|On the line, crushing it through the rush.|
Jesse Kimball, executive chef of the Memphis Taproom, Port Fishington's premier beer bar (2331 E. Cumberland St., 215-425-4460), fills us in on why he loves punk rock and fine dining equally, the secret of good fish 'n' chips and how he snagged a sweet job where tasting from all of the taps is a requirement.
Hometown: Born in Worcester, Mass.; grew up in central Maine
Years in the Biz: About 10 on and off since 1986
Signature Dish or Recipe: Roasted Tomato Bisque with Grilled Cheese Crouton (check out the recipe after the Q&A!)
Meal Ticket: You were at Lacroix and Matyson prior to the opening of Memphis Taproom. Why did you want to move away from fine dining type of cuisine to head up the kitchen of a beer bar?
Jesse Kimball: Because I love beer. When I was working in hotels on the Maine Coast in the late '80s, brewpubs were starting to become established ... the supermarkets and gas stations started carrying craft brews. My life was all about punk rock and skateboarding and independent film, so of course I drank these beers rather than the Coors Lights that the 21-year-old frat guys — who were buying me the beer — were drinking. Now I love all beer.
I never had the money to eat in fine dining restaurants, and I hate
wearing suits, but I love good food, so I've always searched out the
"best-kept secret" kind of places: the low-brow restaurants where you
can tell the food is prepared with love using the best ingredients.
When I was given the opportunity to open one of these special places, I
dropped everything else and jumped on it. I worked in fine dining
restaurants to learn and I eat at them to continue leaning, but I'm
often more comfortable eating at a good bar.
MT: Did you cook with beer before you worked at Memphis?
JK: Absolutely! I also cooked with hops, barley and malt before I worked
there, and I'm a home brewer. I gave Brendan [Hartranft, co-owner of
Memphis Taproom] a six-pack of a 12-month-aged strong ale I brewed for
Christmas a few years ago, and I think it helped me get the chef gig.
One time at Matyson, I was making fish and chips for the staff and
really impressed the chef, Matt Spector. Instead of using the ginger
ale we had on the line for doing tempura, I used my last can of Bud. This was beer-battered fish — how could I skimp on that crucial
ingredient? At Lacroix, we would spend a lot of our time coming up with
dishes for the multi-course Chef's Table dinners. One of the cooks was
also a good home brewer and had made several beers in the kitchen and
we'd cook with those, or give them as accompanying "shots." Once, we
paired some seared foie gras with homemade jelly donuts and his oatmeal
stout — fine dining, McKenzie Brothers style. Another time, we gave it
with a deconstructed "burger and a beer" dish.
MT: What is your favorite style of beer, or certain brew you always return to — for both drinking and cooking?
beer program at the Memphis Taproom is very important to the bar's
mission, so the entire staff is educated about beer, especially the
draft list. So of course, I make it my business to sample every beer
that runs through those taps. That way, I know what food will pair well
with the beers. During the day when I'm cooking, braising meat or
making a sauce, I'll browse the taps to see what will best serve my
purpose. Do I need something sweet, bitter, something that tastes
roasted, something herbal, something that tastes like caramel or citrus?
For the beer-battered stuff, I stay pretty neutral. For the King Rarebit
[sandwich], I always use [Theakston's] Old Peculier. When I'm browsing the taps for a drink, I
tend to like pilsners, bitters and IPAs, especially Lagunitas. Certain
beers I always return to for drinking are the ones in my refrigerator
at home, which tend to be cans of Natty Bo and Black Labels or bottles
of Spaten or Singha.
MT: What do you cook for yourself at home? Or do you usually order takeout?
JK: I love cooking at home, and one of the reasons I love cooking at home
so much is because I love food shopping. A perfect day is having Dim
Sum or Oregon Diner for breakfast, then hitting the Vietnamese or
Mexican supermarkets on Washington Ave. or the West Indian/Caribbean
grocery stores and Pakistani markets in West Philly, and taking the
exotic items home and smoking them in my backyard open pit or braising
them in Dutch ovens. Braised or smoked chicken legs or pork shoulders
show up on my dining room table quite often, or for a treat, nice thick
steaks seared in a cast-iron skillet, with baked potatoes or steamed
shellfish — blue crabs, stone crabs, clams or lobsters, with plenty of
melted butter and cold beers. Takeout in West Philly, where I live, is a
crapshoot of bulletproof glass Chinese takeaways and Muslim pizza
joints. I generally stick to the spots where the pepperoni is made from
MT: Memphis co-owner Leigh Maida described you once as "fine dining background combined with a punk-rock style." How right on is that?
JK: That's because I garnish all my food with safety pins and razor blades! That's a good observation. Punk rock has been a big part of my life, and I cook from the heart, so of course it shows up in the plates we're putting out at the Memphis Taproom. There are refined gestures taken from the fine dining world, but also punk-rock urgency — a raw energy to the food. The kitchen is staffed by a bunch of punk rockers, so we're listening to Radio Birdman, Negative Approach, Gorilla Biscuits or Converge while we're cooking. What I really love about punk rock is the stripped-down raw beauty of it, and that is what I also love about fine dining. Just as the Stooges and the Ramones ripped apart rock 'n' roll to its three-chord roots and reinvented it, chefs like Alain Ducasse, Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adria broke the classics down to good ingredients and reconstructed them using new techniques — simple yet artistic, extravagant and over the top. Haute cuisine and punk rock have both long been pronounced dead, but as we move forward, I'll certainly acknowledge them as my roots.
ROASTED TOMATO BISQUE w/ GRILLED CHEESE CROUTON
(Jesse Kimball, Executive Chef, Memphis Taproom)
In the restaurant we use lots of tomatoes this time of year. We get them from a farm out in Lancaster County that only delivers once a week, so we’ll always order some extra. I roast the tomatoes — heirlooms, beefsteaks, plums, whatever we have — and turn them into a bisque. A popular garnish for the soup is a grilled cheese crouton, a bite-size round grilled cheese floating in the bowl. This is how you could make it at home.
ROASTED TOMATO BISQUE
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Take 3 tomatoes, cut them in half and lay them on a cookie sheet skin side down. Drizzle them with 1/4 cup olive oil or so. Then generously season them with sea salt, sugar and freshly ground black pepper. Lay a few sprigs of parsley and thyme, say 5 or 6 each, over them and put in the oven to roast. While they are roasting, get 2 Vidalia onions, a carrot, 2 celery ribs and 3 garlic cloves and uniformly and finely chop them all up. Also measure out 5 tablespoons of butter, 3 tablespoons of flour, 2 cups of stock or water, 2 cups of tomato juice, 1/2 cup of heavy cream and a couple tablespoons of bourbon or other booze to spike the soup.
When the tomatoes give off a nice smell and are dried out a bit (about an hour or so), take them out of the oven and throw away the herbs. Now you're ready to make the soup. Heat your pan and sweat your onions, carrots, celery, and garlic in 3 tablespoons of the butter. Make sure to season them with a little salt and pepper. When they are soft, sprinkle your flour over them and stir until it is incorporated and begins to toast. Add your stock, tomato juice and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Purée the soup and pass through a fine-mesh strainer. Put back onto the stove and fold in your heavy cream and bourbon, then whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Garnish with grilled cheese croutons.
GRILLED CHEESE CROUTON
Lay a piece of plastic wrap on your counter. Butter a piece of bread (Pepperidge Farm white sandwich loaf is a good choice) and lay it butter side down on the wrap. Put a slice of cheese on top, and cut rounds with a biscuit cutter. Heat up your pan and toast your bread butter side down. When it is golden brown, float it on your soup, cheese side down.
Sandra Lee, the blonde and bubbly host of the Food Network's Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, is famous for her telegenic smile, outfits matched to her TV kitchen and outrageously festive "tablescapes." Less well-known: She's a total mogul. Lee's the host of an Emmy-nominated TV show, founder of the multi-million dollar Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade company and author of 17 cookbooks published under her own imprint. Lady's holdings are better vertically integrated than McDonald's.
Currently on a national book tour in support of her three new cookbooks — Semi-Homemade Money Saving Meals, Semi-Homemade Fast-Fix Family Favorites, and Semi-Homemade Desserts 2 — Lee will be visiting the suburbs Philly this Mon., Oct. 20. At the Doylestown Bookshop (16 South Main St., 215-230-7610) from 1-2:30 pm, Lee will be signing copies and dishing out tips on food budgets and holiday entertaining. Later, fans can mingle with the empress of cake mix at her Sweet & Simple Cocktail Hour, which'll be held from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at the Chester County Book & Music Company (975 Paoli Pike, West Chester, 610-696-1661). Anyone who's seen Sandy's eyes light up during the colorful cocktail portion of her show knows this will surely be entertaining.
After the jump, Meal Ticket touches base with Lee to get her take on feeding a family during an economic crisis, what she says to her critics and why scraping beef tendon is just not for her.
Meal Ticket: Most people know you from Food Network show, but your first company, Kurtain Kraft, was designed to help people decorate their homes on a budget. What inspired you to delve into the food world?
Sandra Lee: When I launched Kurtain Kraft, I had no idea that it would be on its way to become a million-dollar enterprise. However, by 1995, the company began to struggle and I decided to start over and create a total lifestyle company. I diversified the product line, creating everything from crafts to gardening products, floral preserving and flower arranging kits. I wanted to design solution-based precuts that would make women heroes in the home. When I noticed that one group not being served in the marketplace — women who didn't have enough time to whip up tasty meals from scratch — I was inspired to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Canada. I refocused my energies by closing down the lifestyle company and followed my passion for cooking.
MT: What was it like learning classical technique at Le Cordon Bleu?
SL: The classical training ... was not really for me. I was scraping beef tendons and I thought, I'm outta here! While learning to cook the old fashioned and longhand way, I began to devise some shortcuts and Semi-Homemade was born. I quickly learned how to make substitutions to gourmet recipes and knew I was on to something special. When you look at a recipe, you want to know that at least four of the ingredients are available at your grocery store. It's more cost effective and less time-consuming.
MT: What do you say to people who criticize your concept of basing meals on packaged ingredients rather than fresh ones?
SL: I believe there is a difference between being a home cook and a chef — and God bless the chef! When people criticize the Semi-Homemade approach, they take a shot at every woman or man in America who is trying to get a meal on the table and make it special. People don't like change, but what they don't realize is everyone is living the Semi-Homemade way. We all buy groceries from the grocery store. We're modern people, with overstretched schedules, commitments and overburdened budgets. I'm simply giving people the tools and options they need to make life simpler and sweeter.
MT: What are ways an everyday family can save money on groceries?
SL: I recommend looking to see when such items as cookie mixes, cream cheese and butter go on sale. It's always good to flip through grocery circulars to watch for sales on these staple items. When cooking the Semi-Homemade way, you can embellish almost anything, honey! Buy three or four of each — you are going to use them. Instead of reaching for expensive jars of spices, look for inexpensive packets of spice mixes, particularly when they go on sale. One package can get you through the fall — how great is that? Another great trick is the slow-cooker — buy an inexpensive piece of meat and you will be able to create a flavorful, moist, delicious meal.
MT: What kinds of cuisines and restaurants do you gravitate toward?
SL: I love food period, but I have a special place in my heart for Mexican dishes.
MT: Philadelphia is famous for its local specialties — cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, hoagies. Are there any regional foods from your home that you've adapted with your Semi-Homemade method?
SL: I learned how to make brats when I was growing up in Wisconsin. The recipe for Wisconsin Beef and Cheddar Sausages with Beer-Braised Onions can be found in my Semi-Homemade Grilling Cookbook, but there's a little trick to it. Simmer the onions in beer and cook until the beer has evaporated. When mixed together with the juices from the kraut, you have a simply sizzlin' Semi-Homemade dish.
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