Thursday, February 3, 2011

If I were a chef

It's Imagination Day! Like on the Polka-Dot-Door!

It's no secret that I have some aspirations of making a living of cooking, but the last thing I want to do is work in a big bustling restaurant, whether it be as line cook or executive chef. I was a line/prep cook for 5 years in my late teens/early 20s and, unless you have aspirations of chefdom, that's more than long enough. There is nothing quite so exhausting as being completely overwhelmed by food orders as you hemorrhage sweat surrounded by people you often don't like, with servers barking at you the whole while. All for minimum wage. Good times.

No, I don't ever want to relive those days. But to run a small café in the backwoods of Ontario's cottage country or Quebec's Laurentians (where the skiing happens) would be a dream come true, as long as there was only seating for, say, 20 people. I kid you not. So, I don't have a particularly profitable vision of life as a restauranteur.

That being said, I do still wonder what I'd serve if I had my own place. So, this post will examine some of those items and I may toss a recipe or two your way to reflect this.

Well, first of all, I'm a BIIIIIG fan of smoking food, as demonstrated in recent posts (January 3 and January 22), so that would be a big part of the menu.

So, here's the sample menu for sh**s and giggles:

Small plates/Soup/Salad

- Cold Fish Two Ways (smoked tilapia and salmon gravlax)
- Lobster Bisque
- African-style Sweet Potato Soup (vegan)
- Chicken Burrito (fancied up)
- Smokeshow Special (smoked meat sampler)
- Pasta Salad Still Rules (with olives, red pepper and dill) (vegan) - available with grilled or smoked shrimp for a few bucks extra (thus less vegan)
- Salad of the Day

Large plates

- Smoked Pork Tenderloin w.seasonal sauces (wild garlic and fiddleheads sauteed in white wine in Spring, blueberry reduction in Summer, apple compote in Fall, maple-cognac in Winter) served w. root veg. mash
- Gourmet Chili - served with home-baked bun and extra-old cheddar
- Beef Curry (w. smoked beef brisket?) - served with home-baked naan
- Smoked Chicken Thighs - w. root veg. mash
- The Hippie Silencer: Grilled Veggie Medley (vegan) - served with gluten-free home-baked wraps
- Smoked Ribs w. blue cheese cabbage slaw and home-baked cornbread
- Seafood medley (King crab legs or lobster *in season*, hot-smoked tiger shrimp, grilled calamari, poached or smoked fish) served w. lemon-steamed broccoli
- Steak My Way (8 oz. Filet mignon cooked either grilled, pan-seared w.mushroom and brandy reduction or blackened) served with grilled potato slices and Salad of the Day

Not sure what I'd do with desserts, I guess I'll leave that to either the person I hire to be a pastry chef, or the woman I marry. Let's hope she can bake!

So, any jerks out there who are out to steal my idea, I'm going to give you even MORE fuel for that fire. I've got recipes! Mind you, quite a few are in other posts. Any excuse to get y'all to read my stuff! Mwahahaahahaha!

Let's break down this proposed menu, shall we? Who knows, maybe you'll have fun putting one of these together!



So, for the small plates, we start with Cold Fish Two Ways. This would include my smoked tilapia and salmon gravlax.

Gravlax is a Scandinavian recipe for salt/sugar-curing various types of fish, usually salmon. The process of curing helps remove moisture from the meat, allowing it to keep longer. It's also damned tasty!
Here's the recipe I used. I got it out of the paper many years ago, I believe. (WARNING: This is for true piscophiles. If the look and texture of raw fish gives you the heebie-jeebies, don't try this. While it's cured and therefore not exactly raw, the fish's texture doesn't really change much in gravlax.)

Irish Gravlax

2 pounds fresh salmon, skin on, with pin bones and scales removed
Cracked black pepper
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tbsp chopped fresh dill
2 cups kosher salt
1 ounce Irish whiskey (Jameson's or Bushmills)

- Season salmon with a thick coating of pepper, brown sugar and dill. Put a 1/2-inch layer of salt in a dish, and lay salmon skin-side down on salt. Drizzle whiskey over salmon.
- Top salmon with a thick layer of salt, making sure it is completely covered. Tightly wrap in plastic wrap and weigh it down with a 1-pound can or weight. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 days.
- Remove salmon from salt crust and rinse off. With a very sharp knife, slice salmon on the bias as thinly as possible.
- Serve as an appetizer. Gravlax can be stored, tightly wrapped, in refrigerator for up to a week. Yield: 2 pounds, or about 16 2-ounce servings.

Essentially the plate would consist of 2-3 oz. servings of each kind of fish, slice thin, and served with toasted pumpernickel rounds and dill crème fraiche. I'd also sprinkle a bit of maple sugar on top.


Lobster bisque is a delicious soup, rich and filling. I can't even remember where or how I got the recipe.

I think I used this one from, but it was over a year ago and I'm old.

2-3 pounds whole lobster - I used frozen 'canners' - which are smallish lobsters of a pound or so. As you'll see in the recipe, you'll want the shells intact.
1 medium onion
1 celery rib
1 carrot
1 vine-ripened tomato
1 head garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
8 black peppercorns
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup dry Sherry
4 cups fish stock (available powdered at your local fishmonger's)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water

Fill a 6-quart kettle three fourths full with salted water and bring to a boil. Plunge lobster headfirst into water and cook, covered, over high heat 8 minutes. Transfer lobster with tongs to a large bowl and in a measuring cup reserve 2 cups cooking liquid. Let lobster stand until cool enough to handle. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, twist off tail and claws and reserve juices. Reserve tomalley and discard head sacs and any roe. Remove meat from claws and tail, reserving shells and lobster body. (Lobster meat will not be cooked through.) Coarsely chop meat and transfer to a bowl. Chill lobster meat, covered.

Chop onion, celery, carrot, and tomato and halve garlic head crosswise. In a 6-quart heavy kettle heat oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and sauté reserved lobster shells and body, stirring occasionally, 8 minutes. Add vegetables, garlic, herbs, peppercorns, brandy, and Sherry and simmer, stirring, until almost all liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add stock and reserved tomalley and cooking liquid. Simmer mixture, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 1 hour.

Pour mixture through a fine sieve into a large saucepan, pressing on and discarding solids. Whisk in tomato paste and simmer until reduced to about 3 cups, about 10 minutes. Add cream and simmer bisque 5 minutes. In a small bowl stir together cornstarch and water and whisk into bisque. Simmer bisque, stirring, 2 minutes. (Bisque will thicken slightly.) Add lobster meat with any reserved juices and simmer bisque 1 minute, or until lobster meat is just cooked through. Season bisque with salt and pepper.


I just made up the name, I'll probably do the same with the recipe! I imagine there'll be nuts and spice. I promise a recipe in the near future, as soon as I figure it out.


I'd use the recipe from this post but adapt it a little. Maybe use smoked chicken and phyllo pastry? I'd definitely add some kind of super tasty home made salsa.


This will be a sampler of all the meats that I smoke in the restaurant. So, some pork tenderloin, a couple of ribs, some beef brisket, and a chicken leg. Served with a sauce sampler and lots of freshly baked bread. Ideal for sharing!


Not many places do pasta salad and I'm not sure why. I personally have always been a fan and I would love to  make a very high end gourmet pasta salad, which isn't too hard.


Fairly self-explanatory.


I must admit that the more artistic, presentation-oriented large plates at a place like Whalesbone or Town kind of make the need for a "meat-veg-starch" a little irrelevant. That being said, I am still a fan of there being a focal point to a plate and since I am an avid carnivore, that's usually the meat. I'm adding a vegan option because, well, why not? Best not to alienate customers.


I love pork tenderloin. It's delicious, tender (duh) and easy to cook. I've already covered what's involved in smoking pork tenderloin, so I figure I'd have it on the menu and switch it up seasonally based on available ingredients. Springtime in Ottawa means fiddleheads, and I think a simple wine sauteed sauce with fiddleheads and wild garlic would go very well with tenderloin. Not sure how I'd rub the pork in that case though...

Summer means blueberries and I think I'd rub the pork with a bit of cocoa and coffee to give it a richness to offset the tangy sweetness of a blueberry sauce.

In Fall, it's apples, so I'd make a fairly simple apple compote, or possibly try to evoke Thanksgiving flavours (sage, cranberries, etc.)

Winter would have me go back to an old favourite, my Maple-Cognac glaze, as described in my January 30 2010 post.

All of these would be served with a mash of root veggies (carrot, turnip, parsnip, potato, and so forth), depending on the season. In Spring and Summer, I might go with a simple side of sautéed veggies.


Alright, everyone and their dog can make chili and it's kind of odd to think of serving it in a nice resto, but in the colder months, a hearty bowl of chili can be exactly what the doctor ordered. Now the question that comes up is, how do you fancy up something like chili? Well, maybe the idea is not to. Although, the idea of using a mix of Sirloin steak pieces, pulled pork, chorizo sausage and LOTS of beer is starting to appeal to me.


One of the first recipes I ever successfully "invented" was the Beef Sweet-Potato Curry mentioned in a September 19 post. Since I like the idea of serving gourmet comfort food alongside smoked goodness,  I think I could meld the two successfully in this recipe. Use the best quality stuff in the base (organic, high end tomatoes, garlic, etc.) and instead of normal stewing beef, use pieces of smoked beef brisket to add that much more flavour. I'm still debating if I'd go with sweet potato in this one, I'm not sure how it would pair up with the smoked meat.


This is my next experiment in smoking. Most folks think of chicken breast when they think of chicken served in a restaurant, but I find that chicken thighs and legs have so much more flavour and are a lot harder to dry out. So, I think using bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and legs would also do the trick, giving it a kind of rustic look. Seriously, remember when you were a kid; did your mom ever go through all the trouble of buying boneless chicken breast? Methinks not. Of course, that might just be a sign that I'm really old.

I'd probably use mesquite wood for the smoking and use something like the following rub:

- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp crushed fennel seeds
- 1/2 crushed black pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice

Smoke at 250 degrees for about 2 hours, tent (wrap in foil), splash with apple juice, and smoke for another hour, unwrap and smoke for another 30 mins., finish in oven before serving.

The whole thing would be served on a bed of wild rice with a side of the same root veg mash/sauteed veg mentioned with the pork tenderloin.


I have more than a few friends who have the craziest food allergies, especially as it relates to gluten. On top of that, a lot of the most vulnerable people I know are amongst the tree-hugging ilk. OK, slight tangent time. Is it me or are there two kinds of hippie as it relates to food? There's either the "must be organic, macro-biotic, unsullied, level 7 vegan" hippies or the "feed me something dead, preferably fresh from the forest, RIGHT NOW!" hippies. I find myself gravitating to the latter group, go figure. Right, tangent over.

Anyway, with vegetariansim/veganism being as much trend as lifestyle choice and a lot of people being real sticklers for the no-meat thing, I figure I need to serve something meatless as a main course. Now, that shows how nice a guy I am.

But time for tangent no.2. Dear vegetarians, expecting ANY food establishment that doesn't advertise itself as vegetarian-friendly to NOT include animal products shows a kind of cultural arrogance that makes me Hulk-angry. Case study: I was picking up the usual pre-D&D Banh mi pig-out and as we're waiting for them to be prepared, in walk the poster boy-and-girl for hipster douchebaggery (seriously, they had interchangeable all-denim wardrobes AND ironic eyewear. Kari and I had to cover our mouths to not let the chortles come out too loudly). Quote the dude with his girlfriend's half-eaten sub "Umm, does this have MEAT on it? My partner doesn't eat meat."

Now, maybe it's de rigueur for hipsters to have the speech patterns of a disgruntled teenage girl or something, but the disdain in this guy's voice (and the fact that he did the talking for his girlfriend AND called her his 'partner') made me want to punch. If you want to eat vegetarian, what in God's name are you doing in a Vietnamese sub shop where they slather paté on every sandwich? And why weren't you asking what goes on the sandwich? Way to do your research there, buddy!

Sorry, but omnivorism is the NATURAL human state of eating. To be exclusively anything means YOU are responsible for ensuring that the place serving you conforms to your culinary choices. Assume nothing about what goes in food. Want proof? Just read the "vegetarian" section of any Chinese menu. Notice all the pork included? Yeah...

OK, now that the rant is out of the way, I can proceed with serving the Hippie Silencer. Essentially, it'll be a medley of marinated and seasonal grilled veggies served with vegan and gluten free wraps. I'll leave the conceptualization and baking of said wraps to the baker (apparently teff flour works, so perhaps it could have an Ethiopian vibe and be served on injera?). On the side, a simple chickpea and black bean salad (gotta have protein somewhere!).

Like with most vegetarian dishes, it's easy to be creative and switch it up on a regular basis. So, the marinade would change fairly regularly. As long as it's good, I imagine building a decent vege-foodie following. This one's a work in progress either way. Just gotta remind myself that honey is a no-no for vegans.

SMOKED RIBS (w. blue cheese cabbage slaw and home-baked cornbread)

Well, this one's easy.

A rack of hickory-cherry smoked ribs, as demoed in my January 3rd post, served with homemade BBQ sauce. On the side, some of Kari's homemade cornbread and the following coleslaw (from, turned out great!):

Blue Cheese Coleslaw

- 1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons organic cane sugar
- 12 cups shredded green and red cabbage
- 1 cup shredded carrot

Place first 4 ingredients in processor; blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. Place cabbage and carrot in large bowl. Add dressing; toss. Season with salt and pepper. Cover; chill at least 1 hour.

I foresee great things from this one!


In case you hadn't noticed, I freaking LOVE seafood. At the top of that list is a running battle between lobster and king crab. Both have such rich sweetness that just makes my taste buds dance the Snoopy Jig. So, what kind of chef would I be if I didn't serve my favourite food?

Luckily, Alaskan king crab is a sustainable catch, and lobster can be if you find the right supplier.

Now, I'm a big fan of the old school Fisherman's Platter you find at more 'homey' fish restos. Usually they consist of a combination of deep-fried scallops and shrimp, with a piece of fish and some crab. But, since I'm Joe Smoke these days, I'd have to throw my spin on this kind of plate. Hence, the aformentioned medley. So, depending on availability and season, it would consist of a few crab legs or a lobster tail/claw combo.

Add to that some hot-smoked shrimp (see my January 22 post for the 'how-to') and grilled calamari (essentially marinated squid rings thrown on the grill for a few minutes). If I ever figure out how to smoke scallops, you can bet they'll be in there too!

And then, on top of that, whatever is on the "catch of the day" radar, either smoked or poached. Then the lemon-steamed broccoli (which is simply broccoli florets steamed in water with a few squeezes of lemon and some seasoning).

Add a whack of garlic butter and there you go!


This is basically my way of saying "Oi, trust your cook with your meat!" Once upon a time I worked at a somewhat 'middle of the road' restaurant called Big Daddy's Crab Shack and Oyster Bar. It was one of the first Cajun places in Canada, but was run with a chain mentality. As a result, the food was fairly decent, but a bit "lowest common denominator". Now, as with any halfway decent restaurant that aspires to the American tourist concept of 'gourmet', there had to be steak on the menu (as well as surf and turf since there was a strong seafood presence on the menu). There we had two kinds: the 12 oz. New York striploin and the 8 oz. filet mignon. It was one night preparing a filet where I had my first encounter with the truth that sometimes, especially when it comes to food, the customer is WRONG!!!!!!

The customer in question ordered a filet mignon well done. This in and of itself is an oxymoron, but the sous chef did his best. We cooked it until the meat was a uniform shade of regrettable grey-brown (which is not to criticize the restaurant or the steak, that's simply what 'well done' does to a beautiful piece of meat). With heavy hearts, we sent it out. Back it came with the complaint that it wasn't done enough, there was still blood. Now, if you've ever had a filet mignon, you'll know that it is pretty much impossible to get rid of all the blood. So, we put it in the oven to cook it through even more. Back out it went, back to the kitchen it came. In a fit of exasperation, the sous chef took his tongs and started squeezing the blood out while holding it over the flame of the range, basically scorching this unfortunate piece of beef. Finally this finally did the trick.

But since then, I've decided that sometimes people need to realize that you can't ask someone to try and cook against nature! A filet mignon should never be more than medium rare, medium if you bribe the chef enough. So, in my restaurant, the steak is cooked to MY specifications.

So, there it is, a fledgling menu for a restaurant that may never exist. But at least I can dream about it, and experiment with the menu items over and over and again!

And you, out there in blog-land, what would your dream menu have on it?

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