Alla Cacciatora

I dreamt last night about chicken alla cacciatora (in the style of the hunter’s wife), the first recipe I ever made, at about 8 years old. I don’t remember much about the recipe except it was made like the horrid stuff at many red-sauce Italian joints, and that I confused teaspoons for tablespoons. It was peppery. Most bad restaurant preparations call for boneless, skinless chicken breast, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and some sort of tomato sauce from the steam table. This is generally plopped over “your choice of (pre-cooked) penne, linguine, or spaghetti.”

It was on my first menu at Theresa’s, a short-lived little Italian spot in Glenville where the dish saved my ass (for a short while). I had opened the place too short of financing, and too short of experience, so, within months I was nearing the end. During one of the typical slow winter nights a nice woman popped in and ordered two portions of chicken alla cacciatoa to go, and with the hot meal she was on her way. She called me later that evening blown away by the meal. Mrs. Joanne DeVoe, a self employed public relations consultant, then called Byron Nillson at Metroland magazine and Peg Churchill at The Schenectady Gazette, restaurant reviewers for their respective publications to encourage them to check my place out. They did, were also impressed and people started coming in.

My chicken alla cacciatora is different, authentic, wonderfully complex and earthy. Imagine an old Italian (or French if making chicken chasseur) hunter out looking for rabbits, foraging for wild mushrooms, forest herbs like rosemary and thyme, and bring the bounty home where his wife would prepare it by deeply browning the meat and slowly braising it with mushrooms and herbs with some stewed garden tomatoes, and local wine. I like it with polenta or boiled potatoes, not pasta. I’ve made it with rabbit, venison, and wild boar. On my winter menu at The Wine Bar I’m going to do it with pheasant and serve it with toasted farro and corn polenta. I’m not sure I’ll call it alla cacciatora since there are a lot of bad cooks making terrible versions and evoking visions of something I don’t want to be associated with.

Snippets

If you’re going to order a rack of lamb well done with no starters, please don’t ask your server after ten minutes to check with the kitchen about the status of your food.

We had a reservation for 9 people tonight, they got a cheese sampler and a humus.

A server fell in the dining room.

I have knobs for almost all the burners on the stoves.

I have a new dishwasher, he’s 15. Who the hell is raising this kid? He’s more conscientious and has a better work ethic than many grown-ups I’ve seen.

My sous chef does a great job, he’ll be a very good chef one day.

A lot of people with fine arts degrees wait tables.

Shift beer is good. Beer in general is good.

I really like people who are punctual. That includes staff and people with reservations.

I forgot to eat today.

I forget to pee while at work sometimes.

“Yes, you do send multiple orders at the same time, I’m not an idiot, your name and the time prints on the ticket.”

I’ll put our steak frites against anyone’s.

We flip our steak every 20-30 seconds.

My feet hurt so bad, my 10 minute walk home takes 20 minutes.

Regular food

In the morning I was reading the comment section of a post on a popular food/restaurant blog about the closing of an ethnic restaurant in Albany and I came across one commenter that suggested that if the restaurant had served regular food it would be more likely to survive. It reminded me of a story about an encounter I had with a customer several years ago about the cheese on the hamburger I was serving.
I don’t remember the specifics of the burger but I do recall that the cheese was a beautiful creamy buttermilk blue from Wisconsin. I had the opportunity to ask the diner how he liked the burger and he asked “ain’t you got no regular cheese?” I inquired what he meant by regular cheese and he said “you know, sliced cheese.”
I assume that what this Burmese restaurant was in fact serving regular food, to the Burmese that is, and I wish I had the opportunity to try it. I love food from other cultures with flavors unique to the American palate.
With a job in a busy restaurant that requires long hours, a wife with a busy job that has an opposite schedule, and two small children at home, it’s rare that we get out of Saratoga for some irregular food.
I think things in our area are on the upswing and that the little ethnic restaurants will have a better chance of survival in the near future.
I also see a shift in diners eating “irregular” food like offal. My second menu at The Wine Bar three years ago had sweetbreads on it and I couldn’t sell them. This past summer I tried them again and would easily sell out by week’s end. I’ve also been having recent success with bone marrow in different forms including a really tasty bone marrow aioli for dipping duck fat fries. Think I’ll try kidneys this winter.
It’s almost embarrassing gloating about my ability to sell offal on a grand scale, I mean in an area with more savvy diners they’d laugh at me being proud of my eclectic offerings. In the Capital District however we need to celebrate getting sweetbreads on a menu without the “what the hell is that” reaction. We need to keep encouraging folks to leave their comfort zones and try some new shit. Go have some irregular food this weekend.

Wine, truffles, fresh pasta, poached eggs

Chef’s day off was quite eventful to say the least. Our little girl Stella was discharged from Albany Medical Center this afternoon after 5 days. There was still no actual diagnosis, except the consensus that a virus or two has invaded her little body and made her sleep for ten days and counting. She’s lost ten percent of her body weight, and anyone who knows Stella knows that she can ill afford to drop 3 pounds.

I asked Stella what she wanted for supper and she said noodles, so fresh pasta was in order, and since I’ve made a pound or two in the past, I knew what to do. Not to be overlooked was the fact that Mom had been at Stella’s side 24-7, so her input mattered. She requested fresh pasta with asparagus, mushrooms, truffle, and a poached egg. Done. A great recommendation by Noel at Purdy’s for this meal was a great Italian wine, a 2013 Etna Rosso. Earthy and complex.

I’ll work on fattening Stella up. Been a bitch of a week.

My style, and it’s about time.

My cuisine is Mediterranean with a strong focus on country French and rustic Italian. I know the ingredients, I know how they work together and I do my best work when sticking to these flavor profiles.

My wife has been telling me this for years.

Stubbornly over the past few years I’ve dabbled in Asian flavors without really knowing enough about the various cuisines to do them justice. I started thinking strongly about this a few days ago when I was looking at a picture of an Asian inspired dish from another restaurant in town and realized that American chefs untrained in specific cuisines have no business trying to fake it. ¬†There’s so much more to these complex cooking styles than ginger, soy, scallion, wasabi, hoisin, curry powder, and a few chilis. Opening a can of coconut milk and curry paste does not qualify any of us to sell Thai anything. Sure it tastes pretty good, but let’s keep it at home.

I will work on improving my strong suit rather than wasting my time goofing around with half-assed Asian dishes that deserve more respect.

p.s. I slip a bit of good soy sauce into my French onion soup.

Tuesday October 14, 2014

Tuesdays are tough, it’s my Monday. This Tuesday has turned out to be especially difficult. My little girl Stella who just turned four years old this month has been sick for the past week and is now at Albany Medical Center to see the nice folks from infectious diseases. She has already had a battery of tests at Malta Medical (staffed by Albany Med.), with no clue why she has been vomiting, running a fever, and sleeping like a brown bear in January for seven days.

One thing that has made my day tolerable is arriving at work this morning and seeing that my employers Dale and Judy Evans (Melissa Evans is enjoying St. Petersburg, Fl) put down mats in the kitchen to ease my aching feet, did my laundry including my colorful work socks, and showed their genuine concern for Stella. I could not work for a better family.

Another thing that has made this day and many days easier is that when I leave for work in the morning I leave my young children with their Aunt Erinn.

Ultimately the greatest comfort comes from knowing Stella is with her mother, the best known advocate I could imagine for her well-being.

The Wine Bar was pretty mellow tonight, until 10 minutes before closing when I had more orders than at any time all night. I’m all about doing business, but on this particular night I was cleaned up and ready to leave so I could relieve my mother-in-law, who gets up early for work, from her duties watching Tate while Jenny (I can call her Jenny, no one else can) has Stella at the hospital. It’s all good, I’m a cook, so I cook for people who want to eat. I did say a few mother-fuckers and fuckin’ assholes during the process, but in the end I made all those hungry folks a great meal and was happy to do it.

 

My new blog

I am starting a blog about the daily life of a chef. Sometimes it will be fun and interesting, and other times it will simply be the mundane details of life for a chef in and out of the kitchen. I’m a poor speller, I have a potty mouth sometimes, and I sometimes write things after a bit of bourbon so don’t criticize me for the things I already know.

My purpose is to practice writing, something I used to be quite good at but have not done in many years, and as an outlet for some of the great stories, victories, frustrations, and thoughts that come out of life in the restaurant business.

I hope people enjoy it, but if not, so be it. I intend to have fun.