Roasted Chicken

The first time I roasted a whole chicken, it felt like I was diffusing a bomb. I cannot completely relate to the person I was before I knew how to really cook. Working with food and becoming a chef requires the thoughtful exercising of repetitive activities. We make mayonnaise over an over, along the way learning subtleties and nuance of emulsification. We learn how to wash and dry salad greens, ever striving to be more gentle and cleaner. I have now butchered and roasted (and fried) more chickens than I could ever count. I've finished endless bowls of pasta with a ladle of pasta water and a drizzle of olive oil or a pat of butter. I've seared countless burgers over charcoal, and hand-stretched pizza dough in my dreams.  While all of this has become for the most part second nature, I am still learning and tweaking and hopefully improving. 

So back to that first chicken. I really could not conceive how to get from raw whole chicken to Martha Stewart golden crispy bird. After much research, I set up  a cheesecloth draped over the chicken. I procured a paintbrush and swiped a mop of white wine and butter at regular intervals during a roasting process that involved flipping the chicken and rotating it and changing the temperature of the oven, and lord knows what else. By the time I was done, the chicken skin was still soggy, the meat was raw where the thigh meets the backbone and I had under seasoned the poor bird to a degree that flavor was not something to associate with this chicken. I clearly had overthought this chicken.

It turns out roasting a chicken is ridiculously simple. A handful of salt, several turns of pepper, a hot oven, a great quality chicken (preferably raised by someone you know), a nose, a touch, and a good thermometer are all you really need. Yes, you can do more: herbs or citrus in the cavity; butter and garlic under the skin; the possibilities are endless. But for me, simple is almost always where I go these days. 

Simplicity is the benchmark. As cooks and learners, our instincts can easily veer towards complexity: a dash of this, or a sprig of that, an espuma here, or an emulsified essence there. Experience has taught me that if less can work, if less produces cleaner, more straightforward food, then less is where I go. 

How I take a break: cookbooks

I've tried it all: meditation, yoga, do not disturb mode on my iPhone, deep breathing, jogging, pushups. As a chef and small business owner, the day never ends. The week never pauses, and the responsibilities never take a break. 

My dirty little secret? I love it! I enjoy all the ups and downs, the anxieties, the delicious dishes, late deliveries, new menu testing, menu planning, broken pipes and robot coupes, daily human resource frustrations. I love the people I work with. The cooks, the dishwashers, the chefs, the servers, the bartenders, the cashiers and my partners - they all uniquely drive me crazy and make me happy. This life is fuller and richer than I ever imagined when I dreamed all those dreams in block one of culinary school.


But I still need a break sometimes. As I've gotten older - my knees creakier and my tolerance for the spiciest dish on the Thai menu waning - I've realized that moments of escape and relaxation are essential to maintaining my health, both physically and mentally. 

When I think of escapes, few things in this world fill me with more wonder, joy, and peace than cookbooks. My favorite thing about being a chef is the total awareness that I will never know it all. I will die with dishes uncooked, ingredients never tasted, and techniques never tested. In my career I have learned so much, and yet, when I open a cookbook, I feel as though I am peaking into an alternate food life that reveals how much left there is to know. 

To sit with a pile of cookbooks and a couple of hours to spare is a chance to learn, dream, and challenge my assumptions. Flipping through a cookbook is a break that returns me to the reasons I started this journey. 


How The Menus Get Made - A Podcast

From upper left: Ian, Steve, Josh, Amy (Christine is taking the pic)

From upper left: Ian, Steve, Josh, Amy (Christine is taking the pic)

So a couple of week's ago, Sunday Dinner Club sat down with Ian and Steve from Vinejoy and drank a bunch of wine out of paper bags.  We were menu planning of course.  Specifically, we were dreaming up our Valentine's Day 2013 menu.  We recorded this meeting.  There is quite a bit of slurring, background music, rickies, drinking, occasional vulgarities, religious exploration and wasted time.

We are sharing this recording with you.  We feel vulnerable.  You will hear myself (Josh Kulp), my co-chef Christine Cikowski, our sous-chef Amy Hoover, along with our wine friends Ian and Steve.

You gotta eat salty tasty food when wine pairing - just got to.

You gotta eat salty tasty food when wine pairing - just got to.

Just a heads up on what you might hear if you listen.  We tasted wines out of paper bags - it was a blind tasting so we would not be influenced by labels or grapes.  If you are interested in how we chefs spend our time and also how we navigate the process of collaborative menu planning, you might enjoy listening.

SDC Vinejoy Valentine's Day Menu Planning Podcast (NSFW!!)  

right click to download or just click to listen

And the menu we created with the wines:

Cool Ranch Crackers

Illinois Sparkling Bubbly

Green Curry Lobster and Corn Soup, Bay Scallops, Thai Basil and Cilantro

Force of Nature Pinot Gris

Bo Ssam Pork, Smoked Paprika and Spaghetti Squash Salad

Force of Nature Tempranillo

Cashew Sesame Noodles, Charred Sirloin and Garlicky Summer Beans

Force of Nature Cabernet Sauvignon

Salted Shortbread Cookies with Chili and Caramelia Chocolate Ganache

Force of Nature Zinfandel

I bought Ian's Glasses!

I bought Ian's Glasses!

Something In The Way

Kurt Cobain's wishful declaration, "It's okay to eat fish because that don't have any feelings," tempered my guilt for the last 20 years.  No longer - according to a new study, apparently the crustaceans don't like being boiled and stabbed.  David Foster Wallace was on to something.

More stuff to feel bad about.  But this pasta was pretty awesome.

Sunday Dinner Club Lobster Thermidor Cannelloni (photo by Christine Cikowski)

Links To The Past

As a chef, the task of building flavor into a single dish is a constant.  If we're making a lobster ravioli, goddammit, we want that bite of food to taste like a giant lobster.  Now we might add some alternate flavor notes, some herbs, a little booze, perhaps a little acid, but lobster must permeate.  So, obviously we would fill the ravioli with lobster, but the béchamel we make to sauce the ravioli - we'll start with a base of lobster stock.  The mushrooms we serve as a garnish - toss em with some lobster butter.  Lobster on lobster on lobster.  Throw in a little tarragon, a splash of sherry and you really have something.  When a diner takes a bite of that lobster dish, we want them to taste depth, and layering, and fully lobster (yes, I can't stop thinking about lobsters).

That's all fine and good for a single dish, but what about a whole menu?  At Sunday Dinner Club we think in menus - we serve a set four, five, or six course menu that has to flow, be balanced, and feel "right."  We always attempt to find complimentary dishes and flavors as the menu progresses.  We try to balance starches, and dairy, and meat, and veg.  We try to flow from one dish to the next, focused on the progression, moving forward on the menu, but also moving away from the previous dish.  Unlike the repetitive layering of a single plate, when composing a full menu, we have always been conscious to not repeat ingredients, to move ahead in an appropriate but certainly different way from the previous dish.  Our method of menu building, to find a menu direction, and go forward has been successful, exciting and useful.

But recently I was lucky enough to dine at Goosefoot, and experienced top level execution, elegance and soul.  Goosefoot blew me away.  After the meal I could not stop thinking about the menu, and the progression.  Goosefoot operates in set menus as well, and Chef Chris Nugent and his team offered a menu that of course had direction and flow.  But it had something else as well -  it had continuity, it had links to the past.  Nugent's menu, kept returning to flavors from previous courses.  An example - rather than serving mushrooms once, and then moving along, Nugent returns again and again to mushrooms.  Currently he offers truffles with chestnut soup, maitakes with sea bass, later trumpet mushrooms served with beef.  Other flavors and herbs and aromatics return as well.  Ever finished a dish at a great meal and felt angry because it's over?  At Goosefoot, the dish keeps returning, not in a bash you over the head sort of way, but in a subtle, thoughtful, and truly generous way.

The Goosefoot menu was a revelation to me.  Rather than settling for building flavor in each dish, and then moving forward to build another separate, yes, maybe complimentary, but still distinct flavor and dish, Goosefoot keeps reminding us of where we just were, and that was truly magnificent.

Lobster Considerations

New Year's Eve.  Time to cook some lobster.  The tried and true method?  Parcook them, using Thomas Keller's culinarily perfect technique.  This is how we take care of things in our kitchen.  The lobster meat just releases from it's shell, but is not over-cooked after blanching (ie. pouring acidulated boiling water over the lobsters and allowing them to rest for a few minutes).  Pick the meat and it's ready to be heated gently in butter, or grilled quickly, or folded into warm béchamel and filled into cannelloni.  Can't go wrong.

Except that several years ago I read David Foster Wallace's sensible and uneasy essay about his experience at the Maine Lobster Festival.  I'm sharing it here, not to advocate the avoidance of eating once alive creatures, but because Wallace so intimately and empathically relates to the creatures.  And I do to.  It is an emotional thing to cook animals and Wallace acknowledges that.  Sometimes it's simpler to avoid the complexity and paradoxes in what we choose to do with our time - sell clothes manufactured under harsh conditions, trade equities that once were working peoples mortgages, design ads for companies interested only in their bottom lines, research genetically modified seeds that homogenize our food system, kill animals for food.  For each of these, I am certain a cogent argument can be made for why such work is beneficial. 

Here's one: tonight, I will carefully prepare (kill, cook) lobster for an exciting New Year's Eve menu, and I sincerely hope that it is delicious and believe you me, every bit of that lobster including the shells will be made use of and I expect it will make diners, staff, and myself quite happy.  For sure, this rumination is complex and I don't intend to explore all the issues associated with how I justify eating once living creatures.  But I am aware of it, I think about it, and yes, it makes me uneasy. Don't even get me started about the rabbit, beef and salmon on the menu tonight!
"Wild shrimp often comes with a higher price tag."

My advanced fish instructor in culinary school, Chef Elaine Sikorski, was intimidating, brutally honest in her critiques, and a total inspiration in her grasp of cuisine and technique.  Oh, and when a student suggested shrimp for a dish, she made a face and said, "Don't ever eat those things."  

Want cheap shrimp? Well, as is all too often the case, the commodification of a natural delicacy has left farmed shrimp far removed from being something you might want to put into your mouth:
Many shrimp farms are quite similar to the notorious factory farms found in the U.S., regularly treating their product with antibiotics and other chemicals in order to prevent infections and disease.
Where there is cheap, potentially harmful food, there is usually environmental carnage:
In many regions of the world, shrimp farmers cut down and remove mangroves in order to construct shrimp ponds. About 70 percent of the world’s mangrove forests have disappeared in the last 40 years, due in part to the rise of shrimp aquaculture. 
Throw in modern day slavery:
Sorng says Phatthana promised him lodging, a food allowance, and paid transportation back to Cambodia after the two years had passed. But once Sorng arrived in Thailand, he was forced to work 26 days a month, and the company withheld half his pay to ensure he wouldn’t leave.
Wild, responsible shrimp seem affordable yet? Oh, it tastes better too.
"Strike One"

Spoken to my wife as I slammed into the locked right side of a double door at a certain, almagamated breakfast restaurant in Park Ridge. The experience: the largest "only could be that big in America" spit like omelet I've ever encountered, sad undercooked shredded potatoes, a lox plate where the cream cheese was ice cold and in a sealed package. They wanted money for this.  Someday I hope to  fully understand why one door must be locked on double doors. I also hope to understand why some people don't just sell shoes - why must it be food?