Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Spirit of a Chef in the Beehive

Perhaps this is just in time for the holidays. A little something to feed our hearts and fill the air with a waft of fresh baked hospitality and camaraderie. As the festivities are approaching we join with loved ones, family and friends to celebrate what I believe is more of an appreciation for each other and a chance to reconnect with the spirit of giving on a physical and spiritual level. We are out 'til all hours of the night, braving the weather and "battlefields" in the department stores to get the perfect gift for all the people we love.

We gather, we exchange gifts, the "shock and awe" wears off in about 5 minutes... And then we ready ourselves for the one ritual which strikes a more primal and visceral chord within us than any other festival or tradition... A ritual that we must partake of on a daily basis, even after the glow of Christmas has passed... a tradition that our very existence depends on. It's time to feast!!!

The word "feast" and "festival" are interchangeable and literally means a religious gathering that usually includes the partaking of food. That's right, we've all had religious experiences in our lives, and I would have to say that the most common ones are directly related to food... A perfectly prepared rack of smoked ribs with a mouth smacking bbq sauce, fresh baked bread with European butter and fresh honeycomb, the silky velvet texture of mac and cheese or the gooey cheese hanging to the floor from your piping hot slice of pizza heaven.

Watch a person partake of their daily bread and I promise you will see their eyes close, their mouth take a moment to stop and savor the intricacies of sensory titillation as the corners of their mouth begin to rise to the heavens... a pensive disciple.

The one true "festival" that we all have in common, the one that breaks all boundaries, culture, religion and geography... truly the "One Love"..... is our need to eat and sustain our existence on this rock. A "festival" that all of God's children must agree upon, celebrate, worship: Coexist if you will.

We celebrate throughout the year to commemorate historical events and honor those who pioneered the way for us. These holidays come and pass, but the one true festival is life, which is an every day celebration. Morning, noon and night, and for most of us a little something in between if ya know what i mean... And that equals a whole lot of time and dedication, time that most of us don't always have. That's where the Chef steps in.

Some of us can cook, most of us cannot and even for those of us that have the "green thumb" sometimes it nice to just sit down and enjoy the meal without all of the thought and preparation that goes into the meal. For those of us who are cooks, foodies, or otherwise appreciate a perfect orchestra of nibbling nirvana, a Chef has the ability to elevate our experience to new heights. The Chef lives and breathes aroma, flavor, texture, subtle nuances and combinations that bring our visual palate into full HD.

If you were to deconstruct any Chef or cook that has even an inkling of passion, you would see the intricate layers and structure that make them who they are. At the core of this structure, is the Spirit of a Chef. This "Spirit" is the essence of giving, sharing, loving and hospitality.

As a child, when all the other kids where on the playground, the chef was with his mother in the kitchen watching in bewilderment how she took a pile of flower and mixed it into a loaf of bread. You were playing with a new toy or engaging in sports or other activities... the chef was pretending to cook in a make believe cafe serving his siblings and friends. The chef was making his first meal with the help of an adult to serve to family or friends.

The soul, the essence, the spirit of a chef is to feed people, to serve, to host, to nurture people's well being physically, spiritually and emotionally. To know when that plate goes out to the guest in the dining room, that the hours spent in collaborating, conceptualizing, testing and fine tuning, the combinations will enrich all the senses for that guest who has taken the time and money to have a memorable experience.

This spirit goes beyond the dining room and into the kitchen to those that work with the chef. A sense of camaraderie, understanding and a willingness to share all that they have learned with those who are just beginning in the industry... And this goes beyond the Chef's own kitchen and is extended to all of his peers and competitors. You could call it a sense of "sportsmanship" in the restaurant industry, and I believe that this is vital to all of us who share this "beehive" in Salt Lake City and in all of Utah for that matter. At the core of this hive is the Queen, which I believe ultimately is the Spirit of a Chef, and not necessarily one entity or institution. So in the "Spirit" of the "Festivities" it is vital that all Chefs, restaurateurs, foodies and diners all come together into a symbiotic relationship that will enrich our experience, stimulate our economy, expand our knowledge and understanding and put Salt Lake City on the food mecca map!!

In the true Spirit of a Chef I say, Bon Appetit!!!

Mark M. Benson
fooD: Your guide to all topics culinary

Monday, September 14, 2009

Culinary School; Avoiding the pitfall

Do you often think about food, so much so that you not only want to eat it, you can't help but think about the preparation that goes into that creation? Do you find yourself tweaking the seasonings on your meal while you eat, thinking to yourself " I would have added a little more salt here and a touch of acid here"? When you click on the television, is it already on Food Network or other associated programs that are culinary oriented? ...... Well folks, then you may have what it takes already to become a Chef!!

Welcome to Culinary School, lets start the tour now. "And over here we have the Chef demonstrating the knife cuts and hand coordination necessary for production in your lucrative restaurant you will own one day". "In this kitchen you will learn the basics of making stocks and sauces, as well as the fundamentals of kitchen production". "Now we have the Baking and Pastry kitchen with all the latest in equipment and technology.... What's that you say, how do we afford all of this nice equipment and an abundance of product?" "Oh don't you worry, bless your heart, that is all coming out of your tuition. Want a free cookie made by a student? Here you go... actually the cookie is also coming out of your tuition."

"OK folks, lets head right this way to financial aid and sign that check, along with your life away....Just send your checks payable to Sallie Mae along with the interest it will take to pay your loans off after you have deferred them for 3 years and the 5 to 10 years it will take to pay them off, in the amount of $100,000. What?!! You are concerned that you will not be able to pay these loans off? Nonsense! Goodness, did I say that aloud? Pardon me, that's just my guilty conscience getting the best of me... Don't worry folks, you will have that same pit in your stomach when you realize you can't pay your loans off, you get used to it, with the help of antacids and antidepressants. So, lets get you fitted into those uniforms, shall we?

Fact. It will take you at least 5 to 10 years to pay your loans off for school, depending on the interest, type of loan, your credit and if you have qualified for scholarships.

Fact. If you fit into the majority of students who graduate and get into the workforce right away, truth is you may have been making more money before you went to school in the first place as a cashier or waiting tables.

Fact. If you are one of the elite, excelled in every class, made President's Honor Roll, volunteered for functions, staged at high end restaurants and otherwise applied yourself and your passion....truth is you may have been making more money before you went to school in the first place as a cashier or waiting tables.

Myth. You will attain Celebrity status and have your own cooking show.

Myth. You are a chef the day you graduate Culinary School.

Myth. Your degree will guarantee you a higher paying job in the culinary industry.

Myth. There are tens of thousands of good paying cooking jobs out there, especially during this economic downturn.

Reality..... If you really enjoy cooking, and have an undeniable passion for it, get a part time job at a restaurant. Choose a cuisine you enjoy and try it out. Give it some time. That first busy night when you leave and slam your fist on the car and say " What the hell?!! I thought cooking was fun and full of glory and fame, I just got my butt kicked!".... Go home, have some beer or some tea, kick on the television and watch the "Bam man", get some sleep and start over again with a good attitude. If you are seriously considering the culinary field as your career after six months, pick up a few more shifts and ask as many questions as you can while you are working.

After a year, if you still have the drive to fulfill your Culinary delusions of grandeur, well congratulations, you just took culinary training in the real world and got paid to do it. Now its time to consider looking into some serious restaurants and putting in apprenticeships or stages and learning a whole new level of the craft. Also, "Food TV" can be fun and entertaining at times, but it is not reality. Utilize your local library, the Internet and bookstores and start looking through every cookbook and like minded literature out there and start to harness and write down all of the fundamentals and ratios that you will need in your repertoire so you can start to create your own style and finesse.
Go out to eat, learn your wines, start watching the flow of the restaurant and look at the big picture whenever you step foot in a restaurant either as a guest or in the kitchen. Let it become your soul....

Coming from experience, and always having my ear in the conversations with my fellow culinarians, the consensus is generally unanimous.... Save your money, Culinary School is overpriced and sometimes unrealistic. Its a long hard road and not a lucrative one for the majority of us.

With that said if you truly have the drive, the passion, and an entrepreneurial spirit, Culinary School can provide you with the fundamentals, the principles and discipline necessary to prepare you for the real world. You will find your niche and you will be successful.... You will be one of those few who can say they are doing what they love and love what they are doing. Just remember this, it is an investment and you have to stick it out!

For some great direction and insight on the path of a chef, check out this trio of books by Michael Ruhlman,
The Making of a Chef
The Soul of a Chef
The Reach of a Chef

Bon Appetit!!

Chef and writer
Mark M. Benson

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Slow" down folks

Wake up at 6:00 a.m. and roll out of bed... At least you try to. "Gotta get the kids up for school", you remind yourself. You try with the determination of a drill sergeant to rally the troops but your teenager is having a bad hair day and your 5th grader wants to wear make up to school... Another typical morning and you are already running behind. You barely get the kids dropped off to school and you are already tired and starving, so you stop at the nearest fast food racetrack for your heart attack in a bag and a hot cup of something that resembles coffee. 7 minutes to be in the door and at your desk and its non stop school zones, and trying to inhale your MRE ration for the morning before you go into battle.

Sound familiar?

These days... scratch that... For the last 30 years there has been a steady rise in the pace at which we live. The more advanced our society becomes, the more technology tries to help to simplify and organize our lives ironically only makes us move faster. Its a race... we are gaining momentum, everyone is trying to get ahead of the next person and we are frantic in our lust for it. Unfortunately we are not really getting anywhere... we are lost, but were making great time!!!!

In the wake of progress, we are becoming unhealthy both mentally and physically as we pass up life's beauty and simplicity like a locomotive. Unfortunately, our physical health is suffering greatly for this. Our meals are more frequently coming from a bucket or a bag, and even when we cook at home its something quick and most likely frozen or processed. And for those of us who weren't born with a knife in our hand, sometimes there is just little choice.

In 1986 a man named Carlo Petrini in Rome, Italy along with supporters began to protest against the proposal of a McDonald's that was going to be built in proximity to the Spanish steps in the ancient city. The organization of people at that time was called Arcigola, which eventually was transformed into what is now called The Slow Food movement or organization. "Slow food" is the name given to protest the "Fast food" frenzy that has taken over most of our world today. Their philosophy is to support the consumption of foods which are grown and produced locally that are sustainable and used in season, environmentally sound, supporting of culture and diversity, and fair to the farmers who make their living feeding us.

Since the birth of the Slow food movement, there are over 80,000 members in over 122 countries worldwide that support the non-profit organization. More and more chefs, restaurants and people of influence are joining the movement and are making it far more aware to the public. Never before in history have we as a civilization had to deal with the detrimental effects of the food we consume, due to the advancements in science and technology. We are all becoming more aware of this folly thanks to organizations like this, so what do we do with this new found knowledge?

Well folks, it time to slow down and get educated on the "perimeter aisles" at the local grocer or market. For those of you who aren't familiar with the "rabbit food" sections, lets get you back to the basics of life. Don't be intimidated by daikon radish and swiss chard... they are your friend. Utah is rich in farm land and has some of the best produce I have ever had, even better than what is coming from California this year, in my opinion. Fresh sweet corn, peaches, apricots, heirloom tomatoes, squash and zucchini, cherries etc... the list goes on. And it's all local and fresh. There are endless possibilities with such a wide variety of fruits and veggies, you are sure to try something new and different every time... minus all of the preservatives and ingredients you can't pronounce from most of the "middle aisle" selections.

And don't forget the Farmer's markets and local coops that provide us with organic and fresh produce as well. Don't be afraid to ask these great people what some of their favorite recipes are and some food pairing ideas... After all, they have grown up on this stuff! Visit your local libraries, book stores, cooking stores and go online to start cultivating ideas and methods for cooking and preparing your food. Your body, kids, and local farmers will thank you for it.

Local first is a non-profit Utah based organization that shares a similar vision, and I'm sure you have all seen the stickers and logo around town by now. For a worth while cause check out http://www.localfirst.org/ ...look for the local listing of supporters and restaurants that feature local produce and products, and also become a member today.

For more information about Slow Food visit http://www.slowfoodusa.org/

Chef and writer
Mark M. Benson

Monday, August 31, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

A new food mecca?

Back in Salt Lake City again... Its great to be back in the Beehive State!
After leaving 5 years ago to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas,  and working at some notable establishments, I have returned with a new insight on life and a new career path.

So like a busy bee returning to the hive, its time to see what all the buzz is about.  Las Vegas has a lot to offer for a rising chef... Endless choices in cuisine, great chefs celebrity and not, and all levels of food from a diner to Michelin rated restaurants... And most of them backed by multi billion dollar casinos and hotels.  Las Vegas has become a mecca for foodies and chefs alike.

Well, coming from an intense two year stint at Bradley Ogden, a 1 Michelin star restaurant, Salt Lake City does not have most of these opportunities and money to back up the venerable chef arriving fresh out of the big lights and pull of Sin city.  But come on!  Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, its on the map of the world now.  So what is taking Utah so long to catch up with its more urban counterparts when it comes to noshing?

Truth is, in the time that I've been away from Utah, a revolution in food has taken over not only Utah, but America as a whole.  People have become cognizant of what is available during the year locally, more aware of the way their food has been grown, and are starting to realize that processed foods are detrimental to their health.  Its not just Julia Child on TV any more... you have a whole lineup of programs for foodies now.  Cookbook sales have picked up dramatically, and every chef is jumping on their horse carriage to get a cookbook out there now. 

I visited the Farmer's Market at Pioneer park last Saturday and was really awakened to how far things have progressed in Utah since I left.  People are becoming educated on not only the basics, they are buying heirloom vegetables and seeds, selecting handmade cheeses and meats all produced locally... and let me tell you, these products are phenomenal.  A lot of the local markets that sell these products have booths at the Farmer's Market, so they are available anytime.

So is Salt Lake City really behind the times?  I think not.  Utah is still a great place to live, based strongly in values and family and friends, with an incredibly eclectic and diversified culture.  

In the short time I have been back (about 2 weeks), I have seen a lot of new restaurants and met a few of the chefs who run them, and I can see it coming... I recently visited forage, a newly opened restaurant in an old renovated home with only 34 seats, serving up progressive New American dishes. I was fortunate enough to meet with Viet and Bowman, forage's chef/owners and spent a few nights watching them in the kitchen running their brainchild and I was quite impressed, implementing a lot of sous vide and other more innovative methods of cookery.  New American food has arrived in Salt Lake City, and its just a matter of time before it becomes commonplace in Utah.

The "economic downturn" has certainly had its hands in the progress of cuisine in Salt Lake City as restaurateurs have had to rely on tactics to get diners in the door, but even in the shadow of the downturn, there are new places and new concepts popping up in this beehive.

That is the buzz from a local back in the hive.

Mark M. Benson