Portale, Oudin, McGinnis and More: Is The Classical Chef Dead? (Part 2)

​Yesterday in part one we questioned local chefs about whether the old idea of the classic, French-trained chef is passé. Today we have a few other questions along the same lines. Pascal Oudin of Pascal's On Ponce joins the conversation along with the returning toques: Alfred Portale of Gotham Steak; Todd Erickson of Haven Gastro-Lounge; Jeff McInnis of the upcoming Yardbird Southern Table & Bar; Sam Gorenstein of BLT Steak; and Jan Jorgensen of Two Chefs. The most conclusive finding we've ended up with is that while the notion of a traditional chef may not be dead, that of a chef's neckerchief sure is.

New Times: Do you or your cooks ever make galantines, ballotines, pates? Are your cooks (aspiring chefs) versed at all in, say, some of the sauces one might find in Le Répertorie de la Cuisine or Le Guide Culinaire?

Sam Gorentstein:The essence and key to classic charcuterie is time. Time for the galantine, pate, terrine to cook then set properly. Often times many young aspiring chefs do not have the patience and rather see instant results.Do we, at BLT, make our own charcuterie? Yes and no. Besides our signature amuse -- chicken liver pate -- whenever we have time, we experiment and add it to our Black Board menu. Some of the places we source from, they have been practicing this art for decades, perfecting their products as the years go on.

Jeff McInnis: I own both Le Répertorie and Le Guide and will always respect and pay homage to the classics, keeping the essence of proper technique at the forefront of my cooking, as well as that of my sous chefs and cooks. To this day I still cure my own meats and fish, and make pate, liver mousse and torchons in-house. Using the whole fish, whole pig, whole venison, whole bird -- fabricating primal cuts is a lost art form that I continue to embrace. Traditional French food still excites me, and I respect the chefs that feature these classics on their menus.

Alfred Portale: I don't think anyone's made a galantine or ballotine in 40 years. Charcuterie, however, is more popular than ever in the U.S. Pates and terrines are also increasing in popularity. Sauces, garnishes and techniques in Le Répertoire de la Cuisine, first published in 1914, are still taught but are not necessarily relevant anymore. They've been replaced by lighter techniques.

Jan Jorgensen: Absolutely we do food like that. Not only does it make money, it also tickles the need to challenge the kitchen and it attracts customers who respect the above mentioned (classic food).

Todd Erickson: My 'aspiring chefs' have heard of Le Guide and Le Répertoire and have utilized methods and recipes included within them. The others that have not heard of them still know how to make a Hollandaise or Béarnaise or how to brunoise a shallot. Their job for the time being is to execute my menu, which I wrote in my style within the parameters of Haven's identity. My style of cooking is a hybrid of classical, whimsical, global and regional, which is a colorful way to say I like doing it all. I love to marry different flavors and overlap techniques, but my foundation is classical French. I love pates and rich sauces, charcuterie, and choux pastry. All of them will have their moment on my Haven menus.

Pascal Oudin: We still do foie gras torchon and terrines here. The terrines sell out all the time because people can't find it anywhere. We don't do galantines -- those are really really really really time-consuming. People come here because they don't find this sort of cuisine around. To do this cooking you have to be classically trained, have to know the tricks of the trade. But you look at how many culinary schools there are all over America. They don't teach you food truck type of non-traditional restaurant; they teach classical.

People who come to work here (Pascal's On Ponce) do so because they want to work with the chef -- with me. They want to be a chef one day. In the ten years I've been here, some have made it, some don't. One of my sous chefs was at db Bistro Moderne, but he just left and got hired as executive sous chef at Sugarcane. I recently ate at Sugarcane and saw a duck terrine on the menu. I thought 'What the heck is a duck terrine doing here?' but maybe it's because the guy used to work here (at Pascal's) before.

Desserts nowadays tend to be about fresh, homemade ice cream, muffins, cookies and pies rather than more sophisticated pastries. Do you or your pastry chef know how to pull sugar?

Alfred Portale: I disagree that desserts are about ice cream, muffins and cookies rather than sophisticated desserts. Pastry arts are evolving are are even more sophisticated today than they were 15 years ago. The art is more advanced -- pastry chefs are using molecular techniques more and more. Even 25 years ago, pulling sugar and chocolate work were a specialty not used by the majority. Today, its still relegated to a small percentage and most often seen in competitions.

Sam Gorenstein: Thankfully for us, some of our dessert cooks have been through culinary school and are classically trained. With our pastry chef Johnny at the helm, they do not only classical renditions but new-age modern desserts as well. Pulled sugar, even though it is a classic technique, still wows the eye to the everyday diner. It may be a dying art, though when done well it yields a beautiful product.

Todd Erickson: I have definitely seen a trend towards homemade ice cream, muffins, pies, cupcakes and cookies. I have also seen that the ones that seem to be doing them best are classically trained chefs. If you're going to put a homemade 'Twinkie' on your menu you are going to have to know what the 'foaming method' is in order to make a light springy sponge or genoise cake. Once again back to classical technique.

I personally do know how to pull sugar. I was fascinated by it in school even though we didn't spend much time on technique in class. I took our chef professor aside and asked him to tutor me, which he gladly did. Pulled sugar is a beautiful thing that isn't used too often, but spun sugar is very popular with chefs now. It is also popular at carnivals and state fairs sold under the alias of cotton candy.

​​Pascal Oudin: I learned how to pull sugar. If you know how to do it, it's always a plus. I pull sugar one time a year -- on Valentine's Day. We do a little something to put on top of the dessert that day. It's like working with chocolates, and all those old tricks -- if you know how, you will use it. When I worked at The Grand Bay I was always doing chocolate work and some sugar work -- I mean I had a pastry chef. But those things are good to know.

Jeff McInnis: Yes, I do know how to pull sugar. We are actually in the process of hiring a pastry chef for my new spot Yardbird and will ensure they can execute more than just the basic techniques.

Jan Jorgensen: Unfortunately the pastry department has taken a hit in many restaurants, including mine. It's an expensive department to run -- high labor, high food cost, and lots of sharing (of desserts) at the table. Now there is a department that sadly is on its way out.

The old-time chef placed a great deal of emphasis on discipline -- how cooks dressed, how they carried themselves, how clean their stations were kept, how sharp their knives were, and so forth. The uniform was composed of clean chef whites, hat, neckerchief, houndstooth pants, and shiny black work shoes. Do you or anyone in your kitchen dress this way, and does it matter? How important are these disciplinary elements?

Jan Jorgensen: I have always been a stickler when it came to dressing the part. Not only is the chefs uniform the oldest trade uniform around (non-miliary), but it serves a purpose: the double breasted front is to prevent hot spills (from burning through), but also the opportunity to stay clean. The tall hat was to keep the flies away -- as one would move one's head back and forth. The checkered pants made you look clean because they would hide the dirt. That's one of the few things I learned the first day in culinary school.

Pascal Oudin: To be honest, I'm more flexible than in the old days. I require a clean chef's jacket, long pants, and some sort of hat. If they want to wear a bandana they can wear a bandana. You have to have a minimum standard -- the young people want to come in and cook in a T-shirt and shorts. But when they come here, and see it's elegant, they want to wear their chef jacket.

Jeff McInnis: Discipline and professionalism is a must. A dull knife can get you sent home, and there's no excuse for not being presentable. The only area where I would say I may have changed my ways recently is in regard to the 'old-school' uniform. Hats yes, but not the classic toque. Neckerchief, not so much anymore, but I did wear one as a youngster. A great restaurant is much more than just the food it serves; having a clean crew and kitchen is a must and I will stop at nothing to achieve it.

Sam Gorenstein: Discipline is the name of the game in the kitchen. The way you conduct yourself directly effects the outcome of your food.The more focused one is to their station and product will clearly carry over to their finished plate. A dirty uniform or dirty station (allows) a chef to see the discipline of any cook; it will directly represent one's character.

Todd Erickson: (Includes excerpts from line cook job description that cooks have to sign off on -- need to follow all health guidelines, keep knives sharp, maintain personal cleanliness and cleanliness of work station, etc.) The only places where my requirements are different are with the whites; they're black and I don't require any of the line cooks to wear neckerchiefs. I think taking pride in your personal appearance, tools and work space are a direct reflection of your passion for the craft.

Alfred Portale: Dress, discipline and presentation are vitally important. At Gotham Bar and Grill kitchen we certainly adhere to this notion. Chef whites may have been replaced with a more stylish, comfortable uniform but they're not less important.

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