Sunday, June 17, 2012

Flavors and Childhood Memories with Eric Ripert and Christina Tosi at FIAF

This past Wednesday night I had the pleasure of attending yet another wonderful food-focused event at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF). “Sweet, Sour, Savory –  Fabulous Flavors” was a discussion with the one and only Chef Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin in New York City) and Christina Tosi (of Momofuku Milkbar in New York City) moderated by Bon Appetit’s executive editor (and co-author of Chef Ripert’s book On the Line) Christine Muhlke. Flavor was the focus and as it does for so many of us, the conversation lead largely back to the taste beginnings of Chef Ripert’s and Chef Tosi’s childhood.

 © Junenoire Mitchell  
Christine Muhlke got the evening going by asking about the chefs’ earliest taste memories, as she posed it: “What’s your madeleine?” Both the chef’s remember mother/grandmother prepared sweets. Chef Tosi recalled raw oatmeal cookie dough, corn bake and other baked goods filled with butter. Chef Ripert mused about his grandmother’s elusive apple tart. It was about a 12” tart that he said he would gobble down a few times a week. Even when he was little he could smell the stages of the apple tart’s doneness; when it was starting to bake in the oven, when it was time to take it out and most importantly the moment when it had cooled enough to eat.

When asked about favorite treats both thought to favorite candies first. For Chef Tosi it was Whatchamacallits and Reese’s Cups. She told us what a picky eater she was and how much she finds that fact to contribute to her food experiences as an adult. When she was 18 or so she remembers having a BLT and tasting a raw tomato for the first time and how impacting it was. She ate a lot of junk food when she was young like candy, ice cream and sour cream and onion potato chips. Chef Ripert’s upbringing up in France and Andorra meant he didn’t eat junk food because as he says it just didn’t exist. What he loved was sneaking squares from a bar of dark chocolate on the weekends and taking cookies that had been hidden in the kitchen. On the way home from school, the snack time for French schoolchildren, he would enjoy meringues from the pâtisserie. There were also licorice candies they called Batman candy because they were black and white.

Due to all this sweet talk, Chef Ripert talked about how he thought he would go into pastry when he was beginning as a chef. He said it wasn’t for him because he is “very A.D.D”. He takes his whims as they come and often strays from a written recipe which doesn’t work so well with pastry. The night he was assigned to the pastry station while working at La Tour d’Argent he wasn’t allowed to work it again because he ended up eating 35 strawberry and marzipan petits fours that were meant for service. He joked that after getting booted from the pastry station it was “back to he duck press”. Chef Ripert always knew he had a passion for eating as much as he could but wasn’t sure that would translate into a profession as a chef.

Chef Tosi and Chef Ripert had savory childhoods that differed in more ways than just their geography. At Chef Tosi’s house home cooked meals meant Spaghetti-os. At the Ripert home dinner meant elaborate nouvelle cuisine inspired meals cooked by his mother that were served on proper linens, new plates and silver for each course and always a good Bordeaux. Their upbringings have inspired the way their signature flavor profiles have developed. Since Chef Tosi loved homey sweets and classic “junk” food she’s always playing with those flavors and trying to push them in new ways. As she said she’s “still figuring out what [her signature flavor profile] is”. She mentions the role childhood memories play in transmitting flavors. At pastry school, she says, they teach technique not emotion- one must figure out how to bring emotion into one's food and flavors. When creating new menu items for Milkbar she is always striving for that “Ratatouille moment,” referring to the scene in the movie when the restaurant critic takes a bite of ratatouille and is immediately transported to his mother’s kitchen as a child and the overwhelming sense of comfort it creates.

Since Le Bernardain is a French restaurant Chef Ripert can easily call upon his childhood and try to include those flavors and memories into the dishes there. To pay homage to his grandmother after she had passed he developed an original take on croque monsieur for the restaurant. She had a machine for making the sandwich and it had it was all about that smell of the hot butter on bread that defined the sandwich. What he came up with was a gruyere and smoked salmon (instead of the traditional ham) to capture the flavors of the filling on buttery brioche with a layer of caviar at the very center. For him, its always a return to the flavors of his youth and the Mediterranean.
 © Junenoire Mitchell  

Christine Muhlke started a discussion of depth of flavor and umami when she asked how the chefs explore new flavors. Chef Tosi says she’s always trying to “create something out of nothing” and “tries to limit the new ingredients” she uses. For Milkbar she tries to pair staples with new things. Currently she is working a lot with oats and trying to imagine its possibilities in different forms- as oat flour, oats in a pie, toasted oats, ice cream with oats, etc. The play between sweet and salty is always a thought for her. This is where umami comes in, or what Chef Tosi called “MSG for desserts”. Chef Ripert asked Chef Tosi how she describes umami to which she replied “that hyper depth of flavor” and, the idea most people point to when asked about umami, that “mushroom flavor”. Chef Ripert has been “obsessed with umami” recently. He told us the Japanese translation of the word is basically how we say “yummy” (very interesting, don’t you think?). He describes it as more of a sensation than a flavor, it is what gives something that “wow” effect when you eat it. “Umami is more like a state of mind,” he says. For the most part Chef Ripert has found umami to be created by a combination of flavors but some have it inherently like the black truffle. It is an earthy flavor. He has been intensely focused on umami for a year now and he’s “still searching” for ways to capture it and create harmony using it in his dishes.

Throughout the evening travel kept popping up. When chefs travel and try new flavors, ingredients and whole cuisines there’s usually something to be taken back to the kitchen at home. Chef Ripert finds himself wanting to overhaul the Le Bernardin menu with the cuisine of the countries he travels to right after returning. He recently returned from Peru and if he let himself the whole menu would be Peruvian now! But he restrains himself. He tries to think about the influences and format them to the restaurant- which is a French, fish-forward restaurant. Chef Ripert expanded more on how he thinks of flavors. He said he keeps flavors in his mind, like a painter might with colors. The flavors he remembers are always those first flavor memories which sometimes means he has to adjust dishes based on the difference in North American ingredients versus European ones. Basil was mentioned specifically- apparently our basil has a more intense quality than the basil that grows in the Mediterranean so when he is thinking of a dish using it he will account for that fact.

To tie up the discussion Christine Muhlke asked what are the chefs favorite flavors of the moment. Chef Ripert said he is in a Japanese obsession right now, which fits with his umami focus. Chef Tosi has a lot of seasonal influence she she's thinking about berries and herbs which she says end up being innate flavors even though she didn’t grow up eating them. Corn, salt, sweet, dairy and their intersections are also constant favorites of hers.
Holding On the Line at FIAF
 © Junenoire Mitchell  

It was very interesting to hear these chefs speak on flavor, especially since they come from such different childhood backgrounds. Seeing how flavors stick with them, change over time and what flavors are attracting them now shows how important and rich the role of flavor is in the kitchen.

One of the highlights of the evening was getting to meet Chef Ripert personally at the book signing after the event. I picked up a copy of his book written with/by Christine Muhlke, On The Line, which explores the inner workings of Le Bernardin’s kitchen. I’m excited about reading more about the ways they use fish and will hopefully be able to translate some of that into dinner at home. Perhaps one day I will get to enjoy a meal at the restaurant, but for now I’ll dream through On the Line.

Follow Chef Ripert on Twitter: @ericripert
Follow Milkbar on Twitter: @momomilkbar
Follow FIAF on Twitter: @FIAFNY

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