Housemade Märzen beer gravy brings lusciousness to Gordon Biersch’s grilled Brewhouse Chicken served on roasted garlic mashed potatoes and topped with crispy fried onion strings. photo courtesy of gordon biersch brewery restaurant. Sauces can enrobe, enrich, enthrall and entertain the palate. They can be complex or simple—all-day simmers with base stocks or fresh ingredients spun briefly in a blender. Sauce strategies have come a long way since the time of our ancestors, who relied on heady sauces to mask the rank of spoiling meats. Now savvy chefs use sauces as calling cards of flavor, seeing them as crucial components in that elusive craveability formula. Perhaps it’s a we-need-to-go there barbecue sauce or a haunting interpretation of a beurre blanc. Sauces can also play a leading role in the customization craze. At Meat Market, with locations in Miami Beach and Palm Beach, Fla., as well as San Juan, P.R., chef Sean Brasel offers 10 creative sauces that diners can pair with their steaks. Flavor-forward choices include a classic wild mushroom and truffle sauce and a more modern, mashed-up Jack Daniels pasilla-garlic sauce.
The chefs interviewed here showcase a versatility in their approach to sauce strategies. One tinkers diligently with his remiage for a perfect red-wine veal reduction. One relies on his sauce strategy to help align his menu with the restaurant’s brand. Another is a recent hire who is moving the brand’s sauces into beer-centric flavors. And one is a chef-instructor who teaches the classics but also shows students how to move them deftly into re-imagined, modern sauces.
Layer after Layer of Flavor
Imagine a cheese-enriched soubise, perfectly executed. Tony Baker, chef-owner of Montrio Bistro in Monterey, Calif., has achieved such a thing. He cooks yellow onions using the sous vide method with butter until meltingly tender. He adds them to a classic béchamel, then thickens with a roux and adds Emmental cheese for a rounded, rich flavor. “It’s old school, but not entirely classic,” says Baker. “I can use it in many applications, whenever I’m looking for a rich, complex luxurious sauce that lingers on the palate.” He has served it over crêpes stuffed with onion jam, for instance, and also has added lobster chunks to it and drizzled it over steak.
His red-wine veal reduction is a three-day sauce that involves fresh veal stock, mirepoix, thyme, sherry vinegar and red wine. “Sauces like this are built on layers,” he says. Indeed, vinegar on its own is harsh and raw. Added to fresh sauce, like a romesco, it’s sharp with bracing high notes. But in this long-cooked simmering sauce, you add the vinegar at the beginning, then reduce, reduce, and reduce again. “It’s the flavor enhancer that goes to the back of the tongue and makes everything else come along,” adds Baker.
At The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., sauce fundamentals are still taught, of course, but modern applications are illustrated at the school’s student-staffed restaurant, American Bounty. Hollandaise, for instance, may be charged with nitrogen, aerating it and moving it from a rich palate-coating sauce to a more ethereal flavor experience. Or a classic mayonnaise is infused with squid ink for dramatic color and subtle flavor.
“We try to show them how to add complexity to sauces through interesting techniques and flavors,” says CIA assistant professor Robert Perillo. He also points out that customization and modernization are two clear pathways to menu distinction. At the restaurant, he serves a savory zabaglione, for instance, switching out the sugar and Marsala for Dijon mustard and salt.
Montrio Bistro’s Chicken-Cheddar Waffle with wilted kale, bacon and poached pasture-raised egg comes in a dark, rich, roasted-chicken reduction sauce. photo courtesy of montrio bistro.
“We also make a carrot beurre blanc, so it’s not a classic beurre blanc, but it’s using classic ideas,” he says. For that, he juices carrots, reduces that liquid and adds butter. “Beets also work well here. Either one adds a beautiful vibrant color to the plate,” says Perillo.
And underneath those modernizations are the layered, subtle flavors of classic sauces. “Reduction sauces will always be relevant because of the concentration of flavor and the viscosity,” he says. They also boast longer shelf lives than the fresh sauces, which lose their vivacity when held too long.
Jason Gronlund, vice president of culinary for Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, is revamping some of the core sauces, aligning them better with the Orlando, Fla.-based casual-dining chain’s brand. So far, he has replaced a standard linguine in tomato sauce with a Pot Pie Pasta. “The pasta is brand relevant, reflecting our style of food. It also is unique, so they have to come here to get it. What makes it wonderful is the velouté—ours is a rich, creamy, chicken-y sauce that brings to mind a classic chicken pot pie.”
Customization also plays a part in the menu strategy at Smokey Bones. For the Gourmet Four Cheese Pasta, Gronlund makes an Alfredo-based sauce from scratch, turning it signature with smoked Gouda, Jack, Wisconsin cheddar and Parmesan. Guests can then customize, choosing from a list of toppers, mixers and melters. “It’s decadent and unique to our brand, and it lets customers choose how they want to experience our brand,” he says.
For the signature barbecue sauces at Smokey Bones, Gronlund says ideation focuses around a balance of sweet, salt and spice. “It’s hard to find the baseline, as peoples’ personal tastes play a big factor in what they find appealing.” With the sauces that pack heat, he works on how to deliver that heat evenly on the tongue. “I don’t want it to just hit the back, so I play with the fat/spice ratio until it’s got a more even distribution.”
Stan Frankenthaler recently joined CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries in Broomfield, Colo. As the chief food & beverage officer for its Gordon Biersch concept, he’s aligning the sauce strategy with the brand’s beer-centric DNA. “We’re moving more into braising liquids that feature beer. We’re also looking at glazes with beer to bring out complex flavors,” he says. “Beer is coming into a whole new age in sauces that were traditionally driven by wine. Cooking with craft beer that you make yourself is a strong quality signal [to guests].”
Customers choose what toppings to add to the signature Alfredo-based Gourmet Four Cheese Pasta at Smokey Bones. photo courtesy of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill.
Flavor nuance in beer sauces depends on the beer. Frankenthaler describes the effect of an amber-style beer in a sauce: “You get the nice color profile of the beer and the weightiness is right down the middle. Roasted malt flavors come out of amber, and that plays particularly well with poultry.” In a cream sauce enlivened with a Porter-style beer, he describes the flavor as malty, rich and with good body. “It adds roasted and caramelized woodiness, so Porter is a great choice for sauces,” he says. In the restaurant’s new spicy beer-glazed chicken wings, the glaze is used to emphasize the sweet, hoppy, caramel notes of the brewed-in-house Märzen beer. “For us, we’re trying to bring both aspects of our restaurants onto the plate. Cooking with our beers and showing off different styles of sauces is a good way to do it,” says Frankenthaler.
Fresh sauces are the antithesis of slow-simmered, complex, lingering, classic sauces. Among their ranks are chimichurri, peri peri, pesto, romesco—loud, vibrant and zinging with fresh flavors. They are hip versus noble, brash versus elegant. “Fresh sauces wake things up and give food some added life,” says Montrio Bistro’s Baker. And like classic sauces, they can also be cross-utilized effectively. “For example, I sometimes thin out a chermoula for a lively vinaigrette,” he says.
Fresh sauces also carry wellness cues. “There’s been such a progression of the American dining guest that allows chefs to embrace those families of sauces—emulsified with nuts, infused with vinegars and oils,” says Frankenthaler. “There’s a freshness and a health story that goes along with the dynamic flavor expressions.”
For chefs, a marriage of classic with fresh leads to infinite creativity and flavor. “We’ll see more of a fusing of the two in years to come,” adds Frankenthaler. “Maybe it’s a chimichurri hollandaise.” In fact, Baker does make such a mash-up: a chimichurri aïoli. He adds panko crumbs to it and uses it as a crust on halibut. At a recent family reunion, Frankenthaler prepared a veal jus for smoked beef, then added a dollop of chimichurri to the jus. “I let them swirl together so you get layers of flavor dancing across your palate—chimichurri on the attack and then the jus just lingers.”