New technology and techniques are expanding club chefs’ ability to elevate their cuisine.
Cooking sits at the intersection of science and art. And new technology and techniques—from sous vide and spherification to liquid nitrogen and emulsifiers—are expanding club chefs’ ability to elevate their cuisine in efficient, interesting and delicious ways.
Balancing Classic and Modern
Gerard Clinton, Executive Chef of Aspetuck Valley Country Club (Weston, Conn.), has been cooking sous vide for more than ten years.
“It’s priceless in the club environment,” he says. “It can help you across every aspect of your operation—from labor to food cost to consistency and quality.”
Clinton—who has been with Aspetuck Valley CC, which has 350 members and does more than $1.4 million in annual F&B, for more than 16 years—finds sous vide especially useful for banqueting.
“When I have to cook for a large group of people—upwards of 120 people—this technique allows me to create a perfectly consistent product,” he says.
But he’s quick to defend classic techniques, too.
“You have to have a very good grip on the fundamentals of cooking before you branch off into more modern techniques,” he says. “The techniques that have carried us through to this point—braising, roasting, grilling, sautéing—are timeless. But as technology improves and evolves, so should the abilities of the chef.”
Clinton’s favorite dishes to cook sous vide include short ribs, pork belly and octopus (see photos, above).
“When you sous vide an octopus for eight hours, it’s so tender, it’s remarkable,” he says. “There’s no loss whatsoever. You can’t achieve that with traditional ways of cooking.”
Clinton incorporates other modern techniques into his menus as well, such as the use of agar agar (a gelling agent extracted from red algae used to stabilize foams and to thicken or gel liquids) and lecithin (a natural emulsifier that is also used to create foams, mousses and other aerated dishes that are long-lasting and full of flavor).
“Xanthan gum is great as a food-thickening agent or stabilizer,” says Clinton. “We use it for vinaigrettes. Just a touch gives the dressing that touch of viscosity, and it holds on the plate.”
At the end of the day, though, Clinton won’t use an ingredient or a technique if it doesn’t improve the outcome of the dish.
“I’m focused entirely on the quality of the food we produce,” he says. “I don’t want to manipulate food so that it’s no longer recognizable. But some of these techniques and tools can really have an impact on the final dish, and they’re useful to incorporate where it makes sense to do so.”
The members of Aspetuck Valley appreciate their chef’s use of modern techniques so much, they actively participate in his regular cooking classes, which showcase these and other methods.
“Education is everything,” says Clinton. “We can’t stop moving forward.”
Moderation is Key
About thirty minutes south of Aspetuck Valley in Rowayton, Conn., Wee Burn Country Club incorporates a number of modern techniques into menus, but on a much more reserved scale.
“If it makes the dish better, I’m game to try it,” says Executive Chef Robert Blakeslee, CEC, who follows a simple approach: Good food prepared properly. Menus change seasonally at Wee Burn, which has nearly 2,500 members, and the operation does about $4 million in annual F&B.
Blakeslee does both sous vide and foams, and exposes himself to these techniques by networking with other club chefs, dining out, and attending conferences and education seminars to stay fresh and get inspired.
“A couple of years ago, we decided to start a food committee,” says Blakeslee. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was able to run new ideas, dishes and techniques by members, to get immediate feedback before I put [any] on the menu. We discovered they wanted more twists on classic fare. So we approach our menu writing with that in mind.”
While classic techniques are used most frequently in Wee Burn’s kitchens, Blakeslee always strives to be well-versed by educating himself about new and modern methods.
“The challenge with clubs is that you have to be the best at everything, from sushi to Italian to Mexican to modern American,” he says. “It’s our challenge to find ways to improve ourselves and our operation. And this is one way to do it.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Dennis Mandragona, CEC, Executive Chef of Essex Fells (N.J.) Country Club, relies heavily on modern techniques—especially sous vide. So much so, in fact, that Mandragona typically has at least four dishes on his a la carte menu that are prepared via water-bath.
“We build the menu so we don’t load up on any one station more than another,” he says. “It takes next to no time to cut a bag, put it in a pan for color, and plate it. By having a number of dishes prepared sous vide, we can distribute the impact across the line.”
Cryovac packaging has also helped Essex Fells reduce waste.
“Sous vide alone saves us an easy $1,000 a month, just by vacuum-packing product that would otherwise go bad,” says Mandragona, who recently did a veal chop sous vide, which he first seared for color, then bagged with a compound butter, fennel pollen and olive oil.
“It’s a delicious, fast pickup,” he says. “We pull it from the bag, put it into a pan with its own juices, and it’s ready to go in three to five minutes.”
Mandragona learned about sous vide and other modernist techniques from his son, who works at Grant Achatz’s restaurant, Next, in Chicago. He also picked up valuable expertise through a variety of continuing-education opportunities, including Certified Master Chef Richard Rosendale’s professional sous vide workshops.
“There are plenty of nay-sayers out there,” says Mandragona. “I invite those chefs to come to our club to see what we do, and why.”
In addition to sous vide, Mandragona uses liquid nitrogen in dessert stations, transglutaminase (or meat glue) to bind different proteins like a braised lamb shank with a breast of veal, and xanthan gum for dressings, in much the same way as Robert Blakeslee at Aspetuck Valley CC.
“We do a carrot-juice dressing with vinegar and a flavored olive oil that has really big flavor and is really low in fat,” Mandragona says. “Thanks to the xanthan gum, it has just the right viscosity.”
Mandragona recently found out that Essex Fells will purchase a combi oven in February. Needless to say, he’s very excited.
“This type of equipment can be expensive,” he says. “But it will essentially pay for itself in the labor it saves, the quality it produces and the value we’ll get out of it.”