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Roux Scholarship: A Postcard from New York

Roux Scholarship: A Postcard from New York

Thirteen chefs, all past Roux Scholars, were given the ultimate culinary treat of a tasting tour of New York, taking in fine-dining at Per Se and the Modern and the best chilli dogs at Shake Shack. Accompanying them to these and other delights was Michel Roux Sr himself

Shake Shack By Simon Hulstone, 2003 Roux Scholar

Our first taste of the Big Apple came in the form of Danny Meyer’s fast-food phenomenon Shake Shack. This is no ordinary burger joint. The restaurant is amazingly well thought out and every detail has been perfected. Queues of up to an hour long stretch down the road; once customers have ordered, they are given a buzzer that goes off when their cooked-to-order food is ready.

Culinary director Mark Rosati and his assistant greeted us at the flagship restaurant, and not only gave us a full fast-food tasting menu with wine, but also a behind-the-scenes tour and a history lesson of the company.

Did you know that Shake Shack started in the kitchens of three-Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park? The original concept was a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park, which became so popular with downtown workers that Shake Shack was born. That was back in 2004 and the chain now boasts 34 locations, including one in London.

The average restaurant takes $4m a year, which is a lot of burgers – but, boy, are they good! We were served a sampling menu of a ShackBurger, hot dogs, spicy burgers with bell peppers and crinkle-cut fries as well as a ShroomBurger, a great vegetarian burger of Portobello mushrooms (don’t tell anyone
I ate that, please!).

To finish, we were treated to frozen custards, which are much richer and thicker than ice-cream and absolutely belt-busting. We were also given a seasonal special of spiced pumpkin custard which, although it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, I really enjoyed. The wine and beer have been selected with burgers and hot
dogs in mind, and they really do match – it’s an amazing idea and turns the notion of a fast-food restaurant on its head.

We are used to eating in high-end restaurants on these trips, and our Shake Shack experience was a welcome wake-up call and proof that more casual restaurants can compete with top chefs when it comes to brilliant service and consistent, tasty food.

Culinary Institute of America By James Carberry, 1992 Roux Scholar

As a lecturer in culinary arts at the School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology in my native city, Dublin, I was keen to visit the headquarters of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

It was a 6am start for the entourage as we boarded a coach for the drive up to the Hyde Park campus of the CIA. We were greeted by provost Mark Erickson at Roth Hall, a beautiful former Jesuit monastery about 80 miles north of Manhattan. We put on our whites and were taken to the Bocuse restaurant for a delicious Champagne breakfast: poached eggs with hollandaise, truffles and caviar beurre blanc, along with beautiful pastries, charcuterie and great coffee.

Then it was off to the Marriott Pavilion for a graduation ceremony for 44 students. The ultra-modern auditorium seats about 800 people and we were given pride of place next to the graduates. It was a special day for them, but also for the guest of honour, Michel Roux Sr, who was awarded the accolade of World
Ambassador of the CIA. In his speech, he told the story of his humble beginnings and his rise to fame and success.

“The legacy of which I’m most proud is here with me today,” he said of the Roux Scholars. “If I have inspired them, I have received even greater inspiration in return.”

We continued our tour of the campus to the Conrad Hilton building, where the library boasts the most comprehensive collection of culinary texts in the US. Next, we went to the culinary science labs, which are packed with an array of equipment that would make Heston Blumenthal envious.

We ended our visit with an incredible lunch at the Caterina de’ Medici restaurant. Our hosts pushed the boat out for us, and we were very impressed. This is the first time we have visited a professional catering college as a group and it was incredibly interesting. The campus and its buildings are in tip-top shape, and the students, immaculate in their whites, were a credit to the high standards displayed towards the Roux Scholarship by the professionals here. What I witnessed at the CIA will certainly give me food for thought on my return to Dublin, and leave me more than a little green-eyed.

You can view the CIA graduation ceremony and hear Michel Roux Sr’s speech at tinyurl.com/cia-roux 

Blue Hill at Stone Barns By Sat Bains, 1999 Roux Scholar

First, a little history. Blue Hill opened in 2004 at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a working four-season farm and educational centre around 30 miles north of New York City. It sources produce locally from the Hudson Valley, and Blue Hill guests are offered the multi-taste grazing, rooting, pecking menu, which features the best offerings from the fields and market.

I’ve known about Blue Hill chef Dan Barber for many years. A few of my friends have been there and were all blown away, so I was very excited about this part of our itinerary.

When we arrived, Dan was there to greet us and talked enthusiastically and obsessively about his passion for growing and cooking. We then followed him to the nearby fields and greenhouses where they were growing experimental plants such as celtuce [a type of lettuce with a thick stem], turmeric and brassicas.

This is a working farm with cattle and poultry. Dan buys the produce at the going rate. He explained how incredibly expensive it is to run the farm. This is a chef who is pushing his own boundaries through planting, growing and cross-pollinating vegetables.

A great example is one of the squash dishes we had, made using squash grown for thinner rinds and seeds without tough outer husks, so they can be transformed into a risotto-style dish. It’s all done naturally over time without any genetic modification or chemicals – just manipulation through crosspollination.

We could see that Dan was driven by flavour, and soon realised we had a unique experience on the way. The first seven to 10 dishes were raw vegetables, including carrots straight from the farm, with a variety of vinaigrettes. What followed were exceptional dishes that exuded clarity, confidence and a true knowledge of the surroundings, and included pig’s liver and chocolate sandwich; spicy flowers; turmeric and apple tea palate cleanser; Siècle pear; trout caviar; fish balls with plankton; cabbage charred with horseradish; broccoli stems with Cheddar; and, one of the highlights, brioche and whey green jam. As Michel said at the time: “It’s the best bread I’ve ever tasted.”

This meal was one of the climaxes of the trip as it was so unexpected for most of us. It will live long in our memories as a special dinner with great company in fantastic surroundings.

Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Market By André Garrett, 2002 Roux Scholar

We had an early start for our breakfast visit to  he Gramercy Tavern to meet the team and visit the nearby Union Square Market. It was a lovely crisp, sunny morning and New York was just waking up as we walked from the hotel through Koreatown, past the stunning Flatiron Building.

Purchasing manager Jennie Jones and the kitchen team greeted us with an amazingbreakfast that they had worked through the  night to create. It consisted of cold meats, cheeses, a selection of homemade pastries, cakes and the most awesome, syrup-enriched cinnamon swirls I have ever eaten.

While we ate, she gave us a history of Gramercy Tavern. I remember eating a stunning meal here almost 10 years ago and it still has the friendly neighbourhood feel it had back then.

Gramercy Tavern has been using the farmers and producers that sell in Union Square Market since it opened. The market did not disappoint. The produce on show was top drawer; the carrots, beetroots, celeriac, radish and autumn fruits looked amazing. Gramercy Tavern has always used the same buyer, who is in touch with the producers and holds the lists from the chefs of what is needed every day. It’s an amazing way to work and one we should all look to as inspiration.

It was great to see a world-class restaurant still working the way it did when it opened, without compromising and becoming complacent by using wholesale markets. The important link between the chef, the buyer and the producer is valued and this helps bring great quality, seasonal produce all year round for the chefs and their customers.

Chefs’ dinner at Per Se, part 1 By Kenneth Culhane, 2010 Roux Scholar

In his book On The Road, Jack Kerouac wrote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like
spiders across the stars.”

I remember reading that as a young boy and being determined to go to New York as a result. The energy and the passion to get the most out of now was incredible. When I first saw our Roux Scholar itinerary, I was filled with the same enthusiasm for what lay ahead on our trip.

The entrance to Per Se is in New York’s Time Warner Center, on the corner of Central Park. Once inside we were greeted by Thomas Keller and his team, as well as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud. It was incredible to spend time talking with these great chefs, discussing food, business and, in the case of Thomas, his recent trip to Ireland.

The chefs’ dinner at Per Se was an incredible collaboration by chefs Thomas, Jean-Georges and Daniel. We were presented with a variety of impressive canapés – my favourite was the sea urchin, rye bread and yuzu. The buttery creaminess of the urchin, the crisp bread and the tart, grapefruit flavour of the yuzu were a perfect match with the Champagne.

On the pass was a picture of the Roux family with the legend: “It’s all about the legacy.” As we sat at the table, Thomas talked about the importance of Michel to the cooking and hospitality world and how he was delighted and excited to create this special night.

The first course was Tsar Imperial Ossetra Caviar, blini of scallop and Kendall Farm crème fraîche, served with a Joseph Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru. This was a dish of great finesse – a celebration of the art of elegance and simplicity. The scallop was cooked within a perfectly light blini with a generous serving of caviar. It was exquisitely matched with the wine and each element worked harmoniously to create something very special indeed.

Our main dish was charcoal-grilled spiced squab, hibiscus vinaigrette and glazed sprouts. The squab was marinated in za’atar and cooked on a Japanese konro charcoal grill, which created a charred effect while keeping the pigeon succulent and pink. Jean-Georges is renowned for his use of spices, especially the use of chilli and acidity after his years working in Thailand. This was a unique dish in the sequence of the meal; the level of heat from the chilli certainly got everyone talking.

Chefs’ dinner at Per Se, part 2 By Steve Drake, Roux Scholar 2001

Of the three chefs cooking for us – Thomas, Jean-Georges and Daniel – any one would have been incredible, so to get all three was off the scale.

Their enthusiasm and excitement about hosting the dinner for us was electric and they really pulled the stops out. To have all three chefs running around our table with a white truffle the size of a golf ball  as quite something. The truffle was to finish a pumpkin porridge dish with chestnuts and langoustines – it was beautifully rich, with an incredible balance.

Per Se is in a shopping centre, but you wouldn’t know it. Thomas flew in especially from San Francisco to host this event in the amazing dining room that looks out over New York. For methe most impressive thing was the organisation of the kitchen. It is set up so the main dining room service is completely isolated from the private dining kitchen, enabling the team to focus on the different sets of guests.

We had an eight-course tasting menu with some of the chefs’ signature dishes: Thomas’s caviar, Daniel’s epigram of veal with fall roots and turmeric jus, and Jean-George’s charcoal grilled spiced pigeon with hibiscus vinaigrette cooked on a special Japanese barbecue. It was a masterclass in cooking and hospitality and how to be a chef in the dining room.

The Lobster Place, Chelsea Market By Trevor Blyth, 1996 Roux Scholar

he Lobster Place opened in 1974 with the goal of bringing a taste of the Maine coast to diners in the Big Apple. It moved to Chelsea Market in 1996, where the owners were able to combine the wholesale division with the new retail market. Featuring a fresh fish counter, an oyster bar, a steamed lobster counter and a sushi bar, it is not difficult to see why it is a big hit. In a typical week, the restaurant steams 7,000 live lobsters and uses 400lb of meat to make lobster rolls.

The local raw oysters and lobster rolls were delicious, and at the sushi bar a team of six Nepalese chefs turned out an array of sushi, both traditional and modern, with great dexterity, using fish as fresh as any you would find at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. It was served casually, over the counter, just as it would be in Japan, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t see reasonably priced, casual sushi bars of this quality in England. To be honest, I didn’t expect to see it in a city renowned for burgers, bagels and doughnuts, but it just goes to show what is possible with an enterprising idea and the desire to do things properly and professionally.

At the fresh fish counter it was interesting to see that many of the fish were marked for sale using their Japanese names: sake (salmon), kampachi (albacore tuna), same (shark), maguro (tuna) and saba (mackerel). Brendan, the manager, pointed out that this was done to emphasise the sushi-grade quality of the fish on offer – a nice touch, I thought.

It was great to see Michel, Brian [Turner] and the rest of the Scholars tucking into oysters, sushi and sashimi for breakfast, and it brought back good memories of our previous Roux Scholarship trip to Japan. But that’s what these trips do – imprint indelible gastronomic images in the minds of all who go on them.
For many years, New York has been viewed as a great destination for high-end fine-dining, but this trip opened my eyes to the truly great food that can be enjoyed at every level throughout the city. The produce available to chefs, restaurants and the general public is second to none, and New York is up there with a few international cities that can lay claim to the title of culinary capital of the world.

The Modern By Adam Smith, 2012 Roux Scholar

The evening started off with a shambolic trip on the subway when we managed to lose number one scholar Andrew Fairlie. Eventually, we arrived at the Museum of Modern Art for our guided tour, where we saw many spectacular artworks by Van Gogh, Dalí and Picasso up close. We then made our way to the Modern which, according to Danny Meyer, is the first restaurant within a museum to have its own separate entrance.

The dinner at the Modern took place on the final night of our week-long tour. Prior to the trip, I hadn’t heard much about the Modern, but Michel had spoken very highly of the food.

The one thing that stood out for me was the number of covers the restaurant can do – about 400 a day – and at such a high standard, while gaining and maintaining Michelin stars. We were greeted by the familiar face of Simon King, former restaurant manager of the Fat Duck in Bray, who told me that the head chef would like to say hello in the kitchen.

Wondering who it could be, I went through and found out it was the man I had worked with on my Roux Scholarship stage two years before at Le Meurice in Paris – it’s a small world.

Canapés were swiftly served in the private dining room. Danny told us how honoured he was to have Michel as a friend and colleague and shared insights about his businesses and career. It was inspiring to hear him speak and share his obvious passion for hospitality.

The first dish was introduced by executive chef Abram Bissell – egg yolk, caviar and brioche – a very simple starter that married classic flavours and was served with brioche soldiers to dunk. It was a great start to the meal, although in my very humble opinion, the egg was a little cold for my liking.

Next came tuna cured in mustard, potato and egg. This was a very colourful plate; the tuna was beautifully fresh, the heat from the mustard worked well, and there were potatoes dressed in a crème fraîche and potato crisps, all finished with an egg yolk dressing.

The best dish for me was next: cauliflower cooked in crab butter, almond, lemon and tarragon. The classic flavour combinations shone: the cauliflower floret had been caramelised in the crab butter, the cauliflower purée was beautifully smooth, the nugget of king crab had been poached in the crab butter, while the fresh scent of the tarragon and the nutty beurre noisette and almond flour was to die for.

The main course was suckling pig roasted with spices, plums and onions, which was a delicate-looking plate but one that packed a big punch of hearty autumnal flavour.

Pre-dessert was a lemon sorbet served in an elegant, fine brandy snap cone – an example of simple things done well. The dessert – carrot cake, fromage frais and toasted coconut sorbet – was a technical interpretation of a classic; the coconut sorbet was the star of the show.

Roberta’s Pizza By Andrew Jones, 2004 Roux Scholar

Roberta’s Pizza was great! The sourdough pizzas were exceptional. I think the closest we have to it in the UK is Franco Manca in Brixton – but this was a bit bigger and better, as all things American seem to be. The restaurant, in Brooklyn, looked like a cross between a hippie commune and a heavy metal bar, with
its hotchpotch of buildings, tents, green spaces and urban planters along with skulls, rock posters and graffiti on the inside.

The wood-burning oven that cooks the pizzas in 90 seconds at 500ºC was the mainfeature of the dining room. The pizza toppings were all very tasty, as was the pastrami and porchetta. It was clear that the restaurant is trueto its roots: good-quality ingredients, cooked well and served in a friendly manner.

This trip has opened my mind to what is possible with a little hard work. It has shown me that the process of learning and development never stops. These study trips are not just about the places we visit, but also the discussions they inspire. Listening to each other’s perspectives is an intense experience.

We all have so much in common, but are so very different; each of us has our own goal, but with one binding core: each of us can say: “I am a Roux Scholar”, and have an appreciation, affection and love for the Roux family for giving us this. Our thoughts now return to our own businesses, with each of us taking what we have gained from the trip and considering how we can use it to make ourselves better cooks, employers and people.

There is just one question: where next, Michel?

● There’s still time to enter the 2015 Roux Scholarship. The deadline is midnight on Monday 2 February. To enter, visit www.rouxscholarship.co.uk

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