A great chef owes as much to Robert-Houdin as to Auguste Escoffier because cookery is a form of magic in which a flamboyant (often flaming) result conceals a journeyman’s care and preparation. CAPITAL Region chose the five best chefs in this area and asked them their secrets. They demurred. We persisted; “Surely,” we said, “you can crack open the kitchen door for us?” We invoked a New Year’s spirit; we pleaded. We begged.
Being the best, they acceded. And in doing so provided a dream menu, a five-course meal of a sumptuousness that a person could be tempted to die for. Lucky for us we need only diet.
But remember: we’re guests in their kitchens, and thus are working outside the bounds of the recipe books. Five recipes are herein provided, adapted where possible to fit the limits of a home kitchen, but it’s difficult to force a chef to qualify a sauté style – or quantify an item.
For example, ask Jean Morel of L’Hostellerie Bressane how much parsley should go into his chicken liver soufflé. What is a “touch” of garlic? “You cannot talk about food that way,” says Morel. You must add it, taste it, add some more. A totally subjective realm. Which is why no two chefs literally have the same touch.
Morel’s fellow mâitres de cuisine are Dale Miller of The Stone Ends, Selma Nemer of Eartha’s Kitchen, Widjiono “Yono” Purnomo of Yono’s and Susan Lenane of the Palmer House Cafe. Each has a recipe to offer that reflects the personality both of chef and restaurant. It’s a moveable feat to enjoy from your armchair, at least until the recipes draw you into your kitchen...
Begin the meal with Morel’s chicken liver soufflé, one of the simplest and most maddening of delights. A soufflé is as easy to cook as it is to destroy, being the delicate capture of bubbles of air that are whipped in the froth of an egg white.
Like Morel, the soufflé is demanding, tolerating no mistakes and requiring persistent adherence to tradition. It’s a magic sight as it emerges from the oven, steamy and redolent of garlic; it’s a pleasure for the palate.
“This has been on my menu for many years,” says the chef, “and is always a favorite.” Morel is undisputed culinary king of Columbia County, holding court in an old Dutch mansion set on a tree-covered hill. The kitchen is alive with a thousand pleasant aromas, an olfactory banquet.
“Be careful when you add the liver,” he advises. “You only need about a soup spoon-full of chopped liver for every two persons you’re serving. Too much can be overpowering.” He suggests, too, that the soufflés be cooked to order. “I do mine individually,” he says, in a tone suggesting that you can do yours any damned way you please but it just might not come out as good.
The secret of a soufflé is not to fuss with it or you lose the froth of the stiffly-beaten whites. The mixture is folded quickly and still looks mossy when it goes into the oven. As the air bubbles struggle to rise the batter bakes to a golden finish around them, capturing them in an evanescent muffin of egg.
Jean Morel’s Chicken Liver Souffle
Prepare a souffle mold with butter and flour.
Chop chicken livers. Use about a soup spoon of liver for every two persons--too much can be overpowering. Add chopped parsley and a touch of garlic.
Add 1 egg yolk and 1 large soup spoon of whipped cream (with no sugar added) per person. Mix well with salt and pepper.
Beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold them and the yolk mixture together into the mold.
Bake for 9-12 minutes at 375 degrees. Serve immediately.
This was inspired by a French tradition Morel brought from France. “I was born there in 1933. In 1950 I started to work in this business at the Claridge Hotel. I did that for 10 years. I worked for 10 years in New York, at the Chateaubriand Restaurant and also the Lafayette, which have both become something else now. In 1971 I moved to Hillsdale.”
|Susan Lenane, Jean Morel, Dale Miller, Yono Purnomo,|
and Bill Bensen. Photo by Gary Gold
The menu, too, should be carefully constructed. “I do not change the menu very much. Why should I? I am in the country and have to be careful always to have things fresh. So I made up the menu with that in mind. I don’t throw things in the garbage and I don’t throw things in the freezer. We do everything ourselves here but the bread. I am not a baker and have intention at this point in my life of becoming one.”
Tradition started early in the Morel household. “My grandmother was a Cordon Bleu chef,” he says with a gruff Gallic accent, “and I started learning from her when I was very young. You have to start in this business very young. You are talking about a business that is hard work, and it is very temperamental. You have to learn to put up with a lot.”
Morel adheres to a French heritage that puts the chef at the center of the universe, a god at whose word waiters quiver. “We are very verbal, the chefs, and we have a tendency to be almost abusive. That’s the way we have been raised, you know, in the kitchen. It is a tradition.”
But he’s not averse to all change. He remodelled the inside of the restaurant last spring, and, while he remains true to his roots in Bourg en Bresse, his menu stays entirely up-to-date.
He deplores the tendency to overdo a menu, serving sherbet, for example, when it serves no use (“I would place it only as part of a meal that is more than seven courses, and then only between a game and a meat, when you would want to take a rest.”) No sherbet on this menu, then, but a light salad will ease us toward the entrees.
SUSAN LENANE’S HONEY-SESAME-MUSTARD-ORANGE SALAD is only one of several salads offered at the Palmer House Café, on a menu that includes heartier salads of shrimp, avocado and even duckling.
Lenane and her husband Bill Bensen realized the dream of many a Manhattanite when they chucked it all to move upstate and open a restaurant. “We had completely different jobs when we decided to move three years ago,” she says. “My husband was an operations engineer and I was writing personnel policies for Citibank. We quit our jobs and moved here. And it’s been a big change from our previous lifestyle.” They celebrate the rural charm of Rensselaerville as proprietors of The Palmer House Café, a former general store that now beckons to neighbors and travellers with inventive menus of delicious food.
The secret to the salad? Simplicity. Nothing too fancy, but don’t even dream of bringing iceberg lettuce near. Lenane advises that any good olive oil will work in the recipe. “An extra-virgin might be too strong, though. And you want to use a good Dijon mustard.” The recipe is one of their most asked-for, she says with quiet pride. Simple, direct. With a compelling touch, a culinary turn of phrase that marks the style as her own.
The weekend menu is “predominantly French, but country French, with some Italian,” she says, but it’s also based on the experimentation she and her husband enjoys.
Susan Lenane’s Honey-Sesame-Mustard-Orange Salad
1/2 cup olive oil
2 T cider vinegar
2 T honey
2 T Dijon mustard
2 T toasted sesame seeds
1 clove minced garlic
2/3 cup freshly-squeezed orange joice
1/2 t freshly-ground pepper
zest of 1 orange
Combine all ingredients and blend well.
Arrange a selection of lettuce on a plate; the choice should include one or more of the following: red leaf, green leaf, Boston, Romaine. Not iceberg. Garnish with orange slices and dressing.
“Although the place has certainly evolved over the time we’ve been here, our basic concept has stayed the same,” Lenane explains. “We wanted to use the freshest possible ingredients, without being tied to a set menu. In fact, it changes every week now. There was a steep learning curve for us, going from no experience to chef-owners all at once, but it was a good challenge.”
The evolution began in her brother Michael’s Ravena home, where the couple began their relocation. “We sat around for a few months trying to decide how to get into this business. At first we thought we’d get jobs in local restaurants, but then, when we found this building in Rensselaerville, we figured we’d gone this far, why not go the rest of the way?”
They’d already proven themselves as chefs in a constantly-cooking Brooklyn Heights kitchen. “We’ve both always been inveterate entertainers. In New York we were very active politically and cooked for things like fundraising functions whenever we could. Now 30 percent of the recipes we use are our own creations.”
One of her creeds is shared by all the featured chefs: she won’t use anything frozen or prepared. “It’s our own bread, our own stocks – the only thing we buy is the pasta.” And the menu therefore changes according to availability of product. Expect to see more fowl on the menu, though, because she recently found a “wonderful purveyor of fresh poultry in Tivoli, so we’ve been getting some terrific meats from him.”
The 32-seat restaurant was once Rensselaerville’s general store. “It was owned by the same family for 127 years. Then a couple of other people owned it, but it had been vacant for seven or eight years when we bought it. It’s got worn-out old wood floors and an open kitchen. We kind of like that look.”
YOU PROBABLY COULD SMELL THE PLEASANT AROMA of the fish course even as we cleared your salad plates. Selma Nemer’s scallop and shrimp boudin is a delicate, quenelle-like item, enhanced with a decoration of colorful vegetables that tumble from their bed inside the seafood cornucopia.
“It’s on the menu tonight,” says Selma with a girlish cry of enthusiasm. Sleeves pushed up, hands covered with the pasty mixture, she looks as delighted as a kid in a puddle. The manic gleam in her eye is common only to madmen and chefs.
She talks while she works, making it sound as easy as she makes it look. Look away for a moment and you’ve missed something, probably a crucial step. She shrugs off the notion that there’s anything difficult to be faced in the preparation of this dish.
“Be sure to get the base of the boudin light and fluffy,” she says. “Once you have the ingredients in the mixing bowl, add as much heavy cream as the mixture will absorb.” She samples it and adds a sprinkling of pepper. “It should taste slightly overseasoned before it’s cooked.”
Selma Nemer’s Scallop and Shrimp Boudin
3 lbs. sea scallops, washed
2 lbs. shrimp, shelled, deveined and chopped
1 qt. (or so) heavy cream
4 egg whites
2 T chopped shallops
1 T chopped garlic
1/2 lb. chopped mushrooms
1/2 sweet red pepper, chopped
4 sprigs dill weed, chopped
salt and white pepper
dash of tabasco sauce
dash of hot Hungarian paprika
1/4 cup brandy
Process the mixture in two batches if you're using a home-sized food processor. Place half of the scallops, five shrimp and two egg whites into the machine and process until smooth. Slowly add about three cups of heavy cream, and transfer the mixture into a bowl. Process the second half using the rest of the scallops, another 6 shrimp, etc. Season to taste.
For the garnishments, saute 1 1/2 cups of chopped shrimp and a little garlic in sweet butter until the shrimp is just pink. Flame with brandy and transfer to a bowl. Cool. Repeat the process with the mushrooms. Cool.
Butter a sheet of parchment paper and spoon out about half of the boudin mixture in a line about three inches wide along the length of the paper. Wet your hands with cold water and make a furrow down the center of the mixture; spoon the shrimp along the furrow, repeat with the red pepper, repeat with the mushrooms, finish with a sprinkling of dill. Again with wet hands, build up the sides with the rest of the boudin, working the garnishments into the middle. Roll the parchment around the mixture and twist the ends tightly. Put the roll into a large roasting pan and cover with fish stock or water. Poach uncovered in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool it in the stock.
Serve hot or cold; arrange four slices on a ladle of beurre blanc.
How accessible are these secrets? Do they really require a lifetime of experience? Like all the others, Nemer started young: “Every day from the time I was a little girl I watched my mother at work in the kitchen. She was a wonderful cook, and she encouraged me when I started doing some catering as a teenager. I worked my way to Paris with the money I made doing that.”
“My cooking style is hard to classify. I suppose I’d call it New American. It’s really a creative effort with different variations and combinations of fresh ingredients. Our approach is to make the menu healthy, light, a little fun, with a good balance of flavors and textures. That’s why it’s so hard to characterize, which is frustrating when I’m trying to describe my cooking.”
Eartha’s pleasant little dining room has the blond wood and bi-level seating that’s all the rage in new restaurants, but in this context it becomes only a backdrop against which Nemer does wonders.
She’s been in business for almost four years. “Those first couple of winters were rough – sometimes we were just hanging by a string. But we learned to survive.” This time of year the restaurant serves only dinner, Wednesdays through Sundays. “During the off-season I’m more than thrilled if we can just break even. But there’s a good, steady local following. We rely on Fridays and Saturdays to be good. The rest of the week we’re at the mercy of the weather.”
Although Nemer has spent a lifetime cooking, it wasn’t a lifelong career. “I got married and had two sons and decided I wanted to get back into cooking. Given the constraints of a family life, the only facility that was convenient to study at was Schenectady County Community College, but it turned to be a good thing: I met a lot of great instructors there, and some of them worked with me in my catering.”
She worked at Union College for a while, baking for the students, where her boss was Jean Morel. “After that I did catering for five years. Then I got the bug to have my own place.”
THIS LURE OF OWNING A RESTAURANT has bankrupted many and brought triumph to few; those who flourish bring not only the talent of skilled cookery but also a head for an unrewarding business and the ability to change course – or courses – under fire.
Yono Purnomo weathered the stormy seas of the downtown Albany real estate dilemma to emerge, victorious, at the eponymous Yono’s in Robinson Square. His explanation is simple. Great food brings you success, and great chefs make great food. “My hobby is cooking. It always has been. I’ve always cooked around the house, and I still do, even though I own this business.”
Our meat entree for the evening has followed its creator from restaurant to restaurant; it even made its way into the pages of Bon Appetit magazine.
“This Veal Pistaches is my signature,” says Yono. The recipe cooks itself once you’ve mastered the moves, he insists, moves which include slicing a tenderloin of good veal about a half-inch thick against the grain and gently pounding it flat. Lay out the slices on your cutting board and cover them with waxed paper. Whack them with the flat side of a heavy cleaver.
Yono’s Escalopes de veau aux pistaches
1 lb. veal scallops
2 T vegetable oil
1/2 cup Madeira
2 cups whipping cream
1 1/4 cups sliced mushrooms
4 1/2 oz. diced prosciutto
45 shelled pistachios
salt and pepper
Lightly pound veal slices and dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Heat oil in heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add veal and cook until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to heated platter and cover with foil. Pour off oil in skillet; add Madeira and bring to a boil, scraping up brown bits. Boil until reduced by half. Add cream, mushrooms, prosciutto and pistachios and boil until liquid is reduced by half and coats back of spoon. Season with salt and pepper; pour over veal and serve immediately.
“In this business I have tried to learn everything.” Yono speaks quickly, as if he might be late for another class. “I have always looked for an opportunity to work in the kitchen. I am always learning.”
Last fall he took a course at the Culinary Institute on food-show preparation. “I wanted to learn more about eye-appeal, which is so important in food service.”
He is single-minded in his desire to learn, and craves the opportunity to meet and work with other chefs in a learning environment. But in his own kitchen he is undisputed master.
“In my kitchen I don’t trust nobody. So I try to be there all I can. When the owner is there, everyone does a good job. When he’s not there, they might do only whatever they have to do to get the food out. You can’t be half and half in this business – you have to be consistent.”
He has been in this country for nearly 20 years, working first in Manhattan. “I got married in 1976, and two years later we moved to Albany. Eventually I worked at the 21, which I took over in 1983. We closed it in 1986 and moved to Yono’s.”
The 21 was a victim of local politics: politics forced the rent to an unrealistic level, and politicians, the mainstay of the 21's business, came only while the legislature was in session. “From July to December – nothing!”
One of the only sincere events of the overblown Albany tricentennial was Yono’s Robinson Square opening, putting a quality restaurant in a space that had housed a succession of unsuccessful eateries.
Yono was named chef of the year in 1987 by the American Culinary Federation. He’s a member of the distinguished Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international aristocracy of culinary devotees.
His accent is Indonesian, both in cooking and speech. And he runs the only restaurant in the Capital Region to serve his native fare. “We have a continental menu highlighted with Indonesian specialties. From appetizers through desserts, you can choose from one or the other. It’s important to have variety on the menu, especially in this area. But 85 percent of the people who come here order the Indonesian food. I’m very surprised, and it makes me happy. Albany has really been changing. Ten years ago all you could sell in a restaurant was steak and potatoes. Now I can put exotic items on the menu like buffalo and alligator, and I sell out.”
Perhaps, then, there isn’t any single secret. As each of these chefs succumbs to the persuasive flattery of a hungry reporter looking for handouts, the tips and techniques tumble forth. “Taste it.” “Don’t be afraid to experiment.” “Use the freshest ingredients you can find.” “Taste it again.”
BEGIN BY ENJOYING FOOD as more than mere sustenance. And, as Dale Miller suggests, when you enjoy a particular dish that someone else has cooked, go home and make it better.
His dessert course is a Chocolate English Toffee Torte of his own devising, a seemingly simple cake with exotic frills. It calls for a sprinkling of crushed English toffee, but Miller confesses: “I use Heath bars.”
The child comes through again. Miller is the comic-opera image of a chef: short, cherubic. But for an impish grin that he regularly displays he would look almost respectable. He is 29 and already gaining a national reputation thanks to the culinary magic he performs – magic that won him a Holiday magazine Travel Award in September.
Like all the others, he started young. At the age of five. “The first thing I ever made were molasses cookies at my aunt’s house. She let me have the run of the kitchen, which was great.” Six years later he was earning an income from his cooking.
“I saw a picture of a birthday cake in a magazine and I was able to duplicate it very successfully. So I also started baking wedding cakes and other specialty cakes that year in my mother’s kitchen. She’s still scraping it off the floor, I think.
“A friend of my mother’s asked if I could bake a cake for her daughter’s wedding when I was 12. Then, since I was going to be doing that, she asked if I could cater the whole meal. So that got me to expand into entrees.
“I lied about my age when I was 15 to get my first job, at The Poplars in Fultonville. I went to the Culinary Institute when I was 18 and graduated two years later in the top three percent of my class.”
He applied for work at the Stone Ends several years ago, but then-owner Henry Junco kindly advised the boy to gain some experience first, then come back for a job. Later, Junco lamented, “Why didn’t you tell me how talented you are!”
That was when Miller began negotiating to buy the restaurant. “I know this sounds corny,” he confesses, “but when I first walked into the kitchen here I knew this was the place for me.”
He grew up in the tiny town of Tribes Hill, between Amsterdam and Johnstown, and learned his trade in the local restaurants while staying close to his family.
“I like a family scene. My parents come down to the restaurant three or four times a week and help me work on the place, painting and so on. I did a complete remodelling of the hallway and main dining room last July. We finally got rid of those lamps in the dining room that everyone hated.”
When Miller went to New York last September to receive the Holiday Travel Award, he stayed at the Plaza for five days “and gained 14 pounds because they took us everyplace: Windows on the World, the Rainbow Room, Tavern on the Green, you name it. Then you go back to your room and there’s a silver tray with champagne and pastries on it! I took my parents down there and when we went to the functions, everyone thought they were the ones being honored. Nobody expected to see a 29-year-old among all those chefs over 50.”
He doesn’t believe in being different for its own sake, but won’t tolerate the unoriginal. “I hate things like, oh, baked potatoes and string beans almandine. When I see that on a menu I just want to leave. If you can’t do something different, why bother? Especially in the Albany area. If you just do prime rib or seafood, you’ll be like everyone else.”
Dale Miller's Chocolate English Toffee Torte
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup oil
1 cup baking cocoa
2 cups water
2 t baking soda
vanilla to taste
Mix ingredients by hand until smooth (a machine will cause too many bubbles). Pour the batter into two 9-inch floured baking pans; bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick comes out clean (about 40 minutes). Cool on racks, overnight if possible.
Chocolate Amaretto glaze
1/2 lb. semi-sweet chocolate
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup Amaretto
1/2 lb. sweet butter
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
vanilla to taste
Put the chocolate, sugar, corn syrup, Amaretto and water into a saucepan and boil for 3 minutes over a low flame. Remove from heat, stir in butter, confectioner's sugar and vanilla. Cool.
Trim the cakes so they're flat on top and divide each into two horizontally. Alternate layers of cake and glaze, top with the glaze.
When all is cool, press the side with toasted almonds and sprinkle the top with crushed English toffee.
Your torte arrives on a Stone Ends dinner plate atop shallow sea of raspberry sauce carefully painted with a pattern of chocolate threads. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” he says, secretly pleased that he’s confounded us with a difficult-to-duplicate presentation of an otherwise straightforward recipe.
There will always be things the chefs can do that we’d just never think of at home. Again, it’s indigenous to their magic. Under pleasant circumstances you never think of sawing your spouse in two; it’s more fun to have a professional do it for us.
– Capital Region, January 1989
And here’s a selection of bonus recipes I collected for the piece before it focused on the five-course meal model.
Susan Lenane’s Wild Mushroom and Duck Pasta
1 cup or 1 1/2 oz. dried porcini or cepes mushrooms
1/2 c. dry sherry
1/2 c. warm water
5-6 lb. duck
6 black peppercorns
6 c. poultry stock
1 T. finely-minced shallots
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 c. poultry stock
1 lb. pasta of your choice
3 T butter
1/4 c. freshly-grated parmesan cheese
salt & freshly-ground pepper to taste
1 T chopped parsley
Soak mushrooms in sherry and warm water. Remove excess skin from cavity and neck of duck. Place in a small saucepan with a little water and cook over low heat until all water evaporates and fat has been rendered from the skin.
Place duck in medium casserole with carrot, onion and peppercorns. Poach over medium-low heat for 30 minutes; duck will still be very rare. Remove duck from stock. Remove all meat from the duck. Julienne duck meat and set aside. Return duck bones and skin to stock and cook stock one more hour. Strain; discard solids, defat stock.
Drain mushrooms, reserving liquid. Filter liquid through coffee filter or paper towels. Wash mushrooms carefully in cold water. Put 3 tablespoons of rendered duck fat in a saute pan over medium-low heat, add shallots and saute 3 minutes, do not brown. Add garlic and saute 2 minutes; do not brown. Add drained, cleaned mushrooms, cook 1 minute. Add 1 cup stock and 1/2 cup of the reserved sherry-water mix, bring to a boil and reduce by 1/3.
Meanwhile, cook pasta. Add butter to sauce, stir until melted. Add julienne of duck meat and cook to desired doneness (1 to 3 minutes). Add parmesan, salt and pepper, and parsley. Add cooked pasta and toss; divide among plates.
Selma Nemer’s Grilled Filet Mignon Pattie with Chinese Peppers and Cilantro
1 lb. filet mignon trimmings, with no sinew
1 T chopped ginger root
1 T chopped cilantro (also known as coriander or Chinese parsley)
3 cloves of chopped garlic
1 T of Chinese chili paste with garlic (at Oriental markets)
Freshly-ground black or Szechuan pepper
Put everything together, grind lightly in processor. Taste it. If you like it spicier, add some Chinese mustard powder. Form the meat into patties; coat top and underside with black sesame seeds (available at Oriental markets).
Grill the patties; baste with mixture of sesame oil and a splash of oyster sauce for color. If possible, cook it rare.
1 bunch cilantro (wash well).
1 bunch parsley
3 T of capers
2 T of Dijon mustard
Juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves
1 egg yolk
Salt and pepper
Mix in processor until finely-chopped; slowly add 1 cup of corn oil and 2 T of sesame oil. If you like it spicier, add a couple of Chinese chili peppers.
Serve as a circle on the bottom of the plate and place the grilled pattie on top.
Dale Miller’s Steak Diane (or variation thereof)
1 T clarified butter
1 t chopped shallots
3 mushrooms, quartered
3 2-1/2 oz. medallions of the tenderloin of beef
1 t green peppercorns, crushed into the beef
1 oz. brandy
3/4 cup of demi-glaze or brown sauce
2 oz. cream
1 t Dijon mustard
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce
2 T of snipped chives
Tomato rose for garnish
Heat a sauté pan, add butter, shallots, mushrooms and medallions of beef. Brown beef on both sides and deglaze with brandy; flame. Add demi-glaze, cream, mustard, Worcestershire; cook until desired doneness. Top with snipped chives, arrange on plate, garnish with the tomato rose.