.

He is a lucky man, indeed.

His wife is an excellent cook. Her leftovers are better than what a lot of us eat as first-round offerings.

I am not a very good leftover eater, either. It’s not that I have an aversion or dislike for leftovers, but I am so passionate about food, that I am usually thinking about what I am going to eat for the next meal while I am eating the current meal.

One of my favorite leftover foods is turkey. During Thanksgiving I usually prepare an extra turkey just in case all of the primary turkey is all gone after the main meal. The pure simplicity of a turkey sandwich on good-quality whole-grain bread with homemade mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and lettuce one of my holiday treats.

Meatloaf might be the universal— and best— leftover food of them all. Mashed potatoes, too.

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but a growling stomach is the father. I imagine there are many foods that started out as leftovers that became featured entrees later—Sheppard’s pie comes to mind.

In the Purple Parrot Café, we occasionally develop a “keeper” recipe while using leftovers. Recently, Chef Linda Nance created a fried potato salad. It’s like a potato cake except one uses the standard picnic-style, yellow-mustard potato salad, forms it into patty, rolls it in breadcrumbs, and fries it in a skillet. I have a friend in Jackson who has been raving for two months about The Purple Parrot’s Fried Potato Salad.

Some foods actually taste better as leftovers the next day—red beans and rice, chili, and gumbo are all better the second or third day.

Here are my Top 10 Leftover Foods

10.) Fried Rice— it’s a fence rider. Fried rice almost fits into the better-the-next-day-than-the-first-day category.
9.) Split Pea/White Bean Soup— using stock made from leftover/scrap smoked ham bones
8.) Cold Pizza for breakfast— my son’s favorite leftover food (and one his mom almost never lets him eat).
7.) Chicken Salad— made using last night’s roasted chicken or fried chicken (throw the skin in, too)
6.) Cornbread dressing and gravy— who needs turkey if you make a great dressing?
5.) Bread Pudding— made using yesterday’s croissants instead of stale French bread.
4.) Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwiches— using leftover bacon from breakfast and homemade mayonnaise.
3.) Meatloaf— the quintessential leftover. As a child I hated meatloaf. Today, I am one of its biggest proponents. I am ready for meatloaf to make a comeback in a big way.
2.) Turkey Sandwiches— Again, not only for the holidays
1.) Steak and Biscuits— Wrap leftover steak-dinner scraps in aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, slice the steak into strips, reheat in the oven, and serve inside buttered biscuits sprinkled with a little steak seasoning (this one’s worth cooking an extra steak the night before so you’ll have plenty the next morning). Ribeyes work best. Serve with scrambled eggs on the side and fresh fruit.

Honorable mention leftovers—Spaghetti, pot roast, and lasagna

The worst leftover of all time: Tuna Casserole. Hands down, no question. It’s as bad the second time around as it was the first.

Be careful with leftovers and always use proper food handling techniques. It’s a good idea to label and date leftovers. A good rule of thumb: If you can’t remember when you made the dish the first time, it’s too old to eat.

Three-Meat Meatloaf with Garlic-Tomato Glaze

1 pound Ground beef
1/2 pound Ground venison
1/2 pound Ground Pork
1 Tbl Canola oil
1 cup Onion, minced
3 /4 cup Celery, minced
3 /4 cup Bell pepper, minced
1 tsp Garlic, minced
1 /8 tsp Thyme, dry
1 /4 tsp Oregano, dry
2 tsp Steak Seasoning
1 Tbl Salt
1 cup Milk
1 /2 cup Ketchup
1 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
3 Eggs
1 1/2 cup Unseasoned Course Bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat the bacon grease in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the vegetables with salt and dry herbs until tender. Allow to cool.

Combine milk, eggs, Worcestershire and ketchup and mix well. Place ground beef, venison, pork, cooled vegetables and egg mixture into a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, squish the meatloaf until you have mixed everything together and all is well incorporated. Fold in the breadcrumbs last.

Shape the meat mixture into the form of a loaf on a baking sheet. Bake 40 minutes.

After 40 minutes of cooking, use a pastry brush and brush the garlic-tomato glaze over the entire meatloaf. Return to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes. Again, remove the meatloaf and brush another layer of the glaze over it. Return it once again to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes. Brush one final layer of the glaze on the meatloaf and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove the meatloaf and allow it to rest 15 minutes before serving.
Yield: 8-10 servings

Garlic-Tomato Glaze

1 tsp. Bacon fat
1 Tbl. Garlic, minced
1 Tbl. Onion, minced
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
3 Tbl Brown sugar
2Tbl Tomato paste
1/2 cup Chicken Broth
2 Tbl. Yellow mustard
1 Tbl. Worcestershire Sauce
1 cup Ketchup

Heat the bacon fat in a small skillet over a low heat. Cook the onions, garlic and salt for 2-3 minutes. Add the basil, black pepper and brown sugar cook for 3-4 minutes. Stir constantly tp prevent the sugar from burning. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Too Short, or Too Demented?

“You’re too short for your weight,” said my doctor.

“Pardon me,” I said.

“I’m looking at this chart, and it says right here that you’re way too short for your weight. You’re supposed to be between six-feet five inches and six-feet seven inches tall,” he said.

“But I’m five-ten.”

“I know,” he said, and turned back to the chart to scribble more notes.

I got the point.

I suggested that he might have a future in politics, closed the door behind my annual check-up, and headed home to eat breakfast before going to work.

As I walked into my kitchen, two ladies on the Today show were talking about obesity.

“People in their 40s with belly fat are more likely to have dementia in their 70s,” said one of the ladies.

I’ve got enough belly fat to fill the cargo hold of a whaling vessel. I’m gonna be full-goose bozo by the time I reach 75, I thought to myself.

As I sat down to eat my oatmeal, I opened USA Today and there was the aforementioned study on the bottom of page 4D, “Belly fat linked to an increased risk of dementia.” Someone or something was trying to tell me something, and it was more than just the growling in my stomach. I wondered if my doctor thinks I’m too short to be a demented septuagenarian, too.

The lady on television moved on to something she called the waist-hip test. She was measuring her waist and then her hips. She then divided the waist measurement by the hip measurement, or something like that. I started to go to the junk drawer for the measuring tape, but quickly realized that doing so would be futile. I can’t even see my hips because my waist is too big. Why take a test that is doomed from the start?

The signs were everywhere. My waist is expanding, my chins are multiplying faster than feed-store rabbits, summer is quickly approaching, and I’m still shopping at the Big and Tall store (and I’m only 5’10”). I need to lose weight, if for no other reason than to make sure I’m not a drooling, babbling, demented buffoon by the time I turn 70.

I had a crazy uncle who used to sit on his front porch, shout obscenities at his across-the-street neighbors, and shoot at passersby with his BB gun. The genetics are there, but he was bone-thin. How much worse will it be for a fat guy if this lady’s theory is true?

I once heard someone explain the difference between the North and the South: In the North, they put their crazy uncle in an asylum. In the South, we put our crazy uncles on the front porch. It’s true. My uncle, Garland St.John, was crazy as… well, as crazy as an uncle who shoots people with a BB gun, and he spent most of his waking hours on the front porch of the old St.John home in Brooksville, MS.

Loyal readers of this column have followed my dieting ups and downs for eight years. The cumulative result (750 words per week for 416 consecutive weeks = 312,000 words) is that if one charted my dieting successes and failures over that time period, the chart would look like a Colorado mountain range.

There will be no diet this time, just a common sense lifestyle food/living plan. Hopefully my weight will catch up to my height and I won’t spend my later years shooting BBs at my neighbors from my front porch swing.

The RSJ Lifestyle Food/Living Plan is listed below. I’m on my way to smaller jeans and lower blood pressure. Join me.

RSJ Lifestyle Food/Living Plan

1. Everyday: Breakfast, mid-morning snack, healthy lunch, light afternoon snack, very light dinner— all high protein, low fat, high fiber.

2. No processed sugars.

3. No fried foods.

4. Only whole wheat/whole grain breads (no white/enriched flour).

5. Food Exceptions: Bread, meat, cheese, and starch are allowed if they are prepared by— and eaten on the premises of— a high-quality bakery, or a fine dining/mid-casual restaurant.**

6. Eat only 2/3 of restaurant portions.

7. Absolutely no food after 8pm.

8. Stop eating when 80% full.

9. Exercise Program: Weight training three days per week, cardio training three days per week.

**— lean restaurant steak = yes, fast food burger = no
bakery croissant or bagel = yes, donut/sweet roll = no

Grilled Yellow Squash and Zucchini

2 large yellow squash, cut on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large zucchini, cut on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces
1 Tbl kosher salt
1/2 cup No-Stick Grilling Marinade for Vegetables, or extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

Place the squash on a paper towel lined baking sheet and sprinkle salt over all. Let squash sit 20 minutes.

Pat the surfaces of the squash dry. Use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the squash with the no-stick marinade (or olive oil).

Prepare the grill. Cook over direct high heat for 6-8 minutes, turning once. Remove from grill and immediately sprinkle with the black pepper.

Serve hot or cold.

Yield: 6 servings

The No-Stick grilling marinade can be found in my new book New South Grilling, Hyperion 2008, due in stores May 8th. See it here:

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

You’ve Come A Long Way, Mississippi

In 1987, when I opened The Purple Parrot Café in my hometown of Hattiesburg, the wine situation in Mississippi was bleak.

At the time the Alcohol Beverage Control Division of the Mississippi State Tax Commission, the state agency that purchases, stocks, and distributes liquor and wine, had only been in the wine business for 20 years. During those two decades the state’s wine list was extremely small in scope. Statewide, overall wine awareness— among the ABC, the restaurateurs, and the consumers— was limited.

Wine appreciation was sweeping the country. Mississippi was still trying to catch up. “In 1983, when I opened my restaurant, I tried to make a special order for wine and the state couldn’t do it,” said Nick Apostle, owner of Nick’s restaurant on Lakeland Drive in Jackson, and one of the main reasons Mississippi’s wine program has moved forward into the 21st century.

Nick fought the battle harder than any of us. He worked tirelessly with the ABC to increase wine availability. In 2002, he took a contingent of six Mississippi legislators to Napa Valley to “educate them as to how winemakers do business with other states,” and he did it on his own dime.

Nick, along with the members of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, has made great strides working with the ABC to increase the availability of first-rate wines in the state. We have certainly come a long way.

The overall perception is that one can’t purchase good wines in Mississippi. That is simply not the case. “A lot of times we can get wines that can’t be purchased in bordering states, and at good prices,” said Clint Taylor, my business partner, and the sommelier at the Purple Parrot Café.

“There are times nowadays when we can buy excellent wines through the state of Mississippi cheaper than they’re being sold at the best wine shops in Louisiana,” said Apostle.

As a perfect example of how far we’ve come, I can proudly turn to my restaurant’s fourth annual New South Wine Expo which will be held April 18th at the train depot in historic downtown Hattiesburg.

There will be 34 world-class winemakers from California, Oregon, Washington, New Zealand, Spain, France, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Portugal, and even China flying in for the event. These winemakers will be traveling to Hattiesburg to sample over 100 of their best wines, some of which aren’t available in Mississippi, some of which aren’t available anywhere. Many of the wines have won multiple winemaking awards from Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, Jr.

Many of the wines at the expo are highly allocated. Some states can’t even get a single case. Roger Roessler, of Roessler Cellars, will be pouring an extremely limited wine in which only 125 total cases were produced. Sean Larkin, of Larkin’s Wines, will be pouring his Cabernet Sauvignon, of which only 220 cases were produced. Every bottle of wine that Larkin produced last year is gone, yet he will be in town on the 18th sampling his wares. Yes, in Mississippi, believe it.

It’s a one-of-a-kind evening for wine lovers and wine novices. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the New South Wine Expo will go to the Hattiesburg Arts Council to help fund arts programs for under-resourced youth in the area. For tickets call the Purple Parrot Café 601-264-0656 and help continue to put art back in the neighborhoods that need it most.

I am a teetotaler from way back. My business partner and his management team handle the wines while I take care of the food. But it’s amazing when one looks back over the course of 20 years in the restaurant business in Mississippi— from a small list littered with cheap jug wines to an evening with winemakers flying in from all over the world. Thanks, Nick.

Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Fig Relish and reduced Port Wine Glaze

1 lb. Foie Gras cut into 2 ounce slices
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
8 Slice Fresh Brioche, crusts removed and cut in half on a diagonal
1 recipe Fig Relish
1 Recipe Port Wine Glaze

Preheat oven to 450

Arrange the brioche on a baking sheet.
Season the foie gras with the salt and black pepper. Heat a large skillet over high heat and arrange the foie gras in the skillet so they do not touch. Cook 45 seconds. Carefully turn each piece over and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Place the brioche in the oven to toast.
To serve, place one piece of the brioche toast on each serving plate, top with one piece of the cooked foie gras. Top each piece of foie gras with 2 tsp of the fig relish. Rest another piece of toast atop of the foie gras. Drizzle the plate with the port wine glaze and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings.

Fig Relish

1 Tbl butter
2 Tbl minced shallots
1 1/2 cups whole fig preserves, small dice
2 Tbl brown sugar
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
2 Tbl minced celery
2 Tbl small diced red peppers
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leave, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over low heat in a small sauce pot. Cook the shallots for 3 minutes. Add in the diced figs and brown sugar, and cook 5-6 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking and burning. Add in the sherry vinegar, celery and red bell peppers and lower the heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add thyme, salt and black pepper and remove from heat. Best if made a day or two in advance. When ready to use, warm it slowly in a small sauté pan over a low heat.

1 1/2 cups

Port Wine Glaze

1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbl brown sugar
1 cup port wine
2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Place all ingredients in a small sauce pot. Simmer and reduce until mixture forms a thick syrup.
Yield: One quarter cup