Being a fine-dining chef is the closest profession to being a jazz musician. Yes, we have the standards in our repertoire we perform nightly. But the real fun comes when we get to improvise.
At my Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant, EL Ideas, every night is a new set. We know we’re going to perform our signature, like our offbeat takes on Toad In A Hole and Wendy’s French Fries & Frosty. Beyond that, we begin most days by staring into our pantry and thinking to ourselves: “Hmmmmm.”
Chances are, that’s what you, dear Takeout reader, are doing most days nowadays. Perhaps you’re looking at that box of Kraft Mac & Cheese from 2017 and dread having to repurpose it. You’re staring at that freezer-burnt chicken breast and coming up empty.
Maybe I can help? My restaurant’s shut down (we’re still doing curbside takeout though, folks!) and I’m trying to be useful. So let’s talk about how we come up with dishes at EL Ideas, and how to apply those high-level culinary philosophies into your own kitchen jam session.
Let’s extend that jazz metaphor. At our restaurant, we have a setlist of 11 courses for our audience. It’s got to progress in a logical way—that’s why we want to start with something memorable, then build it up to our set closer. It’s why we don’t serve our Wagyu course as our opener.
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There are three chefs including myself in our kitchen. Whenever any of us has an idea for a dish (a song), we tell the others what we have in mind (chord progression/lyrics), and then we get on with working it out (jam session). And if you think we’re done with this music metaphor, buckle up!
Creativity without parameters is usually a mess. (Have you ever listened to really terrible free jazz?) For this, I encourage our chefs to develop a narrative around their culinary ideas. Food needs to taste great first and foremost, but what I’m looking for as a bandleader is a story. This is really to help our cooks focus. I would ask: “Why are we even doing this dish? Is it a childhood memory? Is it one of your favorite things to eat?” At our restaurant, the cooks come out and intro the dish to the dining room (it’s really like dinner theater). The dishes that have an emotional connection to our cooks always resonate better with our guests. Which in turn makes the food taste more delicious.
The rest of cooking to me is really just fundamental. Have proper seasoning. Balance acidity with oils and spice. Use proper technique. Consider textural contrast. Be organized and in the right headspace.
I’m not saying that stuff is easy. In fact, it isn’t at all. I’ve been doing this professionally for three decades, and I am still humbled all the time. But just like picking up an instrument or playing in a band, you don’t get really good unless you practice a lot.
So how does this apply to the home cook? Let me offer some practical philosophy.
Rethink common food pairings.
Collectively shared flavor pairings are the perfect diving board for culinary creativity. Our signature dish of French fries and Frosty is a great example. Aside from my kids serving as the very inspiration for the course, the fast food treat nostalgically transports our diners back to their own childhood. What we do is take hot cream of leek soup as a base, add a nest of fried shoestring potatoes, and top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The power of nostalgia and reconsidering collectively shared flavor profiles offers a deep well of culinary possibility and has been a driving force in forging my own style.
Balance ingredients with acidity, sweetness, and spiciness.
Whether it’s a barbecue sauce, a chutney, or a compote, having the proper balance of sweet, sour, and spicy pays big dividends. On the contrary, getting it wrong really makes for a one-dimensional and unpleasant eating experience. Like a good bass line and percussion playing behind the lead musician, everything’s more harmonious and nuanced when the flavors are multi-dimensional.
Take the time to season correctly with salt.
The biggest difference between good-to-bad food and good-to-great food is the correct application of salt. Back when I was a young chef at the Quilted Giraffe in New York, I was taught that the mashed potatoes were not seasoned well enough until I couldn’t help but reach back in to taste them again. I know it’s a low-sodium world out there, but I can’t emphasize enough how much flavor opens up on our palates when salt is used properly.
Be adventurous with your pantry.
Reconcepting snack food or common pantry items is a novel way of building a dish that quickly connects to people’s sense of fun. Montreal’s famous Joe Beef, had this idea of incorporating all-dressed-up potato chip powder into a compound butter. Genius. Maybe you can take slivered shallots and do a quick marinade in dill pickle brine from your fridge? What if you took instant ramen packet seasoning, mixed with sour cream, and turned that into a dip for quesadilla? There are tons of ideas waiting to be discovered in the most unlikely of places.
Now, let’s put some of those philosophies into practice. I’ve asked three Takeout staffers to send me a photo of what’s in their pantry. Based on that picture, I’m going to try to “prescribe” some dinner ideas by applying my chef training. Takeout editor in chief Marnie Shure graciously volunteered first.
(Not pictured: Marnie also had chicken cutlets in her freezer.)
I’m seeing a burrito bar for dinner tonight, Marnie.
Take your chicken, or even sweet potatoes, and dredge them in flour and egg wash. Now here’s where we get fun... crumble Tostitos in place of bread crumbs. They’ve got the requisite savory and tanginess, and they’re a starch that should fry up beautifully. When you pan fry in canola oil over medium heat, just be careful not to burn. Drain on paper towel and allow to rest.
In the meantime, make a pilaf with your jasmine rice. Let’s scent that with the taco seasoning. Heat and serve the refried beans and black beans in bowls. Warm up the tortillas. If you have pico de gallo, guacamole, lime, and cilantro, all the better.
Slice the chicken cutlets into long strips, place all of the ingredients in bowls around the table, and have fun building your own burritos for dinner!
Here’s one from Takeout associate editor Aimee Levitt:
If there isn’t a Caesar salad in your future, I need to quit cooking and become a chambermaid.
I hope you have egg yolk and mustard in your fridge. If you do, mince a clove of garlic and a few chopped anchovies and let both sit in lemon juice for 10 minutes. Whisk in egg yolk, mustard, Sriracha, and slowly drizzle in oil until it resembles dressing. For croutons, cut bread into cubes, toss in olive oil, and throw in toaster oven until golden. Toss everything with washed Romaine lettuce, top with fried capers.
You can sauté your mushrooms and season with Sriracha and some lemon juice, too. Serve everything with a tall glass of ice cold milk.
Finally, the pantry of the office manager at Takeout world headquarters, Ariella Miller:
I wish more Americans would use tuna in their pasta. The Italians love it. What I’d do is chop up a few fillets of anchovies and mince a clove or two of garlic. Saute those, along with red chili flakes if you have them, in olive oil for a minute. Pour on the Rao’s marinara sauce and allow to simmer. Drain the tuna and fold into the sauce, allow to simmer some more. Toss with pasta.
I also see blueberry-ghost pepper jam in this photo—hell yeah! You can make a simple lentil salad with this. Mince two cloves of garlic and finely dice maybe a quarter of that white onion. Squeeze juice of half a lime over garlic and onions, let sit for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, fry up a few pieces of bacon until crispy and chop into pieces. Drain lentils. Add lime-marinated garlic and onions to lentils, a few good glugs of olive oil, crumbled bacon, plus salt and pepper to your liking. Spoon in a little bit of that blueberry-ghost pepper jam to taste!
How about Swedish-inspired twice-baked potatoes? Roast potatoes per your favorite baked potato method. Cut in half the long way, scoop out potato flesh (save the shell) and fork crush. Combine this in a mixing bowl with smoked herring, sour cream, some dill, salt and pepper to taste. Fill the shell back up and serve warm.
For dessert: First make Rice Krispies treats. Take some of those pineapple rings, sprinkle on brown sugar, bake in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes or until caramelized. Spoon out some Nutella into a bowl and soften in the microwave. Now you can plate: A rectangle of Rice Krispies treat on the bottom, caramelized pineapple rings on top, drizzle with Nutella and sprinkle with peanuts.