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Take Five with Chef Jennie Lorenzo, On Cooking with Bad Boy Chefs and Life After the Fifth Floor

Wednesday, 15. September 2010 5:25

One of the best meals I’ve had this year can’t be experienced again.

Not in all its totality.

It was on Sept. 4 at San Francisco’s tony Fifth Floor restaurant, on what was the last night that Executive Chef Jennie Lorenzo was in the kitchen.

Although, I had eaten at the Fifth Floor a few times over the past few years under the reign of other top toques, I had yet to make it in there to try Lorenzo’s cooking. I had planned on doing so some day. But some day came all too unexpectedly when Lorenzo emailed me that week, inviting me to come in as her guest, as she was about to depart the restaurant after cooking there on and off for five and a half years.

My husband, who is happy enough with a burger and gets jaded after one too many fancy tasting menus, sat back in his chair that night, looked me square in the eyes, and said emphatically after only the second course, “I am SO glad we came. This is really good.”

How good? Even our server, who had worked with Lorenzo for the past few years, came in to dine on his day off a few days before because he wanted to experience Chef Lorenzo’s dazzling cooking one last time before she left.

You might be scratching your head right now, thinking how it’s possible you’ve never heard of this talented, 35-year-old Filipino-American, who has worked for some of the most legendary chefs in the United States, Europe and Japan. It’s not your fault. For whatever reason, Lorenzo never garnered the buzz she should have. She took over right after the restaurant was remodeled — its wild, flashy animal prints toned down to a sleeker, simpler contemporary look.  But the public seemed confused about what the restaurant had become. Some thought it still fine-dining; others turned their back, thinking it had morphed into a bistro of all things.

The pity of that.

Especially  because Lorenzo decided to leave the restaurant to take a much needed break. Although the restaurant will continue, it’s unclear yet who will be named as her replacement.

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Take Five with Chef Christopher Kostow, About Competing on Sunday’s “Iron Chef America”

Wednesday, 1. September 2010 5:25

Chef Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in the heat of things on "Iron Chef America.'' (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

When I first started my Food Gal blog in 2008, Chef Christopher Kostow, who had just landed at the Restaurant at Meadowood resort in St. Helena as its executive chef, was gracious enough to be spotlighted in my first “Take Five Q&A.’’

In that interview, the Michelin two-star chef who celebrates his 34th birthday this week, famously said he’d never want to be on a show like “Top Chef’’ because he couldn’t fathom he’d gain anything from it. That may be so, but this Sunday, Sept. 5, you can tune in to watch Kostow tackle another cooking competition show instead –- “Iron Chef America’’ –- when he goes up against Iron Chef Cat Cora.

Yesterday, I chatted with him by phone about why he decided to make the leap into this reality TV cooking arena, and how he coped with his lifelong personal aversion to this particular “secret ingredient.’’

Q: So you remember what you said to me about ‘Top Chef,’ right? So, why go on ‘Iron Chef America’ then?

A: I still don’t have anything to gain from ‘Top Chef.’ But ‘Iron Chef’ is one day or just a few hours really. It’s good exposure, especially when you have a restaurant in Napa that’s off the beaten path. I didn’t miss any time in my kitchen, either, which was important to me.

Q: Are you a fan of these types of shows?

A: Not really. I don’t really watch much food TV. I don’t want to go home and watch people scrambling around, cooking food, because I see that when I’m at work.

I think TV is a double-edged sword. It has raised awareness among the populace about what we do. But there’s a false sense about it. People think we run around all day competing in the kitchen. In some ways, it demeans what we do. I take this all with a grain of salt. We’ve done a lot in this restaurant, but I find it amusing that this is the thing everyone wants to talk about. At the end of the day, that’s why chefs go on TV.

Q: When the Food Network came calling, you didn’t say ‘yes’ immediately?

A: I went back and forth about it. I’m not a chef shut-in by any means. I like talking to people. I like being in the dining room. But I didn’t want to present my food in a style that wasn’t me. In the end, we presented things on the show in a manner that we were comfortable with.

Q: Did you know Cat Cora already?

A: It was the first time I met her. It was filmed a year ago. And then last December, she was part of our “Twelve Days of Christmas’’ (when 12 renowned chefs pair with 12 Napa Valley vintners for a series of holiday feasts). It was fun. I enjoyed meeting her and her team.

Two California chefs duke it out in Kitchen Arena in Kostow vs. Cora. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Q: What hint can you give us about the secret ingredient?

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Take Five with Chef Dominique Crenn, on Her Upcoming “Iron Chef America” Battle

Tuesday, 3. August 2010 5:27

Last year, Executive Chef Dominique Crenn of Luce in San Francisco, showed her chops by competing in the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef Competition.’’

Now, the 45-year-old chef who used to square off regularly against the guys in soccer in her homeland of France, shows off her combative skills again, this time in Kitchen Stadium on Aug. 8 on “Iron Chef America’’ when she takes on Iron Chef Michael Symon.

She plans to feature her “Iron Chef’’ dishes on a special prix fixe menu at Luce, too, starting Aug. 10. The multi-course dinner will be $65 per person, and be available through Labor Day.

Crenn joins a small cadre of Bay Area chefs who have battled an Iron Chef: Ron Siegel of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco; David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Traci Des Jardins of Jardiniere in San Francisco; Mourad Lahlou of Aziza in San Francisco; Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco; Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco; and Nate Appleman (formerly at A16 in San Francisco and now at New York’s Pulino’s). By Crenn’s count, that makes her the eighth competitor from these parts, a most auspicious number for her, too.

Q: What’s up with the number eight?

A: In France, we celebrate the names of people on certain days. So, Aug. 8 is the day to celebrate St. Dominique in France.

Q: Hmm, so does that mean there was a good outcome for you in the battle because of that?

A: (laughs) You can’t read anything into that.

Q: The day you did the battle also marked the anniversary of your father’s death?

A: Yes, it was the 10th anniversary. The battle was for him. That day, I was sad, but focused. I wished he was there. But it also was a day to celebrate the person that he was. You have to celebrate that or else you just end up staying at home and crying your eyes out.

Q: Did you know Symon before doing the show?

A: I met him when I did ‘The Next Iron Chef.’ And I knew about him through friends in the industry. He has an incredible reputation. It was an honor to be in a battle with him.

We were putting makeup on, and sitting next to each other, just cracking up. He’s a wonderful man. But the gloves come off when it’s time to battle. It’s one hour of craziness.

Q: Of course, he has that unmistakable devilish laugh, too. Was that intimidating?

A: I love his laugh. I made a comment about it. You will see.

Q: I know you can’t say what the ‘secret ingredient’ is. But was it at least an ingredient that you liked?

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Take Five with Chef Rick Moonen, On “Top Chef Masters” and Saving the World’s Seafood Populations

Tuesday, 25. May 2010 5:27

In person, talking a mile a minute, and jumping up from his chair to make a point with arms gesturing wildly, Chef Rick Moonen is a blur of frenetic energy just as he is as a competitor on this season’s “Top Chef Masters.’’

The 53-year-old chef jokes that he gets mistaken for fellow bespectacled, facial-scruffed Chef Rick Bayless ever since the two of them appeared together on the first season of that wildly popular Bravo TV show. This despite the fact that Moonen is a Las Vegas chef, whose restaurant RM Seafood is known for its menu of eco-friendly fish, and Bayless is a Chicago chef, whose restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are famous for authentic Mexican cuisine.

Indeed, at RM Seafood, Moonen has banned Chilean Sea Bass, Japanese hamachi, monkfish, and grouper from his menu because they are so over-fished. He also refuses to serve Atlantic farm-raised salmon because of its destructive impact on the environment. Instead, he takes pride in featuring sustainable, but lesser known species such as Hawaiian walu and Australian ocean trout.

If he hadn’t been a chef, Moonen, who grew up playing with chemistry sets and Tinkertoys, says he would have been a teacher or doctor of alternative medicine. Good thing for us, he chose the culinary road instead.

Moonen was in Monterey this past weekend, where he was one of the guest chefs at the ninth annual “Cooking for Solutions’’ event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I caught up with him during a break to chat about his redemption on this season’s “Top Chef Masters’’ and about his dedication to the world’s oceans.

Q: When I interviewed Chef Michael Chiarello of Bottega in Yountville about his defeat in last year’s “Top Chef Masters,’’ he said you were the one who really would have given him a run for his money in the competition. Was it a huge disappointment to you last season when you were knocked out practically at the start because you weren’t able to plate anything before time ran out in the first ‘Quick Fire’ challenge?

A: I would have beat him. He knows it. I know it. (laughs) If I had just put a piece of parsley on the plate, I would have had it.

That’s why this year, they created the ‘Moonen Rule.’ The ‘Quick Fire’ scores don’t count now in the final tally.

Q: That’s right! Seriously, that change came about because of what happened to you last year?

A: No one told me that officially. But I think it is the ‘Moonen Rule.’

It was a very big disappointment for me last year. I realized I blew it. It’s me, I’m anal-retentive, compulsive, ADD-Rick. Imagine you’re a clown. I grab you and put a gun to your head and tell you that you have to be funny. That’s what it felt like. Now, if you had given me a minute to really think and organize, I would have kicked his butt.

Q: Why did you want to do the show in the first place?

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Take Five with Sara Moulton, On Life After the Demise of Gourmet Magazine

Wednesday, 21. April 2010 5:25

These days, Sara Moulton is almost a rarity among TV cooking show stars.

She’s a cook’s cook, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, who worked on the line at restaurants in Boston, New York and France for seven years, before becoming an instructor at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School in New York, and finally executive chef of Gourmet magazine, where she worked until it unceremoniously ceased publication on October 2009.

Moulton, who lives in New York with her husband and two children, has been anything but idle since then. Her third cookbook was just published this month, “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners’’ (Simon & Schuster). The book reinterprets what constitutes dinner and provides inventive, healthful fare to wake  up that end-of-the-day meal.

You can meet Moulton at three upcoming Northern California events. She’ll do a cooking demo and sign copies of her new book at 11:30 a.m. May 18 at Sign of the Bear in Sonoma. For more information, call (707) 996-3722.

She’ll also do two cooking classes and book signings at Draeger’s markets: 5 p.m. May 18 at Draeger’s at Blackhawk in Danville; and 5 p.m. May 19 at Draeger’s in San Mateo. Tickets to either event are $80 per person.

I had a chance recently to chat with Moulton by phone about her new book, the changing culinary landscape, the shock of being unemployed, and the demise of the magazine we all loved.

Q: How did you find out that Gourmet was going to fold?

A: The magazine was way down in advertising pages, but so were many magazines at Conde Nast. We’d already been told we had to cut back 25 percent of expenses. We were already walking around, thinking, ‘Who’s next?’

We thought we were special — a jewel in the crown. We won all sorts of awards. We’d been going through a rough period, through many publishers, and we were way down in sales staff. We knew it was coming, but didn’t know it was coming.

I’m not mad. I know Conde Nast had to make choices. I found out on a Monday morning, when I was out doing a photo shoot for my cookbook. We were at the farmers market with the photographer and had just gotten started. My cell phone rang at 9:30 a.m. It was my chef de cuisine, calling, and she was crying. I thought somebody had died. She said that they were shutting down the magazine, that there had been a meeting with the staff.

My immediate boss then called to tell me we had to have everything out by Tuesday at 5 p.m. It was quite a scramble.

Q: Where you able to pack up all the things that had been meaningful to you all those years?

A: My husband came to the office and helped me. We packed 35 boxes of books and shipped them home. I gave a bunch to Columbia University, and we built a new bookshelf in my son’s room.

I also took an old copper bowl, with Conde Nast’s permission. It’s from France, from the same cookware store that Julia Child used to buy her cookware from.

It’s a very heavy bowl. At my last restaurant job, I was the chef tourneau (substitute cook), who could work any station necessary. One thing I had to do at times was pastry, which was not my forte at all. We had an apricot soufflé on the menu, made with dried California apricots, sugar, lemon juice and egg whites. We used to make the recipe by hand, whipping the egg whites by hand. We’d make seven soufflés at a time.

On Saturday night that was my job. I’d have to make four or five batches. This bowl is a dead ringer for that bowl. The apricot soufflé finally ran in Gourmet, and I also would teach people at classes how to do it by hand. The first time you whip egg whites or make bread, you should really do it by hand because you get a feel for it more. I didn’t want to leave that bowl behind. I didn’t want someone who didn’t care about it to just grab it and throw it out. It hangs in my kitchen now. I’m looking it as we speak.

Q: Your job at Gourmet was probably every foodie’s fantasy.

A: As the executive chef of the dining room, I cooked meals for the advertisers. We’d wine and dine them. Then, we’d hit them up for advertising. It used to work really well. (laughs). I was making the best food of my life in that dining room. It was a great job.

Q: Do you have a huge stack of Gourmet magazines at home?

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