Monday, October 27, 2008

LAS VEGAS— What is a family man who doesn't drink, doesn't gamble, and has trouble staying up to watch David Letterman doing in Las Vegas with his wife and kids? Two words: The Beatles.

I have pulled my second grader and sixth grader out of school to travel to Las Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil's production "The Beatles Love." I am a huge Beatles fan and have seen "Love" twice. My kids are huge Beatles fans, too. They have never seen "Love," though they have heard me go on and on and on and on about it for the last two years.

My kids also love food (the apple doesn't fall far from the chef coat). Over the last decade, Las Vegas has become one of the country’s top ten restaurant cities. Some of the country's top chefs have opened branches of their most popular restaurants, here. The restaurants are, for the most part, manned by seasoned professionals who have been in that particular chef’s system for many years. The best thing about the upscale restaurant business in Vegas is that, unlike other big cities, all of the restaurants are within a few miles of each other— hundreds of them.

One of my favorite Las Vegas restaurants is Thomas Keller's Bouchon in The Venetian hotel. Keller is the country's preeminent chef. He mans the stoves at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA and Per Se in New York, and serves food that is humbling to even the most accomplished chefs.

My daughter ordered Steak Frites, a classic dish found in French bistros and brasseries. It's basically steak with a side order of French fries. In a good establishment, the fries can often match the steak in terms of satisfaction and satiety. Left in the hands of Thomas Keller, the basic French fry can become remarkable.

I love comfort foods. I love potatoes in all forms. There is a beautiful and ideal simplicity in a side order of perfectly prepared mashed potatoes or French fries. The best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten outside of my grandmother's dining room were served at Watershed restaurant in Decatur, GA on chicken night. I was there for the legendary fried chicken, it was good. What I remember though, were the mashed potatoes.

One of the most memorable orders of fries I have eaten were enjoyed in Aspen several years ago in at the Ajax Tavern. The fries were fresh-cut, cooked perfectly in a small amount of duck fat, and topped with a sprinkling of kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, a drizzle of fragrant truffle oil, and finished with shaved Parmigianino Reggiano. Beautiful. And a perfect example of taking a simple offering, adding four straightforward, yet ideal, accompaniments, and creating a masterpiece. The beauty is not only in the simplicity, but the combination of flavors. When duck fat is thrown into the mix the satiety level rises tenfold.

Bouchon's fries were— as one would expect from Keller— excellent. My daughter had enough to share with her brother— who was busy putting away an order of gnocchi— and a few left over for her father.

Bouchon fries aside, possibly the best order of fries I have eaten in the last several years were at restaurant Char in Jackson, MS. I know that proclaiming a "best fry" seems a little silly and trivial, but that's my job. It's what I do. Besides, I love fries.

Char's French fries were every bit as good as Bouchon's, probably better. A few weeks ago, my family and I were in Jackson for an event and visited Char before we hit the road home to Hattiesburg. My daughter ordered a steak with a side order of Char's "House-Cut Fries." They were great. At the time I was on a diet and hadn't eaten anything fried in four weeks. One might think that my lengthy absence from the beloved fry might have clouded my judgment, not so. Char's fries are that good.
So what have we learned today? One will leave Vegas with more money in his bank account if he or she stays out of the casino and spends time in the restaurants. The Beatles are a perfectly good excuse to miss a few days of school, and fries aren’t just fast food, anymore, though if we’re paying homage to the Beatles, we should probably call them chips.

Robert’s Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 Tbl. Salt
1 gallon Water

1 /2 cup Butter, cold, cut into small pats (1 stick)
6 ounces Cream cheese, softened
1 cup Half and half
2 oz Sour Cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large saucepot add potatoes to salted water. Cook at a low simmer (do not boil) to avoid potatoes breaking apart. When the potatoes are tender, carefully drain. Return potatoes to the dry pot and place over low heat for one to two minutes to remove all excess moisture.

Place potatoes a mixing bowl. Using a hand-held potato masher, mash the potatoes. Add cold butter— one piece at a time— as you begin to mash. Mix cream cheese and half and half in a microwave safe container and heat in the microwave until hot. Remove from microwave, blend together, and slowly add to hot potatoes. Gently fold in sour cream. Add salt and pepper. Mix well. Potatoes may be covered tightly and held in warm place for one hour before serving. Yield: 10 servings

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Working for the Mouse

ORLANDO— I am in Walt Disney World as a visiting chef of the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival.

Through the years I have been a frequent guest of The Mouse. I have enjoyed the parks with-and-without kids and had a great time doing the stuff one does down here since 1973. Until now I have never had such an inside view of the ins and outs of this amazingly complicated yet efficient collection of theme parks, hotels, and restaurants.

Throughout my 28-year restaurant career I have participated in numerous culinary events and festivals behind the scenes, in front of cameras, and as a guest chef or lecturer. Walt Disney World blows them all away with their efficiency, professionalism, service, and offerings. It should come as no surprise that a company dedicated to hospitality and good times 365-days a year is able to pull it off so well— from the festival’s attendees down to the guest chefs.

Just to tour the foodservice facilities and work alongside Disney chefs was a treat. This is a company that employs over 350 top-notch chefs and thousands of line cooks to work at over 300 foodservice facilities offering over 6,000 food items. It is baffling when seen as in a behind-the-scenes manner.

To pull off the daily prep and production of this place is mind boggling. On past visits I have often thought of what must go into preparing and serving this much food, scheduling the personnel, and purchasing and receiving that much food. To see it done is humbling.

In years past when one thought of foodservice at Walt Disney World, they were thinking burgers, fries, and Cokes. Those days are long gone. Granted this company knows burgers, fries and Cokes— as they serve over nine million hamburgers, nine million pounds of fries, and 46 million Coca Cola drinks— but now the park has several world-class restaurants which employ dozens of world-class chefs.

The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival has been around for 13 years and, year-in year-out, is one of the most well-attended events in the park. I met dozens of chefs from all over the country, but more importantly, I met so many chefs who work inside the Disney system. To a person, they were all consummate professionals. Their kitchens are meticulously maintained, and their quality standards are second to none.

Of course anyone can serve hot dogs out of a cafeteria line (though there aren’t too many who can successfully serve as many millions as Disney), but to coordinate world-class restaurants such as Victoria and Albert’s, California Grill, Citricos, Jiko, and The Flying Fish CafĂ© while feeding over 200,000 guests every day is a awe-inspiring feat.

It’s been a great week. My four events were filled with people from all over the country (and Canada) who were interested in Mississippi and the food we serve in our restaurants, the food we eat in our homes, and the way we live. I met a lot of chefs from all over the country and had a great time in my off hours with my wife and kids. But I leave with a sense of awe at the magnitude of what is accomplished on an hourly basis behind the scenes at one of the country’s largest foodservice providers.

The chefs, hosts, coordinators, and employees of the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival are the embodiment of competence, organization, hospitality, and professionalism. Well done, and thank you.


1/2 head iceberg lettuce1/2 bunch watercress 1 small bunch chicory 1/2 head romaine lettuce2 medium tomatoes, blanched and peeled1 1/2 cups cooked turkey breast, diced1 avocado3 eggs, hard-cooked1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled6 strips crisp bacon, crumbled2 tbsp. chopped chives

Chop all greens very fine (reserve some watercress for presentation) and arrange in salad bowl. Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds and dice une. Also dice the turkey, avocado and eggs. Arrange the above ingredients, as well as the blue cheese and bacon crumbles, in straight lines across the greens. Arrange the chives diagonally across the above lines. Present the salad at the table, then toss with the dressing (below) and place on chilled plates with a watercress garnish. Serves six.

BROWN DERBY OLD-FASHIONED FRENCH DRESSING1/2 cup water1/2 tsp. sugar1 1/4 tbsp. salt1 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce1 clove garlic, chopped1/2 cup red-wine vinegarJuice of 1/2 lemon1/2 tbsp. ground black pepper1/2 tsp. English mustard1/2 cup olive oil1 1/2 cups salad oil
Blend together all ingredients, except oils, then add olive and salad oils and mix well. Blend well again before mixing with salad.

© 2008 Walt Disney World
Reprinted with permission

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine there was an extensive article on catfish. In the article I learned that the Catfish Institute, located in Jackson, Miss., has chosen a new name for the catfish— Delecata.

As new made-up names for fish go, I guess “Delacata” is as good as any, though I would like to see the list of names that were eliminated. The story claimed that the Catfish Institute had “market-tested” the new name. Market test or not, I will still call it catfish.

The most troubling part of the story was a sentence about local catfish farmers which read, “About a third of the region’s [catfish] growers have quit, and those remaining increasingly see their ponds as liabilities. If attrition continues apace, very little catfish will be farmed in the United States before long.”

This is a major loss for farmers throughout the South. I have toured several catfish farms and processing plants and have been amazed by the scientific approach and world-class efficiency with which these Mississippi farmers and processors operate their businesses. And I continue to be impressed with the high-quality fish that they produce.

The problem stems from imported freshwater fish which a few unscrupulous suppliers and restaurant owners dishonestly market as catfish. There is a Vietnamese variety called Basa which is harvested in the Mekong Delta that is still marketed and sold in some establishments as “catfish.” In addition to having a terrible name, Basa is an inferior-tasting fish and can’t— even on it’s best day— compare to Mississippi farm-raised catfish.

That same day I read a story in The Sun about a “mutant catfish” that was killing people in India. The Goonch fish has been feeding on corpses that have been thrown in the river for so long that it has now developed a taste for human flesh. Folks, this is not the plot for an upcoming Halloween movie, it’s real.

A man once caught a 161-lb Goonch. That’s a big mutant catfish. The Sun also reported, “the first live victim of a Goonch was thought to have been a 17-year-old Nepalese boy in April 1988.” and “an 18-year-old Nepali [boy] disappeared in the river, dragged down by something described as an ‘elongated pig’.”

A “flesh-eating river monster” that looks like a pig? Muddy-tasting Vietnamese Basa putting Mississippi farmers out of work? I prefer to eat my catfish, not the other way around. Make mine Mississippi-raised catfish, everytime.

There is a sport practiced in rivers and lakes throughout the South called, “grappling,” in which a person reaches into logs and stumps and pulls out giant catfish (or Delacata) by sticking their hands in the fish’s mouth. I have seen pictures of this and the catfish they bring out of the water are huge.

To my knowledge, grappling is exclusively an American sport. One thing is for certain: If anyone is grappling for fish in India, they aren’t around later that night to hang out at the campfire and tell the fish tale.

Had I sat on the Catfish Institute’s what’s-our-new-name-gonna-be committee, I might have gone along with the name change, but I certainly would have suggested a new tagline: “Delacata: It might not be a great name, but at least it doesn’t eat you.”

If you are like me and enjoy one of Mississippi’s best crops— catfish— ask the owner of your favorite fish house if he or she is using American (preferably Mississippi-raised) catfish. And if they aren’t, take your business elsewhere, and if they say, “Actually, we’re serving ‘Delacata’,” let ‘em slide, and take solace in the fact that they’re not serving Basa or Goonch.

Mississippi-Fried Catfish

2 cups Cornmeal
3 Tbl Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
3 Tbl Lemon Pepper Seasoning
16-20 Catfish, cut into two ounce strips
Peanut Oil for frying

Heat oil in cast iron skillet to 350 degrees. Combine cornmeal, Lawry’s and lemon pepper. Dredge catfish strips in cornmeal mixture and shake off excess. Drop one at a time into hot oil. Fry until golden (about six minutes), remove, drain and serve.


When frying, it is crucial to maintain the oil temperature. Overloading the oil will cause a severe drop in temperature causing whatever you are frying, and the product will absorb more oil, resulting in a greasy, soggy final product. Keep a thermometer in the oil at all times so that you can monitor the temperature. Also, only bread as much as you can fry at one time. Pre-breading can cause clumps, which will fall off during the frying process. A good method for frying in batches is to preheat your oven to “warm” (200 degrees). Place paper towels or a cooling rack on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Place the already fried objects in the oven, leaving the oven door cracked slightly to prevent steaming.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Doggie Bags

After 28 years in the restaurant business, one of the most consistent customer behaviors I have observed is with doggie bags. A majority of restaurant patrons are embarrassed to ask their server for a doggie bag.

I have never been able to figure out the tentativeness on the customer’s part, but it’s real. Many would rather throw away the remainder of a perfectly good pasta dish they ordered than to walk out of the restaurant holding a to-go box.

Doggie bags are rarely used for dogs. They are people bags, and I never hesitate to ask for one, even in the finest restaurants I have visited. It’s the ultimate compliment to the chef.

At the Crescent City Grill we serve large portions. We welcome customer’s requests for doggy bags. My mother can eat a Grilled and Chilled Chicken Salad for lunch and take the remainder home for dinner, and she does. It makes no sense to send it back to the kitchen where the bus boy is going to scrape it into the trash can.

Some foods are better than others the next day, and some foods can’t hold up even a few hours later. Hearty soups, stews, and gumbos (especially chili) benefit from a day in the refrigerator allowing the flavors to meld and intensify.

Fried seafood is only appetizing for a few minutes after it’s been cooked. Grilled chicken can be kept in the refrigerator for days and, whereas fried chicken from a fast-food chain is good— in the picnic sense— when eaten cold the following day, boneless chicken tender-type entrees don’t hold up as well.

The pinnacle of leftover food is steak. I always take steak home and my dog never gets any— well, maybe the bone.

When I grill steaks at home I always throw a couple of extras on the grill for steak and biscuits the next morning.

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and one of my favorite breakfasts is leftover steak served in a biscuit, not the fast-food, deep-fried-steak-and-gravy version of steak and biscuits, but real steak— no gravy— and a little butter on a biscuit.

The reason my children get excited about a steak dinner has nothing to do with the supper they are about to eat, but what will be served for breakfast the next morning.

The St.John version of steak and biscuits is always made with leftover steak. I slice it into thin strips and place it in aluminum foil, sprinkle a little steak seasoning over the meat, top it with a small pat of butter, close the foil, and place it in the oven while the biscuits are baking. A microwave should never be used when reheating leftover steak as it causes the meat to dry out considerably.

I am a staunch proponent of homemade biscuits and believe that they should be used almost all of the time, but for some strange reason— maybe it’s because that’s the way I grew up eating this dish— refrigerated-whop-on-the-counter-straight-out-of-the-tin biscuits work best for this dish. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. Save your emails, I’ve been eating steak and biscuits prepared this way for 47 years.

Once the biscuits have baked and the steak is warm, slice open the biscuits and spread a tiny bit of butter on the inside of each biscuit half, top with steak, close, eat, repeat.

These are especially good when served alongside scrambled eggs and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Once you’ve make steak and biscuits using last night’s restaurant steaks, you’ll never again be anxious about walking through a restaurant with a doggie bag.

Steak Seasoning

1 /2 cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 /3 cup Black pepper
1 /4 cup Lemon Pepper
2 Tbl Garlic Salt
2 Tbl Granulated Garlic
1 Tbl Onion Powder

Combine all and mix well. Store in an airtight container.