By Stacy Pearl, Executive Sous Chef Neuman’s Kitchen
It was a chilly winter day on the Lower East Side when Paul, passing me in the kitchen, asked me if I knew of Ottolenghi and the creative food they were making on the other side of the pond. I said of course, though they were not in existence years ago when I lived and worked in London, I had become a fan through their many cookbooks.
When the words “why don’t you see if you can set up an internship in the summer?” came out of his mouth, I thought my head was going to explode… What a fantastic opportunity that would be! I started the process by contacting Ottolenghi to see if they even entertained that sort of thing. After a series of correspondences, exchange of my credentials, and some waiting (we corresponded for over 3 months) I was in. I arranged to stay with my old flat mate in Shepherd’s bush, renewed my passport (which proved to be more challenging than expected) and said a two-week goodbye to America.
What did I hope to accomplish? First of all living and working in another country caused me to be very self-reflective and observant of my methods, creative process, and aesthetics. It’s easy to get comfortable and stop challenging yourself in a safe environment. Switch kitchens, use new ingredients, work with new chefs, and all kinds of great things happen. I was also interested in how the company ran. What kind of infrastructure exists, how are the many locations managed, and what is the corporate culture like. By the end of my 2 weeks I had made so many friends and learned so much. I came home energized and enlightened.
I decided to keep a daily blog in extreme detail so I could share the experience with my co-workers and remember every moment for myself. Below are some passages from my blog:
“Went in front door at 7AM and headed downstairs. First impression “Wow this place is tiny.” Only the baking crew was there; 3 young women from England, Brazil and Oakland, California. Got changed in closet /locker room with broken light (so in the dark). Then the rest of the crew arrived and I met Clare who runs the kitchen. I worked on the salad side all day. I started the day helping a young Israeli boy named Orie, by roasting off peppers, aborigines, and butter nut squash in high quality olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. They put the veg on lightly oiled parchment to roast and then put a clean linen towel underneath the parchment to cool it so it didn’t get soggy. They have 2 small ovens which they share with the bakers. We started assembling the arranged platters of roast vegetables, 3 of each some of which were dressed in the most unusual way. We made sauce out of Greek yogurt, tahini, walnut oil, S&P with some milk in to thin to the spattering consistency. The sauce is put in a serrated spoon which is tapped hard on your opposite hand thus creating a small but consistent splatter on top of the vegetables. Then we topped it with pomegranate seeds and candied walnuts. Recipes are pretty standardized, Clare knows them all and instructs the kitchen; nobody has anything on paper. There is one master prep list and Clare delegates. Some items are carried over to the next day but not much. Seasonings, spiced nuts, roast garlic confit and things like that are held for 3 days. There is a warning label which lists 15 major allergens including items like Lupines and you check off whatever the item contains and stick it on the container. Three of each item on the lunch menu is plattered up by the kitchen and brought upstairs one at a time to set up the storefront display. There is no turn-out line, the wait staff fills the orders from the front. They keep an hourly log of when the food is set out and if there is anything left after 3 hours they toss it. There is a refrigerated insert in the display where they keep the ambient (their term for room temp) roast chicken, sliced filet of English beef and roast salmon. Each day they do a different sauce, salsa or marinade but the proteins don’t vary that much. All the restaurants run the same menu which is decided on in a democratic chefs meeting every season. They run the same menu for about 7 weeks.”
“The dinner menu consists of 8 of the lunch salads and plattered proteins slightly modified, a cold appetizer (the Burrata) and then 8 different small plates from the hot side. The palate is a bit more complex at night because it includes Asian influences as well as Latin notes with Middle Eastern flavors. After a warm reception from my co-workers, I jumped in to help with dinner prep and I started with the cucumber-avocado gazpacho which is served under the Burrata. They add ascorbic acid to keep the color. The cucumbers are pureed and strained and then added to the avocado, garlic, apple vinegar, basil oil, and lemon juice and blended till smooth… very tasty. I made some dried shiitake mushroom crisps which we sprayed with sesame oil before putting in oven. They almost tasted like bacon. I grilled off some corn which we made into a nice fresh corn salsa. I pickled some baby beets, put up some fennel and red cabbage sour kraut and helped set up the line. I love how incredibly cordial this kitchen is. Everyone is very happy to work there and wants to visit NYC. We probably did about 130 covers which is pretty good on a Tuesday night in their slowest month of the year. One of my favorite items was a fresh corn polenta made by simmering fresh corn in water, straining out the water and putting it in the mixer with feta cheese and butter and whipping it till light and creamy. Some of the corn water is added back in to improve the texture. To plate this dish, the corn salsa was put on top of the polenta and topped with grilled octopus, which was sautéed in butter infused with Annatto seed and a little smoked paprika. Then a few sexy dots of Jalapeño cream and its done! They use octopus caught in Cornwall, portion and freeze it because they said it becomes tenderer and improves flavor. The pea and mint croquettes, the vegetarian option of the night was delish, coated with sesame seeds Panko and pumpkin seeds and served with a spunky yuzu mayo.”
“Today I had the most amazing experience at the upscale branch of Ottolenghi called Nopi which stands for North of Piccadilly. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To say the food was innovative would be an understatement. The restaurant is on a side street off Regent Street in a very posh part of the city. Mostly white with brass fixtures, clean and light. I headed downstairs to the kitchen which is open and faces the downstairs dining room. White subway tile on the walls and 2 large long white marble communal tables with rust colored veins through it. The kitchen is the most modern of all the establishments. They have 2 Rationale ovens, a sous vide system, a proper walk-in, a blast chiller and a nice long hot line. It the back there is more prep and a cooker (stove). I worked with a young man from Romania on the cold side. Once again it was a matter of making parts.
Once all the sauces, salads, pickles and stuff is in place turning out food is easy. We started by making the beetroot puree salad which was finished with vermouth vinegar, Greek yogurt, za atar, date syrup, and salt. We also made a shaved cauliflower salad with apple slices, micro basil, and a gorgonzola cream dressing. At 11:00 AM I was invited to the daily tasting where each section makes one of everything on the menu and the head chef tastes each item to make sure it is perfect. Some of the sauces were just amazing. The beef short rib is served on a brush stroke of caramelized horseradish puree which takes 8 full days to make, yes 8 days of processing! It is slow roasted in the skin along with herbs and seasonings, cleaned, then pureed then simmered, and eventually it becomes this sexy brown, velvety sauce which is simply divine. They served a free-standing pasta roll filled with wild mushrooms and spinach. There was also a savory lemon savory curd served with grilled scallops which was delish. Frankly the whole menu blew me away.”
“After eating my delicious healthy staff lunch I sat down with Sami for an interview. My first question was “how do you explain the consistent level of employee satisfaction, high quality of work and the great atmosphere?” His response: “I have no family, Ottolenghi is my family, they are very important people to me and we treat them very well.”
We also discussed the basically simple corporate structure and how it operates like a small business and how hands on he is. He is one of the top 4 people (there is Sami and Yotam, and 2 others I never met) who goes to each shop every day and tastes every single item. We talked about expansion (no desire to go past England), cookbooks (more coming Nopi next, then one on sweets), future projects (more travel), the business plan (they have nothing, it’s an organic evolution) and life in general. He was charming, funny and very modest. I thanked him and he thanked me for all my hard work and said every one enjoyed working with me. I invited him to come visit Neuman’s Kitchen and he said we should make him a party… I said we would throw him a parade. A kiss on each cheek and I was out of there. From start to finish a fantastic experience.”
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