The Pot Luck Club, Cape Town

rsz_the_pot_luck_club_3Luke Dale-Roberts is South Africa’s most famous chef, who has been making waves way beyond his adopted home city of Cape Town for over a decade. He first rose to international stardom at La Colombe, where his unique fusion cooking style saw the restaurant climb to number 12 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

But it’s since launching his own restaurant, The Test Kitchen, in 2010 that the British-born chef’s career has really taken off. The Test Kitchen has won just about every award there is in South Africa, and internationally it is the only African restaurant to be featured in the World’s 50 Best.

But in Cape Town it’s not just The Test Kitchen that draws in the punters and Dale-Roberts’ second venture, The Pot Luck Club, has enjoyed equal perennial success. It first started in 2012 as an extension of The Test Kitchen serving up more casual dishes less fitting to the flagship’s tasting menu and more suitable for sharing. So popular was the concept that it quickly outgrew its initial home and soon relocated to an entirely new location within the same development, the Old Biscuit Mill.

Housed within a sensational loft space perched 18m high atop the Silo of the previously industrial site that is now a hipster hub of independent shops, galleries and restaurants, it’s one of Cape Town’s most spectacular dining rooms commanding breath-taking views of Table Mountain. Accessed via a private elevator, with a bar on the one end and an open kitchen complete with chef counter on the other, its design combines industrial and organic materials in a whimsical way that reflects the playfulness of the food.

Pot Luck Club foodThe Pot Luck Club offers a menu of tapas-style dishes, which present Dale-Roberts’ eclectic cuisine of international flavours, ingredients and techniques in a more fun and unpretentious way than The Test Kitchen. It’s all about cocktails and sharing plates rather than wine flights and tasting menus.

That said under the guidance of head chef Wesley Randles, erstwhile sous chef of The Test Kitchen, the food offer has gradually been elevated to fine dining heights – something Dale-Roberts admits he plans to scale back on. “It’s not meant to be fancy,” he insists.

The menu is arranged according to the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami; as well as sweet endings. In the name of research, we began with a round of signature cocktails – rooibos and pomegranate, and Thai green curry martinis – before signing ourselves over to Randles and his team.

Things kicked off with a salty dish: ciabatta made from masa (a Mexican corn flour dough, also used to make tortillas) served with chimichurri and burnt baba ghanoush. Rustic, simple and comforting, the warm, crusty, aromatic bread with its spicy-sweet and smoky accompaniments is a level above the average white bread and butter you usually get in Cape Town.

From the sour section we had yellowtail ceviche. Cape yellowtail is a seasonal fish from the Atlantic with a firm texture and a gamey taste. Marinated in jalapeno tiger’s milk (the lime juice giving the dish its underlying sour taste) and served with red quinoa and a corn crisp, it’s a beautiful and delicate dish that combines the flavours of Peru with one of South Africa’s best-loved fish, perfectly illustrating Dale-Roberts’ unique take on fusion cooking.

rainbow carrotsOne of a series of umami dishes was a wonderful vegetarian course of rainbow carrots with house made goat’s milk ricotta. Randles turns the goat’s milk into a labneh with fresh lemon juice so that the curd splits from the whey. He then cooks the carrots in the whey with fresh honey comb, olive oil and thyme.

The carrots are finished on the kitchen’s open braai (barbeque), and rolled in roasted poppy seeds. They are served with tarragon oil, the goat labneh and salted roasted sunflower seed and honey comb crumble. Simple but full of flavour, earthy and subtly sweet, it was one of the unexpected highlights of the night and a dish I wouldn’t be surprised to find on a menu in California.

Also from the umami section and one of the Pot Luck Club’s signature dishes is smoked beef filet with black pepper and truffle café au lait. The beef is smoked with American oak barrels, while the sauce combines caramelised black pepper and truffle. It’s a dish so moreish – the beef so tender and smoky and the sauce so powerfully rich in umami – it will leave you cleaning your bowl.

From the sweet section came a dish of robata lamb (cured in sumac and lemon, then cooked sous vide for nine hours and finished on the open fire) served with walnut and date puree and white bean tabbouleh with a coriander, mint and Amasi dressing. Again it’s a dish that deftly combines international flavours with a South African ingredient – Amasi being a fermented milk beverage that forms a nutritional staple for most native South Africans.

Onto desserts and the Pot Luck Club’s take on a lemon meringue pie reminded me of a dessert I’d had at the Test Kitchen two years prior: a “poached egg” comprising a yolk of lemon curd and a soft white meringue. It’s a light and refreshing, and cleverly constructed creation that sticks in the mind.

The front of house team at the Pot Luck Club is young, the service casual yet informed and slick and our waiter had the relaxed and friendly South African charm down to a tee.

The Pot Luck Club showcases Dale-Roberts’ very personal style of food in a more accessible light. The cooking is as bold and inventive as it is intelligent and skilful, confidently marrying imaginative flavour combinations that result in delicious and thrilling dishes. It’s world-class cooking in Cape Town.

The Pot Luck Club
Silo Top Floor, The Old Biscuit Mill
373 – 375 Albert Road Woodstock, Cape Town
thepotluckclub.co.za

This article was first published by The Staff Canteen.

From fine dining to fast-casual: why top US chefs are changing direction

Saison_SFAt the three-Michelin-starred Saison in San Francisco Joshua Skenes is offering one of the world’s most exclusive dining experiences. His multi-course tasting menus comprise a parade of delicacies with no luxury spared. Lobster, caviar, foie gras and truffles are skilfully prepared in dishes showcasing a complexity of textures and flavours that translates to nothing short of pure culinary indulgence. But with a price tag of over $1,000 for a dinner for two – excluding wine – Skenes’ cooking is available only to an elite few.

This is about to change. Skenes has teamed up with renowned casual restaurant operator Adam Fleischman of the Umami Burger and 800 Degrees Pizzeria chains, to launch a fast-casual concept called Fat Noodle, which is set to open its first unit in San Francisco in the next six months. Here bowls of hand-pulled noodles inspired by the flavours of western China’s Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces created under the guidance of Skenes will be available for less than $10 in a concept the duo hopes to roll out across the USA and beyond. “My plan was always to do both a very high-end restaurant like Saison and then also a very low-end restaurant,” Skenes, one of just 11 three-star chefs in the USA, explains. “While I appreciate the craft of cooking at the highest level, I also want to have accessibility and give people access to great food at a cheap price point.”

Skenes is part of a tidal wave of top chefs and restaurateurs flooding into the fast-casual market – the fastest growing segment of the US restaurant industry – including the likes of David Chang, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi, and José Andrés (see panel). But what makes the fast-casual sector so appealing to these fine dining chefs? According to Darren Tristano, executive vice president at food service research and consulting firm Technomic, the key to its success is fast-casual’s unique ability to combine the convenience of fast food with the quality of full service restaurants. “The sector has focused on a more simple menu that provides food that is better than traditional fast food and on par with full service casual dining restaurants. The appeal is largely to the younger and more affluent consumer who is willing to pay more for a fresh, quality product,” he says. “High-end chefs know good food and affluent consumers, therefore, they are moving down to a more mainstream product with a consumer they are already familiar with to create growth opportunities in a very competitive environment.”

And competitive certainly is the word. Data from Technomic suggests that fast-casual restaurant growth is outpacing all other sectors in the US eating out market, having jumped from $8b to $35b between 2002 and 2013. Current sales are up 11 per cent, compared to 4 per cent among quick-service restaurants, and 5.6 per cent in casual dining. Given the phenomenal success of the fast-casual movement, it’s no surprise then to see high-end chefs honing in on it; after all it presents a great opportunity for the likes of Skenes to reach a much larger audience.

“By nature of the business, fast casual model allows us to feed more people per day than we otherwise would do in a full service restaurant,” says Jim Biafore, director of operations at Beefsteak, a new fast-casual chain launched by celebrity chef José Andrés. “By the sheer numbers this does allow us to grow and build more locations, which allows us to reinvest our resources in our people and communities.” Moreover, Tristano adds fast-casual restaurants can be an attractive hedge for high-end chefs and provide a more diversified approach to their restaurant portfolio. “Recently, the success of Shake Shack has proved that a great fast-casual concept from a major chef/restaurateur can be incredibly lucrative,” he says.

Indeed the two biggest inspirations for a lot of chefs entering the fast-casual arena are celebrated New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which has grown from a hotdog stand to a global chain valued at more than $1b after a recent IPO; and Mexican giant Chipotle, which, started by erstwhile fine dining chef Steve Ells more than 20 years ago, is now expanding at a rate of four new outlets a week. “It comes down to the simple idea of guests wanting access to high quality food at a great price,” insists Randy Garutti, chief executive officer at Shake Shack. “Talented chefs are seeing this and acting on it. They’re bringing their sought-after expertise and culinary craft to the table in new and creative ways. They’re pursuing something they’re passionate about like never before.”

A number of high-profile US chefs have made a successful move into fast-casual. They include Wolfgang Puck, whose chain Wolfgang Puck Express launched in 1991, way before the term fast-casual was even coined; Tom Colicchio of New York City’s Craft, whose sandwich-focused ‘wichcraft is in two US States; and Bobby Flay, whose hamburger chain Bobby’s Burger Palace has grown to 17 locations worldwide. But the landscape is about to get a lot more crowded, with a bunch of chefs debuting fast-casual concepts this year (see panel). They are elevating sandwiches, burgers, noodles, tacos, pizza and more, and are reimagining fast, healthy eating at a cost affordable to the masses. For high-end chefs wanting to move into the fast-casual sector need to fully understand the lower- and middle-income consumer and provide a quality food offer that is inexpensive. “Taking a high-end offering at $50-$100 per person down to a $9-$12 format can be challenging,” says Tristano. “These chefs need to be able to create their food in a smaller environment with fewer ingredients, less equipment and with a team that is fully engaged with customers through interaction.”

Ethan Stowell, whose eponymous restaurant group in Seattle includes nine top-end restaurants, plus the fast-casual Ballard and Frelard Pizza Companies, which he plans to grow to 10 outlets in the next five years, says the key skill is for chefs to apply their knowledge of products and food to a different business model. “It’s the same approach as making a foie gras terrine,” he says. “You have to figure out a way to make it the best you possibly can. But the difference is that you can break away from it eventually. Fast-casual restaurants don’t require you to be there all the time like fine dining restaurants. People who come to my pizza restaurants don’t expect to see me there and some of them don’t even know who I am. It’s a very different customer base. This is echoed by Fleischman who insists that only certain types of fine dining chefs can make a successful transition into fast-casual. “The concept has to be strong, and it cannot require a chef-driven presence,” he warns. “The food is everything, and folks distrust big name chefs on low-end concepts.”

Ultimately, a for a chef wanting to manage both fine dining and fast-casual operations it comes down to two key factors, concludes Stowell: “You have to have a strong team in place that allows you to break away for a while. And you have to have a mind for business. If you are going to run two totally different concepts and you apply the same principles of your business model onto both, there’s a chance it might not work.”

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting the thecaterer.com.

Grand Central Market – one of LA’s most historic and cultural gems

Grand Central MarketAt nearly 100 years old, Grand Central Market is one of Los Angeles’ most historic venues and cultural gems and a recent revival has seen it turn into one of the city’s culinary hotspots, too.

The 30,000sq ft market first opened in 1917 and has been in continuous operation since, reflecting Downtown Los Angeles’ ever-changing population. In the early days, vendors included the likes of green grocers, fishmongers, Jewish delis and butchers and over time, it became a popular destination for the city’s large Latino community, with Mexican food vendors and spice stalls joining the market.

In 1984, property developer Ira Yellin bought Grand Central Market with the aim of preserving this historic Downtown site and turning it into a vibrant, contemporary food spot. He passed away in 2002 and since then his widow Adele has continued to champion his vision.

In the past two years, Grand Central Market, much like the rest of Downtown LA, has seen a remarkable transformation. Less than a decade ago, it was mainly about tacos and fresh produce and, although authentic, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly a hang out for the food loving masses.

Today, more and more contemporary operators are joining the market, in a complete overhaul of its offering. Ranging from a BBQ restaurant to an artisan cheese vendor, hipster coffee shop, gourmet pizza place and a healthy juice store, what once was a destination for blue collar workers in search of a hearty lunch, the market now also draws in a crowd of suits from the nearby financial district and foodies from across town.

Some of the traditional operators – like the 56-year-old China Café, a handful of Latino vendors, a green grocer and two spice stores – remain but many have been replaced by an increasing number of modern concepts. While some critical voices argue that the gentrification of the market takes away its historic value, others insist the new wave of operators is giving those long-standing vendors exposure they would never otherwise have had, including a place in food mag Bon Appetit’s top 10 hottest restaurants in America.

What’s clear is that Grand Central Market is now more popular than ever before. Its rich diversity of food stalls epitomises Los Angeles as a whole and not only makes it a unique culinary destination but also the most fascinating of all the food halls in the USA today.

Here’s a highlight of some of my favourite Grand Central Market vendors.

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BelCampoBelcampo Meat Co.
A full-service butcher-shop-cum-restaurant serving 100% natural, organic, grass-fed meat and poultry raised on a 10,000-acre ranch in Northern California. All meat is butchered on site and what doesn’t sell, gets cooks up in the kitchen, meaning there’s virtually no food waste.
What to order: The cheeseburger is the pièce de résistance here: a patty made from dry-aged beef, served medium-rare and covered with caramelised onions and cheddar. At $12.50 it ain’t cheap but it’s worth every cent.

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EggSlutEggslut
This kiosk bills itself as a ‘chef driven, gourmet food concept’ that celebrates the humble egg. The ovo-centric menu takes classic comfort food and gives it a modern twist, including sandwiches on house-made brioche buns, burgers and salads. Eggs aren’t just for breakfast at this place but for lunch, dinner and any other time of day, everyday.
What to order:The namesake signature dish comprises a coddled egg on top of a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar and served with a demi baguette ($9). It’s an ingenious balance of comfort and innovation.

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McconnellsMcConnell’s Fine Ice Cream
Founded in Santa Barbara in 1949, McConnell’s makes its fine ice cream from scratch using the milk and cream from Central Coast grass-grazing cows, which it pasteurises at its own creamery. It sources local, sustainable and organic ingredients from farms and artisan producers and ice cream flavours range from chocolate covered strawberries, to sea salt cream and cookies, and toasted coconut almond chip.
What to order: Eureka lemon and marionberries is one of the most delicious flavours. Oregon marionberries are cooked to jammy perfection and folded into tart and tangy, Eureka lemon, milk and cream.

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Oyster_GourmetThe Oyster Gourmet
Run by Frenchman Christophe Happillon, who bills himself as Los Angeles’ only Master Ecailler (shellfish master), this is GCM’s most upmarket and unique venue. Serving sustainable seafood from around the USA, with a focus on oysters, it’s as much its menu as it is its unique design that draws in the punters. The 14-seat circular bar comprises a wooden structure designed to resemble a clam. Featuring canvas wings that can be pulled up and down, they create a sense of space and openness when up and completely close in the bar when down.
What to order: Oysters aside, the tuna poke is a must try. A generous portion of cubed raw tuna is seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and chopped chillies and heaped on a scallop shell ($10). Paired with a cold glass of Sancerre, it’s heaven.

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StickyRice(1)Sticky Rice
This Thai street food concept was the first to join the market as part of the ascending wave of new operators. Sticky Rice, which started as a stand at the Altadena Farmer’s Market featuring food from chef Johnny Lee, is a counter worth sitting at both for the food and to watch the chefs in action in the tiny open kitchen.
What to order: Gai yang is the thing to order here, tangy Thai barbecued chicken is served with sticky rice and som tam, spicy green papaya salad ($9).

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Tacos_TumbrasTacos Tumbras a Tomas
One of the long-standing traditional vendors, Tacos Tumbras a Tomas has been run by Tomas Martinez and his brothers Manuel and Jesus for 20 years. The stall built its success on the famous fried pork dish of carnitas but also specialises in birria, goat served in a spicy red sauce. Other meats include carne asada, grilled chicken and carne al pastor, which are served in tacos, burritos, tortas, tostadas or in combination plates with rice and beans.
What to order: For $3 you get a vastly generous portion of carne asada piled on corn tortillas, with lime wedges and extra tortillas on the side. It’s greasy, spicy and fresh all in one mouthful.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

What’s hot in 2015: food and drink trends for the year ahead

This is an extract from an article I wrote for UK hospitality publication M&C Report. You can read the full version by visiting their website mandcreport.com.

crystal_ball2015 will be the year the US hospitality sector will need to rethink its tipping culture, two leading industry reports have warned. As living costs are ever increasing, as operators are dealing with rising labour costs and the debate about the salary gap between kitchen and waiting staff is hotting up, “how do restaurant owners maintain a quality workforce with unbalanced pay scales?” asks hospitality consulting agency Andrew Freeman & Co in its eighth annual trend prediction report for 2015. Indeed, the “disparity between earnings of tipped waiters and untipped back of house grunts is becoming a moral issue tinged with class warfare,” warns food and restaurant consultancy Baum + Whiteman’s latest report on the hottest food and beverage trends for 2015.

Some restaurants are taking this a step further by selling dinner tickets – another trend set to gain momentum in 2015 – inclusive of tax and service charge, hence avoiding tips altogether.

Meanwhile leading chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers are providing experiences that are less formal yet high in quality, more interactive and rooted in catering to the pleasure seeker. An increasing number of high-end chefs and restaurateurs will be following in the footsteps of Danny Meyer and Jose Andres by venturing into the increasingly profitable fast casual market, both Freeman and Baum + Whiteman predict.

As far as food and drink trends go, look out for root vegetables, seaweed, spicy sauces, sour flavours, tacos, and breakfast items sneaking into dinner menus in 2015, as well as a gin and cider revolution, added theatre to drinks presentation and miniature cocktails.

Here’s a round up of the biggest trends for 2015.

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INDUSTRY TRENDS

The End Of Tipping
With living costs rising and local governments passing “living wage” laws, lifting minimum wage and raising labour costs for operators, “restaurants are facing a unique dilemma,” warns Freeman. And as the disparity between earnings of front- and back-of-house employees is becoming more of an issue, as waiters are suing over working hours spent untipped and the debate over how tips are distributed is raging, this inequality might force operators to think more clearly about getting rid of tipping and giving everyone an hourly wage. “Most no tipping restaurants tend to be upscale. But the policy is trickling down and will continue until the deluge happens all at once,” predict Baum + Whiteman.

Shake ShackFine Dining Chefs Venturing Into Fast Casual
“A growing number of higher-end fast casual concepts (many helmed by fine-dining chefs) are emerging to satisfy the demand for great food, fast and at lower prices,” says Freeman. From Danny Meyer’s 56-unit-and-growing Shake Shack to two-Michelin-starred Coi’s Daniel Patterson and Kogi’s Roy Choi, who will launch fast food venture Loco’l in California next year; and newly crowned three-Michelin-starred chef Joshua Skenes of Saison, who has teamed up with Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman for Fat Noodle. Why the move from fine dining to fast casual? “The sector is probably the only area of food service showing meaningful growth right now,” say Baum + Whiteman.

Dinner Tickets
Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz may have pioneered the movement with their restaurant Next in Chicago three years ago but 2014 saw the beginning of a mini revolution in reservations, with restaurant ticket sales on the rise. Indeed a growing number of restaurants are now selling non-refundable dinner tickets, including tax and tip, instead of taking reservations. Although the trend is still in its infancy, Baum + Whiteman insist it will continue to gain momentum in 2015 as the policy both improves restaurants’ cash flow and gives operators a better understanding of the amount of food and drink needed, therefore cutting out excessive inventory.

technologyTechnology Takeover
“Short of putting food into our mouths, technology is upending the way dining works,” say Baum + Whiteman. Guest-facing technology will be especially transformative in 2015 through devices and programs that interface directly with the consumer. While waiters will continue to serve tables, diners will increasingly place orders from tablets and make payments directly from smartphones. Meanwhile location-based technology and face-recognition software will improve both drink ordering and delivery at crowded bars. And although convenience and speed are obvious benefits, the real drivers of these technological advances are millennials, “who want to customise everything in sight,” and rising labour costs, explain Baum + Whiteman.

Crowd Funding
Since 2009, close to 3,000 food and restaurant projects have raised $41.5m through Kickstarter and this is a trend likely to continue in 2015. Freeman points to examples like Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz, who used Kickstarter to help fund their Japanese-influenced Oakland eatery Hopscotch in 2012; or chef Kevin Sousa who raised more than $300,000 through Kickstarter to fund the creation of Superior Motors in Braddock, PA. “Small pledges ($50 or less in some cases) can add up quickly and allow chefs and restaurateurs to stay true to their visions without the influence of private backers,” Freeman adds.

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FOOD TRENDS

Five Ingredients To Watch Out For In 2015
celeriacUgly root vegetables
including celeriac, parsnips and kohlrabi are replacing potatoes with lots more inherent flavour.
Seaweed is appearing beyond sushi in broths, seafood sauces and elsewhere for added umami and a dash of salinity.
Oysters are making a comeback across the country as famers are reseeding old oyster beds and discovering new ones.
Hot sauces are enticing palates, with a focus on sweet-and-spicy combinations such as habanero-honey.
New yoghurt flavours are on the rise, particularly savoury, like Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ butternut squash, beet, carrot, and tomato.

Five Menu Trends For 2015
tacosTacos
Mexican food has long swept the country but now chefs are honing in on traditional tacos.
Breakfast for dinner Next year’s egg is scrambled, and it’s showing up on dinner menus. Savoury pancakes in many varieties are flipping onto dinner plates, too.
Trimming down the fat Chefs are reverting to old-world cooking techniques, such as using skewers, rotisseries and smoke, to turn up the flavour without relying on fats like oils, cream or butter.
Sour flavours From pickles to vinegary shrub-based cocktails, sour flavours will appear in everything from the bar menu to desserts.
Soft serve Seasonal flavours and innovative sundae combinations and a plethora of sophisticated toppings make this nostalgic item the new dessert.

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DRINK TRENDS

Five Drinks To Watch Out For In 2015
ciderCider
is following in the footsteps of the craft beer movement, with artisanal and hard ciders now available on tap, in bottles or cans and mixed into cocktails.
Gin isthe spirit of 2015. New York’s Gin Palace offers only gin and gin-based cocktails with more than 70 varieties, including gin and tonic on tap.
Spiked milkshakes are thrilling diet-be-damned adults, who are splashing booze into ice cream favourites.
Flavoured whiskey is replacing vodka, with bourbon, rye, blends and Scotch enjoying a renaissance as drinkers want more body.
“Whackadoodle hybrids” such as rum-tequila or vodka-cognac are trending as are sweetened spirits flavoured with cinnamon, apples, ginger, vanilla, cherries, even pumpkin pie spices.

Five Drinks Trends For 2015
MiniCocktailsMini cocktails
The short cocktail, or miniature versions of full-sized cocktails, caters for indecisive guests or those who want to sample different drinks, offering a taste at lower prices.
Flasks Bartenders are incorporating flasks into the mix. At Rose.Rabbit.Lie in Las Vegas large-format cocktails are served in customized glass flasks that guests can take home with them.
Creative packaging Wines are bottled in old milk bottles, wine flights are served in test tubes, and wine labels with bold creative names like WTF Pinot Noir are removing the snobbery of wine drinking often associated with the Boomer generation.
Liquid nitrogen Forget Heston Blumenthal making instant ice cream, in 2015 liquid nitrogen will be the next big thing in coffee. Nitro-coffee delivers a cascading effect and rich, creamy mouth feel, much like Guinness.
Dramatic Drink Delivery Restaurants and bars are adding theatre into the mix. Gaspar Brasserie in San Francisco serves the Café Brulot, an after-dinner drink that is lit tableside and extinguished with coffee.

 

LA restaurant review: Maude

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting thecaterer.com

MaudeAn Aussie chef, who’s become a household name in the US for a TV show on which he picked people up in supermarkets and cooked their dinner, Curtis Stone seemed an unlikely candidate to open Los Angeles’ next top fine dining restaurant. But with Maude, his intimate 25-seat “passion project” in Beverly Hills, he has done just that.

Last month named Los Angeles’ best new restaurant in 2014 by LA Weekly and Restaurant of the Year by Eater LA, Maude presents a unique approach to its tasting menu only concept. For each month, Stone chooses a “seasonal hero”, a single ingredient that drives the entire menu, from first bites right through to desserts. “My hope is for my guests to leave loving and appreciating the ingredient and its extraordinary versatility,” the chef explains.

Curtis StoneAfter starting his cooking career in Melbourne, Stone moved to London in the 1990s to work with his culinary idol, Marco Pierre White. He spent eight years with White, starting at the Grill Room at Café Royal, before moving to Mirabelle and finally being appointed head chef at Quo Vadis, where he gained three AA Rosettes. A move back to Australia, where he hit TV screens with a series called Surfing the Menu, saw him snapped up by US TV producers and over the last eight years, he has become one of the USA’s best known television chefs, who’s appeared on numerous shows, published books and launched his own cooking range.

But despite the fame and fortune, what Stone wanted most was to cook in his own restaurant and in February this year, he opened Maude. Named after his Australian grandmother, it pays homage to the woman who first inspired Stone to cook. Old Windsor chairs and antique plates and cutlery, meticulously sourced from flea markets, are nods to his granny’s style, while the open kitchen, blue leather banquettes and dark stone countertops add a contemporary touch.

The menu offers nine to ten courses with one seasonal ingredient creatively woven throughout. In July that ingredient was berries, in August it was corn, in September tomatoes, and in October it was pears. Come November, Stone will have moved on to truffles before concluding the year in December with winter squash.

Food Maude “We change the menu completely every month. We have a structure to how it progresses but the actual dishes are totally different,” says Stone. Indeed his menu builds up, with each course becoming bigger than the previous one both in size and flavour, each featuring the special ingredient – sometimes as the star of the plate, and sometimes merely as a subtle garnish.

Last month’s pear-themed menu (priced $85 (£53), plus $55 (£32) with paired wines) began with a selection of snacks – oysters with pear granita, crispy chicken skins and pretzel with pear mustard – before the first course: a salad of pear and variations of beetroot, goat curd, goats cheese rolled in hay ash and hazelnut.

The salad was followed by a soup of pear and smoked celeriac, an ingredient not often found on California menus. “Celeriac is such a beautiful ingredient but it gets lost here,” Stone says. “We get it from the high desert, where there’ll be snow soon. That’s the beauty of the climate here: it’s so diverse.” The soup – served whipped from an iSi canister – beautifully combined the sweetness of the pear with the earthiness of the smoked celeriac. Extra texture came with celeriac crisps, while a garnish of wood sorrel foraged from Stone’s garden, added a note of citrus and freshness.

Building up to the heavier meat dishes, next up was a tuna crudo served with sweet and spicy kimchi with a subtle hint of pear, a forbidden rice cracker and seaweed; before the next course of pig’s head terrine. “That dish has definitely been influenced by my time with Marco,” Stone explains. “The utilisation of the cheaper cuts is not something LA diners are used to but it’s such beautiful meat.” The terrine was caramelised and served warm, with parsnip, parsnip toffee and raw pear. Next up was a guinea hen raviolo filled with a mousse made from the breast and confit of the leg, accompanied by a sweet pear cider sabayon, Swiss chard and a lightly pickled Tokyo turnip.

Onto puddings and a pre-dessert of cheesecake with raspberry coulis and pear ice cream set the tone for the main attraction: stout poached pear with roasted peanut foam, dark chocolate and panna cotta, a deliciously indulgent end to the meal.

“Maude is a passion project that gives me the creative fulfilment I had been craving,” concludes Stone. He has indeed returned to his fine dining roots and proved to even his fiercest critics that he’s not just a face off the TV. He can cook, too.

Maude
212 S Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills
CA 90212
(+1) 310 859 3418
mauderestaurant.com

A chef’s tour of the Santa Monica Farmers Market

This is an extract from a posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Two-Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin of Mélisse gives us a tour of the famous Santa Monica Farmers Market, where he and his team of chefs go each week to buy the fresh produce for his kitchen

Josiah Citrin_CharlesPark“It’s always the best time to come here,” enthuses Josiah Citrin as we peruse the aisles of the Santa Monica Farmers Market. “The seasons here are always great and we’re so lucky to live in this climate. Our produce is the best in the world.”

Citrin, the chef patron of acclaimed French restaurant Mélisse, is giving me a tour of the famous market, where he and his team (as well as countless other LA chefs) come to shop for their kitchen. As we wander along the colourful stalls, taking in the scents and tastes of their rich and diverse bounties of organic fruits and vegetables, herbs, baskets of flowers and freshly baked breads, the chef gets visibly excited by what he sees.

“You have to taste these figs,” he exclaims, practically shoving one in my mouth. The Violette de Bordeaux figs from J.J.’s Lone Daughter Ranch are incredible, with their rich pulp tasting just like strawberry jam. “They’re so good we serve them with duck, just like that. You don’t need to do anything with them.”

Josiah_CitrinNext I’m given a small black fruit to taste. “Take a bite out of it,” Citrin orders. It turns out to be an avocado – a Mexicola Grande avocado to be precise. Its black, soft, thin skin is edible while the pale green flesh underneath is unbelievably buttery and nutty. “They’re amazing, huh? You can eat them like an apple,” the chef smiles.

As the largest grower-only certified market in Southern California the Santa Monica Farmers Market is a true institution, which has attracted food enthusiasts and chefs alike for more than three decades. Citrin has been coming here for as long as he can remember as inspired by his mother, who was a caterer, he became interested in food from a young age. “The market hasn’t changed in 30 years, it’s always been the same. It’s just that a lot more chefs come to shop here now,” he says.

After graduating from Santa Monica High School, he moved to Paris to explore his French roots and learn about the art of French cuisine while working at Parisian restaurants Vivarois and La Poste. “It was a different time back then and I learned so much about produce, bread and French cooking, technique, dining and things that 25 years ago weren’t part of our culture over here,” he recalls. He returned to the USA in 1990 to work at some of Los Angeles’ finest restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, Patina and Pinot Bistro with chef-restaurateur Joachim Splichal and Jackson’s in West Hollywood, before launching his first restaurant JiRaffe in 1996 together with childhood friend and fellow chef Raphael Lunetta. Three years later he sold his interest in the restaurant to Lunetta to open Mélisse in the heart of Santa Monica in July 1999.

Over the years, Mélisse has developed into what is arguably Southern California’s most acclaimed French restaurant. It was one of just three establishments to debut with two stars in Michelin’s now discontinued guide to Los Angeles in 2008 and in the age of the casualification of the restaurant scene, it remains a bastion of fine dining in the city.

Citrin has made a name for himself with his contemporary American cuisine with French influences in style and technique. “My philosophy is finding the best possible ingredients and doing only what’s necessary to keep them great while still providing a dining experience that is interesting and fun,” he explains. “We use modern techniques and combine them with tradition. We try to hit a factor of deliciousness and craveability – food that you want to eat again and again.”

Lobster BologneseServing different tasting menus – ranging from a four- to a 10- and a 17-course menu as well as a five-course vegetarian tasting menu – signature dishes include the egg caviar, a delicately soft poached egg served with lemon-chive crème fraîche and Osetera caviar; and the iconic lobster bolognaise with fresh capellini pasta, a reduction of tomatoes, beef, veal and lobster stock finished with chopped lobster, truffle, three types of basil and finished off with a brown butter truffle froth.

There is also an entire section of the menu dedicated to tableside dishes such as a whole almond crusted Dover sole, rotisserie chicken stuffed with summer truffles, and a 35-day dry-aged côte de boeuf roti. “We’re not a classic French restaurant but we do things that are old school. I like to keep certain traditions in place – it’s important,” the chef says. However, Citrin’s tasting menus are a far cry from traditional French fare, using contemporary cooking methods and embracing the fantastic ingredients California’s larder is so renowned for. His food is market-driven, light and vegetable focused. “When you have produce like we have here, your cooking evolves,” he insists. “We’re not so reliant on sauces or proteins for instance because the vegetables are just as exciting.”

Melisse_Shopping_CartBack at the market we continue from stall to stall picking and tasting things as the Mélisse shopping cart gradually fills up with Jerusalem artichokes, fingerling potatoes, lettuces, herbs, finger limes, strawberries, carrots, beans and more. Citrin selects heirloom, pineapple and cherry tomatoes from Nunak Farm for a salad served with burata, basil, fennel, sweet onion and aged balsamic; and mandarin cross tomatoes from Carpenter Farms in Santa Paula. “The mandarin cross is an incredibly creamy tomato; we make a soup out of it with summer zucchini and squash, which we serve with a tomato sorbet,” he says.

From Weiser Family Farms, he buys trumpet squash and lavender-coloured Rosa Bianca aubergines, which he’ll transform into a sublime dish of tromboncini squash alla melanzane for his vegetarian tasting menu (see recipe); and we sample sweet Concord grapes, individually hand-picked at Murray Family Farm in Bakersfield, which he will serve simply as part of the the petit fours.

“All the farmers are my favourites,” Citrin concludes. “It’s all about their passion for me. If people bring their passion to you it makes your work so much more exciting. That’s what it’s all about.”

Where to eat out in Nashville

Nashville may be most famous for being the hometown of country music but beyond a music mecca, it is also a fabulous food destination, with a thriving restaurant scene. I spent two nights in Nashville and didn’t have a bad meal. Here are my highlights.

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lockelandtableDinner at Lockeland Table 
Dining at this East Nashville neighbourhood restaurant feels a bit like eating in the home of a good friend. But don’t let the cosy interiors and laid back atmosphere fool you: chef-owner Hal M. Holden-Bache’s high-end comfort food far exceeds even the most accomplished home cooking and landed Lockeland Table a nomination for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award in 2013. The distinctly Southern-accented menu is both rustic and refined. Dishes like chicken liver pate in a jar made with Benton’s bacon fat and served with peach preserves and grilled Tuscan bread ($9.50); or rack of lamb with fingerling potato-bacon-and-kale hash, kale, pickled grape and feta salad, and kale verde ($27). There are also wood fired pizzas like the Pig – Italian crushed tomato, homemade sausage, pancetta, pepperoni, ham, home-smoked mozzarella and pepperoncini ($14), and the peach cobbler dessert with ice cream ($7) was about as delicious and comforting as it gets. Portions are massive so don’t over-order.
1520 Woodland St, Nashville
+1 615 228 4864
lockelandtable.com

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Pinewood SocialBrunch at Pinewood Social
This stylish new all-day restaurant is housed in an expansive 13,000-square-foot former trolley barn with soaring ceilings and exposed-brick walls near the Cumberland River overlooking Downtown Nashville. Customers can hit the bowling alley, pick up a brew at the Crema coffee stand or indulge in the reinvented American fare from culinary director Josh Habiger. The mouthwatering breakfast menu features the likes of Reuben benedict, with corned-beef tongue, sauerkraut, poached egg and thousand-island dressing on rye ($13); smoked trout omelet  filled with cream cheese, capers, sprouts, dill and green onion ($12); and the heavenly fluffy buckwheat waffles with apple butter ($9). Later this summer, a pool, Airstream pool bar and bocce court are set to open at Pinewood.
33 Peabody St, Nashville
+1 615 751 8111
pinewoodsocial.com

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merchantsDinner at Merchants
Occupying a restored brick building amid the bars of lower Broadway, this restaurant once housed the Merchants Hotel, built in 1892. Many of the original features remain: fireplaces, wainscoting and custom sconces, giving s sense of history right in the heart of Downtown Nashville. Spread over two storeys, the second floor features a formal dining room with hardwood floors, brick walls, and ceiling fans and a menu of traditional meats: roasted chicken, pork, yellowfin tuna, steak and short ribs. Meanwhile on the ground floor, the bistro serves burgers, salads, and sandwiches next to creative, contemporary takes on comfort food favourites such as fried green tomatoes with spicy pepper jam and house pimento cheese ($9); or chicken fried chicken with smashed yukons , garlic studded spinach and country gravy ($18). The chocolate cake for dessert was big enough to defy four of us.
401 Broadway, Downtown, Nashville
+1 615 254 1892
merchantsrestaurant.com

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Loveless CafeBrunch at Loveless Café
A 30-minute drive southwest of Nashville towards Memphis, Loveless Café is where you head for the full-on Southern comfort-food experience. Founded in 1951 by Lon and Annie Loveless and more recently synonymous with the late Carol Fay, aka the “Biscuit Lady”, it’s renowned for its country breakfasts. The famous biscuits are served with homemade preserves but beyond these are Southern classics like fried chicken and catfish. The signature country ham – house-cured to be outside of refrigeration for up to 90 days – has a salty kick that compliments fried eggs to perfection, while other staples include three-egg omelets; pancakes with bacon; fried catfish and smoked boneless pork chops. And before hitting the road, stop at the store for a few take-home jam, ham or biscuit mix.
8400 Highway 100
Nashville
+1 646 9700
lovelesscafe.com

LA Restaurant Review: Bestia

This is an extract from an article I wrote for Caterer and Hotelkeeper. You can read the full version by visiting catererandhotelkeeper.co.uk

08_ww-us-la-bestia-08Until very recently, LA diners weren’t known to be adventurous. Nose-to-tail cooking was a largely foreign concept and it was more about playing it safe – pizza, burgers and steaks were de rigueur. But as the city’s dining scene is fast evolving, so are people’s palates. And if there’s one restaurant that has helped to push boundaries and lure Angelenos to try new things, it’s Bestia.

Opened at the end of 2012, Bestia is an Italian restaurant from restaurateur Bill Chait and husband-and-wife chef and pastry chef team Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis. It’s all about rustic dishes, gutsy flavours and plenty of meat. Right from the start it was a runaway success, serving up to 400 covers a night in the 150-seat dining room. And 18 months on, Bestia remains one of the hottest tickets in LA.

06_ww-us-la-bestia-06From the outside, the restaurant looks like a warehouse, but once you make your way through the courtyard and into the dining room, you discover a vibrant space with bare rafters, stripped brick and Edison lightbulbs.

Although this is Menashe’s first restaurant as chef-proprietor, he’s done stints at some of LA’s most celebrated Italian restaurants, including Angelini Osteria
and Pizzeria Mozza.

Open for dinner only, everything at Bestia is made in-house. From the sourdough bread, pizza dough and pasta, to homemade ricotta, pickles, oils, vinegars and a changing selection of more than 50 different types of charcuterie, very little is bought in. “Most of our dishes require a lot of preparation, but the execution is quick and easy,” Menashe says. “We start service at 9am and make everything from scratch for that night. The menu changes in part every day, depending on what I find on the market.”

Charcuterie options may include rabbit terrine, chicken liver pâté, lamb pancetta, coppa di testa, salami and a range of different sausages, with a chef’s selection complete with homemade pickles and mustard ($15/£9).

130123 Angeleno-Bestia3873There are 10 varieties of pasta, including squid ink, porcini, pistachio and saffron, as well as stinging nettle parpadelle, which is served with Colorado lamb ragù, mixed mushrooms, Fiore Sardo cheese and topped with fried nettles ($22/£13). “We boil and purée the nettles and fold them into the pasta dough, which then sits in the fridge for a day,” explains the chef. “The lamb ragù is made with a stock from the bones of the whole animal, lots of red wine, porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, onions and celery and herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage. The cheese gives it a gamey taste.”

More adventurous dishes include grilled lamb heart with pickled chillies, Marcona almonds, rocket, pickled shallots and chillies ($14/£8.50); or panroasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and aged Capra Sarda, a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese ($14/£8.50). “I love offal because it’s always available very fresh,” says Menashe. “The chicken gizzard dish is one of my favourites – I never get bored of it. I confit the gizzards in orange, chillies, garlic and thyme, and then sauté them so they’re nice and crispy before serving them with a mushroom vinaigrette and an aged balsamic reduction.”

Desserts are overseen by Menashe’s wife Gergis, who trained at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters. “Genevieve loves sweet but she loves savoury too, so a lot of desserts balance the two. Each dessert has a touch of salt,” Menashe says. A case in point is a chocolate budino tart, salted caramel, cacao crust, olive oil and sea salt ($12/£7), which is sophisticated without being flashy.

The wine list, put together by sommelier Maxwell Leer, offers a mix of unusual varieties almost exclusively from Europe, with a focus on natural and biodynamic wines.

Bestia combines rustic flavours and accomplished cooking with a great atmosphere. With Menashe planning a Middle Eastern restaurant later this year, LA diners have much to look forward to.

Bestia
2121 E 7th Place
Los Angeles
CA 90021, USA
www.bestiala.com
@bestiaDTLA

James Beard award winning chef Dan Barber on his book The Third Plate

“As a chef you can’t be a flavour evangelist without being an environmentalist.”

This was the message from Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and author of The Third Plate – Field Notes on the Future of Food.

In conversation with Evan Kleinman, host of the KCRW radio show Good Food, which has played a central role in bringing together LA County’s food community, the James Beard award winning chef and food activist discussed his vision for a new future of sustainable eating in America.

Based on a decade of researching farming communities around the world, Barber explained how his book The Third Plate proposes a radical new way of thinking about food that is rooted in utilising the whole farm, comprising an integrated system of vegetable, grain and livestock production.

The Third PlateBarber discussed the history of American cuisine and the the traditional “first plate” way of eating, in which a large cut of meat takes centre stage. He went on to say that the farm-to-table movement has championed the “second plate” way of eating, where the meat is from free-range animals and the vegetables are locally sourced. Although undoubtedly better for the environment, the second plate philosophy too is damaging as it continues to disrupt the ecological balances of the planet, and is ultimately not a sustainable way to farm or eat.

The solution, explained Barber, lies in the “third plate”, an integrated system of vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is fully supported by what we choose to cook for dinner. The third plate is where good farming and good food intersect, he insisted.

“The farm-to-table movement needs to be flipped on its head,” Barber said. “Instead of farmers growing what they know consumers will buy, the land should dictate what they grow and thus what we eat. Our diet should be responsive to the environment and not the other way round.”

While the third plate is a novelty in America, in Old World communities this way of eating is rooted in age old tradition. Barber described his visits to the southern Spanish dehesa, a region producing high-grade olives, acorns and the world-famous Jamón Ibérico. Here a farmer has been able to produce natural foie gras as his geese feed on the abundance of the land.

“The system is so delicate and evolved, which really fascinated me,” Barber explained. “The foie gras – so incredibly delicious – is a byproduct of the overproduction of nature and ultimately of farming in the right way.”

While Kleinman failed to really interview Barber and merely got him to discuss what he’d written in his book, which to those having already read The Third Plate would have been slightly boring as there was no opportunity to ask questions, members of the audience new to his philosophy would no doubt have had a fascinating evening.

Buy The Third Plate on Amazon.

Follow Dan Barber on Twitter @DanBarber

This summer’s hottest cookbooks

 It’s almost summer time when according to a weird internet family’s music video everything is great. So if you’re looking for some foodie reads for your holidays, here are this summer’s hottest cookery books.
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The Third PlateThe Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber
Publisher: Penguin Press
Price: $29.99/£17.81
Blue Hill chef Dan Barber’s first book isn’t a glossy cookbook of beautiful recipes. Instead The Third Plate is his extraordinary vision for a new future of sustainable eating in America. After more than a decade spent investigating farming communities around the world in pursuit of singular flavour, he concluded that the country’s cuisine needs a radical transformation. He calls for a “third plate” way of eating rooted in cooking with and celebrating the whole farm, an integrated system of vegetable, grain, and livestock production.

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Le CinqLe Cinq by Éric Briffard and Chihiro Masui
Publisher: Antique Collectors Club
Price: $60/£35
Le Cinq is the famous two-Michelin-starred restaurant housed in Paris’ luxury hotel the Four Seasons George V. The book pays tribute to the very best recipes and celebrates the talent, creativity and technical mastery of its chef Éric Briffard. It contains photography from Richard Haughton and was co-written by Chihiro Masui, who is also the co-author of the L’Astrance book.

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Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen by Martin Morales
Publisher: W&N
Price: $30/£30
In his first book, Martin Morales, who owns popular Peruvian restaurant Ceviche in London, explores all cuisines of Peru, including Japanese influences, street food, seafood dishes, desserts, ceviches and of course the famous pisco cocktails. From sizzling barbecued anticuchos, quinoa salads, giant corn choclos, juicy saltados and lucuma ice, the book brings the unique and delicious dishes from Peru to the home kitchen. The book has won the Sunday Times’ cookbook of the year title.

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Displaying Revolutionary French Cooking.jpgRevolutionary French Cooking by Daniel Galmiche
Publisher: Duncan Baird
Price: $29.95/£20
This is French chef Daniel Galmiche’s take on the new wave of modern French cooking. Divided into three chapters, Liberté, the battle cry of the French Revolution. The first gives a makeover to traditional recipes, replacing beef with venison in beef bourguignon for instance; while the second elevates humble ingredients such as rabbit, mackerel and potatoes to new heights; and the final section brings together old ingredient pairings in innovative ways. The book features a foreword by Heston Blumenthal.

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http://www.penguin.com.au/jpg-large/9780241146057.jpgBread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding: Sweet and Savoury Recipes from Britain’s Best Baker by Justin Gellatly
Publisher: Penguin Press
Price: £25
Justin Gellatly was the head baker and pastry chef at St John in London for 12 years, launched the St John bakery and created the restaurant’s famous sourdough bread and doughnuts. He now owns Bread Ahead bakery, also in London and in this book explores both traditional and modern baked goods. Over 150 recipes range from the traditional classics like madeleines and croquembouche to classics with a twist such as salted caramel custard doughnuts or deep fried jam sandwiches and the uniquely original like fennel blossom ice cream or courgette and carrot garden cake.

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J'Aime LondonJ’aime London: 100 Culinary Destinations for Food Lovers by Alain Ducasse
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books
Price: $39.99/£35
Following on from his J’aime Paris and J’aime New York books, French superchef Alain Ducasse has compiled a list of his top restaurants, cafés, bars, markets, hotels and food specialists in London. From Keith McNally’s Balthazar to Gordon Ramsay’s York and Albany, Maltby Street Market, the St. John Bakery and La Fromagerie, Ducasse lists his 100 favourite foodie gems in the English capital.

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The Chef SaysThe Chef Says
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Price: $14.95/£9
This compendium features 150 quotes from an international roster of chefs, including the likes of Ferran Adrià, Mario Batali, James Beard, Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alice Waters, and many more. The Chef Says sees cooks from ancient Greece rub shoulders and talk shop with today’s rising stars discussing childhood and training, taste preferences and trends, the quest for perfection, and the gruelling but exhilarating business of opening a restaurant