How Stages Projects Challenges Cooks to Become Better Chefs

We started Stages Projects based on the idea of Noma’s Saturday Night Projects, when any cook can present a dish he has been working on for critique. I always loved the idea of that kind of collaboration, about getting that kind of honesty in a positive way. You don’t just say that a dish sucked, you talk about why. It encourages cooks to ask what makes a dish work. That’s what we want to do at Stages Projects: collaborate, learn and ask those questions.

We opened it up to any cook in the area, to raise awareness and hear from more people. When it started, we picked three or four cooks to present a technique they’ve never done. Honestly, that became a little lackluster, so we changed it up a bit. I gave a set of ingredients to four cooks, and asked them to present different techniques and perspectives. That concept started out great, but then died off a bit. I thought people would test themselves—and they did—but it just wasn’t as much as I wanted it to be. We had to take things to the level where it would useful to more people.

For the next session, I gave out assignments for the presentations, for the presenting cooks to apply different ecosystems—the ocean, forest, field and pasture—to any region in the world. I did field,  with food from northern Russia. The person who took fire did French cooking, and explained the history of burnt custard. The cook who took earth did Indian cooking, and the cook who did wind did Dutch cooking.

It was huge; it just worked out so well. We had about 25 cooks from restaurants all over the area, and they had a ton of questions. The presentations were phenomenal, and so was the size and enthusiasm of the crowd. Everybody had their notebooks out, and the level of education jumped another level.

For the next session, we talked about the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. People just ran with it, presenting ideas from all over the world. They dug into history, which is so important. Anytime you can walk up to your cutting board with hundreds years of history in your head, you are going to cook that much better. You have more understanding of where you and the food come from.

For our latest session, I went into historic moments in history that shaped modern cuisines, focusing on the Aztecs, ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, and Edo, Japan. One of the biggest challenges was for cooks to remove their cooking from themselves. We are so influenced by what we know about culture and cooking, but it’s important to cook the food and present it as people did originally, not our take on it. The idea was to recreate history; to learn from it before we update it. That was a big part of the discussion; how hard it was to stay true to the original. People wanted to do composed plates, but that wouldn’t be accurate. It got everybody to stop and think about each time period and place, instead of plating the food with a garnish.

Anytime you can walk up to your cutting board with hundreds years of history in your head, you are going to cook that much better. - Evan Hennessey

One of my cooks tackled the roots of Aztec and Mexican cooking, and made these cacao beverages that traveling warriors would have taken with them in powdered form. They were cold, bitter, unsweetened, and thickened with corn. Honestly, they were a little mealy. For today’s standards, there was nothing delectable about them, but it was important for us to experience them as they were made then, and learn about them.

For the portion on ancient Greece, we talked about how different grains were used in cooking. They had domestic and imported spices like black pepper and cinnamon, as well as honey and wild yeast, so we tried an unleavened flatbread made with ground barley, honey and coriander. It was thick and dense, and again, a food that was nutritious and highly portable, sustainable for long periods of time. They needed something that could survive, like hardtack in Colonial times.

We also tried a barley porridge seasoned with capers, oregano, chervil and sage. It brought up the conversation on how to brine something like the capers with seawater. When we brine or ferment now, we base everything on percentages, but they didn’t have those. It led to a conversation about the idea of seasoning, how we are taught to taste and season and check along the way, but they didn’t do that. Back then, it was about sustenance and need instead of deliciousness and want.

When we talked about Italian Renaissance, we talked about Bartolomeo Scappi, who was the first private chef. He cooked for six different popes, and wrote a cookbook in 1570 with over a thousand recipes with drawings, including documentation of the first banquets. We talked about the huge art movement happening at the same time, and the crossover in how the food was presented. We weren’t able to find the book, but the presenting cook created a pasta dish using a lot of coarse grain, made from a very basic pasta dough, with broth and herbs.

My sous chef and I have wanted to grind our own flour, using the wheat, amaranth and rye grown around here. We got into conversation about why we use 00 flour to create the smooth texture we expect. If we’re able to grind grains, lentils and beans in-house, we could create some interesting doughs; it would be cool to experiment with the different starch levels.

For Edo, Japan, we looked at the years 1603-1868, when eating and dining in Japan became nuanced, and the subtle and beautiful flavors we know evolved. This was when the area experienced a lot of economic and cultural growth as well as a population boom, so the social and economic classes became more divided—the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. We learned that breakfast was the biggest meal of the day for the lower classes, and they ate a lot of tempura and noodle dishes. They had some fish, maybe a light broth with a piece of fried fish. Their diet was very carb-heavy, which makes sense for the work they were doing. The upper classes had a lot more variety, with rice, soup, pickles, fresh and fried fish and tofu. Their dinner was more vegetable-driven, with rice and sushi served in bento boxes.

They used seaweed into their pickling liquids, as a liquid salt component. I tasted it, and got that definitive seaweed flavor in there. Pickles, fermentation and seaweed are a big part of what we do at Stages, and I want to adapt that into our preservation program here based on what we learned. There’s a lot we can do with seaweed and fermentation.

It was a great night. Cooks came from almost an hour away to get to the restaurant after service; there was a line at the door waiting for the last guests to leave. At one point, I saw it was 2am, and we were still going strong. I like the energy we had. We play music in the background; a lot of old school hip-hop. So we’re talking about ancient grains, and Dr. Dre comes on. We’re in our own element here.

Nights like this are important for us. Gone are the days of keeping recipes secret. The more we know, the more we help each other become better cooks.

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