Inspired by IngredientsMarket Menus and Family Favorites from a Three-Star Chef
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2004 Andrew Friedman
All right reserved.ISBN: 0743243870
There's an old saying that you are what you eat. But I've always thought that for chefs, the expression should be "We are what we cook." The dishes that my colleagues and I serve in our restaurants and prepare for friends and family at home sum up the lives we've lived up to that moment. Our palates are formed in childhood, refined in cooking school, honed and personalized as we work for other chefs and dine in other restaurants, and finally shared with the public when we begin composing menus in our own restaurants.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Unless you've eaten at JUdson Grill, the restaurant in midtown Manhattan where I was the executive chef from 1998 through 2004, or read the food magazines that have reviewed my work and featured my recipes, you might not know who I am.
These are the bare facts: I was born and raised in Sayreville, New Jersey, schooled at the Culinary Institute of America, trained in a number of three- and four-star restaurants in New York and France, and now have the privilege of serving a menu of my own design to some of the most discriminating diners in the world.
Laid out in broad strokes, my biography sounds a lot like most New York City chefs' biographies. But, as with cooking, the difference is in the details.
The first thing you should know about me is that I'm a proud New Jersey native. I had a happy childhood, love my parents and siblings, and don't have a bad word to say about Bruce Springsteen. I didn't grow up in a family of "foodies," but we had it pretty good when it came to food. My father kept a modest garden in the backyard from which we picked cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and corn. The memories of those vegetables and the cooking we did with them led me years later to develop such dishes as Cucumber-Dill Soup with Scallions (page 76), Pan-Fried Summer Jersey Vegetables (page 91), and Boiled Lobster with a Corn Salad and Grilled New Potatoes (page 103).
The next thing you should know about me is that the Telepans are descended, in part, from Hungarians, and nowhere do we show our pride more than at the dinner table. My mother has always been one of my favorite cooks, making me and my siblings countless Hungarian-influenced dishes featuring cabbage — including a noodle one called Káposzta Teszta (page 340) — and poppy seeds, which show up in my repertoire in dishes like Lemon-Poppy Seed Bars (page 79). Some of Mom's most beloved recipes have been adapted for the menu at JUdson Grill. Some have become favorites of my wife, Beverly, and my daughter, Leah. All of them are represented in this book.
The next and in some ways the most important thing you should know about me is about the strawberries. Every chef can point to a moment early in his or her life or career that qualifies as an epiphany. For me the Big One came while I was working for the great chef Alain Chapel at his eponymous restaurant in Mionnay, France. One afternoon, I was going about my business, hauling a crate of strawberries into the walk-in refrigerator. It was a perfectly normal day until I glanced down at the berries — in the dim, romantic light they looked like a chestful of precious, edible jewels — and found myself mesmerized. I had never seen such beautiful, plump, perfect strawberries. To look at them was to taste them; you could actually see how good they were. Since I'm trying to bare my culinary soul here, I'll confess that I sneaked about a dozen of them just to be sure and, yes, they were the best I've ever had.
I had always known that raw ingredients were important, but that was the moment when I began to revere them.
When I returned to New York, I started going to the Union Square Greenmarket and shopping for produce for the restaurants where I worked. This is when I first met some of the farmers you'll encounter in this book and began appreciating how much their hard work influences any cook's success.
Never Have So Few Fed So Many For So Little
— popular farmer bumper sticker
As far as I'm concerned, farmers are the ultimate prep cooks. The decisions they make and the work they do are the first building blocks of every dish we serve at my restaurant. So I make a point of getting to know the farmers from whom we buy our ingredients. I want to make sure they observe practices that I believe in. For example, I want to know that they don't use pesticides or, if they do, that they use natural ones.
But more than anything. I want to get to know the person or people behind the farm.
I like to surround myself with passionate professionals, and that extends to these men and women who grow our food. Farming, like cooking, is hard work. For some, it's a way of making a living. Then there are those who flat-out love it, who feel about being in their fields the way that I do about being in the kitchen. There's one farmer I work with who tries something a little daring and unconventional every year. When I check in with him by phone at the end of winter, he'll say something like "I'm growing these new purple carrots. I don't know how they're going to turn out, but, man, am I excited." People like him are the ones I want to be in business with. I'll tell him to put me down for a few crates of those purple carrots, just to support his effort and encourage his enthusiasm.
You can make this same commitment at home: cooking with in-season fruits and vegetables is the simplest way to ensure that you get great raw ingredients and support the efforts of farmers who really care about what they're doing.
Some might consider sticking to seasonal ingredients a limitation. But consider this: cooking seasonally means cooking with the best fruits and vegetables available. It means always having something waiting for you around the next season's corner. Sure, you can get your hands on any ingredient you want at any time of year if you're willing to shell out more money for inferior fruits and vegetables that have traveled from thousands of miles away. But I think that part of the fun of food is anticipating the next season. I get excited every year when I stroll into the market and all of a sudden there's locally grown corn piled high in a barrel at the end of the summer, or the fava beans, peas, and asparagus that signal winter has finally become spring.
This applies to fish, shellfish, livestock, and cattle as well as to fruits and vegetables. Just about every ingredient you can think of has a season, whether it's based on its natural cycle or on external factors. For example, diver scallops are most abundant from November through April. Because they're fed on grass, lamb and veal are considered spring foods; they're fed on hay in the winter, which makes for a less tasty product. True story: The most idiosyncratic and amusing season is halibut; it is scarce in the winter because so many of the Canadian fishermen have gone moose hunting.
A Passion for Seasonal Foods and Cooking
I wanted to write this cookbook for the same reasons I love to cook and eat — to celebrate the seasons and the ingredients they bring, and to show off the work of the farmers for whom I have developed such respect and affection over the years. Of course, I also want to do for you what some of the great chefs I worked with early in my career did for me: to inspire you to be the best cook you can be by sharing my love of cooking and some of the most important knowledge I've picked up along the way.
I love everything about cooking. I love the physical act of cooking. I love serving people and seeing them take satisfaction in the food I've made. I love creating original dishes. But I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel; I take as much pleasure in cooking steak and roasted potatoes for me and my wife at home as I do in preparing an elaborate tasting menu for eight people in a restaurant.
I also love to eat, and the foods I appreciate run the gamut from simple to complex. My taste leans toward two primary ingredients in balance, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or a good martini with lots of olives. I also go wild for one perfect ingredient on its own, like sweet purple beets, late-summer tomatoes, or a prime, aged rib-eye steak. As for my favorite dishes, most of them are season-specific, like Striped Bass with Shell Beans and Garlic Kale (page 93) in the summer or Lamb Shanks with Mashed Parsnips, Caramelized Shallots, and Dried Cherries (page 305) in the winter. I'm fond of great red and white Burgundy and a sucker for homemade ice cream. Oh, and eggs. I can't get enough of eggs; they turn up over and over again in my cooking in dishes like Fettuccine "Carbonara" with Asparagus and Lemon Zest (page 20). I even offered shirred eggs on the lunch menu at JUdson Grill.
I'm proud of being a three-star New York City chef, but I'm not a food snob; there are recipes in this book based on my fond memories of such guilty pleasures as Pop-Tarts (Peach Jam Crostata, page 24) and fried chicken (Brined Fried Chicken, page 77). Like I say, you are what you cook, and these delicious, homey dishes are as much a part of my culinary identity as more sophisticated dishes such as the Black Sea Bass with a Lobster Champagne Broth, Lobster Dumplings, and Baby White Turnips (page 252) or the Muscovy Duck Breast with Creamy Polenta, Baby Spring Onions, and Black Pepper-Rhubarb Compote (page 67).
I believe that anyone can learn to cook great food. You don't have to have spent a childhood eating freshly netted lobsters in Brittany or wild boar killed by your grandfather in the hills of Tuscany. If you have some curiosity and are eager to learn about and try new ingredients and patiently improve your skills, both in the market and in the kitchen, there's no end to how good a cook you can become.
I'm living proof that this is true. As a teenager, my first job was stacking sandwiches in a delicatessen. My next was at a local Italian-American restaurant where we made eggplant parmigiana, veal piccata, fettuccine Alfredo, and other traditional dishes. It's safe to say that I became an expert on chicken francese.
Between high school and college, I landed the first of several jobs that would change my life. It was at Garfunkel's, which sounds like one of those generic American bierhaus-bistros. But Garfunkel's was something else altogether. It was run by some guys who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and were trying very hard to do something special. Their enthusiasm was contagious.
For some reason, it didn't occur to me to keep cooking at that point, and for a short time I studied engineering in college. But then I returned to Garfunkel's and all was right with the world. I was starting to get "the bug," the feeling that I, too, could become a professional chef. And that maybe I wanted to.
The Garfunkel's gang encouraged me to pursue cooking professionally; I applied to and was accepted by the Culinary Institute of America. I was pretty excited, until I told my mother the news. Cooking wasn't as glamorous then as it is today, and she was very concerned about my prospects. But I'm happy to report that she's come around. At the Culinary Institute (known to my fellow alums as the "CIA" or "the Culinary"), I learned all the formal basics in every area, from butchering to pastry. I took courses devoted to French, Italian, and Asian cuisine, as well as to nutrition, and American produce. There was even an experimental kitchen where we were encouraged to take new ideas out for a test drive.
When I graduated from the Culinary in 1987, I was incredibly fortunate: my first Manhattan job was at a restaurant that is now an institution but at that point was only three years old, Gotham Bar and Grill. Working under Alfred Portale, I spent time at every station on the line. This was a wonderful continuation of my education, and I also found strength in the fact that the kitchen team was made up of exclusively American cooks. It's no big deal today, but in those days the prevailing wisdom was that you had to be French to be a great cook. Seeing that Americans could do what I wanted to do was invaluable. And not only were these guys cooks; every single one of them wanted to be a chef. Have you ever heard women athletes describe how Billie Jean King inspired them by beating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" back in the 1970s? Well, that's how it felt to see a kitchen full of ambitious American cooks in the late 1980s. It was inspiring and empowering.
At the Gotham, Alfred thought about vegetables in a more specific way than any other chef I knew. Every dish had a well-thought-out accompaniment that wasn't only logical in taste but fit right into his famously beautiful presentations.
In 1990, I left Gotham to do what all of my peers still felt we had to do, even though we had kitchens full of compatriots to teach us: I went to France to apprentice with a great French chef. This would be the second job that changed my life, where lightning struck and I began to see things in a different way. At Alain Chapel's Michelin three-star restaurant in Mionnay, just north of Lyons, I first learned to appreciate the importance of cooking with locally grown, seasonal ingredients, like those magnificent strawberries I told you about earlier.
Chapel changed his menu every month. "This is what we have now," was his personal mantra. I worked with him for six months, so I was privileged to see him transition from the wintry foods of January to the late-spring and early-summer offerings of June.
Chapel's entire way of life was a revelation to me, from the small food stands where he shopped for his restaurant to the fresh-cut flowers he and his wife arranged around the dining room every day of the week.
When I returned to New York, I went to work at the four-star seafood temple Le Bernardin under its founding chef, Gilbert Le Coze. There, I learned how wonderful fish could be if you purchased the best and let its natural beauty and flavor shine. From Le Bernardin, it was on to Le Cirque, where I spent five months working as saucier for the great Daniel Boulud. Daniel taught me two big lessons that I still think about all the time. The first was balance. Daniel was brilliant at offsetting acidity and sweetness with other complementary elements to make sure that no single flavor overwhelmed the dish. This could be achieved with little decisions, like how carrots were cooked to control their sweetness or adding sorrel to a sauce for an elusive herbaceous quality that was missing. If possible, his preference was to bring out each ingredient's natural flavor, a preference that he passed on to me.
Daniel also taught me a valuable lesson about the much-debated subject of presentation. He had a very simple slogan, "If it tastes good, it'll look good," and I've adopted that guiding principle. When I'm working up a new dish, I just worry about flavor — if the elements are sound, then by the time I get to plating it, it comes out looking just fine. Don't ask me why; all I know is that it works every time.
In 1991, I returned to Gotham Bar and Grill and became Alfred Portale's sous chef, a job I held for four years. This was another life-changing position: I started going to the Union Square Greenmarket, just two blocks from Gotham, every day it was open — my version, I guess, of Chapel's market visits.
In 1996, I became the executive chef at Ansonia on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where I had my first opportunity to develop my own menu. I began to try out my own dishes, focusing on the seasonal produce I loved so much, honing and improving them all the time.
I also got reviewed for the first time. This is a nerve-racking experience that can turn even the most confident chef into a warbling bundle of nerves. But it worked out all right. Ruth Reichl, who was the food critic for The New York Times, said that customers were "captivated" by the food, that "Mr. Telepan lets his ingredients dictate the terms of each plate," and that all of my dishes "honor the season." I don't know what put a bigger smile on my face, those comments or the fact that I was being called "Mr. Telepan" in The New York Times.
But it wasn't until I came to JUdson Grill in 1998 that I really found myself as a chef. During my years there, I continued to forge my own style, calling on all of the great produce available, keeping dishes simple and balanced, and cooking food guided by a combination of personal history and contemporary influence and inspiration.
A lot of the reviews we received at JUdson Grill talked about our devotion to seasonal produce and local farmers. In New York magazine, Hal Rubenstein said that I was "inspired by vegetables" and called my vegetable plate "the best in town." And Ms. Reichl, still writing at The New York Times, said that my food was "extremely eloquent" and "roars with flavor," and pointed out that "the secret of Mr. Telepan's cooking is in the quality of his products. He seems to have made an extraordinary commitment to freshness." Jonathan Gold, Gourmet magazine's New York restaurant critic at the time, wrote that my cooking is "grounded in an American classic but lifted beyond it by absolute devotion to the quality and sourcing of produce, the smack of sharp fragrance, and the confidence to exploit subtle variations in flavor and texture."
These observations still make me very happy. I think back to those strawberries, and all the farmers I'm proud to call my friends, and the family dishes and culinary traditions I'm carrying on, and feel like — in my own modest way — I'm keeping the faith.
New York City
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Telepan