Monday, December 20, 2010

Gone Fishing

Last week was fish week in the Restaurant R’evolution test kitchen at Bittersweet Plantation, and for me, another week in what we’ve half-jokingly dubbed the “John Folse Cooking School.” As a chef who didn’t previously have a background in Cajun and Creole cooking, this menu development process has been an incredible learning opportunity for me, getting to cook side-by-side with the man who literally wrote the book (12 of them!) on that style of cuisine. To give you a little bit of insight into our menu development process for R’evolution, it’s really a three-step process for each section of the menu we look at.

Step One: John and I decide which of the classic Creole and Cajun dishes we want to do our riffs on. We’ll read and talk about the history of those dishes and which of the Seven Nations contributed to those dishes (more on the Seven Nations from John later this week). Then we’ll go into the kitchen together with our team of chefs for three days of intensive study and cooking, and John takes us through the classic preparations for those dishes from start to finish.

Step Two: I usually take a day or two to go away and marinate on it all. I think about the dishes we made, and I figure out how to interpret them through my palate and my culinary sensibilities to make them new, make them my own. I sketch out the dishes on paper, I think about how they’ll look and how they’ll be presented. I shop and prep in the kitchen to get ready for the last step.

Step Three: Tasting Day. We taste the reinterpreted dishes. We pass judgment. We decide what will make the cut for the menu and what we’ll table for the time being. We talk about plating and presentation. Then we work out the logistics of each recipe and the kitchen process and system for each dish. In all, it can take more than a week to iron out each part of the menu.

A Tale of Three Fish Stews...the first rendition.

For fish week, we examined and broke down the iconic fish dishes of New Orleans. We did about 12 different dishes on Wednesday, and then on Thursday we worked out the recipes and systems that go with the eight dishes we had approved. The most exciting dish that came out of the week, for me, was the Tale of Three Fish Stews. We looked at three of the seven nations – France, Italy and Spain – that are most famous for bouillabaisse and fish stews, and created three different takes on the dish through those culinary lenses. Bouillabaisse from France, a Ligurian fish stew from Italy and a Spanish “zarzuela.” Ultimately, rather than choose just one, we decided to create a trio of fish stews in a three-course tasting offering.

We had some fun playing around with surf and turf, pulling together things like red snapper and sugar cane-cured pork belly. We’re messing around with a version of shrimp and grits. A Creole dish with grouper. These are the kinds of things we’re cooking and getting inspired by. Not everything will wind up on the menu, but it’s all part of the journey.

Pontchartrain Blues crab boat

A Pontchartrain Blue crab

One of the coolest parts of fish week for me was getting to go out on the Gulf on shrimp and crab boats with some prospective purveyors, and watching these guys harvest these incredible Pontchartrain Blue crabs in their cages. The day that I was out there, I was actually touring with White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, and we had a private tour of the operation. It was fascinating to see how they sort through the crabs and stack them and pick them by hand. They were so fast. There were like ten tables with eight people around each table, and they’re packing all of this incredible blue crab meat into plastic containers and weighing it. Pretty amazing stuff.

Next week: meat. We’ll be doing tastings with purveyors at farms, slaughterhouses and butchers, deciding where we’ll be sourcing our meat.

- Rick

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