Category Archives: “Take Five” Q&A

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

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

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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Take Five With Chef Bruno Chemel, On Life Post-Chez TJ With His New Baume Restaurant

Parting is never easy -– especially when it’s done publicly with stinging words and bitter emotions.

Such was the case when Chef Bruno Chemel departed Mountain View’s venerable Chez TJ in December. In a battle played out in the press, Chez TJ Proprietor George Aviet expressed his displeasure that Chemel had not brought Michelin two-star fame to his establishment like his predecessor Chef Christopher Kostow, now at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, had. During his less than two years at Chez TJ, Chemel had garnered one Michelin star.

When they couldn’t see eye to eye on that chase for the star (s), Chemel left to open his own restaurant, Baume in Palo Alto, in January. Meantime, Aviet hired Scott Nishiyama, who worked at Daniel Boulud in New York and at the French Laundry in Yountville.

Named after 18th –century French chemist, Antoine Baume, Chemel’s new restaurant is a Zen-like oasis for his brand of elegant molecular gastronomy cooking. The intimate 22-seat restaurant is done up in warm dark chocolate and burnt orange hues, and accented with artsy glass panes covered in Japanese dried seaweed. It serves only tasting menus -– five courses ($78), 10 courses ($108), and 15 courses for ($148) at dinner; and a three-course lunch for $48 offered on Monday, Thursday and Friday.

Last week when I visited, the 41-year-old Chemel proudly showed off his new freeze-drying machine that had just been delivered. It can freeze anything -– from a sauce to any vegetable -– in a flash. Inside his kitchen, you’ll find such molecular gastronomy staples as a dehydrator and canisters of liquid nitrogen, as well as more personal touches such as a framed cotton dish towel from his days working with the legendary Joel Robuchon.

I sat down to chat with Chemel about the Chez TJ incident, and the hopes he has for his new restaurant.

Q: Of course, I have to ask about Chez TJ. Are you satisfied with the way things ended?

A: I did my job for two years. I did my best. All the dirty laundry — I let him (Aviet) do. It’s out of my memory now.

Q: Your pastry chef at Chez TJ, Ryan Shelton, followed you here. Did all of the Chez TJ staff leave with you?

A: When I gave notice, the staff gave notice. I told them that they shouldn’t, but they wanted to come with me. So, most of the staff did leave with me.

Q: Is your cooking different here than at Chez TJ?

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Take Five with Chef Annie Somerville of Greens, the Pioneering Vegetarian Restaurant that Just Turned the Big 30

An upscale vegetarian restaurant, constructed of recycled and reclaimed wood, which grows much of its own organic produce and buys the rest from local farmers.

Sounds standard now, doesn’t it? But in 1979, when Greens Restaurant opened its doors at Fort Mason in San Francisco, vegetarian food was anything but elegant and refined. Opened by the San Francisco Zen Center in what was an old Army base, the tranquil restaurant with its sweeping views of the Bay, elevated the then-heavy and heavily brown-colored vegetarian cooking of the day to new heights by even daring to serve wine.

Its building was constructed by carpenters from the Zen Center, including lead designer Paul Discoe, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, who later went on to design Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s much-ballyhooed Zen palace in Woodside.

The restaurant may have just gotten spiffed up with new carpet, new slate entry tiles, a warmer paint color and new chairs on the way. But one thing has remained the same. For 28 of the restaurant’s 30 years, one woman has been a constant in the kitchen — Chef Annie Somerville, who took over from founding chef, Deborah Madison.

The slender, energetic, 57-year-old Somerville chatted with me recently about the restaurant’s amazing longevity; why she doesn’t own a cell phone; and what fellow chef and avowed carnivore, Chris Cosentino of Incanto, thinks of her.

Q: Are you surprised Greens has endured all these years?

A: When we shut down for the remodel, I had a chance to go through all these old articles in a filing cabinet. When you read the early reviews, you see how shocked people were that vegetarian food could be so beautiful and that it could be a cuisine in its own right.

I’ll look at recipes we haven’t done in awhile and think, ‘Wow, we’ve been doing that so long and others are making it now.’ It’s all so timely, and we’re still around.

Q: And this is the first restaurant you’ve ever worked at?

A: I never thought I’d be here, and I never thought it would last. The restaurant opened with very little money. We all worked for very little. We had to be thrifty.

Back then, I thought the people working here were crazy. (laughs) They were all so tired. They were dragging. But everybody did everything. A Zen master might be the dishwasher. And we’d all hose off the mats at the end of the night.

Q: When did you become vegetarian?

A: In high school. It was the thing to do at the time.

I don’t think of it in a strict way. I’m not a vegan or a strident vegetarian. Occasionally, I’ll still eat a little chicken or fish. I think the reason Greens has been here so long is because it does beautiful food. I don’t think of it as vegetarian.

Q: Did becoming a vegetarian change your palate?

A: My palate became more rarefied because we have all these great ingredients to cook with. I’m also much more aware of salt now because I eat almost no processed foods.

I don’t think most of our guests here are vegetarian, but we have no way of knowing for sure. For some vegetarians, Greens is not vegetarian enough because we use butter, we use cheese, and there is rennet in the European cheeses we serve. Over the years, I think our food has gotten leaner. Deborah’s cooking was influenced by French cuisine, so there was roux, and butter in sauces. Nowadays, though, we sauté in oil and finish dishes with butter, so people can opt to have it or not.

Q: What’s your ideal meal?

A: At home the other night, I had Romanesco cauliflower that I cut into pieces, and roasted at 400 degrees with olive oil and pepper until they were crisp, then squirted on some Meyer lemon juice. Then, I made some polenta with butter and Parmesan. Next, I sautéed a big head of chard with green garlic and spring onions. There was a nice toasted walnut bread with Andante cheese. For dessert, there were organic almonds, dates and mandarins from the farmers’ market. My husband and I sat down to all of that, and it was lovely. Everything we ate was grown by someone I knew.

Q: Does it irk you when folks like Anthony Bourdain deride vegetarians as the scourge of the planet?

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Take Five with “Top Chef” Contestant Kevin Gillespie, On the Impact of TV Fame

Chef Kevin Gillespie of "Top Chef'' grills up succulent pork belly in South Carolina last weekend.

Only four remain.

As Season 6 of Bravo TV’s wildly popular “Top Chef” show winds to a close, Atlanta’s Kevin Gillespie still remains standing. Executive chef and partner of Woodfire Grill, the poised 27-year-old has held himself above the dramatics and hi-jinks exhibited by some of his other competitors. He makes no apologies for his food being simple. Indeed, his longevity just shows that food needn’t be fussy to be spectacular.

I caught up with Gillespie this weekend when I was invited to attend the third annual “Tyler Florence’s Palmetto Bluff Lowcountry Celebration” at the serene, sumptuous Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina.

Clearly a fan favorite, he was mobbed by well-wishers as he manned the grill, where he was turning out smoky pork belly served with pickled apples and a pureed peanut sauce. Talk about a succulent dish with true Southern twang.

Kevin's grilled pork belly with pickled apples and a zippy peanut sauce.

Everyone wanted to ask him if he ended up winning “Top Chef.” But he remained mum. You’ll just have to keep watching to find out how much farther he gets.

Q: Kevin, how did you get involved with “Top Chef”?

A: They came to me about it. I had to really think about it. I had not really watched the show before, and I feared TV would cheapen what I was doing, that it would add this novelty aspect to it.

Q: How has being on the show changed your life?

A: It’s made the restaurant significantly busier. We’ve had a 330 percent increase in revenue. We didn’t even think that was possible.

The celebrity part is crazy. I was surprised how much people like the show. People really care, and it’s nice to see how much they want to see someone who believes in food succeed. I think it’s also spurred a lot of people to be interested in something they had long forgotten. Television has given people like myself a vehicle to say what they think about food. You have to use it as a vehicle to help shape young people.

Q: Do you like the way you’ve been portrayed on TV?

A: I had a generous portrayal. They didn’t create a person who didn’t exist. I’m not a person who talks negative about others. I’m very purposeful. I think it’s given me credibility on the show.

Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?

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