Sustainability for everyone?

Butchering demo at the Summit

I had a great experience at the Chefs Collaborative summit earlier in October. I was a big fan of the seminars and demonstrations in particular. It’s exciting to hear the stories of passion from people who have dedicated their lives to the noble cause of promoting sustainable cuisine.

Overall it was a fascinating couple of days—although at times it seemed there were more questions than answers, more preaching than offers of real change. After spending some time reflecting on it, I started to feel that something was missing – namely, chefs. There wasn’t a great showing in terms of numbers. As I considered that lack of presence, it dawned on me that maybe I should have been questioning my own presence at the Summit.

How sustainable am I? How local is my product? The more I asked myself those questions, the more it started to come together for me.

Sustainability, while great and undeniably needed, can seem unattainable to most professional chefs. The expense of product, ease of ordering, and seasonal availability is not great. The chefs in attendance represented what are largely occasion places for most:  higher ticket venues with entrees running up into the thirty-dollar-plus range. At Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, MA, where I am the executive chef, we keep the price point low so we can reach many people. It’s a high-volume spot, and believe me, to be fiscally responsible and sustainable while maintaining your given concept is difficult for anyone.

So in terms of not a lot of chefs being at the Summit, in some ways it was understandable. Given the pitfalls and challenges of maintaining your commitment to sustainability, one could see why a chef would stay away – from both the conference and from that commitment. But if a chef or manager were able to hear concrete examples from others who are making it work in their restaurants, that opinion might change.

So, how do we make sustainability accessible for all chefs, so we can best maintain our businesses in the long-term?

So far I’m not convinced that anyone has found the answer in total, but it starts by making small changes.  Every little bit helps and if chefs at least asked the question of how to make their restaurants more sustainable and environmentally friendly, and shared answers and ideas with each other, then true progress might be made.

I hope that more chefs will attend the National Summit in New Orleans next year so that we can better learn from one another about how to make changes in the way we source food. In the meantime, I will continue to make incremental changes along the way. I’m always rolling out new items and adding as many local products as I can. I recently added PT Farms from Vermont to my vendor list. I’ll be using their grass fed beef for my burgers at Russell House Tavern.  This is an added expense that I’m not passing on to my guests but small sacrifices like this are just the beginning of being as loyal to the sustainable movement as I can.

I’m proud of the state of my menu right now; it’s at its highest level of sustainability yet. I just wish more chefs from different concepts knew it could be done.

***Special Thanks to Chef’s Collaborative for posting this post on their website…

Follow them here:!/chefscollab


Shelling Peas.

My wife asked me last week if I would take off this past Wednesday night for a… “NO.”  I cut her off.

I am so obsessed with Russell House right now that I couldn’t fathom taking a night off. Honestly, lately I don’t sleep much, I’ve lost 30 pounds since Easter, and I run 3 miles every morning before a 15 hour day. My mind and body just won’t stop. Of course I couldn’t take that night off.  Two of our reviews are just out, one glowing, one not as much (but still flattering), and while both are fair and accurate (another topic), they still occupy my mind and fuel my drive even further. But it turned out that the night she wanted me for was our twins’ 1st grade Open House. Open House is the final night of the year when parents can see all that the children have learned and accomplished. I realized that I hadn’t been to their school once the entire year and here it was ending in less than two weeks   I was also struck with the fact that I hadn’t been to a baseball game, or a horseback riding lesson… I started to reconsider.  I decided to go.

I pulled into the school at 6:30, with not a minute to spare. It was all very heavy to me, even though it shouldn’t have been.  I thought of my own father. We have had some deep conversations of late. My dad worked so much and he was gone Monday through Friday. I remember a couple of isolated instances of us spending time together, not tons of memories. I used to be so angry with him. I carried that for many years, but I don’t anymore. I realize that I’m now wearing his shoes, and that I have been walking in them for a long time.

Into the classroom I walked.

My kids are in a French immersion school in our school district, a very cool program. I started with my son. I was just so overwhelmed. He read me a story in French that he had written himself. He showed me a robot that he had made; stunning I thought for his level. I was blown away as the teacher only conversed with the children in French, and they too in turn. There was a whole world there I hadn’t gotten to see – their friends, relationships, and even their personalities in a different setting. We played a math game and looked at calendars all in French. A thought raced across my mind of the review quote that my pasta was dry and tasteless. I chuckled to myself. We sometimes lose sight of what’s important in life.

My wife and I traded off the kids and I ventured to my daughter’s class. It was more of the same. I was struck by the utter genuine quality and intensity of their smiles and their enthusiasm. I was getting emotional as I looked around the classroom. And I realized that I was jealous of all the other dads.  It all looked so routine for them. For me it felt like a trip to Disneyland, and it was kind of sad really. I wandered over to the teachers who asked me about the restaurants. Some had seen the review. I really didn’t want to talk about it…

I re-grouped with my wife, both twins in hand, and they took me for one final viewing – to the first grade Pea Garden. We walked through the halls and into the courtyard where six not so perfectly groomed rows of peas stood tall and flowering. They looked pale green and so sweet. We walked over. I knelt down by the peas and dragged my hand through the plants gently. I picked off some leaves and handed them to my wife and kids. “Eat them” I said. They looked surprised at the notion. As they ate the leaves all of their eyes lit up, and smiles crept in. My daughter looked at me and said “they’re sweet daddy.”

“I know they are baby,”  I said. “And they grow so fast…”

Breaking a few eggs…


When doing the new menu at Russell House Tavern I had one luxury I had never had before, a period of time for testing. Often in an opening the pace is brutal, with time & money (same thing?) running short.  The lack of one or the other often adds loads of pressure & sometimes forces you to make compromises.

Not so in this case. Everything happened very organically with RHT so I had some precious time. I spent a lot of it on our egg dish.

Often dishes on my menu start with a standard dish that I want to do a take on.  In this case it was an egg sandwich.  Being from Long Island originally, I understand the importance of the egg sandwich. It’s a blue collar breakfast item to be sure, and you have to order them at delis quickly; everyone’s on the fly in the a.m. The delis serve them on bulkie rolls that are crispy on the exterior with an interior that is wispy light. You can get them with cheese, bacon or sausage. “Salt, pepper, ketchup” is what you hear ordered the most for toppings. You can get snooty with your order too and go “egg whites & turkey, swiss cheese of course.” Anyway, it’s a staple of that area and while there are plenty of good egg sandwiches to be had here in Boston, it’s always hard to beat a nostalgic memory.

So that was the idea for the dish.  Great, right? Big new restaurant and I want an egg sandwich?? Obviously I can’t get away with just that– but that’s where it begins – with an idea or some inspiration –  and then I get to decide what notes I want to hit for my version.

Thinking about eating an egg sandwich, it’s this great combination of smoky bacon (I use our house made pancetta), molten yolk, and buttery bread (we use brioche buttered and griddled for ours). I like mayo so I created an aioli using a good quality pecorino to bring the salt and then added lots of black pepper. It’s started coming together but then I started thinking about eating it and in my head it’s so rich so I brought some acidity in the form of vinegar.  Adding some red onion also helped. As I thought about needing more texture and color, I added frisée which brought a great freshness and by happenstance became a nest for the feature–the egg.

In creating this dish, I broke an embarrassing number of eggs. Originally I started with a mini fried egg, but cutting the white down was laborious & this needed to be fast. Then I went to soft poached which was great but was too much like a play on frisée lardon, which I had already done a cool homage to years ago at Dedo called “Duck, Duck, Goose.”  I kept thinking and experimenting and then I just decided to fry one. It sucked. I mean it was a pain to poach, shock in ice, then dredge and getting a consistent egg yolk texture was difficult. I was using David Chang’s recipe in the Momofuku cookbook that was cool in essence, but really needed an immersion circulator for the best results. The Russell House owners were actually cool and agreed to my pitch: “Can I buy a thousand dollar lab device that I’ve never used to cook eggs? I can? Sweet.”

After getting the circulator I played around, consulted some other chefs, continued to tweak, and finally got it. The eggs were coming out perfect for opening.  Dredging, holding, and frying are still labor intensive steps and still a pain during service – and don’t get me started on when someone drops a whole tray of eggs on the floor. But as with anything, the repetition is the best medicine and we found a rhythm with getting them done and, having them turn out perfect. People really seem to love it too…

And that reaction is what is so fantastic, just over the top.  And it just started with that simple egg sandwich.  I love that.

A Healthy Recipe & Update

As I enter the third full week of the Russell House Tavern opening, a sense of calm is setting in. The whole team has been really working so hard, and you can’t really ask for more than that. I haven’t had time to for fully fleshed out post but today seemed like a good day to share a recipe which is featured online. It’s featured on the New York Times Temporary Vegetarian Column, hope you enjoy…Click Here!

Building a team

I don’t consider myself old by any stretch, but one thing I know for certain is that I’m old fashioned. I believe that simple goals and simple expectations allow people to succeed.

The best leaders (read: coaches, managers, chefs) put people into situations in which they can be successful.  When you present someone (a cook, prep, sous, or dishwasher in my world) with too much responsibility at once, you put them in a precarious situation with the potential risk of failure.

Reachable goals.

Often in the workplace we are handed goals that are unattainable. If you’re of reasonable intelligence and know your craft, you know when you are being saddled with those unrealistic goals. It inevitably frustrates you and becomes a negative, which is a bad way to motivate a person.  In addition, we sometimes set goals for ourselves that are bigger than what is reasonable.  Rather than set goals for ourselves in small steps that are achievable, we set big goals for ourselves and set ourselves up for failure.

Let’s take a cook as an example.  Cooks are almost always eager to move up and are often wanting more responsibility. Too often though what they really want is instant gratification. What I’ve learned over the years is to hold that individual back. It‘s tough but it is the key most times – to slow the advancement but increase his or her exposure and learning. I think it’s a recipe for building a better cook. It’s why rookies will usually ride the pine in the NFL, learning while being hungry to start. Too much exposure too soon without the proper supports can destroy confidence and hinder success.

In addition to developing strong, talented staff, getting quality candidates to apply is another challenge. I am without argument a small fish in the pond, so to speak. Young cooks are not looking to get my name on their resume. They’re looking for names like Maws, Bisonnette, Oringer or Lynch – luminaries in our community, and rightfully so. But in my opinion it makes successful lesser-known chefs even more endearing when they hit it big. 

Accepting this, it means an even greater challenge to getting a great staff. It’s better now for me than it has been in the past, but that’s due to a lot of hard work, and a credit to those cooks in my previous posts who have performed well. How can a Chef succeed if his cooks do not achieve?

So now taking all of my past experiences into account, I build a team once again. Only now there are a lot of familiar faces in this kitchen for me, a testament that maybe my own food and management style is beginning to have its rewards…

Making space smart.

One of the unsung heroes in terms of “concept” in the kitchen is planning. As much as I have cawed (shameless plug of our logo) over cleaning, we can’t forget the importance of where to put things and on knowing all of our steps. So many of us have had that moment when we realize we have forgotten something we need. That mental mis en place is critical, as critical as where we put the salt.

The efficiency of a cook’s movements.

“Don’t waste a move.” Are we martial artists? The first time I heard that I laughed and looked around thinking “ok, I’m not in a mixed martial arts arena or dojo…” The don’t waste a move motto came from a former sous chef and was a great lesson for the staff.  Minimize your movements grasshopper, a brilliant realization.

So how do you minimize your movements?  Keeping things in their place is huge. Everything on your station has to be in a sensible place, grouped together by dish, left to right, start to finish. If there’s crossover of an ingredient (herbs, oils, garnishes a lot of times) it should be centered in the station, to allow for easy access for all pick ups. What you don’t want to see is some cook on a Friday night looking like the Tasmanian devil. At Temple Bar the seasoned guys will often chuckle at the newbies in the kitchen “There’s a lot of dancin’ tonight chef” you hear from the vets as they crack up. I usually will let someone go through it for a while, maybe the whole service. Then we will talk about it.

I’ll explain how to group movements, stage several moves, and prioritize steps. Oh and the big one, to finish plating that dish you started. Never do I want to see half picked up plates on a board while a frazzled cook tries to stay ahead of the next pick up. So it always harkens back to the organizing and setting up the station the right way. I’m pretty liberal in the sense that I don’t have so much hubris to think that I’m always right (another big lesson). I’m always eager to see a new, more efficient way to do ANYTHING. I’ll listen to just about anyone when the time is right. But it’s on the chefs to set up for success to begin with, finding a home for “running stock.” Running stock being what you need to get through a shift…

At Russell House our dry storage feels like it’s a mile away. I want all the “running stock” to be in the main kitchen. And figuring out where to put everything is a job here. It’s one that I’m taking a good amount of time with. It has to be right. It has to be set up for quick response, and success.

Now where am I going to put that salt…

A happy kitchen…

Some of this stuff was just unbelievable...when its finished, you know why you did it.

…is always a clean kitchen.

That’s what comes first. I’ve always been uncompromising on this & as any former or current employee will tell you, I’m obsessed.

Nothing good will come from anything less than a pristine workspace. I’m not ashamed or embarassed to tell you that the first people to be asked to leave my kitchen are the ones that slack on clean up or organization–if they can’t master that basic skill, they can’t cook in my eyes.

In our (and most) kitchens, you can’t proceed until you have mastered the basics and this is all the more important with a new restaurant. So much develops in those early days of an opening, critical to the success of the entire staff.

It’s not just about the cooking in the beginning, everything in our world has a base layer to build on. I humbly submit to you that in this profession, the biggest mistake is moving on too fast, & you see it a lot. Cooks advancing to quickly, leaving to soon, forgetting the basics–the most important stuff. It’s a huge lesson, one that’s not lost on me. As I get older I try to instill that in my crew even more. There is a reason your going to spend all day on one small job, one piece of equipment, one small seemingly insignificant patch in the corner of the kitchen…you don’t realize what’s happening when your doing it.

But really, you’re learning the most important lesson. It all starts with the basics.

So that’s where we begin in the kitchen. The relationships are already forming, the trust amongst my staff is growing and their reliance on each other is as well.  In other words, a team is forming. It starts with the cleaning…