The Signature of a Chef

Originally Posted: 11 Nov 2009 01:29 AM PST

Every chef has one.  For some, the dish may have evolved from something simple.  For others, the signature dish was carefully designed, tested and executed.  Either way, it is this dish that shows where the true heart and soul of a chef lies.  Is he a master tinkerer with a wildy difficult dish to produce which makes it all the more special, or does he prefer to focus on the simplicity and allow his ingredients to speak for themselves.  As I’ve said before, sometimes it’s not what you do to a dish, it’s what you don’t do to it that makes it stand out.

Having a signature dish in a restaurant helps the chef establish the style and type of cuisine he is aiming to create.  The dish is usually available year round, never leaves the menu and is priced either very low or very high.  It may contain ingredients that are local or prepared solely for the chef or restaurant, it may employ a more exotic cooking style or, as in my case, it could be a dish that was placed on the menu that just became extremely popular with guests and staff.

I lived just outside of San Francisco in 1996. I was working at Stars-Palo Alto, one time part of Jeremiah Towers mini empire (the location was purchased by Wolfgang in 1997 and is still one of his restaurants).  It was insanely busy and I worked the broiler station there for almost a year after spending a few months in the Garde Manger.  Within the first week of my employment, Julia Child was in for dinner, working the front station I couldn’t help but stare, I knew I was in the right place.

After a time at Stars, I was given the responsibility of purchasing all the produce.  Having spent my time growing up in restaurants in Philadelphia and Denver, it was glorious to see the farmer bringing the produce to the back door.  I would place my order the night before directly to the farmer, there was no mainliner or middleman, and he went out that morning, picked my produce and loaded it up in the back of his duelie.   Each afternoon I would spend an hour or so picking through each box of still sun-warmed produce, breaking off beans, sampling lettuces, tasting the herbs, inspecting every item that I had ordered.  Not only was it my responsibility to make sure the restaurant had beautiful product to work with, but it was a lesson for me in how to recognize quality ingredients.

When I left Stars to come back to Denver, I brought that same intense fervor for fresh produce and quality ingredients.  If I was going to use it in my kitchen and on my menu, it had to be fresh, authentic and as local as possible.  Produce in Colorado was fairly good then although it is that much better now.  I was able to get lettuces, potatoes, onions, stone fruits and mushrooms all with a couple hundred miles of Denver.  What became my signature dish was based in the lessons I had learned at the back door of Stars-Palo Alto, to trust myself to know what ingredients should be and how to use them.


Penne Pasta with Onions, Pancetta and Tomatoes

I’ve never been sold on pastas on restaurant menus unless you had an Italian or Asian influenced concept.  It always seemed like a cop out to me, but so many guests clamored for pasta that I was forced to keep a couple on the menu.  Perhaps other chefs feel the same as I and I’m only getting around to realizing that as I sit here and write this.  Though I wasn’t fond of the pasta dishes, there was no arguing they are strong profit drivers.  Pasta is cheap, whether you make it fresh, buy it frozen or dried.

At the Fourth Story, we kept a few pastas on the menu, mainly as lower end entrees to give the casual diner something to eat without expecting the dude in jeans and a t-shirt who had wandered up from the bookstore below us to feel comfortable sitting down to a high end dinner.  One of these dishes, which also had its roots in Palo Alto, was this penne pasta recipe.  I had adapted it from a small place called Crescent Park, I simplified it, stuck it on the menu and watched it roll, all night long.

It got to a point where I was so sick of making this dish and seeing it go out so often that I took it off the menu.  The reaction from guests and employees was startling.  People actually got mad, threatened to boycott the restaurant, call the owner, and stop shopping at the bookstore.  After a small chat with the GM, we decided it was best to leave it on the menu.

I’ve since done that dish at virtually every single restaurant I have worked since then, except for my current establishment.  It wouldn’t be a good fit there, but I do make it at home once in a while.
As I stated earlier, the key is ingredients.  If you can’t find a piece Parmesana Reggiano or a good pancetta, you won’t get the simplicity of this dish.  It is only 5 simple ingredients, when combined in a specific way they create an amazing depth of flavor.  You can still make this dish with lesser ingredients, but you can’t hold me accountable if it is only a so-so dish in your opinion.

This recipe makes enough for 1 large serving or two small servings.

Notes: I always find it amusing when people add oil to the water while cooking dried pasta.  They say “that’s how my mother/grandmother/instructor/chef does/taught me to do it”.  The truth is, the oil floats on top of the water while the pasta is cooking below the surface.  Secondly, when you pour the pasta out into the colander, the oil is the first thing to be poured off.  Sure, you can pull the pasta out through the oil with a basket, but as you go to cool or rinse the pasta, you’re going to wash off the oil anyway.  I don’t think you’ll find a box of pasta that recommends adding oil to the cooking of their product, and they want you to get the best possible product produced so you are more apt to buy it again.  On the other hand, salt your water generously, it should taste like seawater.


  • 1 oz. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 3 oz. pancetta (I prefer the fat content of the Molinari brand, if you can find it)
  • 3 oz. yellow onion, small diced
  • 1 Tbs. chile oil
    • For the chile oil, steep 1 Tbs crushed red pepper in 2 oz. olive oil for 1 hour in a warm spot close to your stove.  You also have the option of buying premade chile oil from a specialty food store.
  • 4 oz. crushed tomatoes (If you can find canned San Marzano tomatoes, all the better)
  • ½ cup grated Parmesana Reggiano
  • 6 oz. cooked penne pasta (you can use whatever pasta shape you want although I wouldn’t recommend long noodles)
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper


  1. In a 10 inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil up over medium heat.
  2. Add the pancetta and cook quickly until it starts to crisp on the edges.
  3. Move the pancetta to one half of the pan and add the onions.
  4. Continue cooking the onions until they become translucent.
  5. Add the chile oil and toss the onions and pancetta together.
  6. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper.
  7. Cook until the tomatoes begin to dry out and caramelize on the bottom of the pan, being careful not to burn them.
  8. Warm up the noodles and toss in the sauté pan with the tomatoes onions and pancetta.
  9. Quickly toss in the parmesan cheese until the tomato begins to coat the noodles.
  10. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

The Signature of a Chef

Leave a Reply