Chef or Sell-out?!

I love a good Twitter debate, particularly one that is thought-provoking and well-informed. Chef or sell-out? This is a question I’ve been asking myself recently after a Twitter debate about Jamie Oliver and the hordes of products that he endorses. Once relegated to society’s potluck of misfits and miscreants, more and more chefs are becoming “celebrities” – writing cookbooks, starring in TV food shows, traveling the world to speak at conferences, and flogging all manners of kitchen-related products. So, I have to wonder, when is it all too much? When do chefs lose sight of it being “all about the food” and get lost in their own narcissism and their custom-designed-and-branded-picnic-esky?

To find out I decided to talk to a couple chefs to get their perspectives.

What is a Chef?

Wikipedia defines the word chef as, "derived (and shortened) from the term chef de cuisine, the director or head of a kitchen (The French word comes from Latin 'caput' and is a doublet with English 'chief'.) In English, the title 'chef' in the culinary profession originated in the haute cuisine of the 19th century, that introduced many French words into the English language. In non-English European languages, a 'chef' is the head chef; others are 'cooks.'"

So, what exactly is a "celebrity chef" then? Can you be a celebrity in your own kitchen? And I'm still amused when people visit a world renown restaurant and are shocked (SHOCKED!) that the famous "head chef" isn't there cooking each and every meal. New flash people: they probably aren't there most days, if at all.  

I needed to know, what is it really like to be a proper chef? 

For this post I was lucky enough to interview Chef Dean Sprague, a chef of over 30 years. He told me, "We as chefs need to be effective communicators, leaders, artists and without any bullshit...labourers.  Labourers because you are often lifting, carrying, standing, sweating, hot, moving on many different levels.

It is tricky to make a living out of your kitchen, you need to be able to adapt your product and move it out the door in anyway that's possible.  This can include bottling/freeze drying/dehydrating (etc) your recipes with catchy labelling and brand awareness...even if "you" are the brand.  Building a following certainly helps, but it can be fickle as the next trend is just emerging as we speak.  You need to be an effective manager, with one eye on your costs and processes.  Staff, margins and ingredients are just the beginning of the list of expenses that need to be factored into the final sale price."

The Reality

And while most chefs would dream of fame and fortune, the reality is that a significant  percentage of them slave away every day, including weekends and public holidays, serving meals in obscurity.

Chef Dean added, "Being a chef is a lifestyle choice.  It isn't something you can 'do' without it having an impact on other areas of your life.  Let's face it, when everyone else is out socialising your chef is at his peak busy period.

Most family gatherings are held on the weekend (birthdays/weddings/engagements/reunions/funerals).  Another peak time for people in the industry.  You tend to miss out on a social life, this isn't something everyone can adapt to and it takes real dedication to continue to show up time and time again."

He continued, "You know, most chefs 'do' and don't really think about the social implications of our lifestyle.  We all have a deep love for what we do, nothing else can make you turn up the next day.  There is certainly more money and easier job roles out there than cooking for a living!"

The Conundrum

So, who am I to judge when a chef hits it big and has his/her face all over food creation? There was an interesting quote from Marco Pierre-White back when Curtis Stone got his gig in the US on Top Chef and his face landed on some other shows and products. White said Stone, a brand ambassador for Coles and host of TV series Top Chef Masters, should not be criticised for "making a living and securing his family's future. Look at how many lives he's touched, look at how many people he's inspired to come into the industry, how many mothers he's inspired to go shopping for better produce to feed their family. It enriches their lives, so how can you criticise a man for doing it? You can't."

When I asked Chef Dean he said, "It's fantastic when someone breaks through into the mainstream, and their name is recognised.  It doesn't happen all that often."

“Jumping the Shark”

Haven’t heard of the phrase “jumping the shark”? Ever watch Happy Days back in the 70s? In the fifth season they had Fonzie jump a shark on water-skis in Hollywood – it actually was a very popular episode but it’s been forever christened as the moment when a TV show, idea, or person reaches their peak of popularity, begins to decline, and then tries something audacious/ridiculous/just-plain-stupid to drag out their unavoidable slide into obscurity.

Now, I’m going to use the term loosely here but to me, when a chef starts spruiking things that have nothing to do with their food, cuisine, interests, or skills – they've “jumped the shark”. I mean, I’ve seen it all – televised eating challenges, branded coolboxes and plastic goblets, to amusement park themed travel shows. I mean seriously, do I really want to buy a BBQ lighter just because Jamie Oliver endorses it? Does he really think that lighter will make a difference to my cooking? Or how about a Paula Dean keychain that says “Hey, Y’all”? Not interested? Neither am I…

But Chef Dean says, "I'm all for a chef, or any other industry professional making a name for themselves.  The time is right for consumers to have heightened awareness of the products the are using; food especially. 

I'm all for the celebrities that are out there, they do raise the awareness of the industry and can inspire youth to have a go.  The downside is that it isn't all television appearances and book deals.  There is often years of hard work in front of someone to become a known name, many will continue to plug away at jobs with little reward or acknowledgement." So, is the line between chef and sell-out whether the spruiker is furthering the cause of good food, quality ingredients, and better cooking?

In the End

One thing is crystal clear: I'm no chef and I can't even begin to appreciate the hard work, stress, and meagre wages most have to endure. And I'd find it hard to pass up if someone were to drop by Gourmet Male and offer me millions to slap the brand on anything from steak knives to car tyres. But that's the point - should chefs be famous for what they cook, what they cook with, what they eat, and what they stand for? Or should they be famous just because they speak well, look good, or employ the best marketers in the business? 

In his final comments Chef Dean summed up his experiences, "It's not all doom and gloom though, I love my profession and would do it all again. I've formed bonds with people from all walks
of life, and count dozens of individuals as my brothers and sisters. Fundamentally I'm a kid from the suburbs who has made a great career out of cooking, I've travelled the world and worked in places they wouldn't let me in the front door of."

So chefs, just tell me what you're passionate about in the kitchen. Tell me about the food experiences you love and help make me a better cook. I'll never be able to match your skill or creativity but I'll tell you this - my long matches work just fine to light my BBQ, thank you very much, Mr Jamie Oliver.


Tell me what you think. Know any chefs are more sell-out than not? Or, as a self-avowed capitalist, do I even have a right to question?

Chef Jason Saxby - Risotto of Green Peas with Fermented Black Garlic

Today we are very honoured to have a guest recipe from Chef Jason Saxby, the head chef at Russo & Russo in Enmore, NSW. Jason is the 2011 winner of the prestigious Josephine Pignolet Award. He's spent time at Pilu@Freshwater, Quay, Per Se (NYC), The Ledbury (London) and Pollen St Social (London). He has a passion for proper, regional Sardinian cuisine and loves the freedom he has at Russo & Russo to create amazing Italian inspired dishes!

Many thanks to Jason for offering to provide this amazing recipe. Please let him know if you try it and what you think! Even better, drop by the restaurant and taste his food in person...

Risotto of Green Peas with Fermented Black Garlic, Pecorino Sardo and Charred Pea Tendrils - by Jason Saxby (Recipe: serves 4)

For Finishing:

  • 100 g of pea tendrils. (These are the leaves off the pea vine)
  • Good Extra Virgin Olive Oil for finishing
  • Black Pepper in a Grinder
  • 100 g Pecorino Sardo, shaved into rustic but very thin slices with a vegetable peeler (this is a hard sheep's milk cheese from Italy, in the region of Sardinia.)

Vegetable Stock:

  • 2 brown onion
  • 1/3 bunch celery
  • 2 bulbs of garlic
  • also use the scraps of any vegetables you have lying around. As long as its not leafy
  1. Chop all veg into rough 2 cm pieces (mirepoix).
  2. Heat a large pot on medium heat
  3. Add a Tbl of oil. 
  4. Add mirepoix and sweat in the pan until softened but not coloured. Its important you don’t brown the vegetables as it will make your stock brown, which will make your risotto brown.
  5. Top with 2 litres of water. This will make more than you need but its very handy to have around and it will keep for one week in the fridge.
  6. Simmer for half an hour and strain, discarding the solids. 

Pea Puree:

  • 1 kg Fresh Peas (if you can’t get really good peas fresh, then use IQF frozen peas, make sure to get good quality)
  • 1 L of water
  1. Remove the peas from the pods by pulling the tip and snapping while pulling one half of the pod off. Remove peas. Continue until all are done.
  2. Keep a few handfuls aside to finish your risotto, you need about 2 tbls per serve.
  3. Bring the water to boil in a medium pot with a pinch of salt added.
  4. Meanwhile set up a blender and a container for your puree to go into ready as you need to move fast.
  5. Put the rest of the peas in the boiling stock and boil until tender, about 2-3 minutes
  6. Strain the peas, reserving a bit of the water for blending. Blend on high speed in your blender until completely smooth. Adding blanching water as necessary. Season to taste.
  7. Transfer quickly to your container. Set aside.

Black Garlic Puree:

  • 100 g of fermented black Garlic
  • 50 ml water
  • 50 ml balsamic vinegar
  1. Peel skin off garlic.
  2. Add all ingredients to your blender and blend until smooth. Alternatively use a hand blender with all ingredients in the cylindrical jug the blender comes with. Set aside in a squeezy bottle or a container.

Risotto:

  • 1⁄2 small brown onion - Very Finely diced
  • 2 Cloves garlic – minced
  • 250 g Carnaroli rice
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 100g butter, diced and kept cold
  • 50 g Pecorino Sardo, Grated 
  • salt and pepper
  • 250 g of the Pea Puree you prepared earlier
  • Fresh Peas that you reserved
  1. Put Vegetable stock into a pot and put on medium flame to bring to simmer.
  2. Place another medium, heavy based pot on a medium to high flame and add a few tablespoons of olive oil.
  3. When olive oil is hot Add diced onion and garlic and sweat until softened, do not colour.
  4. Then Add carnaroli rice. Heat whilst stirring around until it is very hot to touch.
  5. Add wine and stir quickly. The wine will quickly evaporate.
  6. Immediately Add 3 medium ladles of veg stock. Stir. Keep adding a ladle of stock as your previous ladle starts evaporating. Do not add too much at once. 
  7. Occasionally stirring, keep the rice at a fast simmer as you want to cook it quickly to avoid soft and soggy rice. It should take around 12 minutes to cook your rice until al dente. Depending on your stove and pot. 
  8. Meanwhile heat your char grill, BBQ or a large frying pan ready to cook the pea tendrils.
  9. When the rice is al dente and the last ladle of stock you added has almost evaporated add the fresh peas and the pea puree. Stir well. Bring back to simmer. Remove from heat. Add the grated Pecorino Sardo and the diced butter. Stir until vigorously until it is emulsified and the risotto looks creamy. Check for seasoning. If necessary adjust consistency with a splash of extra vegetable stock or pea puree. You want the risotto to move like a wave when you shake the pan. Let rest for 30 seconds.
  10. Meanwhile toss the pea tendrils with a little olive oil and flash on the char grill, bbq or large fry pan. Season. Remove from heat

To Plate:

  1. Spread risotto evenly amongst 4 plates.
  2. Spread flat by banging the palm of your hand underneath the plate. 
  3. Drizzle black garlic puree over the top. 
  4. Spread shaved pecorino cheese.
  5. Lay charred pea tendrils next.
  6. Drizzle with olive oil and crack fresh black pepper over the top
  7. Serve immediately. Timing is crucial with risotto. enjoy

Enjoy!

Russo & Russo
158 Enmore Road
Enmore, NSW
02 8068 5202

Broccolini - Add Some Spice!

I've always said that the Gourmet Female is an incredible cook. In fact, she's the reason I stepped out of my "pasta in a packet and sauce in a jar" phase and really grew to love fresh and locally produced food. And I certainly don't envy that she's the one who cooks the mid-week meals while I get to cook for show on the weekend. But lately I've been asking if she could do something different with the greens than just steam in the microwave. So this Sunday she asked me to step up and do something different!

To start, I'm a fan of pan frying eye fillet steaks with a little bit of olive oil and smoked salt and that's it. So tonight I decided to throw the broccolini in the pan while the steaks were resting and give them a little fry. Here's what you need:

  • pinch garlic salt
  • pinch smoked paprika
  • pinch dried saltbush
  • pinch dukkah
  • 1/2 lime
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

This is incredibly simple. Once the steaks are out of the pan toss in the broccolini and drizzle with the olive oil. Squeeze on the lime juice and then add the spices. Toss each minute for five minutes and then serve. That's it! Simple. And it's much tastier than just steaming or boiling the veggies. Give it a go!

Joe Bean - A Passion For Coffee

I pass many of them every day. I visit one or two on most days. Since I moved to Australia almost thirteen years ago I have developed a love of coffee and our café culture. And I’ve always known that friends of ours own a café in Erskineville, NSW but we’ve never spent much time talking about it. Lately, I dropped by for brunch and the conversation quickly turned to coffee - their love of it and the passion and history behind their homegrown brand, Joe Bean.

Meet Antoun and Joel. Friends of ours for many years and the owners of Bakerman café in Erskineville and proprietors of Joe Bean.

Antoun’s parents owned a small shop in their village in the north of Lebanon where they used to make their own cakes and sweets, roast their own coffee. The locals would hang out, play cards, drink booze and enjoy copious amounts of fresh coffee. After a couple years Antoun’s father purchased a gas operated espresso machine, which was a first in the area. It transformed the little shop and soon coffee was flowing in the family’s blood. It’s obvious now where the passion for coffee and food came from. 

The boys always wanted to roast their own coffee and to move on from the big name coffees they used in the past, but Joel was sure that the punters wanted the “name” and weren’t that interested in having variety and freshly roasted coffee. So to make his point Antoun started roasting on the stove in a pot. He purchased 5kg of green beans online and got roasting. That is, in the middle of summer with the kitchen hitting temperatures above 40C regularly and beans shaking in a heavy pot every fifteen minutes, waiting to crack. Imagine a lather of sweat, bean dust, and more than a few times, “Shit, it’s hot!”

The logical next step was to host a cupping evening with some of Bakerman’s best customers. It was a hit and Joe Bean was off and running. In the heat of the moment the boys rushed off and bought a 1kg coffee roaster – you can still see it sitting, unused, on the counter today…

To roast coffee you need a well-ventilated space with a proper exhaust system attached to the roaster. Well, that’s the normal set up. Let’s just say that the initial system was “makeshift”. It was quite a creation, utilising plumbing pipes, expanded hose and metres of temporary hose running through the false ceiling. While the coffee was showing promise it was a bit disconcerting that customers were  “walking into a wall of smoke” (one bit of customer feedback). So they purchased a larger roaster and took on a space in western Sydney that was in an industrial estate with the correct ventilation. They now have two of these operating.

This took a while to arrive from overseas, so they continued to roast on the stove and use the branded coffee they were using, as it was too much work to hand roast 40kg per week. When the new roaster arrived they stopped using the branded coffee and started using their own roast. There were social occasions where Antoun would speak to friends and dream a fresh roast coffee company. The boys were interested in the wholesale side, selling to cafes and they had a friend who was into the retail customers buying for home use. Roast to order was their mantra, ensuring the customer always gets the freshest product.

The original plan was to allow customers to design their own bespoke blends, so they ensured that the system was designed for this – which will be reality when have a higher volume. This is to give the customer control of the beans and the roast, so they can create their own flavour.  

The boys have four blends and ten single origin beans. Some are sourced locally, but most are imported as the selection in Australia is very limited, plus the cost is prohibitive. This gives them a great variety of flavours and bean profiles. The importance of freshly roasted coffee, like any other food product is the quality and flavour. Coffee needs to rest for up to seven days after roasting to allow the coffee to degas, but it should always be used within twenty-one days to get the best flavour and crema. Their objective is to have more cafes serving freshly roasted coffee, rather than beans that have been warehoused for months.

They don’t want Joe Bean to become a massive company, as this is where companies lose the ability to roast to order. They will stop taking on more customers if they are not able to roast to order and give the best service. They dream of having Joe Bean coffee in cafes that have well trained staff, who understand the delicate nature of making coffee, not just every cafe. They are not into selling equipment and supplies, even though this is where many large coffee companies make much of their profits. Their ultimate goal? Keep our prices reasonable and keep people drinking great coffee.

Running a café seven days per week is hard enough, let alone trying to grow a coffee brand at the same time. The boys bake their own cakes and pastries, which makes for an all night operation. Time is at a premium. But in the end, coffee is their love. It’s their passion. And Joe Bean is the fruit of their labour. So here’s to you, gents! And we are all looking forward to a warm cup of tasty Joe Bean coffee in our near future.