First part of three parts, please click hyperlink at bottom to continue to the next part
It has been a while since a twenty-two-year-old cook from Melbourne, Australia wandered into a kitchen in London and told that restaurant's renowned chef that he'd work for free. Since that time and the eight years that followed in Chef Marco Pierre White's kitchens starting as a commis and finishing as a head chef, Curtis Stone has taken a very different path than most other chefs to opening his own and first restaurant, a twenty five-seat restaurant in Beverly Hills named after his granny Maude.
Curtis Stone has achieved such acclaim as a celebrity since first being recognized as one of London's top chefs (when he was just twenty-five-years-old) that many don't fully realize the solid culinary foundation upon which that celebrity was built. With Maude, Chef Stone returns to the kitchen full-time for the first time since 2002, with an all-star team, preparing a seasonal menu featuring a different seasonal ingredient each month on its nine course prix-fixe menu. Though there's no one wandering through Stone's new kitchen in his long johns smoking a cigar and dropping an armful of freshly killed pheasants on the pass, the spirit and attitude of Chef Stone mentor, Chef Marco Pierre White is present and apparent especially in Chef Stone and his team's approach and attention to detail.
At the end of Maude's menu; with one of the petit fours, Chef Stone pays homage to his granny's fudge, the first item he learned how to cook as a child at his granny's house. However it was Marco Pierre White's cooking a few years later that inspired him to pursue becoming a chef. Chef Stone remembers when reading White Heat, Marco's first book, how some of the dishes in this book were so detailed and so difficult to do. He remembers trying some of Marco's recipes, and not being able to get close to how these dishes looked in the photographs. When he finally went to work for Marco, he understood how much practice and refinement it takes to do these dishes like Marco's foie gras parfait. Curtis learned this item from Chef White, and then Curtis traveled around the world and saw that plate repeated everywhere including here in the United States. Chef Stone remembers making another rabbit dish where after roasting the loin, he'd take the belly flap, crisp it and then julienne the flap, recook the sliced flap so it was crispy little pieces of the belly flap that was served with asparagus and baby leeks. This was one of those dishes, Chef Stone remembers seeing with those tiny little ribs of rabbit and thinking to himself, "my God how on earth do they french the bones on those tiny little ribs." But he notes, there was an absolute method for doing this. While plates like these are now outdated, they still remain really relevant to Curtis because such attention to detail that a chef puts into food Curtis believes is really important and shows through.
On Maude's current menu, this attention to detail is reflected in dishes like the "Snake River Farm's Beef." With this dish, trimmed broccoli florets are placed on the plate with the beef and the rest of the broccoli is turned into a puree. Typically broccoli puree is one of the simplest things to do in the world, but the way Chef Stone and his team do it is relatively complex. They cook and use only the broccoli flower, not any of the stem. So trimming the broccoli florets is time consuming. These florets are then blanched, cooled, and then put into a food processor. Though they're too dry to turn, but you want it to be dry so it’s full of broccoli flavor and not thinned out with cream, chicken stock or water. So, as Chef Stone pointed out, what is seemingly so simple actually takes time to achieve the taste and texture you’re looking for. Thus, in regards to his mentor Marco Pierre White's impact upon Curtis approach to his menu, and in general, his restaurant, Curtis said, "I guess a lot of that method whether it is how to make a broccoli puree or how to french the bones on a rabbit rib...a lot of that detail lives in those great fine dining restaurants. I want our food to be just as detailed as some of those restaurants, but I want our environment to feel a lot more comfortable so people can actually have that incredible experience without all of the palava that sometimes comes with it."
Other dishes on Maude's menu that define where Chef Stone and his staff's cooking is today, include the "Duck, Duck, Goose" raviolo. This plate takes something old and familiar that Curtis has done before, chicken mouse and raviolo, and re-imagines it using duck, a duck egg's yolk and a citrus component, finger limes.. For this dish, Curtis's team initially tried to think as far out of the box as they could starting with a warm emulsion and a smoked emulsion, for the sauce. Though his team went around in circles on this dish. And what they thought ultimately was better? A beurre blanc something that's been done for hundreds of years. They still brought in new ingredients like the finger lime to get pops of citrus and intensify the flavor. They also use the egg yolk from duck eggs, salt and cure them, then uses a dehydrator so the salted and cured yolk can be shaved over the pasta. Chef Stone said, "this was something that was a little of a different you don't see." Though after looking at very new ways of doing the sauce, his team eventually decided that the most delicious execution always comes first when they develop a dish. As Curtis concluded, "if it is better by doing it a new way, great let's endorse that new way and do it, but if it's not more delicious we're not trying to show off to other chefs, we're just trying to do a great job and put the most delicious meal on the plate."
However Curtis admitted, as a chef who has been out of the kitchen for a number of years, when he walk into kitchens today and sees people using liquid nitrogen, circulators and dehydrators, there's a part of him that feels like he doesn't need all of that bullshit to cook. But then when he gives it further thought, he realizes that even the smartest chefs need to embrace these new technologies and methods, which is what Curtis has done with how his team decided to use a dehydrator with the duck egg yolks that they shave onto the raviolo. One of Curtis’ all-star team members, Brandon Difiglio, who spent time at both elBulli and at Melbourne's Vue de Monde, brings this new way of thinking to Maude's kitchen.
Thus, Maude incorporates a lot of Marco Pierre White's philosophy but expands, builds upon, and supplements those beliefs and attitudes in part through what other team members brings to the table. Additionally, California's bounty of fruits and vegetables is added to the restaurant's cooking equation. Curtis reminisced, "Marco was close to some of the ingredients. He was a big hunter and still is. He really cared about game maybe less so about fruits and vegetables- that was less of a priority for him. I use to go to Rungis Market in Paris, a big market once a week. Would drive, get the ferry, go across and buy all of the foie gras, all of the beautiful ingredients there and distribute them between all of Marco's restaurants. We had our finger on the pulse with ingredients but not like you can here. Every week, I'm at the farmer's market. Every week I'm visiting different farms. I work really closely with those farmers. I think that you build a much stronger bond and a much greater understanding about that ingredient, and when you do, you can create better dishes."
An example of this, Stone cited the crimson turnips used in the Lobster crudo dish. These started out as just turnips then he found these crimson turnips and they totally changed that dish. “These crimson turnips have a real rich earthiness,” that Chef Stone said, "You can't get them by just calling your supplier. You have to go to the source and speak to him about what he can and can't do. I was up at Alex Weiser's farm a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about sunchokes, and unless you're up there to see firsthand that there is ice on the ground, you won’t understand that this is one of the ways these sunchokes get their intense flavor and nutritional value, just like they do on the East Coast."
Like many other LA chefs, this bounty is what Curtis loves about California. Curtis can buy his sunchokes, carrots, and parsnips from Alex Weiser that are full of flavor, then go to the next stand down run by a different farmer, which is from the coast in Santa Barbara with beautiful sunshine, and buy all of his peas, and Brussels sprouts from him. That's why Curtis believes we're all so lucky to live here.
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