Did you miss the Condiment Circus?

Chef Julia

Chef Julia at the Tasting Bar

I had the opportunity last week to teach a seminar on the trade show floor of the largest specialized catering and events conference in the United States, held at Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, and at the Las Vegas Convention Center.  Another chef was designated to teach this class, but was not available due to prior commitments, so I got the call.  It was a great opportunity to summarize some of the flavor profile trends we have been seeing out here in California, and how they can be applied to catering menus for large and small caterers across the country.

The first step in preparation was to Google this year’s food trends, though I was pretty confident that I knew what I would find.  Many “new” ideas for the rest of the country have been on our menus in California for a couple of years, due to our vibrant and innovative restaurant scene and a heavy focus on diversity and local and sustainable foods.  The usual things popped up, “farm-to-table”, small artisan producers, all the buzzwords.  But how to translate this to a seminar entitled “The Condiment Circus:  Three Rings of Flavor”?  I set down the laptop and headed to our pantry to see what was on the shelf.

In the pantry, I found Gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste), Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce, gluten-free hoisin sauce from Wok Mei, a large bottle of Vietnamese fish sauce, salted Japanese dried plums (umeboshi), and a quart jar of preserved Meyer lemons that we use in preparing our vegetable tagine.  Digging further, I found all-natural liquid smoke and blackstrap molasses, which we use to approximate the flavor of bacon in vegan preparations, and an assortment of finishing salts.  On the counter were a full slate of Stella Cadente Olive Oil’s crushed flavored California oils, and more salts and salt blends.  A trip to the reach-in yielded our Korean BBQ sauce, house-made Romesco and a couple of jars of fruit mostarda that we prepared to accompany roast pork.  Now I had a basis for a seminar on condiments.

A list was assembled for the event organizers (all the condiments had to be readily available, either through foodservice distribution or via the internet, mostly from Amazon Prime).  Many of the caterers at this conference were rural and small market, like myself, and did not have access to the well-stocked ethnic grocers found in larger urban areas.  I dug through my recipe files, and came up with half a dozen recipes, complete with photos, of ways to integrate these condiments and flavor profiles without scaring our clients into the woods.  I included the recipe for the Korean BBQ sauce, plus a couple of recipes for appetizers using it.  A recipe for a baby chicory and beet salad with a robust vinaigrette pulled in the Blood orange olive oil and the sweet chili sauce.  Of course, the crowning glory would be our vegan eggplant “bacon”, a recipe inspired by a Pinterest find when researching vegan brunch ideas.  I added our recipe for Romesco, even though we would be tasting a retail version, and a couple more photos of dishes using some of the other items such as the finishing salts.

The main focus of the seminar was to have the attendees taste each of the condiments, then taste some of the foods derived from them.  This meant tons of little dishes and spoons that had to be laid out in order in the back of the house, set for 30-50 attendees.  Setup took me most of an hour and a half, but we were finally ready.  Up to the mike, assistants all set to pass out the tasting portions and off we go.

The first taste was the Gochujang, a fermented bean and chili paste from Korean that is as ubiquitous as catsup is in the United States.  It has a nice heat, balanced with the complexity of fermentation, and strong notes of umami.  It was accompanied by a taste of the Korean BBQ sauce, made based on the Gochujang.  The sauce also included brown sugar, tamari, toasted sesame oil and rice vinegar.  Everyone loved how the other sauce components tempered the heat and the resultant sauce could be used in a variety of ways.

The second taste was the Thai Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce.  This was an easy one for most of the attendees, as it has a nice balance of sweetness, heat and acidity.  This was followed by the Vietnamese fish sauce, which can be used as a shelf stable substitute for anchovy in many recipes.  Next up was the Japanese salt-dried plum, which we use to flavor steamed sticky rice as a side dish for Asian inspired pork dishes.  While the plum itself is salty and astringent, the finished rice reflects the subtle fruitiness and aromatics of the plum.  The last Asian inspired taste was the hoisin, noted as a great way to bring Asian flavors to BBQ sauces.

On the same spoon as the hoisin, the attendees tasted blackstrap molasses, as a segue into the north American market basket.  They noted the similarities in the flavors, bitter plus sweet plus umami, and how each culture used these flavors in certain ways.  They then were given a tiny spoon of the liquid smoke.  We discussed the recognizable flavors in bacon and other preserved pork product (salty, sweet, bitter, smoky) and we presented a taste of the vegan “bacon”, thinly sliced eggplant painted with a mixture of the molasses, liquid smoke, maple syrup and tamari, then baked in a low oven until crisp.

We followed the bacon with the flavored olive oils, both the Blood orange and the basil, and discussed how these could not only be incorporated into dressings, but used as sauce replacements and in marinades.

We then moved to the old-world market basket, with hot harissa and the preserved lemons from Morocco, discussing the use of these condiments across the southern and eastern Mediterranean.  Everyone was struck by the influence of the Arabic world in even new world cuisines.  The next taste was traditional Mostarda di Frutta; whole baby fruit preserved in sugar syrup and hot mustard from northern Italy.  Noticing the likeness to chutney, the attendees were quick to grasp how this could be flexible enough to move from the cheese and charcuterie plate to the entrée, especially with roast meats such as chicken and pork.

The last tastes we enjoyed were the finishing salts.  We presented two Hawaiian salts, the dusty pink Ali’i and the black lava salt.  Both are great for garnishing, both with color and their earthy mineral flavors.  We love using the pink salt on a big basket tray of steamed edamame, and use the black salt in many of our passed appetizer where the color is a counterpoint to the ingredients presented.  The next salts tasted were our house-made duck salt and porcini mushroom salt, and we discussed using our spice grinder to prepare these from on-hand ingredients.  A very effective method to use when layering flavors.  Our example was a recipe for duck confit risotto; made with duck stock, shredded confit duck meat, sautéed in duck fat, and topped with a quenelle of duck foie gras.  The finishing touch was a sprinkling with duck salt (the rendered skin pulverized in the food processor then mixed with kosher salt).  The last salt tasted was SaltWork’s Salish alder-smoked sea salt.  We use this salt frequently to finish plates of roasted or grilled meats, especially beef, as it brings out the flavor of the cooking method in a subtle way.

Discussion ensued during the question and answer period about the differences and commonalities in the various cultures and their condiments.  Everyone left with new ideas and inspirations to take back to their own kitchens.  For presentation materials, see below.  Contact us via email at info@assaggiare.com for recipes.  For information about Catersource/Event Solutions conference and trade show, click here.

 

Condiment Circus

 

Gochujang:  Korean fermented hot pepper sauce (hot, fermented)

Thai Sweet Chili Sauce (Mae Ploy):  Southeast Asian chili pepper jam (hot, sweet)

Natural Liquid Smoke: (bitter, smokiness)

Blackstrap Molasses: (bitter, sweet)

Flavored Olive Oils (www.stellacadente.com): (umami, fruit notes, herb notes)

Romesco:  Spanish sauce of almonds, bread, tomato, paprika, peppers (umami)

Harissa (Mustapha’s):  Moroccan chili paste (heat)

Preserved Lemon (Mustapha’s):  Moroccan salt pickled whole sweet lemons (acid, salt fermented)

Fish Sauce:  Southeast Asian, made from fermented small fish (umami, fermented)

Umeboshi:  Japanese salt dried “pickled” plums (sour, sweet, salt)

Hoisin (Wok Mei is gluten free):  Chinese “BBQ” sauce, fermented beans with soy, rock sugar (umami, sweet)

Mostarda:  Northern Italian fruit preserved in syrup with mustard seed (sweet, hot)

Finishing Salts (www.seasalt.com):  smoked, meat flavored (duck), mushroom, herb (salt, various flavors)

All of these condiments can be used to layer flavors in a dish, bring out specific notes in the flavor profiles, replicate flavors from other types of foods, enhance specific elements of flavor such as umami, sweetness, astringency and acidity.

Condiments available on Amazon Prime unless otherwise noted.

 

Post by Julia Conway on March 22nd, 2016

Bashed by Bon Appetit

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s Wedding Guide, April 2015

It’s hard to know where to start when you open your longtime favorite food magazine and see your profession denigrated in the first page of editorial content!  Bon Appetit’s April edition promises  “We Do, A food lover’s guide to weddings” and starts off with the questionable moniker, “…the BA guide to the tastiest, booziest, most fun wedding ever…”  Booziest?  Seriously?  But it does not stop there, as they go on to advise “Lose the caterer.”

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s bar and appetizer recommendations, April 2015

Turning to the next page (yes, I’ll admit, the headline got me), they go into the details of how to (1) serve “assemble-it-yourself drinks on vintage trays”, (2) “DIY the Cocktail-Hour Food” and (3)“supplement (the bars) with passed cocktails” (by whom, if you lose the caterer?).

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit says “roast a pig”

Turning the page, we find the directive to roast a whole pig; “…hire a BBQ place to take care of the whole thing….” (isn’t that catering, just asking?),  and then “The best way to make sure your caterer doesn’t serve bone-dry chicken:  Don’t hire one.”  They recommend you contact your favorite trendy restaurant or celebrity chef to prepare the food at your wedding.

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s cake and “late night” ideas

As we head into the last page, we encounter suggestions to “Go Ahead, Skip the Cake”, hire a food truck (we’ll get into that later in the discussion) and to “Put your least responsible friend in charge of (the) late night (bar).  It’ll be more memorable than the parts of the night you planned to a T” accompanied with the idea that shots of Wild Turkey are the way to cap off the celebration.  Oooh, aren’t we hip and cool now?

After I took a walk around the office to cool down, I tried to assess exactly which of these irresponsible and inflammatory sound bites I found the most offensive.  I have been a chef and caterer as my full time profession for over fifteen years now, and go to a great deal of trouble to see that my clients get exciting, fun and great tasting food at their wedding celebrations.  Yes, we have all had our experiences with rubber banquet chicken breasts (that’s another post entirely, here) and cold plates of surf and turf, but caterers today are putting out some amazing fresh and innovative food.  Many of us have seen the inside and outside of the restaurant trade before choosing catering as our creative avenue.  I have hired my share of talented restaurant chefs, only to be told what we, as caterers do, is “way too difficult and stressful.”  Caterers are experts at bringing the restaurant to wherever the client chooses, be it an open field, a windy beach, a redwood forest or the middle of a vineyard.  We serve hundreds of plates AT THE SAME TIME rather than in succession as is done in even the busiest restaurant kitchen.  We oversee a myriad of details and timelines to ensure that the entire event flows smoothly and successfully.

BA Vegas Event

Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d

It is ironic that the advertisement placed in the middle of this section is for Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d food and wine event, featuring three celebrity chefs.  One of the best-kept secrets of these tasting events is who actually prepares the food…..yes, it is caterers!  While client confidentiality prevents us from naming names, we are the ones who prepare the hundreds of tasting plates, peel the potatoes, mince the onion, set everything up in those little glass prep bowls and even prepare the “hero plate” that is shown and photographed.  The celebrity chef or, in some cases magazine food editor slips on their pristine chef’s jacket and steps out in front of the cheering crowd.  We are the ones who scour every grocery store for 100 miles to find the out-of-season stone fruit to duplicate the tart that the food editor created almost a year before for the companion article.  We are the ones who take the celebrity chef’s intricate and multi-step restaurant recipes and prep every single component for their fifteen minutes of fame at the demo stage.  If you have attended a luncheon or dinner at a charity event, supposedly prepared by a celebrity “guest” chef, it is almost certainly your local caterer who is back in the kitchen tent, pumping out the food while the guest of honor is schmoozing with the VIP guests.

Unless you are a Hollywood star or a Silicon Valley mogul, it is unlikely that your favorite trendy restaurant chef will be in the kitchen at your wedding celebration, even if that is who you are paying.  Who do you think restaurant chefs hire to prepare the food at their own weddings?  They hire caterers, who know how to manage the logistics and timing so that the hot food is served hot and the cold food is served cold.

Oh, and yes, all the DIY articles on the internet cannot prepare you for the shock of preparing and serving the large amounts of food required to feed 200 guests, much less keep it safe to consume without the benefit of a fully equipped restaurant kitchen on site.  How many of your friends will want to bus, scrape and wash the mountains of dishes generated by groups of this size, much less sort and box the glassware?  These are all things that your caterer does as a matter of course.

And let’s address the Food Truck myth.  Do you want your 200 guests standing in line at the truck to order their food, being served by 1-2 people taking orders through a small window, and handing each order over to the 1-2 people working the line in the truck?  When a caterer plates a meal for a wedding celebration, they usually have 4+ people plating on the line for each group of 50 guests, and this does not take into consideration the kitchen staff preparing or finishing the food and the service staff (one for every 15-20 guests) carrying the plates to the table.  Yes, food trucks are fun and the food is tasty, trendy and not your usual banquet menu, but if you consider that it takes even three minutes for each order for two x 200 guests, that is 300 minutes , which would equal….almost  5 hours to feed everyone.  Food trucks are great when not everyone wants to eat at the same time, which is why they work so well for festivals.  Not the case at a wedding celebration, where dinner is often squeezed into an hour, maybe two in the context of the complete event.

We can’t forget what this article focuses on the most; the bar.  The same “rule of lines” applies at the bar, which is why the article even goes on to recommend lots of bar staff.  How many of your friends want to be bartenders when they are a guest at your wedding?  Maybe, for about five minutes, or exactly as long as it takes to get themselves a drink.  Professional caterers hire professional bar staff, trained and tested to ensure safe and sane alcohol service.  If you take Bon Appetite’s advice to put your “least responsible friend” in charge of pouring drinks, who is going to be responsible when one of your guests drives off the road on the way back to the hotel from your rustic barn venue?

At the end of this rant, I guess what I’d like to get across is that catering is a profession.  We are not just bored housewives that are throwing parties out of our home kitchens.  As an aspiring caterer, I worked long hours as a server, prep cook and setup person at events.  I pursued a culinary education not only in restaurant kitchens, but at the Culinary Institute of America.  I worked for another caterer in all facets of the operation before considering opening my own company.  I have a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and continue to educate myself in the areas of marketing, sales, customer service and accounting and finance.  Our company is licensed, carries liability insurance, we pay taxes and subject ourselves to numerous necessary regulations for food and beverage safety.  I continue to educate myself on food and event trends, attend industry conferences, belong to professional associations and network with others in our industry.  Every catering company owner and chef that I know takes their work seriously, as it is a passion for many of us.

After almost 40 years as a loyal subscriber and reader of Bon Appetit, I will be cancelling my subscription.  But more than that, I will continue to advocate for my chosen profession and all the hard working people who put in the tireless hours to make sure that our clients’ special day is just that, special.  I guess I’m just not hip enough to appreciate the snarky editorial style of today’s Bon Appetit.  I do plan to vote with my pocketbook, and hope you will do so as well.  Had the magazine taken the time to do an in-depth review of wedding catering, and offer realistic alternatives to the reader, this sort of feedback might have been easier to swallow.  However, this piece smacks of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind.  Toss out a few gossipy bits, don’t support it with real research, and laugh your way to the bank.  I count quite a few food writers and editors among my friends, and we are all equally dismayed at that state of food journalism today.  Bon Appetit, I hope you wake up one day and look in the mirror, and see what a shadow of your former self you have become.

Post by Julia Conway on April 2nd, 2015