Friday, March 6, 2015

Coffee with the Chef: Christine Nunn of Picnic on the Square

Christine Nunn wasn’t always on course to work in the kitchen — the 50-year-old chef and co-owner of Picnic on the Square in Ridgewood was once a journalist, and worked for the Ridgewood News after graduating with an English degree from Montclair State University in 1986.

By 2001, the Fair Lawn resident was working in Manhattan doing technical writing, but after 9/11, she decided that life was "too short to not do" exactly what she wanted to do.

She enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in January 2002 and even lived in the dorms for a semester at age 37 (which was "horrifying"). She graduated in December 2003 and created the catering company Picnic. In 2005, she opened a storefront in Emerson, where she stayed for five years before opening Picnic, The Restaurant in Fair Lawn, which garnered rave reviews. After 2 1/2 years, Picnic served its last meal on New Year’s Eve 2012.

In 2013, Nunn published "The Preppy Cookbook" and worked as executive chef at Grange restaurant in Westwood. Three months ago, she opened Picnic on the Square in Ridgewood. The lovely, brick-walled 34-seat New American restaurant received 2 1/2 stars from The Record last month.

Here, she talks about the technique home cooks should master and the best way to cook fish.

Favorite dish to cook: The Parisienne gnocchi ($14), which is served with a wild-mushroom sherry cream sauce — even though it’s a pain to make, and it takes a while to do. People flip over it.

The one technique home cooks should master: A good braise. And if I’m braising, I specifically make [the butcher] leave a little fat on top of the meat — if you used trimmed meat and try to braise it, it’s going to be dry. So if I do short ribs, I do it fat-side up … so the fat goes into the meat.

What home cooks should make at home but don’t: People are afraid to cook fish, afraid they’re going to overcook or undercook it. But fish, while it’s not forgiving, is quick to cook and it’s not hard. Give it a quick sauté first and finish it in just a little white wine, chicken stock and lemon juice, so the fish tastes moist — it’s much more forgiving that way. Don’t do just white wine and lemon, because it’s too acidic. You have to cut it with chicken stock or even water.

What diners would be surprised to learn about chefs: We love when other people cook for us. Most people are afraid to. We’re thrilled if someone makes us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Food fad I hate: Ancient grains, like quinoa or freekeh. They’re kind of boring. They don’t have much flavor, and there’s not much you can do with them.

Favorite local restaurant: Axia Taverna in Tenafly [whose owner is also part-owner of Picnic]. Chef Alex Gorant makes chicken like nobody’s business. I love Greek food, and it’s a nice, lemony, Greek-y chicken.

My favorite cheese shop: The cheese department at Fairway, or at Super Cellars in Ridgewood on Broad Street because they have such variety. I’m a big cheese snob; of course, I adore Stilton [blue cheese], but when I can get my hands on it I like Oxford blue, also from England. And I enjoy Affindelice au Chablis, which is a strong cheese similar to an Époisses. And of course, the terrific golden bits of doodle dust that grace the bottom of a bag of Cheez Doodles.

My feelings about having a BYO: Who wouldn’t love a liquor license? But at 34 seats, it would take an awful long time to pay for a liquor license at New Jersey prices. But we have a very nice wine store down the street.

Most valuable tool in my kitchen: Any fish turner; everyone should have one. I use it as a whisk, I use it as a spatula, I use it to stir sauce if I’m in a rush — and it picks up fish beautifully.

Three herbs and spices every home kitchen should have: Dried herbes de Provence — it’s such a nice blend of French herbs, and it gives everything a really nice flavor; white pepper — it’s got a little more bite than black pepper; and tarragon — it pairs with so many things, it’s great with any mushroom sauce, tomato sauce.

More info: Picnic on the Square, 26 Wilsey Square, Ridgewood, 201-444-4001; Appetizers: $8 to $20; entrées: $21 to $36.

— Steve Janoski


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Coffee with the Chef: Pastry chef Vicki Wells of L'artre della Pasticceria in Ramsey

Vicki Wells, pastry chef and partner at L'arte della Pasticceria in Ramsey, was inspired to cook at a young age by her grandmother, who grew up on a farm in Italy and loved to spend her days in the kitchen. The 56-year-old Hoboken resident studied under the famous Madeleine Kamman in Massachusetts on and off for two years, and also at La Varenne in Paris.

Back in America, she worked at Sarabeth's Kitchen and later became Bobby Flay's executive pastry chef, a position she held for nearly a decade. She was also executive pastry chef for Buddakan in New York before coming to L'arte as the executive pastry chef in January 2014.

Wells has taught at three cooking schools: the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center); the Institute of Culinary Education; and City University of New York (Brooklyn). She still makes an annual trip to Italy in the fall to teach a class in desserts at a small school in Umbria called Cucina della Terra, which caters to those taking culinary vacations.

Here, she talks about her love for bread pudding, what makes a good baker and why she refuses to work with rolled fondant.

What makes someone a good baker: Everyone always says pastry chefs and bakers have to be very precise and measure things exactly — and that's kind of true. But you've also got to have an instinct for making things taste good … and playing with flavor to get the most out of your ingredients.

The most difficult pastry to make: Making a menu of plated desserts is difficult; it has to have a wide range of texture and flavor, and it has to be very visual. I create all my own recipes and I've been doing that for quite a while; they're all difficult.

Pastry I wish I created: Pavlova. It's one of my favorite desserts. I don't make the classic version, but I really like the combination of meringue, whipped cream and fruit.

Best tip for home bakers: Don't be a slave to the recipe. You have to be flexible. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. We're not doing brain surgery here.

Best shortcut baking trick: There are no shortcuts. Making pastries is very labor-intensive. So just enjoy the process.

My favorite dessert: Bread pudding. I just love it. If it's on a menu, I almost always order it.

Favorite cookbook: I love any cookbook by Alice Medrich. She has the same philosophy that I do: focus on flavor, it's not about making things real sweet, so cut down on the sugar and bring out the flavor. Her recipes are beautiful. There's one called "Bittersweet" that I like.

What will replace the cupcake craze: Doughnuts. And I love doughnuts. I like exotic flavors like passion fruit. … I like citrus.

Favorite food movie: "Chocolat."

Best-selling item in the shop: A crumb-cake called torte sbrisolona, which is like a classic Italian crumb-cake filled with chocolate and ricotta cheese ($3.50 per slice, $28 for an 8-inch).

Worst ingredient to bake with: Rolled fondant. It's popular because you can mold it into anything, but every time someone comes in and I say, "I don't actually use that," they say, "I hate the way it tastes anyway." I'm focused on flavor. … We don't do a cake that looks like a Ferrari here.

More info: L'Arte della Pasticceria, 109 E Main St., Ramsey; 201-934-3211;


The last picture of my girl

Friday, February 27, 2015

Chef Carlos Valdez of Oceanaire in Hackensack on cooking lobster and ramen noodles

Carlos Valdez, the newly crowned Ultimate Chef Bergen County, started cooking for himself around middle school — his mom was always good at it, he says, but he was very "particular" about how the meals were prepared.

"I wanted certain things a certain way," says the 37-year-old executive chef of the Oceanaire Seafood Room in The Shops at Riverside in Hackensack. He'd question his mother if, say, the lasagna tasted a little different on a given day.

The Hawthorne native started his career at Houston's (in the same Hack- ensack mall) as a bartender part-time for four years while completing his bachelor's degree in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. After graduation, he completed the management training program at the Hillstone Restaurant Group (Houston's parent company) and was transferred to the Rutherford Grill in Napa Valley, Calif., where he was the assistant kitchen manager (similar to a sous chef). A year later he was transferred to the Hillstone Restaurant in New York City, where he was also assistant kitchen manager, before leaving the company in 2006 for the executive chef position at Halcyon Brasserie, a fine-dining spot in Montclair.

He worked there for a year before opening his own restaurant, the Red Hen Bistro in Wood-Ridge but sold the 35-seat French-American bistro three years later and became executive chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in September 2013.

Here, he talks about how to cook seafood, the key to a perfect lobster, and why he loves ramen noodles.

The secret to cooking seafood: Realizing that what you are cooking is very delicate. You have to approach it with medium heat and less [cook time], and when you pair it with flavors, be careful not to mask the essence of the fish. I try never to make fish with pasta dishes that have very robust, tomato sauces; it's like you're eating two different things.

Favorite fish: Skate wing. The taste is very buttery, almost steak-like. That with some dark winter greens is just phenomenal.

Toughest dish to cook at my restaurant: The hash browns. You have to have good technique to flip them over. Not everybody can pull it off.

Key to cooking a perfect lobster: Knowing the weight of the lobster tail, because that's going to tell you how many minutes it goes in the steamer or pot — it's about a minute per ounce. A 1 1/4-pound lobster usually has a six-ounce tail, so you want to go six to seven minutes.

Guilty pleasure: In college, my wife put me onto cheap, packaged, really spicy ramen noodles. One of those and an egg cracked into it, I'm in heaven. It's great.

Simplest tip to improve home cooking: It's always fine to start with high flame to warm up your pan, but the minute the protein or vegetables hit the pan, you should lower it to medium. Even when you want to sear something: If you leave it on high, you'll over-caramelize the surface, and the inside probably won't yet be cooked.

What diners would be surprised to learn about chefs: That we are a lot less intense when we're out to eat. I just want to eat something and enjoy it – I don't want to take it apart.

Favorite local restaurant: Café Matisse in Rutherford. Chef Peter Loria has a way of being playful with flavors … I can almost close my eyes and point [at the menu], it's always great.

How I know I'm being ripped off in a restaurant: When you get a luxury item at a price that's too good to be true, you have to wonder, because good food is expensive. It happens a lot unfortunately with scallops.

My culinary hero: My executive sous-chef Justin Manzi. Working with him is a pleasure — as soon as we start talking about food, it's energizing, and it creates such a good energy. And that's necessary to work in a kitchen.

More info: The Oceanaire Seafood Room, The Shops at Riverside, 390 Hackensack Ave.; 201-343-8862; the Appetizers: $6 to $37; entrées: $22 to $60.