A chicken’s a chicken, a steak is a steak. What turns these ubiquitous proteins into unique menu signatures is the carefully considered process of bringing flavor to bear, in the form of ingredients and technique.
“That’s what makes a chef a chef, because, let’s face it, everyone’s working with the same basic ingredients,” says Anthony Pucciarello, chef-owner of Cielo in Fairfield, N.J. “The trick is to make yours stand out.”
That’s where the expert use of flavor comes in. And with protein costs on the upswing, flavor-payoff strategies become even more important as chefs double down on making the most of these bell ringers.
“We take a level of Japanese thinking to our flavor techniques, applying that nuance and simplicity to the beautiful products we get here in California,” says Marc Zimmerman, executive chef of Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco. “And what most defines Japanese food is umami, the rich, savory character that creates unbelievable deliciousness. We will refine and adjust for the presentation and other considerations, but what we’re basically doing is working the umami.”
Beef itself is an umami bomb, and Zimmerman sources the best from local specialty ranches, in addition to stocking what is one of the country’s largest selections of wagyu beef from the United States, Australia and Japan. Alexander’s signature is its wagyu tastings, in which the various varieties are hand-cut to the customer’s order and priced in 3-oz. increments. They’re cooked over a rapidly moving combination of gas (for crispy char) and binchotan charcoal (for flavor) to create umami-building caramelization, then served with nothing more than an array of 12 different salts.
“We want the customer to understand the flavor and texture of these different kinds of beef, and how the different salts affect that,” says Zimmerman. The crunchy salinity of a Hawaiian lava salt interacts with the yielding fattiness of rare Shiga, Ohmi, Japan A5. “Really good beef doesn’t need much more than proper cooking and salt.”
There’s also an umami-driven aesthetic to the more traditional American steaks. “The palate can become bored about three or four bites into a 20-oz. steak, no matter how good it is, so you want to make sure that there are different flavors and textures to keep things lively,” explains Zimmerman. A bone-in Aurora Angus Ribeye is served not only with an umami-rich roasted leek veal demi and crispy grilled asparagus, but also an unusual flavor enhancer of blue cheese powder, which is custom-made for Alexander’s. Since both the sauce and the freeze-dried cheese are served on the side, the customer can assemble differently flavored bites—the traditional flavor combination of blue cheese and grilled steak is there, in a unique and intriguing form that keeps the experience interesting.
“My cooking style comes from peasant traditions—it’s the kind of traditional Italian-American comfort food that people really want to eat right now,” says Cielo’s Pucciarello. “I’m going for red sauce classics, but I want them to stand out with different preparations and flavors”—like his famous pork- and beef-based Inside-Out Meatball, which he stuffs with radiatore pasta, a poached egg and three cheeses, so that when the waiter cracks it open at the table it creates a memorable version of carbonara sauce. There may be dozens or even hundreds of other Italian restaurants in North Jersey, but that meatball is his alone.
Pucciarello loves pork for its inherent flavor. While he’s able to break down and utilize whole pigs at Cielo, he emphasizes the signature flavor opportunities alternative cuts provide. “Anyone can take a chop and grill it, but you have to think about what to do with a cut like a shoulder or pork cheeks. When you do it right, you get something really special.”
Pucciarello always has a shoulder working for various dishes, including pulled pork sliders on the bar menu and some sort of ragu for pasta. “The shoulder is so versatile,” he adds. “You can season it based on the time of year or how you want to use it.”
The cooking process, however, always starts the same way. “We call it our 24-hour braised pork, which emphasizes to our customers the time and care we take with it. But, for me, the process creates the ultimate ingredient.”
Pucciarello appreciates the combination of Asian and Italian flavors, so he often rubs the meat with a spice blend that contains star anise, ginger, onion and garlic powder, and salt and pepper. The shoulder is placed in a pan atop a bed of mirepoix, covered and pushed into the cooling wood-burning pizza oven at the end of the night’s shift.
The next day, when the chef comes in to stoke the oven and start prep for the day, the pan is uncovered to allow the skin to crisp and caramelize, and the fat to further render. Once the meat is done, the drippings are skimmed, deglazed, reduced and blended down with the mirepoix to create a richly flavored glaze-stock.
Earl’s Kitchen + Bar is a Canadian-based chain of 65 upscale-casual restaurants that is about to open its fourth U.S. unit, in Miami’s busy Dadeland Mall. In adapting what might be thought of as a cool-weather concept with beloved comfort food signatures to the sizzling Miami climate, Eastern Region Corporate Executive Chef Delane (Del) Diseko had a balancing act to strike.
“We have to honor the local ingredients without turning away from the specialties that our customers come to Earl’s for,” says Diseko. Adding to the challenge is making it executable in a high-volume environment—and Earl’s is a scratch operation with more than 400 SKUs in its menu inventory. “Even though you can get plantain chips or rice and beans all over town, we believe that people will still come to Earl’s for the menu items that are unique to Earl’s.”
The Miami unit will therefore retain about 80 percent of the original menu template, with local specialties making up the rest. Diseko is particularly excited about the new Cobia Ceviche on the appetizer menu, another exercise in balancing customer expectations for what is Earl’s and what is Miami.
“In Miami and South Florida, ceviche is a tradition; everybody offers it on the menu as an appetizer or sharing plate,” says Diseko. “Ceviche speaks to the local cultural influence of Cuban cuisine and tropical ingredients, and we wanted to provide our guests with a way to embrace what is special about Florida, but to put our own bold, fresh stamp on it.”
Diseko and his team chose cobia, a locally loved species with mild white flesh and a firm texture that makes it ideal for ceviche. Although it is a popular Gulf sport fish, Earl’s buys it farm-raised from Panama for consistency and sustainability.
Following the concept’s menu mantra of “fresh, bold, vibrant and interesting,” the fish is cubed, marinated in a citrus “broth,” and served with oven-dried grape tomatoes, salted cucumbers, French breakfast radishes, ripe avocado and micro-cilantro, then garnished with serrano pepper rings, toasted pine nuts, soaked slices of fresh shallot and the bright finish of fresh mint. “It has a wonderful balance of flavors and textures,” explains Diseko. “You get the pepperiness of the radish, the spice of the chiles, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the toastiness of the pine nuts. And it’s served on a black, Japanese-style plate to showcase the beautiful colors, too.”
Serious About Spice
“I spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and Texas, and spice rubs really capture the kind of flavors I’m trying to recreate here,” says Ralph Romano, executive chef of Red Knot Restaurant at Galloping Hill Golf Course in Kenilworth, N.J. “They bring out the best flavor in common proteins, and make them taste really distinctive.”
In translating serious culinary chops to a casual, broadly appealing menu, he also cooks over wood, using a low-tech La Caja China barbecue grill whenever possible for an authentic warm-weather flavor element. “Like any live fire source, you need to learn how to manage it—where the hot spots are, how to improvise. It’s kind of like a piano that way. But it develops great caramelization, which really makes meat taste like meat.
“The key to flavor is using the best and the freshest ingredients possible,” he says. “With spice rubs in particular, too many people miss the boat by not using freshly ground spices—fresh, real spices smell divine, and they provide powerful flavor.” For this reason, he partners with a spice supplier for signature rubs as Black Coffee (for brisket) and Cedar Plank (salmon and beer-can chicken).
Brisket, in fact, is one of his specialties, used in sandwiches, nachos, and a Tuesday Blue Plate Special with grits, red cabbage and horseradish cream sauce.
To produce his brisket, the “naked” (unbrined) meat is rubbed with smoked salt and pepper, and coffee rub (which contains not only coffee and cocoa but also cumin, brown sugar, mustard, coriander and chipotle), then smoked for four hours over applewood. “When you take that kind of care with flavor, even something like nachos can be spectacular.”
At Modmarket, a group of seven fast-casual “farm fresh eateries” based in Colorado, the challenge is to build flavor into proteins that will be cross-utilized in a variety of different menu items, so they must be both distinctive and versatile. Take chicken, for instance. The company goes through 3,000 pounds of breasts and 6,000 pounds of thighs in a typical week, in items from entrée-like Homestyle Plates to various salads, sandwiches and pizzas. Yet just two flavor strategies—one for white meat, a second for dark—cover the whole gamut.
“Protein is a big differentiator for us, so we handle it very deliberately,” says Nate Weir, director of culinary operations. “Modmarket is about better food, served in an approachable fashion with broad consumer reach and a quick time frame. It’s like a puzzle to satisfy all these operational demands and guest expectations, but it starts with sound culinary techniques and multiple flavor-building steps.”
Weir treats protein to flavor steps that will work on their own in a center-of-plate application, yet not overwhelm other ingredients in sandwiches and other composed dishes. “Our whole flavor strategy is built around these twin menu needs,” he explains.
For the more widely used chicken breast, Weir uses organic garlic, dried thyme and rosemary plus salt and pepper, so the seasoning is subtle enough to work anywhere the menu says “roasted chicken”—a little oil helps the blend adhere and protects moisture. The breast pieces are cooked off in a combi-oven (“my new secret weapon,” enthuses Weir), then rested, cooled, and held at safe temperature in a CVap to preserve moisture and quality until an order comes in.
The chicken is sliced and/or warmed to order for service in most items, while the pre-cooking method means there’s always product ready. “We wanted to be able to offer a salad with a hot, juicy protein topping on it,” says Weir. “It took some trial-and-error to develop this method.”
The rest of the prep finishes off the flavor profile of each selection: Thai Coconut Chicken Salad with mixed greens and roasted sweet potato takes grated coconut, cucumber and peanut-mango dressing; the Red Chicken Melt sandwich on ciabatta is elevated by chipotle-pepita pesto, red onions and peppers, mixed greens and aged white cheddar.
Fresh Take on French
“I love French food, especially the way such comparatively simple recipes can come together to really sing with flavor,” says Teryi Youngblood, the chef of the new Passerelle Bistro in Greenville, S.C. “But I wanted to dispel the misconception some people have that French food is overly rich—to show how simple techniques and ingredients can be used effectively to create incredibly vivid, satisfying flavors. French food is the original locavore food when you thing about it—it’s inspired by the seasons and emphasizes letting great ingredients speak for themselves.”
Truffle Chicken, for instance, has a classic treatment with truffle butter rubbed under the skin, where it melts while roasted and joins parsley, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to create a flavorful baste. It’s served with a simple velouté sauce made with stock, lemon and thyme, which combines with the truffle butter to create a sensation Youngblood calls beautiful: “It’s very aromatic—you smell the truffle but what you taste is really good chicken.”
Another dish that characterizes the chef’s flavor mission is the Seasonal Cassoulet. While this traditional bean-based dish is generally associated with the hearty foods of winter, Youngblood’s is adjusted for the warmer weather of the Carolinas with a lighter treatment and more fresh ingredients. While it always features traditional juniper-cured duck confit, winter might bring white beans, rich braised lamb neck and andouille, while summer means field peas, fresh tomatoes, and braised rainbow chard along with duck, pork and lamb. “Just by changing the flavors, you can change the whole character of a dish.”