“It’s a simple business: Develop good food
and get it into people’s mouths. The rest sort of takes care of itself.”
~ Richard Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You
I once read an article detailing Richard Melman’s approach to designing a new restaurant concept. The very first step was to create a storyboard that told the story of the new idea, perhaps written by a person who worked there, and was asked to describe life and service in the restaurant. Everything, from the menu, wine list, art work to even the paint scheme emanated from it. The idea struck a chord deep inside because I am a visual and small detail oriented person. Since then I have tried to incorporate it into my approach writing menus.
a charcuterie market and a spice merchant’s market in Avignon
Lately I have been looking for the perfect Sous Chef and Pastry Chef. I described to a recent Pastry Chef candidate what I was wanting from her, “What I would love is your expression of what should be on the pastry menu of a Mediterranean Restaurant specializing in French, Spanish and Italian with forays into Morocco, Greece, Tunisia, Lebanon. It is our goal to convey the story, the history of the people, through food. If somehow you can distill this into pastries than you have gotten what I am attempting.”
I am not trying to be too esoteric; my goal is to take people somewhere, on a three hour adventure from their homes in the California Desert to the shores of the Mediterranean. I want the experience to be so authentic and real that if you closed your eyes, the flavors, smells and sounds may just well make you believe you are really there.
“The Mediterranean cuisine is one of the most colorful and vibrant in the world, providing sensual dishes flavored with wild herbs gathered from the hillsides; lamb and chicken are often roasted whole over coals; vegetables are abundant and used in a wide variety of soups, bakes and salads.”
Watch this Porchetta clip to get you drooling
My inspirations have come from spending a portion of my informative years visiting relatives all over the South of France, to comparative dining to reading a lot online, in books and vicarious trips lived through letters and phone calls of close friends. One of my favorite authors is Colman Andrews. I recently picked up his book “The Country Cooking of Italy” and came across his recipe for Sguazabarbuz, a variation of pasta e fagioli. The name intrigued me so much I researched it further. I came across a web site mentioning the history, “The story tells that on May 29, 1503 Lucrezia Borgia came to Ferrara to marry Alfonso I d’Este and a steward of the Palace, taking inspiration from her golden locks, created this special pasta and passed down the recipe from generation to generation. The pasta is cut into irregular strips, in fact they are called “maltagliati” (cut badly) and if it is cooked in a bean and pork fat broth they are called ‘sguazabarbuz’.”
Another dish making its debut will be a Pistachio, Polenta and Olive Oil Cake served with ‘Spice Road Caravan’ cherries and cherry sorbet. Individual three ounce cakes made from Sicilian green pistachios, polenta and olive oil batter cooked and served at room temperature garnished with fresh spun cherry sorbet and with what I term Silk Road Caravan spiced cherries. The Silk Road was a series of paths and trade routes connecting the Mediterranean to Eastern Asia. The famous camel routes brought cinnamon, nutmeg and other fantastic flavors into the Mediterranean melting pot.
My cake’s origins lay not in a cultural tradition passed generation to generation by any one culture but rather in my head combining bits and pieces of various experiences and references.
Pistachios are native to Western Asia and the Levant between Turkey and Afghanistan. The earliest traces of pistachios being eaten is 7,000 BC in Turkey, and cultivated and introduced into Europe by the Romans in 1st century AD. Polenta’s name was originally derived from the Roman staple puls, or pulmentum. Pulmentum also was the Roman’s soldier primary food. The soldiers were issued grain which they toasted on hot stones and either made into a porridge or baked into crude breads.
Polenta was originally made from millet, spelt or chickpeas, only when corn came from the New World in the 1600’s did polenta’s turn into a cornmeal porridge we know and love. Cherries originated in Asia and became well loved by the ancient Greeks first appearing in print in 300 BC in the writings of Theophrastus. By the first century AD, Pliny the Elder had listed eight different varieties under cultivation, some grown in the far off parts of the Roman Empire like Britain.
In America we have the freedom to combine, mix and mutate without the same restraints my French family would face. They would never dream to mix as freely as I will. Noted British Chef Marco Pierre White once said the kitchen was his freedom. The new, still nameless restaurant is my freedom.