Cooking with a Mentor- Andre Soltner

May 3, 2012


In the early 1980’s I was cooking on the line in a small restaurant in New York City. One of my first jobs out of cooking school, I was learning to set up my station quickly and absorb the finer points of putting out food consistently throughout dinner service. It was a tiny kitchen. The only other cook was my boss. He was a great mentor- taught me a lot and encouraged me to always challenge myself. If I didn’t know how to do something he would put it on my to-do list the next day.

Before service one night at work I got a phone call from my boyfriend (now my husband). At the last minute he had been invited to go to Lutèce, Andre Soltner’s acclaimed restaurant for dinner and wondered if I could go with him. My boss overheard me say “I can’t go to Lutèce tonight, I have to work.” He interrupted and said “Of course you can go. You’ll learn more at Lutèce eating dinner than you will cooking here tonight.” I rushed home, changed my clothes and an hour later I was sitting in the plush dining room on East 50th Street. A dream come true for any cook- young or old.

From 1961 until he sold it in 1994, Andre Soltner and his wife, Simone, were Lutèce. They visited every table providing a warm atmosphere that was unusual for a formal French restaurant at the time.  In the three decades they owned the restaurant they only missed about 5 services. It had a four star rating and was recognized as one of the best, if not the best, restaurants in The United States. He served classic French food with many dishes from his native Alsace.

Fast forward 30 years and this past Saturday night I got the chance to cook a dinner with Andre Soltner. If you had told me when I was first starting out I would have the opportunity to spend an evening in the kitchen cooking with him I would have shook my head in disbelief.

The occasion was the New York Culinary Experience sponsored by New York Magazine and The International Culinary Center. Chef Soltner’s dish was veal cheeks with spatzle. The base of the sauce was a text book perfect beautiful veal stock he had made.  The flavor was rich but not too gelatinous and gummy as many veal stocks can be. The color was a gorgeous deep dark mahogany. The veal cheeks melted in your mouth.

The other chefs preparing courses were New York Chefs. Wylie Durfsne from WD-50 prepared slow cooked trout with a light delicious potato puree and Michael Tropeano from Silhouette served sautéed foie gras with pineapple several ways. The acidity of the pineapple produced the perfect balance to the rich foie gras.

For dessert, since I was cooking with Chef Soltner a French chef of the old school, I chose something classic.  I made Rhubarb Apple Charlottes and served them with Caramel Crème Fraîche.  And to my delight he loved them.
Working side by side with Chef Soltner will be one of my culinary highlights just as eating in his restaurant was so long ago.


Taste What You’re Missing

March 21, 2012

Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Getting More from Every Bite

How food tastes is much more complicated than I thought. Did you know when you “taste” food about 90 percent of it is experienced by our sense of smell and only 10 percent with our taste buds? But delve even deeper and that equation holds true only if you haven’t taken into account your other senses of touch, hearing and sight.

Barb Stuckey’s new book Taste what You’re Missing- The Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good is a must for any food lover. Barb, a food developer extraordinaire at Mattson one of the largest independent developer of new foods and beverages, takes a complex and technical subject of how we taste and presents it in a straightforward and engaging manner. It’s fascinating. I spent all day Sunday on the sofa reading.

Individually we all taste things a bit differently. I might like things sweeter or more bitter than you. Genetics, biology, your brain, and even the number of taste buds on your tongue all play a role in how we experience taste.

Barb dissects the senses of taste, smell, touch, sight and sound and the role each plays in what we taste. We all know we smell through our noses. The aroma of chocolate chip cookies or roasted chicken can entice us from across the room. But did you know that smells are also sent from your mouth to your brain once the food is inside your mouth and you have begun chewing? Barb calls this mouth-smelling. We experience textures by touch. Think of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and how all those nuts and chocolate chunks feel in your mouth. Sight often overrides our other senses when eating. If apple juice is served in an orange glass we may think its orange juice. Fajitas served sizzling hot leave a taste impression before we even put them in our mouths.

Barb describes the basic five basic tastes of salt, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami and provides exercises for us to isolate the different tastes and senses. How to recognize what umami tastes like and how the aging of cheese or roasting of tomatoes changes that flavor. Cane sugar, Splenda, Stevia are all sweet but their profiles are all different so they taste completely different.

Are you a tolerant taster, a taste or hyper taster? (With some blue food coloring and a reinforcement label you can find out.) This too influences how food tastes.

Tastes and senses all work together to create the taste of food good and bad. Barb helps us understand each of them so we can increase our overall appreciation of food and make our food taste better when we are cooking in the kitchen.

If you want to hear Barb talk about the science of taste, come tonight to Omnivore Books at 6:00 PM.


Hot House Rhubarb

March 14, 2012

Generally I prefer field grown produce over hot house. A tomato is a perfect example. The flavor and texture of a tomato grown in natural sunlight is far superior to its hot house counterpart.

With rhubarb however the opposite is true. I get excited when hot house rhubarb arrives.  A lot of it has to do with the color. Hot house is pink all the way through and holds that color even after it is baked. Field grown rhubarb, not as pretty even in its raw state, turns an unattractive light brown color when put on the stove or in the oven. Rhubarb is enough of a challenge for a pastry chef to sell. Maintaining its bright red flavor helps. The flavor isn’t sacrificed either. Its less stringy allowing me to do more things with it than just bake it in a crisp or pie.

We are now getting hot house rhubarb from Sumner, Washington. For hot house growing, rhubarb stalks are put in soil in a dark room. In the old days the rooms were heated by pot belly stoves but now furnaces are used. This technological advancement freed up the farmers from getting up in the middle of the night and tending the fires.

There are two varieties of hot house rhubarb. First up is Victoria. It is milder in flavor and a beautiful pink color. Once that has been harvested the next variety planted is Refill. It’s tarter than Victoria. Unlike Victoria, Refill can be grown inside or outside. Crimson is the field grown variety we are all most familiar with. Crimson can’t be grown indoors or it rots.

Interestingly the leaves on hot house rhubarb are smaller as the lack of light forces all the energy into the plant rather than the leaves. And yes, it is true you shouldn’t eat rhubarb leaves.  They have a high concentration of oxalic acid.

Botanically rhubarb is a vegetable although it was classified by a New York State Court in the 1940’s as a fruit for taxing purposes. They rationalized since it was predominately used for pies (hence its nickname the pie plant) which are fruit based it should be labeled as such. In other countries rhubarb is served as a vegetable. In Poland it is cooked with potatoes and in Iran it’s used in stews.

As rhubarb season gets into full throttle if you want to brighten a pastry chef’s day, try the rhubarb dessert on his/her menu. They are not as popular as other fruit desserts but we have a soft spot for them and always wish they sold more.


Michael Recchiuti of Recchiuti Chocolates

March 8, 2012


photo credit Tom Seawell


Michael first came to the Bay Area on a cross country road trip with is older sister. He was 19 and lived in Philadelphia. He met up with her in Florida and they spent four months getting to California. Once he saw San Francisco he knew one day he would return.

He spent the next several years working at The Frog and Commissary and restaurant catering companies in Philadelphia. He was doing general pastry work and had not yet specialized in chocolate but even back then it was his passion. He would often work and take classes for free, doing whatever was required, at Cacao Barry under Pascal Janvier and Jean-Marie Guichard so he could learn as much as he could. They, along with Alain Tricou of  Maxim’s and Déjà Vu Restaurant, taught him the fundamental techniques he needed to start his life long quest to make great chocolates.

In 1986 he made the move to California and worked at Taste Catering and for other catering companies in the Bay Area. In 1991 he was pulled back to the east coast where he taught at The New England Culinary Academy (NECI) and then was pastry chef at a couple of resorts in New England. It was at Twin Farms Resort and Spa in Barnard, VT that he and Jacky, his wife, were finally able to lay the ground work for his chocolate company. They developed their first line of chocolates and in 1997 returned to San Francisco to start Recchiuti Chocolates.

I sat down with Michael in his factory office on Third Street for some Q & A. Michael spends most of his time making chocolates in the factory part and not lounging in his office but the drum set that takes up a good part of it I know makes him wish he could spend more time there.

EL: What kinds of chocolate do you use?

MR: Guittard, Valrhona, and El Rey. We have developed a custom blend with Valrhona that allow us to achieve my desired flavor profile.

What flavors/ingredients do you like best?

I really like our grapefruit and tarragon. People at first may think this is a bit odd but once they try it they love it. What I love about this combination is how it developed into a chocolate. I first made it as a granita intermezzo, then in a ganache and finally into a formed chocolate. The candy like flavor of the tarragon and the bitterness of the grapefruit pair beautifully together.

What flavors/ingredients do you like least?

Probably cinnamon, lavender, and pepper. Mostly because they are used with too heavy a hand.

What flavor of your chocolates comes to mind when I mention the following kinds of chocolate:

Milk- Hazelnut

White- Espresso

Dark-Tarragon and grapefruit or vanilla. Interestingly many chocolatiers are stopping using vanilla as they use more fruity chocolates. I love vanilla and feel it is hard to overdo. We use whole pods that are ground up, not just the insides. The pod adds a complexity to the flavor.

What chocolate dessert has someone created that you absolutely loved?

Annie Walker’s Chocolate Pot de Crème from 42 Degrees. It was perfect. Simple and complex. She would get annoyed it was the only dessert I would ever order but it was so good. Doesn’t need whipped cream or any garnish.

What flavor do you think is underappreciated in pairing with chocolate?

Pink Peppercorn with Star Anise. I often have to talk people into trying it but then they are hooked.

What’s your least favorite trend in chocolates?

The crazy flavors chefs add- meat, vinegar, mushrooms, caramelized onions.

What kitchen tool would you be lost without?

An immersion blender or a fine mesh sieve.

Where do you like to eat out in the city?

Piccino, Brunch at Zuni, Serpentine, Statebird Provisions.

What was the last thing you made at home?

Chocolate Chicken breasts with a ground up cocoa nib and butter paste. I blackened them on an inverted cast iron skillet (a trick I learned from Jan Birnbaum), finished them in the oven and served it with homemade fettuccine.

What do people not know about you that they may be surprised to find out?

I love playing the drums. In Philly I did experimental music. If you want to hear me play the drums, this Sunday I will be in a marching band in Dogpatch. The clothing company Lemon Twist is operating a pop up store until April in our future café space. The Lemon Twist Marching Band will perform between 1 and 4. We’ll march west on 22nd Street between Third and Mississippi.


Save Canadian Seals

February 24, 2012

Chefs for Seals

Monday night Farallon Restaurant hosted a benefit for Chefs for Seals. The Humane Society, Project Seals, and famed photographer Nigel Barker are on a road trip across the country to promote awareness for the slaughtering of harp seals in Canada.

Hundreds of thousands of pups are clubbed and shot to death each year for their fur. This commercial seal hunt is the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world. Since 2005 there has been a growing boycott of Canadian seafood to try to stop these killings. Project Seals has worked diligently to get more and more countries and individuals to participate.  Just recently the Canadian Government finally started discussing ways to end the practice and teach the hunters new skills so they can obtain their livelihood in more humane ways.

A big part of Project Seals campaign is to get chefs involved. We have the power to influence purchasing and ultimately change behavior on a large scale.  I know I know, another good cause for chefs to support. Why can’t someone call and ask us to donate to something that doesn’t tug at our heart strings. Then we won’t feel badly saying no. But this cause is really easy to be a part of.

This time you can have an impact without turning on the oven or heating up a saucepan; without schlepping to an offsite even; and without setting up a display and all your food on a six foot table. And you can stay home. In fact the way to support Project Seals is to not do something. That something is to not buy Canadian seafood.

Many chefs like Dominique Crenn, Roland Passot, Hoss Zaré, Adam Mali, James Montejano, and Michael Reining have already signed on and were at the event. Hundreds of chefs across the country have signed the pledge. You should too.

For more information on Project Seals and to sign the pledge, go to The Humane Society website at http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/seal_hunt/.

This seemingly small action by each of us will have a huge impact. When you sign and email the pledge, you will also get listed on an app that highlights restaurants across the country which support the ban.


Citrus Census

February 9, 2012

Just One Tree

Last week’s blog got a nice response from people excited to bring in their citrus in exchange for dessert or oysters at Waterbar. We are ready for lots of squeezing and zesting.

I also heard from Dr. Isabel Wade of Urban Resources Systems. URS and Dr. Wade have been pioneers in promoting the concept of urban self-reliance in San Francisco since 1981. They have been promoting sustainability way before it was the hip thing to do.

Some of the projects initiated or incubated at URS include:  CityFood, San Francisco ZooDoo, California ReLeaf, the AIDS Memorial Grove, and the Neighborhood Parks Council.  Dr. Wade is also the founding President of Friends of the Urban Forest, and has served as a member of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment and as Chair of the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Committee.  She also received the Mayor’s Office first Lifetime Achievement Award (Neighborhood Empowerment Network) in 2009. 

URS is taking the lead on an initiative called Just One Tree. The first step is to register all the lemon trees in the city on The Urban Forest Map. No one really knows for sure how many trees are in the city but it has been estimated to be at least 3,000.

Once all the present trees are recorded, Just One Tree wants to plant 12,000 lemon trees in the city’s 150,000 back yards, public parks, and other public lands by the end of 2013.

Just One Tree will illustrate that even a dense city such as San Francisco, with little arable space, can be a striking model and inspiration for other Bay Area and California cities with far more land.  Its success will also hopefully have global resonance and provide a global model that any city can work toward great self-reliance in food production, even if the best result is Just One Crop.

Soon they will have the Just One Tree website up and you will be able to register your lemon tree(s). In the meantime for more information on Just One Tree and to contact them about donating your time and/or money to this great project, go to urbanresourcesystems.org.


Too Much Citrus?

February 2, 2012

Walk around any local farmers markets or grocery stores now and you quickly realize we are in the height of citrus season. Blood or Cara Cara oranges, mandarins, tangerines, citron, Meyer lemons, and limes are all piled high. We are blessed and spoiled with this bounty. But as I say pretty frequently someone has to live here. It might as well be us.

The first California citrus trees were planted in The Missions in the mid 1830’s. Soon thereafter they were introduced throughout the state. Once the transcontinental railroad was built in the late 1870’s, our citrus was shipped to the east coast and by the 1890’s California’s bounty was being enjoyed in Europe.

For many in the Bay Area this yearly bonanza is also recognized by simply looking out their front or back window. Countless homes have a citrus tree decorating their yards. These trees produce an abundance of fruit and it can be difficult to use it all. There’s only so much juice you can squeeze, marmalade you can preserve, or rind you can zest. Your neighbors, although appreciative, will only take so much. I speak from experience as I now have thirty five pounds of Meyer Lemons in my fridge impatiently waiting to be turned into something.

Waterbar would like to help you unload your personal harvest. For each 10 pounds of Meyer lemons, Kumquats, limes, oranges or any other variety of citrus you have an abundance of, we will trade you a half dozen of Chef’s choice oysters or a dessert of your choice. Haul 30 pounds to us and we will name the dish we use your fruit in after you for a day and send you a copy of the menu. Also please email us a picture of you and your tree so we can verify you didn’t pick the fruit up at Whole Foods or the Farmer’s Market.  Email me at emily@emilyluchetti.com or our purchasing agent, Eric Hyman, at eric@waterbarsf.com.

Note: For an exceptionally informative book about citrus and its considerable number of varieties, check out Allen Susser’s The Great Citrus Book (Ten Speed Press).


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