Reflections from local chefs on the
good, bad, ugly and transcendent
moments in the kitchen
BY ERIC STEINMAN
ILLUSTRATIONS BY LUCY ENGELMAN
Anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen has a story, and chefs, with their passion, ambition and often recklessness seem to gather such tales in great number. We reached out to some notable chefs in the Hudson Valley to get a sense of what some of their first remembered experiences were in the kitchen, plus their disasters, as well as their moments of mastery and transcendence. The following are excerpts from some of those exchanges:
Chef/Owner at Terrapin in Rhinebeck
Cooking has been an important part of my life as far back as the memories began. Holidays were always very important in my family, as they were an opportunity to bring together close friends and family and cook for them. As early as age 4, I was eager to join in. Trusted only with the scraps, such as the ends of the green beans and carrot peels, I went about creating my first culinary dish; I called it “Mish-ka-mosh.” That didn’t go so well. Though the dish was not tasty (more likely inedible!), I took an interest in creating new flavors away from that experience.
Chef/Owner at Local 111 in Philmont
Some of my earliest memories are of cooking with my grandfather. I remember him making a red sauce, cooking it all day. He went into the fridge and pulled out a lamb shank left over from a restaurant meal. He dropped it in the pot of the tomato sauce. I thought this was both cool and amazing. The taste of the red sauce wasn’t just spaghetti sauce. The marrow came out of the bone. And I didn’t quite understand what it was I was tasting until recently, when I was instructing someone that the richest umami comes out of that marrow. I just remember eating that sauce, and now when I cook I’m always looking to throw a bone in there, or whatever I have, because of the richness it gives.
Chef/Owner at Serevan in Amenia
I have a distinct recollection of being in the garden of our home in Tehran on a hot summer afternoon, when I’d snuck out into the garden while everyone else was taking naps. I wanted a tomato from the garden. I was a young boy of maybe 6 or 7, barely at the height of the tomato plants. I picked the tomato and went into the kitchen knowing I wanted to somehow make a tomato and onion sandwich, a favorite snack of mine, even to this day. I took the tomato and cut it into circles right on the small flower-patterned table my mother had in our kitchen.
We always had freshly baked barbari bread (an Iranian flatbread). I ripped a large piece of the bread and with my fingers separated it. I had cut slices of tomato with the serrated knife, as my mother had taught me. Then I added the salt. I had learned from her that salt was important, and my mom always had salt ready in a bowl on the table. So, I imitated her, and with my fingers, sprinkled a good amount of salt on the tomatoes. I needed an onion and I didn’t know where to look. I found half a red onion, sitting on a plate in the fridge. I cut the onions into half moons, salted them, and placed them on my tomatoes. I poured some olive oil and pressed the separated half of the bread on top. And that was the first sandwich I recall making for myself.
Chef/Manager at Our Daily Bread in Chatham
When I attended Culinary Institute of America, I was in one of the early cooking classes in the curriculum, which was teaching the basics … stocks, soups, braises, etcetera. This class was not very challenging if you had any restaurant experience (which I had), but if you hadn’t … it was a very important class to build on. For me, I had previously been exposed to many of the techniques and was not having any particular difficulty. When it came time to take the cooking practical exam at the end of the class, students were required to prepare some dishes that they had learned. I was excited, but a lapse in my focus resulted in hot pureed soup blasting out of a blender all over myself. The quiet kitchen was the perfect stage for me to create this scene. … Obviously, everyone stopped to check out the damage, which was splattered everywhere. Moral of the story is hot soup really burns.
Chef at River Town Lodge in Hudson
I yelled a lot in my early kitchen management days when I was a sous chef. There was one Saturday night when I asked a cook if he had spun enough banana ice cream for the evening. I asked very specifically about the amount but didn’t actually check. At about 8pm, the cook sheepishly told me he ran out of banana ice cream. I unleashed a flurry of expletive-laced questions on this poor kid. I went down to his station and tore through it, making sure the remainder of his reporting was accurate. I ended up tipping over his freezer and yelling at him to clean it all up.
You can tell yourself it’s just the heat of the moment, that you can apologize later, or that it’s nothing buying someone a beer and admitting you were an asshole won’t fix. But admitting you’re an asshole doesn’t really make you any less of one. And people remember how you made them feel the most. I was too inexperienced to be a true leader and thought playing the character of a chef somehow made me a chef. When I look back on my career and think of failures, I think of the people I failed to teach, lead and learn from.
Chef/Owner at Wolfort’s Roost in Irvington
In addition to the restaurant we have a catering business, and in off-premise catering, things go wrong all of the time. It’s just life when you’re in an unfamiliar space, building a temporary kitchen. The reality is, you can’t let a disaster ruin the party or there won’t be more parties in the future—you can’t fail.
Things drop, power goes out, it rains—it’s always something. We’ve had grills freeze up because of cold rain and have had to build a flat top on the fly with sheet pans and Sterno. We’ve plated a wedding dinner for 200 in the dark using cell phone flashlights because the power went out, we’ve even had cook tents flood from rain and have had to work barefoot with our ankles in mud so our shoes don’t get stuck. Actually, all of the above is all from one wedding we catered this past July.
Chef/Owner at Black-Eyed Suzie’s in Saugerties
I’d have to say our mac & cheese is the dish that I feel the most connected to. It’s the one dish that’s always on the menu at Black- Eyed Suzie’s, even though the rest of our menu changes weekly. We’ve adapted it a bit over the years and learned some tricks to make it even tastier. For example, we’ve learned that Adirondack cheddar has great flavor and melts beautifully without the separation that can happen with some cheeses. We’ve also learned that grating the cheese (rather than cutting into cubes) and lowering the temperature when adding it to the pot makes it even creamier.
Chef/Owner at Local 111 in Philmont
The process of slowing down, taking 20 minutes to roll and mix your pasta dough, is more than worth it. I focus on pasta for the texture, the consistency, the thickness; I’m cutting it, I’m flouring it, and in the end, that can make or break a dish. We mix the dough at the restaurant with New York State whole wheat and semolina, so it takes a little bit longer to work the glutens in it. But because we do it, my servers can go out and say “Oh my gosh, we not only make our own pasta in-house, but we also use this really great New York State wheat.” For me to be able to tell you where it’s from, that it’s good, how it’s made, that it’s better for you (because it’s not an enriched wheat product), with a smaller carbon footprint, I think that’s what makes it special. Others take making your own pasta as a primitive task for a chef to do, but for me it brings a sense of pride.
Chef/Manager at Our Daily Bread in Chatham
Offal brings together cooking technique, product knowledge, patience, skill and what many chefs love to do … make something that should be utterly gross taste delicious. Offal-work represents a respect to an animal that I can only convey by not wasting anything for its sacrifice. The finished products are very rewarding to serve because many times it will be a very memorable experience for the diner. My times of preparing offal dishes are direct connections to culinary traditions of the past, and I feel like a student each time I learn about how another culture makes use of these cuts of meat.
230 Partition Street, Saugerties
111 Main Street, Philmont
Our Daily Bread
116 Hudson Avenue, Chatham
River Town Lodge
731 Warren Street, Hudson
6 Autumn Lane, Amenia
6426 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck
100 Main Street, Irvington