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The Quest for a Great Loaf of Bread

A spare-time curiosity morphs into a full-blown obsession

Among the aging pro­fes­sional chefs of the world it is said you must use your head more and your body less. High-pressure kitchen jobs are for the young, with long hours on your feet, extreme tem­per­a­tures and fre­netic shifts that can cause sleep­less nights and wicked hang­overs. But even as we may find our­selves fur­ther from the stove, we under­stand there is always more to learn. I’ve heard it called “rein­venting your­self,” but it’s really accepting that you are a life-long student.

Crossing over into the unfa­miliar is common, though unset­tling, for pro chefs. Take baking, for example. Not all chefs are bakers, and not all bakers are chefs. And bread bakers are dif­ferent from all the rest.

Some chefs dabble in “chef desserts,” pro­ducing the safer dishes of crème brulée, bread pud­ding, cheese­cake and panna cotta. I call them safe because most chefs can exe­cute these dishes without much dif­fi­culty. However, the Sweet Kitchen, as it’s some­times known, is a whole study unto itself. Pastry and dessert-making employ a very dis­ci­plined rou­tine with pre­cise mea­suring and weighing in place of dashes and dol­lops, spoon­fuls and sprigs. This is why the quartet of flour, water, yeast and salt can be so per­plexing to those in search of the per­fect loaf of bread.

I recently embarked on such a quest at home. It started with wanting to try out a pop­ular tech­nique that involved leaving out the heavy lifting, or kneading. The idea is that rough-textured dough, not smooth, can yield rustic-style breads that many covet. I began fol­lowing the exact direc­tions around Christmas time, changing only one ele­ment of the process with each loaf I baked. I recorded the changes and results, employing an almost sci­en­tific approach. Now, three months later, the cur­rent recipe resem­bles nothing like my orig­inal. I have read two books on bread and am weekly adding the tools of the trade of great bread baking to my kitchen. I am hooked. What began as a curiosity has mor­phed into a full-blown obsession.

The vari­ables are numerous: strains of yeasts, wet dough versus smooth, pre-heated cast iron pan or baking stone, proper steam injec­tion, first rise, sec­ondary rise, room tem­per­a­ture, long-ferment, starters, unbleached flours, bas­kets versus free-form, scoring. And they all affect those four simple ingre­di­ents and how they com­bine to give you the sim­plest, arguably oldest of kitchen byproducts.

As I cut into each loaf, I find myself fre­quently revis­iting the Pixar foodie film Ratatouille, in which Colette says: “How do you tell how good bread is without tasting it? Not the smell, not the look, but the sound of the crust. Listen. [pressing the bread in her hands] A sym­phony of crackle! Only great bread sounds this way!” Indeed, bread baking can be visceral.

The desire to per­fect another dimen­sion of your craft can leave you feeling both hum­bled and com­pletely restored at the same time. As with many things in life, we are all on our own journey, at our own pace. In the kitchen, you may be way ahead, you may be behind, but always keep moving for­ward, because when you’re done learning, you’re done.

Robert Lhulier is exec­u­tive chef at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington.

The Sausage Story: Not For Everyone

Our writer takes a butchery class and learns in inti­mate detail just how com­mitted the pig must be to cre­ating this savory delight

Somewhere in Maiale Deli & Salumeria, on Lancaster Pike in Wilmington, there’s a Tuscan sausage with my name on it.

Even for sausage, it’s not all that pretty—a bit lumpy in spots, to be honest—but at least it didn’t burst. And I made that salami with my own two hands and one foot that was working the pedal that pow­ered the machine that shot the pork and fat and spices into the casing—a process that requires sig­nif­i­cantly more hand-eye-foot coör­di­na­tion than I usu­ally dis­play. Still, I managed.

The pork came fresh from a pig butchered during a class led by Maiale owner Billy Rawstrom. And right now, as I type, my sausage is curing in a temperature-controlled envi­ron­ment at Maiale, bac­teria inside the casing releasing the acids that will slowly “cook” the salami, until the day Billy calls to let me know it’s ready to eat.

I can’t wait to eat that salami.

But I’m get­ting ahead of myself. This is not about eating the sausage. It’s about how the sausage is made, and it starts with a pig—a 230-pound Delaware pig named Tommy. (Truth be told, they don’t name pigs at the farm. But Tommy is the farmer’s name, and after seeing it written on the animal’s hide, it was impos­sible not to think of him that way.)

Let’s be clear: This is not a story for everyone. Some people, even those who love their bacon, don’t want to think about the sausage-creating process. So fair warning: I won’t be sparing any details. This is your jumping off point. Class is starting. You may want to step out now.

Because we’re going to have to cut the head off that pig.

one. After Rawstrom makes all his cuts, it still takes a couple of solid twists to break the neck bone and remove the head, which is placed in a metal pan to be worked with later.

Once that is done, he goes into the belly of the pig to remove the ten­der­loins, and this is when I have my first rev­e­la­tion of the morning: Every pig has two ten­der­loins, no more, no less. You can under­stand that intel­lec­tu­ally, but until you see the butchering process, it’s hard to grasp how every pair of tenderloins—marinated, pre-wrapped and sit­ting in the super­market cooler—represent all a single animal had to give.

“It def­i­nitely makes me think about how I use my prod­ucts,” Rawstrom says.

Of course there are other cuts beyond ten­der­loin, and a com­mer­cial butcher shop would use a band saw to quickly split the pig in half, but in this small space, Rawstrom employs a simple handsaw to slice the pig from the tail, along the spine, straight through to the neck.

Half a pig now lies on the table, and even in this raw state, it’s easy to see familiar cuts. There’s the Boston butt. The belly that will become the bacon. The spare ribs. The small back­bone nubs that were once con­sid­ered scraps until Applebee’s invented the riblet and started serving them with fries and cole slaw for $12.99. And the leg, the first to go, looking exactly like an Ibérico ham when removed from the pig.

As he breaks the pig down, Rawstrom describes in detail the dif­ferent ways he uses each part in the store—curing the loin to make Italian lonzo, frying the pork cheek like an oyster to make “pork cheek po’ boys,” or cooking the loin sous vide as the first step in his roast pork sand­wich. (“That’s a great sand­wich!” Doug says. “It’s cool to get a look behind the curtain.”)

Finished sausages created by students from one of Maiale's classes.

Today, the fresh pork loin from Tommy will become sausage. You hear jokes, of course, about what sausage is made of, but Billy uses cuts straight from the loin (and fat from all over the pig) to make his pork sausages. In the back, he lets us step up to the grinder to feed the meat and fat into the pow­erful machine, and then after he adds the spices (salt, pepper, fennel, garlic, sugar, and some starter cul­ture to get the chem­ical reac­tions going), we make our own. Ten salamis from Saturday’s class are already hanging.

After our ama­teur attempts at sausage making, Maiale staffers use more of the pig to whip up some fresh Italian sausage (ours to take home), and tell us they’ll call when it’s time to come back to pick up the salami (and a little bacon too, because they want us to be happy, and bacon makes people happy.)

After that, it’s all over but the snacking. Billy takes Tommy’s ten­der­loin off the grill, sea­sons it simply with some salt, pepper and oil and puts it on a plate. We eat with our fin­gers, the fat still hot and melting in our mouths. It’s deli­cious. Freshness makes a clear difference.

So what did we learn? If I ever have to butcher a hog in the future, I’ll prob­ably do it very, very badly—but I’ll know where to start. And I learned how a good butcher will faith­fully follow the “snout to tail” phi­los­ophy. All through the process, Rawstrom would tell us how the ears, the trot­ters and the trimmed bits would be used in soups, in sand­wiches and elsewhere.

I remember an old saying about the divi­sion of labor involved in break­fast: Sure, the chicken made a con­tri­bu­tion, but the pig really com­mits. It’s tough not to respect that com­mit­ment once you’ve seen Billy Rawstrom work—and he was still at it as I left, carving out pieces for the rest of the week. Tommy would pro­vide nec­es­sary nour­ish­ment to many people, even if they’d prefer not to know his name.

Billy Rawstrom runs butchery classes out of his shop, Maiale Deli & Salumeria, 3301 Lancaster Pike in Wilmington. Class was $125 for about two-and-a-half hours, and each stu­dent goes home with some meat. Follow Maiale on Facebook or sign up for emails to learn about future classes at www​.maiale​cured​meats​.com.

Where Do the Chefs Eat…

…for spe­cial occa­sions, reg­ular evenings out and guilty plea­sures? Here’s what we found out.

They’re culi­nary mas­ters at their own estab­lish­ments, but when the chefs set aside their knives and the workday is done, where are they dining? We talked to sev­eral local culi­nary artists, and here are some of their favorites, along with some confessions.

Where do you dine for…

A reg­ular evening out: Home Grown, Mikimotos, Two Stones.

Guilty plea­sure: Philly food trucks like Tyson Bees or Yumtown.

—Joshua Keating, Delaware Park Race Track and Casino & At The Rail Wine Bar and Grille

A reg­ular evening out: Pinto bean bur­ritos with every pickled pepper that El Diablo has avail­able. And sushi and a beer at the Whole Foods bar.

Guilty plea­sure: Anytime I head down to the shore, I always look for­ward to stop­ping at Helen’s Sausage House.

—Bryan Crowley, Cantwell’s Tavern

A reg­ular evening out: I am a big fan of Drip in Lantana Square. Drip is doing great things with sus­tain­able, organic and locally-sourced ingre­di­ents. But that isn’t why I go there. Delicious food and coffee in an unpre­ten­tious envi­ron­ment is. The Root Beer Espresso Shake is life changing. It will make you a better, more charming and attrac­tive person.

ThinkstockPhotos-179763448Guilty plea­sure: Royal Farms’ fried chicken. As a culi­nary pro­fes­sional, nothing feels more wrong than late-night fried chicken from a gas station.

—Eric Huntley, Redfire Grill & Steakhouse

Special occa­sions: Usually on mine and my wife’s beach week for our anniver­sary we go to see Chef Andy Feeley at Eden.

Guilty plea­sure: A large choco­late turtle milk­shake from Woodside Farm Creamery.

—Chef Bill Hoffman, The House of William and Merry

Special occa­sions: The House of William & Merry, Domaine Hudson, Amuse & Espuma.

A reg­ular evening out: Okura and Chesapeake Inn.

—Patrick A. D’Amico, Harry’s Savoy Grill

Special occa­sions: Typically for spe­cial occa­sions I tend to visit Amis in Philadelphia. The style of Italian food that they offer is incred­ibly com­forting to me, but the fact that they offer a number of ingre­di­ents that you can’t typ­i­cally find a lot of in other restau­rants makes it that much more spe­cial. I think Marc Vetri does a great job at his restau­rants keeping Italian food simple and really let­ting the fresh­ness of the ingre­di­ents shine through.

A reg­ular evening out: A typ­ical evening out for me away from the restau­rant usu­ally con­sistGrocery bags of going to a farmers market, or a farm such as Pete’s Farm in Westtown, Pa., then bringing every­thing home and preparing a meal for family and/or friends. There’s some­thing very relaxing about cooking at home, enjoying the com­pany of great people and great food.

—Jeff Matyger, Taverna Rustic Italian

A reg­ular evening out: Masamoto in Glen Mills. I love the vibe at the sushi bar;herrs_bbq_chips they always have my favorites: Uni with quail egg and Toro. It’s nice to watch the young men work hard and rock out the rolls.

Guilty plea­sure: Herr’s Barbeque Potato Chips. What can I say? Except that if I add an Italian hoagie, it’s the best bad thing for the heart that I can eat.

—David Banks, Harry’s Seafood Grill

Special occa­sions: House of William and Merry—chef’s tasting menu at the bar with house Manhattan.

Guilty plea­sure: Crab bisque at Nutter’s Sandwich Shop.

—Eric Aber, Home Grown Café

Special occa­sions: All spe­cial occa­sions are at Harry’s Seafood. Hands doDKQ_5582wn. Top notch.

A reg­ular evening out: Taverna in Newark. Always per­fect food. Best new restau­rant in years in northern Delaware.

—Michael Stiglitz, Two Stones Pub

Why I Don’t Watch ‘Reality’ Cooking Shows

Their con­nec­tion to reality is non-existent

It was during the first season of The Restaurant with Rocco DiSpirito that I offi­cially signed off from watching any cooking reality show.

I knew Chef Rocco. I had eaten his food, admired his career tra­jec­tory and had gen­uine admi­ra­tion for my fellow Culinary Institute of America alum. But this show, with its sen­sa­tion­al­ized view of opening and run­ning a restau­rant, was too staged for me to swallow. From the spon­sor­ship of a glis­tening SUV (which the chef drove each episode) and American Express endorse­ment, to his always per­fect hair and Mama making her famous meat­balls along­side car­i­ca­tures of hard­core New York cooks, there was simply no reality at all.

First off, any tenured Big Apple cook can tell you that most of the high volume kitchens are staffed with Latinos—lots of them. When I “staged” (appren­ticed) at Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill just before grad­u­a­tion from CIA, I was struck by two things: in a kitchen of almost 35 cooks, there were only two women, and nearly all the cooks were of Latin-American descent. They came up through the ranks and, trust me, earned their stripes and sta­tions on the line. The front of the house (ser­vice staff) had none of the dis­tracted looks of aspiring actors or beauty con­test win­ners that peo­pled Rocco’s place. At Gotham, every staff member was a gliding, well-greased cog in the machine—with no drama. That kind of calm orches­tra­tion wouldn’t exactly sell on television.

Cooking competition/reality shows may con­tain a trace or two now and then of things you’ll see in a real day in the life of a restau­rant, but they are largely scripted, staged, filmed, and heavily edited with major spon­sors and mil­lions of adver­tising dol­lars in mind. Anger, abuse and failure sell. You can under­stand what would happen if a chef with a rep­u­ta­tion for being abu­sive showed up on set and sud­denly began hug­ging and praising everyone’s work habits. Viewers (and spon­sors) would drop that show like a hot potato.
As for Gordon Ramsay, the king of reality show chefs, his ridicu­lous internet memes (“You used so much oil, the U.S. is trying to invade the plate!” or “That pork is so raw, it’s still singing Hakuna Matata!”), where he appears bulgy-eyed and gaping, are famous among fans (and non-fans) of his show. Any self-respecting chef knows that you cannot moti­vate a staff or get them to follow you unless you earn their respect first. If you can’t earn that respect, you are a poor leader. Pack your knives and go home, Chef.

On the other hand, there must be a reason Ramsay’s show and those like it are renewed year after year: people like to think there’s a real com­pe­ti­tion going on, one that allows them to root for their favorite chef contestant.

There’s only one problem: never in the his­tory of restau­rants has there been a sce­nario where a cook had to com­pete with other cooks to sur­vive being chopped. It’s simply more enter­taining to see a cook being handed a mys­tery basket of Spam, lychee nuts, organic Tiger’s milk and ostrich eggs, and watch him try to make an appe­tizer in 12 min­utes using a can of Sterno, a ping-pong paddle and a hollowed-out horse­shoe crab. Ready, go!

So celebrity chef com­pe­ti­tions, Iron Chefs, Master and Top Chefs, Worst Cooks, Throwdowns and Extreme Cooking: none of it holds my interest, mostly because these shows are breeding a whole gen­er­a­tion of cooks who first want to be famous. When you com­pro­mise your craft and your skills for pub­licity, you’re less likely to dis­cover the true joys that come with cooking for and with people, instead of against them.

But Chef Ramsay wasn’t awarded the cov­eted Michelin stars for acting. His tal­ents as a chef are real and for­mi­dable. Nor does Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio earn his huge pay­checks from product endorse­ments alone; he is highly respected among his peers for atten­tion to detail and the con­sis­tently high quality at his restaurants.

And it’s unfor­tu­nate that this doesn’t come across in these ersatz cooking shows. Take one of the genre’s orig­i­na­tors, Emeril Lagasse. For years, I couldn’t stand to see a mug­ging Emeril on tele­vi­sion, hawking his knives and pots and pans, or his Cajun Bam! spice. Why was the crowd cheering and clap­ping simply because he threw parsley in a pan?

Then, as if by fate, I was chosen to work along­side him as a stu­dent cook at the tony Aspen Food and Wine Classic of 1997. What I dis­cov­ered was not a bois­terous cook from the Bowery, but a quiet, gentle person who was thoughtful and gen­uinely cared about the stu­dents. “It’s all an act,” I thought. And instantly, he won my respect. Finally, some real reality.

Robert Lhulier is exec­u­tive chef at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington.