Top Chef Cooks Up Ways To Cut Costs, Not Quality

Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine i i

Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine, was a James Beard award winner for outstanding chef in 2004. To draw in diners in a tough economy, Hayward makes fish cakes and beans that are about half the cost of fancier items on his menu. Daniel E. Davis for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel E. Davis for NPR
Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine

Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine, was a James Beard award winner for outstanding chef in 2004. To draw in diners in a tough economy, Hayward makes fish cakes and beans that are about half the cost of fancier items on his menu.

Daniel E. Davis for NPR

Because of the recession, top restaurants across the country are trying to cut costs without compromising quality. According to the National Restaurant Association, 80 percent of America's fine dining establishments reported that their earnings for the first half of this year were significantly down from last year.

But in Portland, Maine, Chef Sam Hayward, a winner of the James Beard award in 2004, says one way he's keeping business up is by offering lower-priced entrees that still feel special.

Making Haddock Cakes

In his kitchen at Fore Street Restaurant, amid the sounds of ovens and fans, and the murmurings and gurglings of pots and pans, Hayward makes a meal that harks back to the traditions of Maine — cod cakes and beans.

But on this day, Hayward uses haddock, a close relative to cod and a favorite of Mainers, to make the fish cakes.

"The beauty of haddock in the last 10 years or so is that it's one of the success stories of regulations — and it's come back," Hayward says.

Because it's more plentiful, haddock is not only sustainable, it's also cheaper than cod or tuna.

Hayward spoons some of last night's mashed potatoes into a bowl and adds an egg, stirring them into a silken emulsion. He pulls a just-off-the-boat haddock filet out of a bowl of ice and begins poaching it on his enormous wood-burning stove.

On The Side

While this simmers, he starts working on an unusual, fancy dining accompaniment to the fish cakes: the New England cheap staple — beans.

"This particular bean was grown on farms owned by the lumber companies up North, and was one of those bean varieties used to feed the lumberjacks that worked on the North Woods all year long, and usually four times a day," he says.

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In a pan where he's already caramelized some onion and garlic, Hayward adds plump, dark brown Maine marifax beans, two kinds of pepper, a dash of malt vinegar and plenty of Maine sea salt. As the beans simmer away, he pulls the haddock off the stove, flakes it by hand and adds it to the potato-egg emulsion. He throws in some fresh chives, summer savory and parsley, and begins forming fat, soft fish cakes, which he then rolls in finely shredded brioche crumbs. He adds them to a pan lined with a thin film of olive oil.

"I keep it low because the brioche will tend to scorch very quickly because it's got egg in it," he explains.

Half The Price

A few moments later, the golden, puffy fish cakes come out of the pan and are plated next to the earthy, brown beans and some sliced, almost translucent, fresh turnips.

They're delicious.

Hayward says he'll offer his fish cakes with beans at a price point in the mid-teens, which is about half the cost of the fancier items on Fore Street's menu.

Fore Street's Beans With Caramelized Onions

  • 1 pound of dried beans*
  • 2 large yellow or white onions, peeled
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • Up to 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
  • 3 tablespoons excellent malt vinegar
  • Optional: 2 tablespoons dark maple syrup
  • Sea salt, fresh-milled black pepper and Aleppo pepper to taste

*Author's Note:At Fore Street Restaurant, we prefer marifax beans, a centuries-old favorite of Maine's lumbering communities. Marifax beans are chestnut-brown with an earthy taste.

Preparation

  • Soak the beans overnight in cool water. Next day, drain the beans and discard the water. Simmer the beans over low flame until nearly tender, about 1 hour.
  • Slice the onions and the garlic clove thin. Film the bottom of a heavy pot with olive oil, and add the onions and garlic. Cover and cook over moderate-high flame, stirring frequently until the onions are tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove the cover and continue cooking until golden brown and soft, about 10 minutes. Splash in the vinegar, boil up and cook another minute or 2 to reduce. Add the optional maple syrup.
  • Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Add the beans to the onion mixture and enough of the cooking liquid to keep the beans moist. Season with plenty of sea salt, fresh-milled black pepper and a pinch of Aleppo pepper. Cover and simmer over low flame until the beans are tender but retain their shape, about 15 minutes or a little more. Add more of the bean-cooking liquid if the mixture appears too dry. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Before serving, enrich the beans by folding in up to 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Maine Haddock Cakes

    Maine Haddock Cake and Fore Street's Beans With Caramelized Onions i i

    Maine Haddock Cake and Fore Street's Beans With Caramelized Onions Daniel E. Davis for NPR hide caption

    itoggle caption Daniel E. Davis for NPR
    Maine Haddock Cake and Fore Street's Beans With Caramelized Onions

    Maine Haddock Cake and Fore Street's Beans With Caramelized Onions

    Daniel E. Davis for NPR

    *Author's Note: Aleppo pepper has become a favorite seasoning in Fore Street's kitchen. Actually, it's a chili pepper grown in Syria, where it is usually dried and coarsely ground into moist flakes. Its heat varies, but most examples are moderately hot, with bright, bell pepper aroma and a slight raisin-like sweetness. Some examples have a hint of smokiness. Aleppo pepper is available at Middle Eastern food stores or from many online spice retailers, including Penzeys, Frontier and The Spice House.

    Preparation

    • Simmer potatoes with garlic cloves until tender. Drain well. Return the potatoes and garlic to the pot. In a separate saucepan, heat the milk and cream to a simmer over a moderate flame.
      • 1 pound peeled floury potatoes such as russets or "Idaho" bakers
      • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
      • 1/4 cup milk
      • 1/4 cup medium ("whipping") cream
      • 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into four pieces
      • Sea salt to taste
      • Fresh-milled black pepper to taste
      • 3 large eggs, beaten
      • 1 medium haddock filet, about 1 to 1 1/4 pound, fresh, boneless and skinless
      • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh summer savory
      • 1 tablespoon thin-sliced fresh chives
      • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
      • A pinch of Aleppo pepper flakes* to taste
      • Olive oil for the skillet
      • 1 cup of brioche or panko crumbs
      • Mash the hot potatoes coarsely with a fork. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Add the hot milk mixture to the potatoes in three additions, stirring with the fork after each addition just enough to incorporate. The mixture will be rough-textured. Fold in the cold butter. Cool the potatoes to room temperature.
      • Cut the haddock filet into four pieces. Check the filet for any remaining small bones and remove them. In a large non-corroding skillet, add enough water to submerge the fish pieces. Season the water with sea salt, bring to a simmer and add the haddock pieces. Poach the haddock filets until they flake easily when probed with a fork, about 4 minutes. Remove the filets from the skillet and rest them until cool enough to handle.
      • Place the potatoes in a work bowl and stir lightly to soften. Add the beaten eggs and stir just until incorporated.
      • With your fingers, pull the haddock pieces apart in flakes and add them to the potato mixture. Sprinkle on the chives, and chopped savory, parsley and Aleppo chili flakes, and gently fold the fish into the mixture.
      • With your hands, gently form the mixture into 2-ounce balls, about the size of a large egg. Roll the cakes in the brioche or panko crumbs.
      • Film a large nonstick skillet with olive oil. Preheat over a moderate flame. Working in batches, place the fish cakes in the skillet without crowding, and flatten them slightly with a spatula. Cook about 3 minutes on each side, adjusting the flame to avoid scorching. Turn the fish cakes and cook the second side 3 minutes, or a little more depending upon thickness. They should be golden on both sides with a crisp exterior, and firm to the touch when pressed.
      • Makes 15-20 fish cakes.

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