Chefs Secret recipes at MountainExpressmagazine.com
By Renee Huang
In the behind-the-scenes subculture of professional kitchens, much of what we know about chefs has been shaped by scintillating, tell-all biographies such as Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential or by pseudo-reality television series that depict them as divas with a short fuse (a la Gordan Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen).
But today’s chef is often a softer, more thoughtful breed who realizes that time, energy and passion are required to build a restaurant—and its team—into a heavy weight on the dining scene. And sharing what were formally known as kitchen secrets can only make for a stronger team and staff members’ greater respect to the captain of the ship.
Here in the compressed culinary world of Park City, chefs at some of the top area restaurants share a few of their tips on how they make the magic happen.
For Ruth’s Chris Steak House Executive Chef Brady Gray, his secret to success in the kitchen is ensuring Ruth’s Chris’ exceptional quality of USDA Prime steaks, and inspecting the seasonal, locally sourced produce. It’s this dedication that keeps him constantly evolving the menu and the recipes to reflect current food trends.
Like many of his contemporary chef counterparts, Chef Gray reflects a proactive kitchen philosophy, explaining that a restaurant is only ever as good as the team that runs it behind the scenes. “A chef is only as good as his kitchen when he is not there.”
What about the secret behind the melt-in-your-mouth tender steak for which his restaurant is known (and without the 1,800 degree broilers)? There’s no secret according to Chef Gray. “The key to cooking the best steak in town is to select the best steak in town,” he insists. That includes knowing what to look for, including lots of marbling with specs or ribbons of white fat running through it, and also a thick cut that will not dry out during cooking. “Instead of searing the outside of the steak, which doesn’t lock in the juices, caramelize the outside of the steak just like you would do to a pork tenderloin or prime rib,” said Chef Gray. “That is the only way to ensure that your steak is mouth- wateringly juicy.”
At Talisker on Main, an award-winning dinner-only restaurant known for New American cuisine using fresh, seasonal ingredients, a busy night during the snowy high season often means they are turning over tables three times a night. Yet Executive Chef Briar Handly believes that there is never an excuse for skipping a pre-service afternoon ritual—sitting down for a family-style meal with staff. He assigns each team member with the responsibility of cooking for the staff on a different day of the week. They must decide upon the menu, order the necessary ingredients, and prepare the meal for the 15- plus team.
Chef Handly believes that the key to a successful dinner party for at-home chefs lies in the professional kitchen term mise en place or “everything in place.”
“I always say, do 90 percent of the cooking before your guests walk through the door and the other 10 percent you can leave for your buddy who failed to bring any wine,” jokes Chef Handly. This leaves time to build complex flavor profiles that make most restaurant meals seem so sophisticated in taste and quality. “Layering of flavors may seem difficult to the home cook but it’s not,” he says, pointing to a hearty winter dish such as New York steaks on smoked celery root puree and pickled vegetables, simple yet full of contrasting flavors of smokiness, acidity, sweetness and saltiness.
“Lots of little tasks can be done the day before to build a fantastic layer and balance of flavors that will leave your guests thinking you just got out of culinary school. Just make sure you give yourself a couple days to test new recipes or techniques so that you are not scrambling the day before.”
Bill Hufferd, chef and owner of Mustang on Park City’s lower Main Street, is also a believer in home cooks mastering basic elements of cooking, such as work flow and knife skills.
He believes another important secret to great cooking is repetition and perfection of techniques, recommending his favorite kitchen bible, The Joy of Cooking, as a great reference for people looking to learn all they can about cooking.
Chef Hufferd says understanding the difference between subtle techniques is a fundamental building block. For example, roasting can refer to a wide range of vastly differing techniques—dry roasting, wet roasting, braising and pan roasting, among others. Knowing how to distinguish between them is important, explains Chef Hufferd. Then you have to jump in and begin testing the techniques. “To learn how to do something right, you have to learn all the ways how to do things wrong,” he says with a laugh.
If it sounds scientific, it’s because it is. “Repeating something is the best way to learn a technique. Consistency is the key and logical in approach. To me, it’s 10 percent creativity and 90 percent consistency,” says Chef Hufferd. “At Mustang, we have a very complex menu that doesn’t change much but our clients come to expect the consistency because we do the same thing over and over again. We are very astute in our technique.”
In short, like many of their modern day counterparts in the culinary scene, chefs Gray, Handly and Hufferd emphasize mastering the humble basics and a willingness to self-educate as the way to success when cooking at home. It seems the big and brassy chef ego—at least in some progressive Park City dining establishments—has left the kitchen.