Another Day in Poe's Kitchen at The Rattlesnake

Chef Brian Poe shows you the world in the back of the house.

Archive for Cooking Philosophy

On Going Wild with John Dory: A Year in Poe’s Kitchen

What a difference a year makes.

As I was beginning to revamp the menu for spring, I happened to look at my inventory sheets from March 2009:

MEAT
Chicken tenders
Burgers
Hot dogs

PRODUCE
Lettuce
Tomato
Onion

FISH
Calamari
Cod

MISC.
Premade pizza shells

My list this year reads:

MEAT
Rattlesnake               Leg of lamb
Duck                           Buffalo
Boar                            Alligator
Venison                     Sweetbreads
Wagyu                        Veal bones
Ribeye                        Beef tenderloin
Chorizo                      Speck
Foie gras

PRODUCE
Peruvian potato        Yukon Gold potato
Watercress                 Frisée
Baby arugula             Baby tatsoi
Chocolate mint         Purple asparagus
Chiles: cascabel, guajillo, ancho, Anaheim, poblano, jalapeno, serrano, habanero

FISH
Cod                              Salmon
Tuna                           Shrimp
U/10 scallops          Mussels
Clams: Wellfleet, Ipswich
Oysters: Cape, Duxbury
Lobster

With all of these ingredients, we can go in most any direction our culinary hearts desire. My staff and I are constantly trying to push ourselves forward; we do our damnedest not to repeat anything on the Unleashed menu (though we have some favorites that bring us comfort each season).

Even so, every time I look at an inventory sheet, I ask myself what might be missing—and then I try to fill the gaps in ways that will be as fun for us in the kitchen as they are exciting for you in the dining room.

Take last night. At midnight, I called in my meat and fish orders—and at the end of both messages, I said, “I don’t wish to confuse matters, but if you could just do me one favor—please send me 5 pounds of the freshest ingredient you have in stock. I don’t care what it is—surprise me!” Then I called the produce company, and asked them to send me 1 pound each of 5 surprise ingredients.

This morning is wild; we’re gearing up for a busy lunch. There’s a photo shoot with Tony Caz of the Patriot Ledger on the roofdeck before all hell breaks loose on the line. We cook like mad until 3:15 pm, and now I’m looking at my grab bag of surprises. Yes—there’s a little John Dory, some morels….I’ve got it!

First I’ll season the fish with shiitake dust, wrap it in ramps, and grill it. Then I’ll serve it on a brioche bun with watercress and tomato. On the side, 3-potato salad with Meyer lemon, purple asparagus–morel salsa, and crumbled feta in a smoked Kalamata olive vinaigrette. Voilà—my new fish sandwich.

The opportunities I’ve had this past year to surprise my coworkers, customers, and even myself by transforming classic bar snacks into a wild new category of eclectic eats have been tremendous. Thanks to all who’ve accompanied me on this crazy culinary journey! That includes the exciting new crew who’s helping me make jalapeno sugar for our white chocolate ganache cheesecake with jalapeno lime and strawberry sauce as well as a habanero-infused margarita; for the complete current Unleashed menu, click here!

How I Roll on Rosh Hashanah, or, When Poe’s Kitchen Is in Someone Else’s Home

prep list I’ve done a lot of off-property catering over the years, for three reasons. Charitable causes are number one. Two and three are because it’s fun and because it’s fun. I find that when I cook in people’s homes for them and several of their closest friends, we have the opportunity to really connect over food. It is truly the most relaxed and intimate setting to cook in. I get eye contact; I get verbal feedback—and you can bet that when I overhear an “mmmm….that’s good” or a “wow, that sauce is incredible,” I’m mentally writing the next Unleashed Menu. It’s a daily treat to build a menu from scratch at the restaurant—but it’s easy, I’ve got staff to help me. It’s a real adventure to build a menu from scratch in a strange kitchen, flying solo with only a chef’s knife and whatever equipment the owner makes available.  

planning

This past weekend I went to New York to cook a  Rosh Hashanah dinner for someone whom I  consider a dear friend—someone who has unknowingly been a strong influence on my career, in terms of both my creative direction and my business sense. He shares the crowning title of “People I Love to Cook For,” and here’s why: he too accepts my nutty-professor approach to cooking, based on endless curiosity, and he too understands that fine dining doesn’t mean always mean foie gras and crystal. It emphasizes simple fun with high-quality ingredients in any setting that brings good people together. And it’s their voices I hear in my head as I cook.

DSC_0107 cooking

fennel and fenugreek bassOnce I’ve accepted a gig, here’s the general sequence of events:

1.      E-mails are exchanged with menu ideas. Everything from the season and likes/dislikes to religion and allergies are discussed. In this case, there was no pork, no shellfish, no dairy, no vinegar, no raw fish—talk about taking all of my favorite tricks out of the book!

2.      A menu is presented.

3.      The atmsophere is discussed; a sense of how the evening will unfold begins to develop.

4.      Flights are booked; hotels are booked.

5.      As preparation on the ground begins, 16 hours in advance, time is of the essence, stress levels build, and confidence is tested.

6.      Cooking from scratch begins—I must get organized quickly! The last few hours before guests arrive in someone else’s home are always the most intense!

7.      I have one hour to to run to the hotel, shower, put on my best chef’s coat, and return to the house for a meet and greet!

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Exposure is the most interesting part of catering versus cooking at Poe’s Kitchen. In my own place, I have time and space to meditate and regroup before the dinner rush begins. In another person’s home, I’m constantly on display. No cursing when I burn myself, no one but me to clean up the mess, no one even to demonstrate my methods to. And this brings me humbly back to my roots. Real cooking happens when it’s for people you love and respect. How do I take that feeling back into a professional environment? One course at a time…

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***

The menu, for your approval.

The C Family

 Rosh Hashanah Dinner Celebration 2009

 

Appetizers

Fig & Pine Nut Butter Stacks

Gravlax on Cucumber with Caper, Onion & Blackberry Compote

Minted Mediterranean Vegetable Cous Cous “Spring Rolls” with Leek Dipping Sauce

Salad:

Apple Carpaccio Salad

  Arugula~ Champagne and Apple Vinaigrette~ McIntosh Apples~ Strawberry Honey Glaze~ Cashew & Cinnamon Sugar Dust

Soup:

Mrs. C’s Secret Recipe of Chicken Soup

Traditions:

Potato and Noodle Kugel & Gefilte fish

Entrees:

Trio Plate of:

Pan Seared Coriander Cilantro Chicken

Apple & Tomatillo Salsa

  Saffron Infused Celery Root Puree~ Leek and Scallion Nest

Apricot & Mint Stuffed Tenderloin of Beef

Sun dried Apricot, Basil & Mint Stuffed Filet ~ Balsamic Jerusalem Artichoke & Garlic Mashed Potatoes ~ Veal Stock Reduction

Cabbage Wrapped Roasted Sea Bass

Upon a duo of Beet Borscht and Tzimmes Purees ~ Date and Acorn Squash “Salsa” and Fennel Pollen

 

 

 

Dessert will be Purchased

 Shana Tova Umetukah!

Culinary Artistry: The Syllabus!

I feel like Rodney Dangerfield in the movie Back to School. Ten years ago, if you’d asked me to step to the front of a classroom full of 20- and 21-year-olds and try my hand at teaching, I would have laughed in your face and kept my hand where it belonged, on the handle of my saute pan.

But now, in retrospect, it seems I never really left the classroom. It just happens to look like a kitchen. I was 23, an instructor from the Greenbrier Resort told me that in order to be a good chef you have to be good at the following five things:

1. You have to be a good cook.
2. You have to be a good manager.
3. You have to be a good businessperson.
4. You have to be a good parent and a good citizen (because you will probably raise some kids in that kitchen!).

And most importantly,
5. You have to be a good teacher.

I’ve lived by these five rules ever since.

I started teaching at Newbury College last year. Not with the goal of switching professions—and certainly not for the money. I was simply very curious to know what schools were teaching the chefs of the future and wanted to be a part of it.

51X63CJ0V7L._SS400_My first class was conducted online from Santiago, Chile, where I e-mailed the students a great chapter from Becoming a Chef titled “Travel, Eating, and Reading: Learning Something New Everyday”—which is just what I was doing, teaching by example as I discovered that the South America you see on CNN is not the warm, wonderful South America you meet in the kitchen and around the dinner table. In the book are some quotes from Lydia Shire—someone I never thought I would actually meet, but who has turned out to be a strong influence on my career—who noted that kids should spend less money on Walkmans (now iPods) and more money and time on travel and education. Guess who I quoted on Monday night during the intro to my fall seminar, Culinary Artistry?

The beauty of it all I’ve grown to love teaching. In our industry we work a lot of hours with some happy people and some unhappy people, some cheery optimists and some bitter drunks. The industry can be tough on us all. But there is nothing more restorative than walking into a group full of eager young people who excited to take everything to take all that fresh learning and apply it in the real world!  As they learn and grow, so do I—while remembering just why I love this business so much.

Here are a few key items on my syllabus. It’s already shaping up to be a great class.

9780316178310_388X586October 5
Cooking for Ideas: Where to Look While We Cook and While We Live

Assignment- Research the top 50 Restaurants in the U.S. and World (guidance will be provided on where to locate this information) then choose one that you would like to research further for your final exam/paper.

October 26
Realities of Our Workplace and How to Create Around Them?

We will discuss how to create around the demands of staffing, bosses, ownership, shortages, costs and running your business. (case study)

December 7th
Building Your Happy Place

How do you inspire those around you to create? How do you create? What is your best environment and time of day for creating food ideas? How do you work around the hectic schedules of school and work to create? What does your ideal creative space look like? (with reading assignment from the book The Six Thinking Hats).

Speed Dating at the Stove

After a while, the interview process for cooks begins to seem a lot like speed dating.

from Impactlab.com

from Impactlab.com

You know, where groups of men and women meet at a bar to go on mini-dates, making small talk in five-minute shifts until the bell rings, then moving on to the next person. It’s basically adult musical chairs—a stressful game even when you’re a kid.

The questions are quick and direct.

“What’s your favorite cookbook?”

“I don’t read cookbooks.”

Ding, ding, ding…Next!

***

The next one explains to me that he doesn’t read cookbooks; he uses the Internet as a reference. Interesting, I say, because he has a point. While I still reference my copies of

97806848007765150QHX6AQL._SL500_AA240_14800472

Jasper White’s Lobster at Home, Jody Adams’s In The Hands of a Chef, Eric Ripert’s A Return to Cooking, Gordon Hamersley’s Bistro Cooking at Home, and everything Charlie Trotter’s ever written, I too constantly surf sites like Star Chefs, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and BostonChefs. So hey, let’s see what this kid’s got!

“OK, what’s your favorite website?”  

“Ummm, you know, the stuff I find on the Web.”

Ding, ding, ding…Next!

***

“How did you develop an interest in cooking?”

Bachelor #1: “God told me to.” Ding!

Bachelor #2 (a muscle-bound, tattooed guy with a shaved head and a fu manchu): “I have just always loved cooking ever since I started watching the Food Network. I saw that blonde lady with the big bosoms and I just knew, chef, I really knew that I could be that lady, but better.” Ding! Ding!

Bachelor #3: “I knew I wanted to cook when I watched my mother make jellies from all of the different berries we had while I was growing up on the farm.  I found it fascinating to watch her clean the chickens, using every part in a different sauce or casserole.”  

“Interesting,” I say, “because in your cover letter you state that you are proud to have grown up under the tutelage of your single father, an autoworker, in downtown Detroit…” Umm, ding ding ding! Next…

***

“My friend John Gorham taught me as a young man that, with the long hours we work in the food and beverage business, we can truly have the best and worst moments of our careers in a single day. Tell me about your worst day that turned into your best.”

“I was once Tasered by a chef.”

“Are you kidding me?”  

“No, my chef had a really good sense of humor and he thought it would be funny if he Tasered me when I messed up. I found it to help me create some of my most interesting cuisine.”

Dear God, my friend, I want to hire you just to show you that not all chefs are like that! We do like young cooks who want to learn, and we do like to teach. But with a stun gun? Ding!

***

“So your resume reads: Tremont 647, KO Prime, Scampo, and Sel de la Terre. Wow! Tell me about your experiences working for such great chefs.”

“Absolutely amazing. They really know how to cook.”  

Good answer, I tell him, and offer to bring him in for a day. I’ll pay him, show him what we do, and then he can tell me if he’d like to work with me.

It’s the middle of lunch on Friday when he comes in to stage. I’m excited—I’ve got great expectations from someone with a background like his. So here we go: this is how we plate this dish, I say, this is how we prepare the next one. This is every secret to everything we know.

He says, I’ve got this, and I’m filled with confidence.

The first plate he prepares is returned to the kitchen. Then the second. I make quick phone calls to the chefs the kid name-dropped in the interview. “Oh, yeah,” they say, “that kid. He worked for me for like two days.” Ugh!

***

It’s finally time for dinner service when one of my dishwashers walks in and says, “Chef, this is my brother, and he wants to cook.” He points to a kid with an Atlanta Braves ballcap on backwards. But at this point, what have I got to lose? Let’s get him in whites and give him a try, I figure.

An hour later, it’s just me and him, delivering food out the window like we had cooked together for years. I turn to him mid-rush and ask, “What got you into this biz?”

“I don’t know, chef, I just like to cook.”

“OK, kid, you’re hired.”

***

And so it goes, just like the dating game. Just like a real-life love affair. I’d been looking everywhere for my perfect match, going on date after date to find that one person, accepting no less than perfection while the rest of my staff worked extra hours and met extra demands. Then one day, when I’d just about given up—wham! Out of the blue, here’s my new line cook!

The morals to this story? One is for me to take to heart: the best things come when you least expect them. And the other’s for you young cooks out there: when you go in for an interview, don’t tell the chef what you think he wants to hear. Because in cooking, as in love and in life, all any of us want to hear is the truth.

Menu writing: My round-the-clock ritual

Menu writing is incredibly therapeutic for me. Sometimes I compare the process to dog nesting; other times it’s as though I’m having my own lovers’ quarrel. In the first case, it’s an instinctive ritual: I wake up in the morning, have a cup (or three) of coffee, scan the paper, check my horoscope, then maybe have a cigarette or two while I putter around the house on pure nervous energy. Eventually I head out to the back garden; it’s nothing fancy, but it contains all my favorites—herbs, tomatoes, squash, grapes, peppers and some flowers to keep the bumblebees happy—and I wander the rows for awhile. Finally I settle down—doglike, in circles, with a sniff here and scratch there—to relax and write.

I turn on some music—today it’s classic New Orleans jazz—and light another cigarette. Even though it’s raining, the aura of summer is palpable; I’m feeling basil, strawberry, a little jalapeno, maybe some cherries. Beija cachaça—a Brazilian sugar cane spirit—and the white peach sangria that Lovewell (the Rattlesnake’s assistant GM) has been working on also pop up in my thoughts. Meanwhile I’m scanning the seasonal produce calendar and having a look at the latest lists from my fish purveyors. Now hunger pains are starting to worsen my nervous energy. Time to focus, keep it simple: raspberries and bananas, graham cracker crust, whipped cream…what about popsicles? Perhaps watermelon-basil popsicles with kiwi syrup? Hmmm. Now I’m thinking…

       popsicle ingredients popsicles in molds

Or not. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and all I’ve put in my gut so far is coffee. I’m starving, but I’ve got lots to do besides eat: for instance, stop by the bookstore to pick up The United States of Arugula, which I should have read three years ago (have you? What did you think? Comments welcome)—which means I’ll probably make an impulse cookbook purchase as well. (The cookbook collection in my home office spills over into the kitchen and basement—where every recipe I’ve ever written is crammed into a few filing cabinets.) I’m also going to pick up some watermelon, basil, kiwi, and popsicle molds. I’ll bring along a notepad, pen, and a pocket tape recorder, just in case any new ideas spring forth along the way. This whole therapeutic cycle itself makes me nuts—but I embrace it in the name of creativity.

So off I go…

My shopping’s done; I’ve got 45 popsicle trays and I’m going to use them—though I’ve dropped the basil in favor of rhubarb. So look for watermelon, rhubarb, and kiwi popsicles on this week’s Unleashed menu. I treat myself to my favorite day-off snack—a beer and a burger beachside at Tides in Nahant—and scan Fast Company, thinking about how far American food has come. In the late 1980s, Lee Iacocca wrote in Talking Straight of chefs as dungeon dwellers, with their dirty coats and messy duties. Now I’m thumbing through business magazines that put events like the World Pork Expo on their calendars. A few months ago The Economist had an article about the global clamor over chile peppers. And meanwhile, on page 13 of The Improper Bostonian is a full page ad for Poe’s Kitchen (along with our sister restaurants, Parish Café and Bukowski’s Tavern). Very humbling. Very exciting.

Ten hours later—midnight. I’ve since been to the bookstore, followed by the Omni Parker House for a drink. Next thing I knew I’d popped in to Eastern Standard for an oyster, La Verdad for a taco, Uni for sashimi, Sonsie to sample the scallops, Sel de la Terre for crab ravioli, the Back Bay Hotel to say hello, and Clery’s for a nightcap before heading home. Talk about a crawl! Now I’m back in my office and still honing the Unleashed menu, my head—not to mention my notepad and tape recorder—full of ideas. But it’s also full of questions. What works best? Does this fit with that? Will it be a hit? Does it matter? Are we moving forward?

This is where the lovers’ quarrel begins.

For me—especially now, as I try to strike a balance between upscale cuisine and comfort food, to marry fine dining with bar snacking—writing menus is like having an argument in a secure relationship. It begins almost by accident. First the wrong words come out. Is it too late to take them all back? Doors close; there’s silence. I pace the floors, wondering if this thing will ever work out. Then, just when I need it most, the apology comes, the passionate make-up—and the menu comes together! Poe’s Kitchen and the Rattlesnake are still in love!
From the inked scribbles filling five notebooks piled on the desk, a few make it into my final document as I quickly type up my favorite ideas. I’ll make a few phone calls in search of the best product on Tuesday, then get ready for a full morning of prep on Wednesday. I love being in love. I love being Unleashed. I love this business.