The first time I spoke to Chef Eric Ziebold was when I was trying to get to the bottom of the issue of the Parker Rolls. From that experience, I discovered what a nice and humble guy he is. As we started an interview series on DCist, I knew that he would definitely be one of the first chefs that I would want to interview. He definitely has the picture in mind. During our interview, he told me that he doesn’t own a TV; he doesn’t have enough time to watch TV. He indicated that he doesn’t understand what other people do with all their free time after working 9-5 jobs, probably watch TV. He doesn’t really keep up too much with all the internet chatter either. From talking to him, I get the impression that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he couldn’t keep busy as a chef. He seems like a dedicated soul who sees the bigger picture and is intent on building his knowledge base to the benefit of his diners. I know that the meal that I had at the Lounge was a reflection of that.
What’s very striking is that he is intent on touching off emotions very much the way his former TFL colleague, Grant Achatz, describes in the recent New Yorker profile. However, the methods by which the two of them go about it are completely different. Even Thomas Keller discusses similar ideas in his interview on Charlie Rose. Is the desire to strike certain emotional chords with people what separates the greats from the humdrum? It hits not only the five senses, but some greater deeper intuition. Perhaps that is why I appreciate the food in these restaurants, but still feel slightly less satisfied because the more Western-style food strikes my Chinese food-tempered palate in a different way. And I seriously doubt anyone at a four-star restaurant is going to be feeding me some rice and peanut butter combo or Velveeta that will set me to tearing up. You can’t win them all.
Anyway… this is what y’all are possibly looking for. Some more complete paragraphs from my interview with Eric Ziebold:
If you’re grounded enough in what you’re do you can take inspiration from just about anything. The inspiration for the Parker House rolls was the discussion of bread service, and we didn’t know what we wanted, but we wanted it to be warm bread. To make a long story short, I was in Georgetown and there were these leather Italian cigar boxes. That was what made me think of the Parker rolls. We’re going to bake them to order and proof them to order so when you take them out of the box, you have to pull them apart. And that was the whole thing, I wanted people to have to pull them apart. Where did I get the idea from, and I saw this box and something clicked. You don’t need to copy it. It’s not copy and paste, instead you get inspired by it. Instead of I’ve had something like this at Taillevent or something like this in Thailand. You go oh this is something really good and it can conjure up some emotions. and you can conjure up a connection instead of I had this dish at Taillevent or Bangkok, instead this reminds me of something. Certainly some people have taken some inspiration from CityZen. And I’m alright with it. I’m more than alright with it. If you’re going to take something I’ve done at my restaurant and adapt it at your restaurant that’s something interesting for me to see. If we’re looking at a Picasso, if probably makes you feel different from the way it makes me feel. I like dialog and being able to talk about something. And I think that’s a way to have a conversation about food.
These comments were covered in the article, but I do like the way the way that he expanded upon the discussion.
By the time December hit we had 200 jars of canned vegetables in dry storage. We did pickled green tomatoes, as a defense mechanism. Stephen, the pastry chef at The French Laundry had this great recipe for green tomato marmalade. But first you have to lay out all the tomatoes. They you have to take a torch, and torch all the tomatoes. And then you had to rub all the skin of the tomatoes, and diced them, etc. If you have four cases of green tomatoes, you’re not overly excited about peeling all of them. So we did pickled green tomatoes. Since I had that experience to draw upon. If my mother hadn’t canned vegetables when I was growing up and done all these things it’s not something I would ever have come up with.
CityZen is very true to my personality. I grew up in Middle America, and I grew up very grounded. My whole family is in education. My mother and sister are teachers, my father works at the University. Education was very important. How I ended up as a cook, who knows? I think we’re very grounded. and I’ve traveled a fair amount, and so you see a lot of global influence, but again it’s very grounded for the American palate.
I love how these remarks reflect the thought process of creating a new dish.
I want to do the green rhubarb gazpacho because we get the rhubarb from Path Valley which is this group of Amish farmers. And when we first came to Washington we got a lot of stuff from them. And when spring came around it took an adjustment for me, because it was the end of April and they put rhubarb on the availability sheet I didn’t think twice about it. Because for me this is late for rhubarb so of course I assumed it was ready to go. But when we got it was as green as spinach. And my pastry chef asked me what she should do with it. And I said send it back. She said, well it’s from Path Valley. We don’t really send stuff back to them, do we? No, not really. Because the Amish are different from sending it back to the produce company whose going to turn around and sell it to somebody else. But for us to hold it for a week and send it back, well what are they going to do with it?
So is there a problem aside from it wasn’t what we expected? It’s fine, but it’s not ripe like we expected. Jule said well what about doing a green rhubarb salad like a green papaya salad you would get in Thailand? Aaron, my sous chef, said what about doing a pickled green rhubarb that we’ll do as a garnish for a drink at the bar. Because it looks like a stalk of celery. We occasionally put a pickle in the Bloody Mary, so this was like a combination of the celery pickle thing. So we started playing around with pickling it. So we started playing around with it. Of course, the first thing I did was taste and it was super sour. And I grated it. And it reminded me of the grated radish that comes with dashi for tempura. So that was what the rhubarb was like, except it was super tart. So we did a sashimi canape that night and instead of putting lemon juice on something. I put a little dollop of grated rhubarb. and that was the acid component of the dish. So then I grated and grated, and there was all this juice coming out. And so that’s where we came upon the idea of the green rhubarb gazpacho and we did it was the soft-shell crab, because again the crab needed some acid. And so we did a traditional gazpacho we just changed the garnish – radish to give it some pepperyness, minced cashews to give it some richness and some crunch. Some meatiness to take off the edge. and a little lemon oil. And it was bright, clean, flavorful and fresh. And it made it to the tasting menu. The whole thing was a fluke. This whole thing started because we had this farmer that we cared about and we didn’t want to send the product back to him because we didn’t want to screw him. So that’s fine. Twenty dollars means less to us than it does to him. And we did such a good job of figuring out what to do with it that it made it on the tasting menu. And that’s why we’re doing that dish at the James Beard Awards. Because when you’re talking about artisanal America that’s our job. That’s how you’re raised in this industry, you beat up your waitstaff to pay attention and sell more, you beat up your purveyors to give you a better product at less price, and get your cooks to work to work harder, faster and cleaner. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the best approach. If you get someone who feels like they’re in it with you, they’re ultimately going to give you an infinitely better product than if you were just trying to beat them up. I think that’s when you talk about artisanal and sustainability. I think that’s the role the restaurant needs to play. Where are the financial resources for them do R&D? We’re the safety net.
About discovering a new-to-him (and me) nut:
I toured another farm and we came upon these nuts. They were called heartnuts. I cracked it open and it’s a nut shaped exactly like a heart. It tastes like a cross between a pecan and a walnut. So I asked why haven’t you guys told me about this before? Well nobody ever asked. I didn’t because I didn’t know to ask. What else do you have like this that I don’t know about. That’s the rapport you want to have with people. If I send things back because it wasn’t I expected, then I’m never going to know about the heartnut, because you’re waiting for me to ask for it. That’s what I am trying to create. Don’t wait for me to ask. Send it. If I can figure out what to do with it, I’ll order more. There’s a huge amount of resources out there. We need to make sure they don’t disappear.
More that gives insight into recipe formulation:
One of my favorite dishes we did was this foie gras stew, was the way we found a common ground. Jeff Buben nailed it. He got it. If you’re going to have hot foie gras, poached foie gras is my favorite way to have it. Most people’s favorite way to have it is sauteed, because they like that fattiness, that unctuousness. That temperature, hot melting better. For me you don’t taste as much of the foie gras. Since I eat a lot lighter, the fattiness kills me. Since we wanted to do it poached we cryovaced it for a stew with a piece of bay leaf. And then we cooked it sous vide. Now when it cooks, the fat renders out so the bay leaf flavor gets into the fat. We did vegetables a la grecque with foie fat. So if you’re thinking about stew from a standpoint in terms of the flavor profile you’re looking for you have meat, vegetables. You have a lot of rich flavors. Since we were doing it was foie gras instead of beef, you want the acid there to cut the fattiness. The bay leaf in there gives you those stew aromas. And then we took some 30 year old juniper vinegar, because it gives you a woodsy, sweet flavor. So we drizzled the foie fat and vinegar. The kicker that brought it together was we put a piece of duck confit that we sauteed underneath the foie gras. Because the duck confit gets really hot and really crispy. So now you have this hot and crispy with this unctuous foie gras and that’s the connection factor for me. And I was very conscious because I want poached foie gras because that’s the way I want to eat it. But not every does, and how do I get the buy in.