Ed is another who we have met through Ideas in Food. He was actually pointed in our direction by our friend and chef Victor LaPlaca. Ed first asks questions. It is with these questions that we have built a relationship and stumbled upon many inspirations in the kitchen. Ed is currently heading up a new restaurant, and with that on his mind has a fair amount to say and share.
By Ed Bilicki
Looking Back, Moving Forward
November 7th was my last night at bluezoo, a last hurrah of sorts, which was highlighted by the opportunity to work with Michael Mina and Todd English. I have spent the better part of eight years with the latter chef…from prep guy to chef de cuisine, from Westport CT to Orlando FL; it has been an interesting path. The pictures you see are from my tenure there, a little bit of what we were able to do as a team. We served all of these dishes on some level, from two to more than a thousand and in the process provided a lot of people their first experiences with modern technical cooking. I hope that they demonstrate a point of view. I hope that they speak to our approach there and to my approach in the future.
To the point, I am currently working on a new restaurant called Satava. Our broad focus will be on coastal cuisine, drawing inspiration from the intersections of water and land wherever they may occur. Not a new idea to be sure, but my purpose and passion is to do it in a way that has not been done before. Looking back, my life has been intrinsically linked with the water; from surfing at age four in Coca Beach to fly fishing the Rouge last fall for wild steelhead, interaction with water rejuvenates my soul. Cooking replenishes my body and mind, a marriage of the two is only logical.
I mentioned the fact that we served these items in bluezoo not to say “hey look at me,” but to highlight an important aspect of my vision for this endeavor, accessibility. I presume that the majority of regulars here at Ideas in Food are either likeminded professionals or very passionate patrons of the culinary arts. While we at Satava will look forward to serving this constituency, I want to address the issue of the dining public at large, how do we bring them into the fold? For me, this is the crux of this conversation.
The problem with modern technical cooking, hyper-modern cuisine, molecular gastronomy, nueva nouvelle cuisine, cocina de autor (insert your favorite name for the movement) is that, despite being in vogue with the food press, a good number of people don’t initially see the appeal. If we can’t find a way to reach those people, then the movement loses momentum, becomes a fad and fades away. Given this reality, we must consider modernism for the masses. If we confine our growing knowledge of technique to elite temples of gastronomy and force people to consume 10-30 courses, we are limiting our potential audience and potentially limiting ourselves.
In the context of these considerations, Shola’s inaugural piece had considerable resonance with me. After eating out at most of the major restaurants here in Orlando over the last few weeks, it ultimately all boils down to variations on fried calamari, Caesar salad and meat and potatoes. While it would be easy to become disheartened by this reality, I choose to look at it as a challenge and as an opportunity. Regardless of the outlook a restaurant espouses, its price point, its targeted audience, its style of service…someone will always ask for a Caesar salad eventually. I struggled with and even resented this reality for years, but recently I have made peace with it and have even embraced it. After all, I actually really enjoy a good Caesar salad and my mouth waters at the prospect of Point Judith style fried calamari.
Is there a way to serve our guest’s (often) simultaneous desires for familiarity, comfort and novelty, and innovation? While these sets of impulses are seemingly opposed to one another, our understanding of product, modern technique, and presentation provides us with the opportunity to explore integrating these disparate desires. At this point, perhaps an example is in order, so let us return to the (formerly frustratingly) ubiquitous fried calamari.
The classic dish I grew to love while living in Rhode Island is comprised of fried semolina dusted calamari rings tossed with hot cherry peppers, lemon, parsley, and in the best versions a little brown butter. A very simple dish to be sure, but for me it is the quintessential preparation. It does, however, have its limitations. The moisture introduced from the lemon and brown butter in particular, ultimately lead to the loss of the subtle crispness of the calamari. The last few bites of the dish are still delicious, but texture is clearly compromised. How can we improve this aspect of the dish through the application of modern technique?
My approach would involve removing active moisture (items that are physically “wet”) and replace them with elements that supply more passive moisture, but let us first consider the squid itself. If we start with calamari “scaloppini” instead of rings we gain greater control of the application of garniture (and therefore moisture) because we have easy access to its entire surface area. We can then dehydrate the cherry peppers and grind them into a dust which can then be integrated with the semolina. To this we can add a little tapioca starch to enhance the crispness without excessive breading. The brown butter can be turned into a powder with N-Zorbit and the lemon can be mixed with cherry pepper vinegar and lecithin and be aerated. Add a few lightly dressed leaves of parsley and we have a dish that has all of the flavors of the classic, but in more functional and interactive forms.
While we have all likely riffed on classic dishes, my aim is to do so in a way that is distinctly modern while remaining true to the identity of the inspiration, to provide the opportunity to experience new culinary paradigms in an a la carte setting. Beyond this, I intend to be sure each item speaks to a point of view and highlights the ingredients at hand through the combined contexts of flavor, texture, aroma, visual appeal, intellectual stimulation, responsible provenance and historical connection. If we can do this, then we can provide an experience that is meaningful to a broad swath of the dining public. In moving forward, I want to present a cuisine at Satava that is inclusive, not exclusive, one that appeals to the epicurean and the everyman. Who says you can’t do both?