Under the Microscope Molecular Gastronomy

I was first introduced to molecular gastronomy several years ago by Andrew Stevens, a very talented young chef who worked as my Executive Chef at Talisman Resort in Kimberley, ON.  Molecular Gastronomy can be best described as a style of cooking using advances in science and technology. This method of cooking is accomplished by using creative ingredients, modern equipment and processes using the application of molecular gastronomy.

Chefs who prepare foods in this manner must have an understanding of the physical and chemical properties of the foods. Food ingredients include agar sodium alginate, an emulsifying agent derived from algae. Food processes include frothing or foaming, flash freezing, sous vide or cryovacing. Cooking equipment is a mix of high-end kitchen appliances and utensils from laboratories such as an ultra sonic bath, gas torch and an anti-griddle to name a few.

The joy of this style of cooking is that as a Chef, it challenges your science and food knowledge, as a customer it creates new physical sensations and mental perceptions with an array of aromas, colors and shapes before your eyes.

The first time Andrew showed me Molecular Gastronomy, I didn’t really understand it and certainly thought it was a culinary fad that would fade quickly. Well I am glad to say I was wrong.

Seven years later, there has been a lot of controversy around molecular gastronomy. Heston Bluementhal, a dedicated ambassador of this style of cooking and its science, has written many books on the subject. Colleges have opened with research into the topic including one in Prince Edward Island. I am personally still not convinced, but it has become part of the curriculum in culinary colleges so it is here to stay. If you have eaten at a restaurant with a molecular style please leave your comments below.

How to Navigate Your Way Through a Restaurant Wine List

It is your anniversary. You and your partner arrive at a fancy restaurant you have never been to before. You are warmly greeted by the hostess, who takes you to your table and shortly thereafter your server appears, impeccably dressed. They explain today’s features and pass you the wine list. You start to sweat…as you have no idea why the wine list is like a novel…where do you start?

Here are some safe suggestions to order wine at a fancy restaurant:

  1. When in doubt ask the server to recommend something, most upscale restaurants will have a Sommelier, a designated wine expert or their service team will have sufficient knowledge to assist you in your choice.
  2. If ordering a glass of wine at the beginning of the meal go for the safest choice of the house wines a Chardonnay (white) or Cabernet (red).
  3. When ordering a bottle of wine from the wine list remember some basics steps: Upon presentation of the bottle, nod your head in approval of the label. Once the cork is pulled and presented no need to smell the cork. Keep the wine tasting simple, a quick swirl to aerate the wine and taste.

At this point remember, you are tasting the wine to see if there are any faults. If there are none approve it like a wine connoisseur and approve it with a gesture.

  1. Lastly if all else fails then simply use “The Wine Roulette” principal: close your eyes and point and simply hope for the best.

Wine Education

Wine education is something that is near and dear to my heart. Having worked in the hospitality industry for a long time, I soon realized the importance of wine with food which led me on a journey of wine discovery and wine education.

The marriage of food and wine is a key component to a dining experience in a quality restaurant. Wine education is growth area that consumers want to know more and appreciate that wine when paired well with a food dish will enhance their dining experience.

My education began by reading books. This can be challenging because there are many books available…where does one start? Purchase one by a recognized wine author such as Hugh Johnson or Jancis Robinson. Other options are wine classes/seminars or attending a culinary weekend to learn about the nuances of food and wine harmony.

The next step is to start tasting wines.  Tasting plays an important part of wine education, as you use all of your senses. Try the following suggestions to best start tasting:

  • The LCBO has regular tastings.
  • Join a local Wine Club. (My wife and I run a wine club in the winter months please email us if you are interested in becoming a member).
  • Visit wineries whenever you can. The Canadian Wine industry continues to grow both in Ontario and British Columbia.

Once you start to appreciate wines, start investing in your new found passion:

  • Start you own cellar. Choose an area in your home that is neither too warm nor cold and is free from vibration with little or moderate light and good air circulation.
  • For those up you who want to build a professional cellar invest wisely in the construction of your cellar. Pick someone who knows construction, has wine knowledge and proper wine storage.
  • Employ a wine consultant to advise you in how to invest in cellar inventory wisely. They will assist you by advising which wines to purchase that are a great find and/or value. They will tag the wines to let you know how long they should sit and only purchase wines which you will enjoy years to come.

Do you have a favorite wine yet?

The Growing Populatiry of Culinary Schools and Cookery Classes

When my wife Annette and I bought our B&B twelve years ago, it was our dream to eventually offer Cooking Classes, Cooking Demonstrations, Wine Educational programs and a Wine Club. The growth in popularity of culinary travel has grown dramatically over the last couple of years, especially with programs such as HGTV and the Food Network.

Nowadays there are there are a range of recreational activities suited to all levels of interest ranging from novice to professional series. Programs that include:

  • Formats that range from short demonstrations, half day programs for individuals or corporate groups, or full weekend experiences.
  • Packages that combine wine pairings and education as part of this experience.
  • The growing need to use healthier ingredients incorporating organic produce.
  • Cooking classes in order to be considered up to date with society as the “in thing”.
  • Both men and women often share cooking and fine wines as a way to spend quality time together allowing them to travel to different locations as well as experiencing international cuisine and cooking techniques.

If you want try something locally, Bacchus House will be offering cookery demonstrations and wine educational programs as the launch of their Wine Club all to commence in November of this year. Please go to www.bacchushouse.ca for more details.

The Art of the Pastry Professional

It was at the age of 13 when I realized I wanted to be a Chef. I was studying home economics in school which involved baking & cooking.  My final project was to make ‘something’, so I made my first cake for my mother’s birthday. Thirty years later, I, unlike being a Sommelier, have never been able to master the art of the pastry. (P.S. my mother appreciated the effort! – good thing there was a cake shop down the street!)

The role of Executive Pastry Chef, a position only seen in larger hotel kitchens or in luxury restaurants across North America, requires a specific skill set, those of which most chefs only aspire to perfect.  To master the art of the pastry profession, you need a lot of dedication, passion, persistence and patience along with artistic imagination. They must be also very organized, as they use several ingredients that have to be assembled in order of sequence to produce the right desired effect.

It is a career that is interesting yet often complex.  Most pastry Chefs start their day at 4am and often work 50 hours plus a week.  But with the aforementioned traits, a trained pastry chef can create foods such as simple breads and birthday cakes to boxes made out of chocolate.  It still boggles my mind what a pastry chef can create from things as simple as sugar. It’s almost magician like! And now, with cutting edge techniques like molecular gastronomy, new and exciting opportunities for pastry chefs have been created to revise how foods can be prepared, which in turn, has increased awareness of the pastry profession as a whole, attracting more people.  In my opinion, this is great because hospitality as a whole needs to be more recognized as a career.

BBQ – A Canadian Institution

Coming from across the big pond from the United Kingdom, I was fascinated by how popular BBQ cooking was here in Canada – something I had never previously used until I arrived here. Barbequing creates a great social atmosphere amongst friends and neighbors allowing people to interact casually for all sorts of occasions whilst enjoying great food and cold beer.

BBQ’s consist of two styles of cooking.  The first is the direct heat method, which is similar to broiling, where food is placed onto the pre-heated cooking grate. The second method is the indirect cooking method, which is similar to roasting.

Here are my tips for a successful summer of barbequing.

Firstly, make sure you are in the company of your wife…she can bring cold beer when you need one and restock the fridge as you deplete it!

Equipment – along with your BBQ, you will require long handled tongs, steel brush, a basting brush and a pair of oven mitts

Preheat the barbeque. Clean the grill while pre-heating, this helps with the cleaning process. Next, oil the grill. If you are using a spray, remove the grill from the barbeque to keep the oil spray from catching fire. Use a thin layer for the best results.

Cooking on your BBQ low is at 300F, medium 450F and high is normally 650F. Hamburgers ¾ thick should be cooked 9-12 minutes on a medium heat, Steak 1” thick anywhere from 3-7 minutes for rare up to 10-13 minutes for well-done. Fish generally is anywhere from 8-12 minutes unless frozen then double the cooking time.

If you prefer wine with your barbequed food, I would suggest a red or white from the south of France. Have a Sizzling summer!

What is Canada’s Best Wine Varietal

The Canadian wine industry has grown dramatically over the last twenty years. It is undergoing rapid and diverse expansion with replanting of the finest grape varieties that can be grown in each of its prime viticulture areas, especially Niagara and the Okanagan Valley.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, cool climate grape varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc were chosen. These vines are now producing wines of character and structure. In BC, Pinot Blanc and Semillon have been very successful as well.

Wine making within the winery once the harvest is complete has also changed. Canada currently imports wine makers from around the World from places like Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand and the United States to assist in defining quality production of wine. Progress has been brisk with new techniques in wine making and vineyard management. Today, both BC and Niagara are producing good Bordeaux style blends with Merlot growing particularly well in BC whilst Syrah is performing well in Ontario. Because of this, Canada is finally being recognized on the world stage as a formidable wine producing country although relatively small.

After tasting many wines in both areas, it is my opinion that Canada needs to be recognized in the wine industry for growing a single variety such as Pinot Noir in Burgundy and Shiraz in the Barossa.

Although Canada is such a big country there is one single variety that grows well in most regions and that is Riesling. It is the one single variety that grows well in both BC and Niagara. It is also very versatile being used for Ice-wine and sparkling wine blends. Cave Springs CSW Riesling and Mission Hill Reserve Riesling are two of my favorites.

Continuing Restaurant Trends

As a restaurateur it is very important to be current with industry trends in order for you business to survive and grow.

Typically as a manager, owner and Chef, this is reviewed three months prior to the calendar year and incorporated into the yearly business plan. This proactive approach enables you to embrace new initiatives creating better experiences for your customers whilst creating excitement with restaurant employees.

Here Are My Top Five Hot Trends:

  1. The evolution of technology will dominate trends in the next few years: I Pads and mobile phone applications already have menus, wine lists and golf course configuration applications that can be downloaded for free. Open Table, a global reservation system used for dinner reservations in North America, is an easy way for people to book reservations and for restaurants owners to attract more customers. Social media, Face book, Twitter to name a few have huge following and is an easy way to get your message out to the community. Failure to be involved in these applications may see some restaurant business fall behind resulting in closure.
  1. Everybody wants a deal – restaurants are going to be challenged more than ever this year. Customers will be looking for price breaks everywhere they eat. Restaurant operators will be challenged in sustaining their bottom line in an effort to capture business with lots of surrounding competition.
  2. Operational growth higher end restaurants will see some growth as people are prepared to spend that little bit more for quality.

Casual fine dining restaurant will have to be innovative with their menu concepts and raise service levels. The biggest growing sector will be the Gastro Pub restaurant style food at pub prices.

  1. Spotlight on local “Farmers and Artisans”. As a Chef and experienced Hospitality Manager, using local produce using the 100 mile metrics is very important me and in most quality restaurants today local produce features are prominently mentioned on restaurant menus of today. In 2011, a strong presence will be focused on local Farmers and Artisans focusing on product traceability and local sourcing.
  1. Back to the beginning – more and more recognized Chefs’ have published cookbooks on home style cooking. With the popularity of cookery classes and wine education, this will continue to grow as does culinary travel. This gives restaurateurs the opportunity to start their own food and wine club offering simple prepared restaurant dishes that can be easily prepared at home.

Feeling Good About Customer Service

If good customer service is so important to a business success, then why do so few have it?

Our appraisal of the service begins with our first impressions of a particular operation, which is impacted by the quality of the establishment such as a fine dining restaurant opposed to a pub.

As a customer service facilitator I remind myself that it is very important to remember that the number one reason why customers do not return to a business is because of poor staff attitude. Customer service assessment is often influenced by many factors such as food related experiences, level of culinary sophistication and own past experiences, which creates expectations.

My definition of service is something you cannot physically touch but experience thus creating emotions from within depending on that customer experience. Service plays a crucial role in our dining experience.

Have you ever gone to a restaurant and your server asks how your meal is even though you are yet to try it?  Service expectations differ greatly depending on the individual and what should be a great experience can be changed by the attitude of your server.

Restaurant service plays a crucial role in dining experiences; few people will tolerate bad or disrespectful service even if the food is superior.

Customer service policies are normally set by the owner / manager after which staff are properly trained and made accountable.

Don’t accept bad service. Always inform an establishment if you are unhappy with what you have received. This at least gives them the opportunity to make amends.

Having worked in many fine dining restaurants, I fully understand the importance of presentation and creating that visual wow factor, however, I do not think it should be taken to the extreme.

My philosophy is taken from Gordon Ramsay, which is “Less is More” or the kiss approach as it is known.  In my opinion food should be true to itself.   I believe in using the finest, fresh ingredients available, preparing them well, creating a dish with emphasis three to four flavors being expressed at any given time.

I am sure many chef’s will disagree as they may believe that elaborate presentation gives chef’s the opportunity to show their artistic talent.  My belief is presentation needs to appealing, vibrant but most of all it must taste great.

The Growth of Organic Food

Restaurateurs beware! Organic food is growing in popularity!

Consumer research shows that 43% of people are buying more organic products than a year ago. Not only is organic produce free of pesticides, chemicals and additives, organic farming builds healthy strong soil and helps to solve erosion problems, encouraging healthy biodiversity.

The increase of choice and availability of organic foods today allows Chefs to be very creative with menu offerings. Today, Chefs can produce a 100% organic menu with the wide range of organic fruits and vegetables as well as organic poultry, beef and lamb. Let’s also not forget organic wine an integral component a dining experience!  As some organic foods are not available year round, Chefs have to become very creative and offer newly created menu items seasonally, keeping menu selections fresh.

The challenge for Chefs and Restaurateurs is organic produce is more expensive, which in turns increases the price points of menu items. The question we should be asking is whether or not consumers are willing to spend the extra money at restaurants that serve organic food and local sourced produce? Often restaurants offering farm fresh organic products can use this as a feature or marketing tool, whilst attracting employees who want to with an employer who is genuinely interested in protecting the environment.

There are many positives to using organic produce from a healthier diet to supporting the local community by keeping it clean and green.

How green is your grocery list?