The newest chef in TV’s kitchen is ready to reveal what she knows and what the rest of us want to find out.
By Joseph Guinto
That’s why I’m eagerly anticipating the premiere of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.This new Food Network show, which debuts late this month, features AnneBurrell -- the executive chef at New York’s Centro Vinoteca -- teaching viewers culinary skills that they’ll be able to use over and overagain. You’ll get recipes, sure. But whether you remember the specific ingredients Burrell puts into her roast-chicken dish isn’t nearly as important as whether you remember how to truss the bird so the flavors stay within. That’s a technique -- like dicing an onion -- that you canuse repeatedly, whether you’re roasting chicken or rabbit or duck or, you know, anything with legs that will fit in your roasting pan.
“One piece of string, used correctly, changes the whole dish,” Burrell explains, to my obvious fascination. “That’s a little thing. But it isalways so amazing to me how a little, tiny trick can be so fascinatingto people.”
She has a point. I catch more than a couple of people trying to listen in on my conversation with Burrell. We’re at Centro Vinoteca, a popular restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village whose menu is a hybrid of Italian and American comfort food and whose clientele includes Burrell’s friend, R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe. It’s just before the dinner rush, and Burrell is dressed in a chef’s jacket and a black-and-red cowgirl skirt. This outfit, along with her spiky blond hair, is Burrell’s trademark look, one that viewers of Iron Chef would easily recognize. On that show, Burrell serves as Mario Batali’s sous-chef. She makes pasta very, very quickly -- faster than you or Iwill ever make pasta.
Though the restaurant grows louder by theminute, Burrell manages to outdo her guests. She’s loud. Energetic maybe the better way to put it. She’s engaging too. Hers is a perfect personality for TV and for teaching. And as for the latter, Burrell has some experience. After culinary school and cooking in restaurants inItaly and in New York, the Cazenovia, New York, native left theprofessional kitchen to teach home cooks for three years. “I would hearthe same questions over and over again from my students,” Burrell says.“They were always [about] things -- techniques -- that, in a restaurant, we all knew how to do and that seemed obvious to a professional chef. But they’re not obvious.”
She’s talking about things like trussing that chicken (or whatever) and roasting a leg of lamb and making your own stock, none of which is likely to come up in your average episode of 30 Minute Meals. She’s also talking about even smaller things that a professional know show to do. “I tell people on the show that you shouldn’t cook with a saltshaker, because you will never achieve the level of saltiness that you would without one,” Burrell says. “Just use a salt cellar.” It’s a wide, deep dish that you can dip your fingers in to grab salt. “My salt cellar on the show is huge, and I season with reckless abandon, ”Burrell says as she flails one hand about, mimicking the salting process.
Salt is one thing. Timing is another. Burrell says that even after she’d left the classroom for restaurant kitchens --including Centro Vinoteca’s, a tiny, open kitchen that puts Burrell’s blond locks on display each night -- people would ask her how, at home, they can serve dinner so that everything is hot and ready at the same time. “Getting completed dishes out in a timely way is something thatwe do in the restaurant every night, a thousand times a night,” she says. “So we show you in every episode how to time out a meal -- whatyou can make ahead, what has to wait until the last minute.”
Maybe you’re thinking that all of this sounds pretty basic. Maybe some of it is stuff you’ve seen on other shows. Molto Mariocertainly extolled the virtues of salt on a regular basis. But still, think about this: Professional chefs learn by repetition. They’ll make the same dish over and over and over again until they know how and whythe flavors in that dish work together, until there’s no more need tothink about what they’re cooking, until they can feel their way along.That’s how the pros develop the instincts that make them creative about food, about combinations of flavors, and so on. Home chefs don’t have the luxury of being able to afford such repetition. But cooking shows can be our substitute. At their best, cooking shows are our culinary school, our on-the-job training. And we need that. Well, I do, anyway.
“People will say that cooking is common sense,” Burrell says. “But it is not common sense if you’ve not learned how to do it. It’s also not genetic. Just because your mom was a good cook doesn’t mean you’re going to beone. You have to learn how first. And I hope I can teach you some ofthe things you need to know.”
|Can You Stand the Heat? |
This summer, in two new shows, Food Network is opening its kitchens to home chefs.
Chef Anne Burrell’s Favorite TV Chefs
“I’d watch Julia so much that I used to tell my mom, ‘I have a friend named Julia.’ So when I graduated from culinary school, my mom said she was going to write Julia and tell her I became a chef because of her show. She never did, though. When I saw my show’s set, I almost started crying. It has a dining room just like Julia’s!”
“Mario was just way ahead of his time when he was on Food Network. He’s so fun to listen to because he’s so freakishly smart.”
Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa
“I get entranced by the Barefoot Contessa because her voice is like Valium. It’s like the snake in The Jungle Book.”
“My mom is like, ‘I don’t get that Alton Brown. He’s always popping up from behind an oven. What’s that about?’ He does do a lot of that. But Ialways learn some tidbit of something when I watch his shows. The information he gives is fantastic. He’s really teaching you the science of cooking.”
… And the Best of the Really Small Screen
Ming Tsai: This Boston-based chef gets plenty of TV time. He’s done several series for PBS, and his current show, Simply Ming,even offers a free companion vodcast. Subscribe through iTunes to get a new three-minute-long episode roughly once a week. That’s just enough time for Ming to show you how to trim artichokes, devein shrimp, ormake a compound butter. And you can always hit rewind and watch again.