Second part of two parts, please start here with Part 1
If you ask any chef that cooks at a high level what their dream is, that dream is to work in a little 25-seat restaurant like Maude. That's what chef Curtis Stone and many other chefs have dreamt about all their lives. Because they don't have to do three hundred covers, chefs can really focus in on the ingredients and the detail doing only 50 or so covers a night especially with a prix fixe menu. Due in large part to this format, Chef Curtis Stone has been able to attract a number of talented chefs to work with him in his kitchen.
Stone's team includes chefs Gareth Evans and Brandon Difiglio. Gareth, an English lad, worked with another Marco Pierre White alum, Chef Gordon Ramsay for several years, as well as Thomas Keller at Per Se, and with Joel Robuchan in Paris. Brandon, in addition to spending a year at elBulli, also worked with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Curtis met Brandon when Brandon was working at Vue de Monde a restaurant ran by Curtis's grammar school classmate chef Shannon Bennett in Melbourne, Australia, which has been ranked as one of the top one hundred restaurants in the world for several years. Additionally Chef Josh Emett, who was Garett's chef de cuisine at Ramsay's The London in NYC, and Curtis were good friends so when Curtis was putting together his team Josh brought Gareth's name up and made an introduction.
Curtis, Gareth and Brandon champion the menu development. Some of the other chefs participate as well, including Pastry Chef Vanessa Garcia. For example, Gareth came up with the idea for the, "Terrine" which is quite a refined take on a terrine. The pain perdu was Curtis's idea which was developed further before Curtis suggested incorporating the citrus element – adding a tangerine gelee over the top of the terrine. Next, Brandon started a discussion about what's the best thing to eat with a terrine – and mustard became a topic of conversation . They decided it would be nice to add a condiment with a different texture and temperature and this is when Brandon came up with the idea to do the mustard ice cream. So Curtis, Brandon and Gareth collaboratively devise each menu item, together as a team.
All three sketch their plating ideas on a chalkboard. Curtis noted that during one of the early design ideas for the restaurant was to have a big chalkboard in the middle of the dining room, which could be used for the chefs’ dish sketches, and would remain on the wall throughout the entire month. “Though this would have been cool,” Curtis said, "it turns out we'd need way more than one chalk board. You can't imagine how many dishes we started with and how we narrowed it down. It’s a very collaborative process. These guys are super talented, I've seen some amazing things, and they work their asses off so I want to be sure they are included in the development process."
Before his team gets to any specific dish ideas, they start with the ingredient of the month. For February the “hero” ingredient is citrus. They looked at all of the varieties of citrus they could get their hands on, and wrote them up on a wall. Next they discuss the possible applications of this ingredient and add those to a separate column on the wall. With citrus they ask what can they do with the zest, fruit, segments, cells, or juice? They can turn it into an oil, dehydrate it, freeze dry or boil it. They ask themselves how these techniques fit into this season’s food. They then look at what else is available and add that to the wall in a third column. For example, throughout the months of February and March, spiny lobsters are available. There also are crimson turnips, carrots, parsnips, etc. So now from the matrix formed by these three columns (varieties of the featured ingredients, applications for these varieties and other available ingredients) they super impose a course structure that consists of snacks, a salad, soup, a crudo, terrine, a ravioloor pasta, and a final main-course. Starting off with something light, a salad, then moving into a soup followed by something raw, Curtis believes is a nice way to start a meal. So, with each course they start kicking around ideas, drawing from their matrix until they eventually end up with three or four formulated dishes for each course.
The ingredient of the month is used in many different subtle ways on the menu, like the blood orange reduction in the "Garden Salad", the finishing citrus marinade and salt on the spiny "Lobster" crudo, the previously mentioned finger limes in the sauce on the "Duck, Duck, Goose" raviolo, and the Buddha hand zest on the main "Snake River Farm's Beef" dish. According to Curtis, how they use the ingredient has to be interesting because they can't do the same thing nine times. Everyone would be bored if they just served an orange salad. So instead they have to come up with more inventive ways to keep the diner interested, and also to keep his kitchen engaged. Chef Stone wants his guests to look at his monthly ingredient in a way they haven't thought about before. “So looking ahead at April's featured ingredient peas,” Curtis note, "you can eat the flowers, you can eat the tendrils, you can eat the snap peas. There are so many different things you can do with them."
In terms of processes and technology, though Curtis is a little more old school than other members of his team, he has embraced technology as well as the more modern methods used in today’s kitchens. However, Curtis doesn't want his kitchen to become a molecular one. Plus his team keeps the chemicals used in molecular gastronomy out of his food. According to Chef Stone, "you know there are a lot of chefs playing with chemicals these days, and I don't love that. There are different applications for different things but some of the older, simpler techniques are better. Yes we have a circulator in here. We haven't used it on this month's menu. We could have used it. We could have used the circulator with the beef to come out perfect medium rare, but I'd rather exercise that skill in cooking rather than rely on the technology to make it good."
Though a little 25-seat restaurant is what chefs often dream of owning and working in, the economics of such a small restaurant like Maude, are difficult. Typically restaurants like these, Saison for example, have to charge a lot of money to make it work. However instead of charging $125.00 for Maude's nine course prix fixe meal, which relative to other similar caliber places in Los Angeles would be reasonable, Curtis has set this month's current menu price at $75.00 which is more accessible. Curtis did this on purpose. He doesn't think food should exclude anybody so Curtis and his team thought of different ways they could make their restaurant accessible to more people. Curtis wants chefs to be able to come and eat here. He doesn't want Maude to be a restaurant just for the wealthy. They started off with a very accessible price point, though Curtis notes that price will probably change depending on the monthly ingredient. Citrus in February isn't a crazy price. Later on in the year there will be more expensive months when the monthly ingredient will feature items like morels or truffles. These ingredients have much higher food costs. If people want to come in and spend money they can, Maude does have a really special wine list along with the right team out front to sell it.
End of Part 2; please click here for Part 3 to continue