We’ve all heard the phrase ‘one step up, two steps back’, but as simple as that statement is, it’s no truer than ‘one step back, two steps up’. I find myself thinking about the latter phrase in light of a new position I have taken at a restaurant outside of the corporate world. I’m leaving the giant of the casino world, at least here in Colorado, for the greener pastures of an independent, forward thinking, chef driven restaurant in the hustle and bustle of downtown Denver. It’s good to be home.
It’s not the Executive Chef position I have been accustomed to over the last 12 years, but it is a step up from where I was in the corporate world, a world I had reached my ceiling in due to my lack of experience in the corporate world, it’s a horrible catch-22. In making the switch, my focus moves from “Can we get them out of the restaurant faster so they spend more time gambling.” to “Can we keep them in the restaurant for another course because the food is why they are here?” Personally, this move gives me peace, food is once again the priority. Sure, there are bottom lines, expenses and the entire business side that are basis of every venture, but when the product you serve makes you proud, makes your staff proud and your clients happy, and you do it in a responsible fashion, the business results are much easier to attain.
It’s time to get excited again, and I am very excited. I feel like a kid again, just like I did when I got my hands on my first case of heirloom tomatoes in the early 90’s. At that time, heirloom tomatoes were the gold standard of fine dining, independent restaurants and the start of what I believe to be the food boom in this country that has brought us to today, where such an emphasis is placed on local, organic, sustainable product. Words that now are the vernacular of virtually every chef and food blogger, 20 years ago were only spoken by a handful of chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower.
Heirloom tomatoes opened the door to chefs to find out what else was out there that we hadn’t seen or used in 50 years. Are you asking what an heirloom tomato is? Heirloom tomatoes are several hundred varieties of tomatoes that, in essence, were commercially nonviable when the US began mass producing food for a growing population. Though they were superior in taste and texture, they had very short shelf life and were difficult and expensive to grow. Yields on heirloom tomato plants are low and they tend to be less uniform and free of blemishes than the hybrid tomatoes we find in the stores today. All this lead the farmers to limiting production and growing the hybrids which were more disease resistant, lasted longer on trucks for shipping and were more appealing visually.
Heirloom seedlings were passed down through generations of family gardeners who mainly grew them for their own families and friends. Over the course of several decades they made their way back to prominence in restaurants and homes alike when people, concerned with what they were eating and serving to their guests wanted something better. In addition, many other varieties of heirloom vegetables made a resurgence such as melons, carrots, beans and even potatoes.
Heirloom tomatoes are widely available now but none are better than those grown at home. There are several websites for buying seeds and close to 700 varieties of tomatoes, each one suited to a particular dish or taste. Do your home work and enjoy.
A simple dish I’ve done every summer for the last 8 years pairs fresh Alaskan Halibut with heirloom tomatoes, arugula, ricotta salata and basil vinaigrette. The recipe is easy and extremely elegant.
Four 6 oz pieces halibut loin, skin off
2 oz red onion, julienned
12 oz heirloom tomato wedges, use your favorite, I like the ‘slicer’ varieties for this dish, large, juicy tomatoes
4 oz. ricotta salata
2 cups arugula, packed
A pinch of sea salt and a couple of turns of cracked black pepper.
For the vinaigrette:
1 oz garlic cloves, minced
1 oz. shallots
1 ½ oz basil leaves
½ cup red wine vinegar
2 cups olive oil
For the vinaigrette:
- Combine the garlic, shallots, basil and vinegar in a blender.
- Puree on medium speed while slowing adding the olive oil in a steady stream.
- Remove to a container and set aside.
- Cook the halibut to your liking. It can be pan seared, oven roasted or grilled.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the red onions, tomatoes, arugula and ricotta salata.
- Season with the sea salt and black pepper.
- Toss together with enough of the basil vinaigrette to moisten.
- Divide the salad over 4 plates.
- Top with the halibut and finish with a little more of the basil vinaigrette.