Chefs are composers, and food is their opus. But as with any artist, a chef can experience creative block. Some days, they can write countless recipes. On others, they're stuck.
A chef must choose his or her material carefully. A beet gastrique may be pretty, but if it doesn't add anything to a dish, then what's it there for? And how do you highlight a key ingredient that came into your kitchen just hours ago? Chefs also serve as editors, toying with texture and flavor and temperature and eye appeal until they create the perfect composition, one that can explain their point-of-view bite after bite.
At Circa 1886, chef Marc Collins and his staff go through a drawing process for new dishes, making sure the individual components work on the plate. They make notes, weigh the pros and cons of garnishes, and come up with flavor profiles. "It's just an evolution of what ingredient to go to next," Collins explains. "To me, putting the plate together ... like any great painter, they think out their process prior to it, they visualize it in their head, and then they put it on paper." He confesses that he doesn't even taste his dishes before he writes recipes. Instead, he visualizes them in his head. "I can figure out which goes with what, and I can write the dish and I know the dish," he says. "You do it enough times, you know that."
That was the case for the bison short rib ($30), a highlight of Circa's winter menu and comfort food in its purest sense. "At the same time, I want [customers] to be like: I don't think I would have ever thought to put those ingredients together, but I understood all the ingredients and they worked very well together and I got what the chef was trying to do," Collins says. "I like to push people to the edge. I don't like to push them over."
The tender short rib is playfully tied around the bone in the fashion of an osso bucco, a whimsical presentation that hints at the thought process behind it — it's a short rib, but elevated, served over a braised stew of rice beans (instead of, more obviously, actual rice). Colorful cubes of diced celery and carrots, along with pearl onions, add a compelling crunch to the otherwise soft meal, while a brilliantly veiny and green leaf of Savoy cabbage brings a dramatic bang of color to a plate. "We think in our heads color-wise, we're brown on top of brown. So we need to go with something bright," Collins says.
A horseradish foam, besides being a classic complement to red meat, helps cut the richness of the dish. It's also finished with a few dollops of Greek whipped yogurt, adding a velvety, creamy balance and a hint of tang. "We can't just be the status quo," Collins explains. "You've got to give a little ingenuity to what you put in your dish to make it stand out."
Chefs like Collins are doing what Trattoria Lucca's Ken Vedrinski calls "boxed." Everything has a direct purpose, whether visually or texturally or for the flavor profile. There was a time in his career when Vedrinski prepared the same kind of complex cuisine, when his position and financial backing at the Woodlands gave him that culinary luxury. As he points out, one of the major factors of composition — and certainly the least sexy aspect of the process — is the economics behind a dish. Put the best ingredients in the world on a plate and, chances are, the customer is going to love it. But that's not feasible or smart business for a smaller restaurant.
Now that Vedrinski is on his own financially at Lucca, he's more considerate about economics as he makes his soulful Italian food. In 30 years of cooking, he's cooked up thousands of dishes, but even Vedrinski admits that only a handful have been flawless. He certainly strives for perfection every time, but he knows when something's missing. "In my mind, I see it, and on my palate, I taste it, but sometimes I can't get there," he says. It's like writer's block. "You look at it and you're stuck."
Perhaps he's a perfectionist, because the "uncooked" shellfish marinara he whips up for us on the spot is seemingly without fault. Made with itty-bitty calico scallops no bigger than a bite, Vedrinski uses the heat from his pasta sauce to cook the mollusk. The tender white scallops pop out from a bed of squid-ink-black chitarra pasta, sautéed with garlic, shallots, and shellfish stock. The flavors are well-balanced with the tart of preserved lemon and a background of spice from calabrese chili.
While a dish like this may appear almost casual, it is instead thoughtfully composed by Vedrinski long before it arrives at the table. It was begun early in the restaurant's off-hours, on the surface of its tiny bar, which is gritty with semolina and pockmarked after years of being used as a pasta-making surface. Vedrinski's flour, his eggs, his imported Italian fermented anchovy syrup — all are used to produce a seemingly effortless dish.
"That is what Italian cooking is," Vedrinski promises. "All I have to do is not screw it up. Don't overwork it, don't get weird." Clean and simple, the dish is still innovative enough to be unforgettable, which is ultimately Vedrinski's goal. "I want them to remember the dish," he adds. "When I think of all the great meals I've eaten. ... I can tell you every single dish I had, how it was prepared. I remember everything about it."
Tristan's Chef Nate Whiting, who also served a stint as executive chef at the Dining Room at Woodlands, is certainly creating memorable meals, often comprising course after meticulous course. In a dish on the restaurant's appetizer menu, three slices of seared Berkshire pork belly wade in a pool of housemade ponzu broth, topped with pillowy mushroom agnolotti. The citrus-and-umami sharpness of the broth cuts the fat of the belly, and the velvety pockets of pasta pad out the toothier protein. Housemade pork cracklings, seasoned with chili and Chinese five-spice, are delivered to the table alongside it, which diners can dip into the broth or crumble on top if they so desire. "You can hear the pork cracklings as they come out to the table and they crunch in your mouth," Whiting says. "It really enhances the whole dish."
That's part of the multisensory experience that Whiting believes makes up the flavor of food. He wants the diner to smell the ponzu broth and taste its richness when combined with the salty, sumptuous meat. Here, color doesn't necessarily come into play. "Flavor first and foremost. Everything is flavor, flavor, flavor," he says. "If we can get some beautiful color in there or something, that's just a bonus. The look is always secondary."
In the last few years, Whiting and his staff have come up with a style guide for Tristan, as they've tried to narrow in on the context of their food. This cuisine has Italian origins, employed with a more modern perspective. "For me, to call this an Italianesque kind of cooking, an Italian would want to punch me in the face, because it's not traditional," he admits. "We just have a unique perspective on things. I like the Italian roots in the spirit of cooking, the simplicity and the insistence on quality, but I'm not bound to their traditions as much. I can take a step back."
Whiting says the pork belly, which marries the protein with Asian flavors, is a good snapshot of how he likes to think. He cooked a similar dish back when he worked at the Woodlands, and it morphed its way on to the menu at Tristan. The agnolotti, for example, is a more recent addition, as the plate got further away from its Asian influence.
He also follows Thomas Keller's law of diminishing returns: A dish shouldn't be too big or overwhelm the palate too much, but it can still be exciting. "We look for ways to break up the monotony of a single dish by having one star of the show, and then we do it in different textures and temperatures and vary the crunch and the fattiness and the texture of the meat," Whiting says. He wants to keep the diner excited, so by the time they reach the last bite, they're ready for the next course.
And if that next course is dessert at Charleston Grill, they'll be treated to a dish made equally thrilling by Emily Cookson. "I don't want [customers] to get bored with it," she says of her desserts, like the milk chocolate hazelnut semifreddo, served with a balsamic gastrique, cocoa nib streusel, and meringues. "I want to keep it lively and not have it get mundane as they eat it." All of the chocolatey flavors hit the tongue at once: the hazelnuts provide an umami earthiness and the vanilla salt dominates the first bite.
The dessert was initially created for a wine dinner inspired by the Umbria region of Italy, serving as an ode to the Perugina Chocolate Factory and its milk chocolate and hazelnut baci. Ordinarily this would be a very cloying dessert, so Cookson offsets the sugar with bittersweet streusel nibs and roasted cocoa beans. The meringue kisses recall the baci, but also provide a different kind of crunch.
"I think because I eat so much sugar, I really crave salt and all that stuff," Cookson laughs. "I'm a big fan of salt and sourness and tartness. The balsamic is kind of an ode to the Italian thing of Umbria, and it really does cut that sugar."
Cookson is in an interesting position as a pastry chef, completing a meal already composed by the notable Michelle Weaver. Fortunately, Cookson says, both women follow traditional tendencies, and they can complement each other. The semifreddo, like many of Cookson's other desserts, starts with a classical element. Then she turns it on its head.
"I think with desserts, people don't want to get too far out of the box," she says. "They want it to be approachable ... They want to be happy at the end of their meal."
And if they're eating a dish that shows careful thought, that expresses a chef's vision in every morsel, there's no reason they shouldn't be.