Chef's Choice - Ben Pollinger Chef's Choice is a Unique and Inspiring Book that is a Perfect Gift for
Aspiring Culinary Students, Home Cooks, and Professional Chefs
Aspiring Culinary Students, Home Cooks, and Professional Chefs
I am happy and proud to announce that after its first year in print Chef's Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine continues to inspire and educate new and experienced chefs.
In this savory collection of mini memoirs, 22 culinary masters tell who and what motivated them to become chefs. They described early career influences, training, favorite Japanese ingredients, tools, and the pivotal role Japanese food culture has played in their cuisine and professional development.
Participating chefs include Nobu Matsuhisa, David Bouley, Eric Ripert, Marcus Samuelsson, Michael Romano, Lee Anne Wong, Michael Anthony, Wylie Dufresne, Toshio Suzuki, Ben Pollinger, Toni Robertson, Eddy Leroux, Nils Norén, Yosuke Suga, Shinichiro Takagi, Suvir Saran, David Myers, Noriyuki Sugie, Elizabeth Andoh, Barry Wine, James Wierzelewski, and Ben Flatt.
Our goal in writing the book was to inspire, educate, and movitate student chefs, working chefs, home chefs, and everyone who admires Japanese food and culture. We wanted to go deep and learn from top chefs what it takes to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive restaurant world and the role that Japanese food culture played in their cooking and careers. We believe that the stories in Chef’s Choice can be a valuable resource for anyone pursuing a career in the restaurant business and those fascinated by Japanese food culture and cuisine.
We hope you enjoy it!
Every chef I worked for influenced me to different degrees. Some places were good for what they offered, and some were not. But I learned something wherever I was.
Chef Christian Delouvrier was a huge influence on me, particularly in terms of my precision. When I began cooking with him, my cooking skills were more mechanical. I could move around in the kitchen quickly. I could multi-task and focus, but I had never been called upon to do precise work. At Christian’s restaurant, Les Célébrités, the goal was not about volume, and the level of precision was excruciating.
We’re talking about fine, fine knife work. Vegetables had to be cut and prepared in a certain precise way. Meats had to be cooked and prepared to his exact specifications. Sauces were made to a particular consistency and taste. The dishes were small but had a high degree of sophistication and were always consistent.
There’s an old term in the kitchen called “production cuts,” which means that the cuts can be a little sloppy. Christian was the first guy to take that concept away from me.
I worked with Christian twice in my career. First, I worked at the restaurant Les Célébrités, where he cooked contemporary modern French food, and then at Lespinasse, which returned to a more classical-style restaurant with a rustic touch. I have seen two different styles in his evolution as a chef, but in both it was all about precision. From him I learned about rustic French county cooking, reflective of the southwest of France from where he came, as well as modern French cooking.
I also had the good fortune to work at La Côte Basque under Jean-Jacques Rachou. La Côte Basque was a classical French restaurant, one of the last of what has become a dying breed. There are only a handful of restaurants in that style still open, so I feel fortunate that I had that experience to work there when it was in its prime and had a major influence on the dining industry.
My next big influence was Alain Ducasse, at his restaurant Louis XV in Monte Carlo. At Louis XV, I learned a tremendous amount about the cuisine of the Riviera, southern France, and northern Italy. That region of the Mediterranean has greatly shaped my cooking. It is in tune with Japanese concepts of purity of flavor and simplicity. The focus is more on ingredients and less on sauces that weigh food down or mask the flavor. There is less reliance on dairy products and a greater focus on vegetables and seafood––a healthier balance of foods. The preparations and approach are philosophically similar to Japanese cuisine.
Next I went to work with Floyd Cardoz at Tabla, a restaurant in New York City owned by the Union Square Hospitality Group that prepared New Indian Cuisine. From Floyd, I learned about influences that were based on a particular region. When I cooked with him, there was a need to learn the origins of ingredients. I remember one humbling experience. There was a spice that I had found in a spice market, and it wasn’t necessarily Indian. Floyd asked, “What can you tell me about this spice?” I said, “Not really much, other than how it tastes.” Then he pushed me to know more. “But what can you tell me about it? Where did it come from?” Now I don’t use any ingredient without understanding its context, because that knowledge helps me make a better dish.
At Tabla, I was able to experiment with my own food, even though I was working under Floyd’s umbrella. I accepted that, much like an artist’s apprentice in a master’s studio, I was working in Floyd’s style, but I still had the opportunity to come up with my own dishes. I wanted customers to sit there at the end of their meal, and if they happened to have one of my dishes say, “Floyd is a great chef and that was a great dish!” That was the goal, and accepting that meant I was on the right track as a chef.
Leadership and management are two different things.
In my case, Michael inspired me by giving me an opportunity to manage and lead his kitchen. This was a great responsibility. This was my first executive position, and I made plenty of mistakes, but Michael showed me an extraordinary level of patience, understanding, kindness, compassion, and tolerance. He had been through many of the same things that I went through, so he was able to say, “Okay, but now we want to do something a little different. Here is how we grow.” He taught me through example.
I learned about hospitality as it related to taking care of those who worked for me. I learned to inspire others to do their jobs to a level of excellence while balancing support, respect, and accountability. Michael treated everyone who worked for him with a level of personal respect that most other chefs did not and still don’t extend. It took me time to grasp this concept, including the ability to work with the restaurant owners and management and in an executive capacity with the supporting team.
I also learned a lot about food from Michael. He taught me a lot about technical aspects that I use to this day. I don’t think I ever really expressed to him the degree to which he influenced me. He left a lasting impression. I’m a better cook, for sure, but I know that I am also a better leader. Michael Romano is a very inspiring and passionate chef.
Breaking out as a chef in a high caliber restaurant was a huge challenge.
Taking over Oceana as Executive Chef was the greatest professional challenge I’ve ever had. For several months, I had to write out everything for the cooks and staff. I had some people who were with me, but no one knew me or knew my work. It took time to build up that knowledge, so I had to be there every morning. It took time to teach the staff how I wanted things checked in, how to make the preparations and make the sauces, how to do the ordering. I had to be there at night to tell them how to close down the place and clean the kitchen. I had to be there in the middle of the process, too.
Oceana always had a global, seasonally driven menu with Asian and Mediterranean influences. So it was very natural for me to come in and do that style of cooking, although I made my own menu. I was comfortable creating complex dishes at Oceana. I felt as a chef that I had reached my goal of managing and cooking at a first-class restaurant.
Another challenge came two-and-a-half years later, when we moved the restaurant’s location and changed its concept. Oceana went from being a very formal restaurant with 100 seats to an upscale, yet approachable, restaurant and bar that was double in size.
In the old Oceana, the kitchen was small, and I was in the center so that I could see everything going out. Dishes were brought to me before they went to guests. I had that kind of control.
Our lunch clientele are business people, and on the weekends people from the suburbs come for special occasions. As a chef I have my own style, and there is a place on the menu for my creative influence, but there also needs to be a place on the menu that gives the guests what they want or expect. I realize, fully accept, and am at peace with that fact. Not everyone comes to the restaurant viewing the chef or the food as the focal point. It might be the location, the nice decor, pleasant ambiance, or the great service that draws them here. It could be any number of things that the restaurant is as a whole, but it’s not only about the chef and the food.