By Adam Erace
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Laurel, the first book from restaurateur and Top Chef winner Nicholas Elmi, promises to be as engrossing and delicious as its restaurant namesake, a culinary stronghold in South Philly.
Elmi’s French background and training informed Laurel from the start, but Laurel is a true American restaurant with a modern feel. The acclaimed nine-course tasting menu is unmatched in Philadelphia. Elmi does seasonality just right.
- Fall brings Apple-Yuzu Consommé, Marinated Trout Roe, and Bitter Greens.
- Winter serves up Bourbon-Glazed Grilled Lobster, Crunchy Grains, and Apple Blossom,
- Spring is evidenced by Black Sea Bass, Peas, and Rhubarb
- Summer is distilled in Marigold-Compressed Kohlrabi, Buckwheat, and Cured Egg.
The book is also a letter of gratitude to the restaurant’s suppliers, whose work colors every dish they serve. Each chapter is a full nine-course tasting menu with accompanying cocktail, and almost as delicious on the page as the meal itself.
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FIVE THOUSAND CASH AND TEQUILA
We opened Laurel, a modern American restaurant steeped in French tradition, in a tiny space on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly in 2013. I had just finished filming Top Chef, but it was before the finale aired. I knew I had won, but I couldn’t tell anyone besides my wife, Kristen. There were confidentiality agreements; everything was top secret.
I had quit my last chef job, at Rittenhouse Tavern in Center City, to do the show. Before that I worked for Georges Perrier for thirteen years on and off, first at Brasserie Perrier, then at Le Bec-Fin, where I was the head chef for three and a half years. I knew it was time to open my own place. We had been looking and looking for a space all around the city. Lee Styer had been my sous chef at Le Bec for six months and left in 2008 to open Fond on Passyunk. He had moved the restaurant to a larger location across from the Singing Fountain, which is like the town square of our neighborhood, with a fountain in the center that plays music. When it’s warm out, little kids splash around in the water. There’s a small farmers’ market on Wednesdays. At Christmas, the neighborhood association puts up a big tree and has a lighting ceremony with hot cider and carols.
I have a special attachment to East Passyunk. When I first moved to Philly in 2000 to work at Brasserie Perrier, I crashed on my brother’s couch for a month, then moved to an apartment with my sous chef at the time and his wife on 13th and Morris Streets, a couple of blocks off “the Avenue,” as locals call it. There was no fountain then, no farmers’ market, none of the restaurants that would eventually come to define Passyunk as one of the city’s best dining strips. But I liked it here. It was clean and safe and felt like a real neighborhood. This is the first place I lived, in what was to me a new city. I grew up in West Newbury, Massachusetts, on the Merrimack River. I came to Philly to cook and never left.
By the time I was ready to open Laurel and looking for a space, the Avenue was gaining traction. There were great restaurants like Paradiso and Will and cool small shops. Food & Wine named East Passyunk one of the top food destinations in America. There was a real energy down here that I wanted to be a part of. What I loved about the area so much, and still love about it, is that all the successful restaurants have chefs that are in their restaurants. People who open restaurants here are people who want to be in the kitchen, who want to have their hands in the food. That creates a realness to the cuisine and the restaurants.
So Lee’s original space was sitting empty. He was thinking of doing a brunch place or a gallery, but while we were playing poker at his house one night, we drank tequila and I persuaded him to sublease it to me. I gave him $5,000 cash, and he said I could have the lease. Four months later, Laurel was open.
A COMFORTABLE PLACE
I was twenty-seven when I started working at Le Bec-Fin, and after three and half years there, I was a mess. I don’t know how my wife stayed with me. During my first year there we went through thirty-two cooks. Thirty-two.
For a cook in Philly at that time, Le Bec was the peak of the professional mountain. It had been considered the best restaurant in the city for forty years, a temple of French fine dining that had put Philly on the culinary map in 1970. (Chef Perrier has a street named after him, to give you an idea of his notoriety.) The environment was very intense. Chef thrives in chaos. He needed to yell, he needed to scream, something had to be wrong all the time. We would make the porcini sauce for our ravioli, for example. I’d take a quart upstairs for service, and he would say, “It’s perfect!” The next day, I would bring him a quart of the very same batch of sauce to taste, and he would say, “It’s shit!” It messes with your head, to the point where I was almost broken by the time I left.
But he was also very paternal. When I’m with him—and we have a great relationship now—I treat him as if he’s my father. When my old chefs ask about him, they say, “How’s Father?” When things were bad at Le Bec, we wouldn’t talk about quitting. We talked about running away.
I never got the chance. In 2012, Chef sold Le Bec. The new owner called the entire staff into the dining room, along with the new chef, and said that everyone had the opportunity to keep their job. I spoke up, “Except for me, right?” To go through almost four years at Le Bec and have it capped by that.… I left with a chip on my shoulder.
When I opened Laurel, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted it to be, but I knew I didn’t want it to be Le Bec. During the entire time I had been the chef at Le Bec, not one of my friends came in to eat. But I understood. Nobody wants to sit down in a stuffy dining room. Nobody wants to be uncomfortable in a restaurant, physically or emotionally.
A quick story: my wife and I went with two other couples to a very famous restaurant two years ago, and the service… well, they weren’t very nice to us. It was like they looked down on us because we only ordered three bottles of wine instead of six or ten. We were shoulder to shoulder at a four top—six people at a table meant for four—and we spent $1,400 per couple. I don’t like that feeling. And I didn’t like what we did at Le Bec either. We had regulars that came in every week and spent thousands of dollars on wine. It was like we knew whom we were going to make money off of, and if we didn’t think we were going to make money off of you, we were going to get you in and get you out quickly. It was cold and detached.
Every day at Laurel, I try to remember those feelings and make sure we don’t treat people that way. I want it to be a comfortable place. We have less than five hundred square feet to work with in the dining room, but the chairs are big and comfortable and the tables are large. Sometimes I have to tell my staff to chill out, take a deep breath, and smile. People come to Laurel—to any restaurant—to have a good time. If you’re not having fun as a server, then the diners aren’t going to have fun. If you’re stiff or too ceremonial, they’re going to feel like they’re in a formal restaurant. And that’s not what we are.
THE TASTING MENU
Because I didn’t want to be associated with the formality of a tasting menu, we opened Laurel as an à la carte restaurant. But within the first couple of months, we noticed that although some customers ordered every single dish on the menu, others might split an appetizer, each get an entrée, share a dessert, and bounce. You can do that with an à la carte menu. Going out to eat can be an expensive proposition, and many people save up to do it. We wanted to be conscious of that, while also giving diners the full expression of what we do in the kitchen, of our style of food. We transitioned to a tasting-menu-only restaurant a year and a half after we opened. We now offer six- and nine-course options.
There’s been a lot of debate lately between chefs, diners, and food journalists about the merits of tasting menus. The main argument from the anti-tasting camp is that tasting menus give all the control to the chef and minimize the agency of the diner, who is subject to the will of a capricious artist. I get that. But I don’t think of myself that way. Sure, I make food that I hope my customers will see as beautiful, but the chef-as-artiste thing just doesn’t feel true to me. I think chefs are more like masons or carpenters. Cooking is physical work, and although creativity is critical in a kitchen, so is consistency.
When you sit down to dinner at Laurel, we don’t give you a menu. We ask if there’s anything you can’t eat or don’t eat, and we go from there. We want it to be like you’re going to somebody’s house. If you invited me over to dinner at your house, I wouldn’t sit down at your dining room table and say, “I’ll have the fish.” I’d eat whatever you made me.
When building each day’s tasting menu, we think about flow: if we’re going to do something that’s a savory umami bomb, like our Burgundy snail dish (here), what do we do for the next course to lighten it up and bring you back? Because you can’t serve a heavy, salty dish back to back with another heavy, salty dish. Everything has a place. That basic principle formulates our opinion on what we’re doing and where we’re putting stuff on the menu. We want to give you a thoughtful progression of temperatures, textures, and flavors.
It takes a really long time for us to get a dish on the menu: about two to three weeks and ten iterations before a dish ever sees the dining room. Central to the creation of a new dish are four questions:
1. What ingredient are we working with that might feel unfamiliar to our guests?
2. What technique are we using to showcase it or highlight it, to make it more intense, whether through concentrating or fermenting, or to mellow it out?
3. What ingredient are we using in an unexpected way—for example, a savory ingredient you wouldn’t think of in a pastry dish, or a sweet ingredient you wouldn’t think of in a savory one?
4. How will it look? What is the surprise, the wow factor? If I’m dropping a dish in front of you, what’s going to make you think, “This is awesome, this is beautiful, and I can’t wait to eat it.”
Our approach is to find the best product and treat it with as much respect as possible. In Philadelphia, we are surrounded by some of the most fertile farmland in the country, and we work with Pennsylvania and New Jersey farmers like the Brendle family of Green Meadow Farm, Ben Wenk of Three Springs Fruit Farm, Alex Wenger of Field’s Edge Research Farm, Evan Strusinski, David Siller, and Diane Gabler of Pinelands Produce to source amazing product all through the year.
Laurel is often tagged as a French restaurant because of my background, but although we use lots of French technique, we’re an American restaurant. Ninety-nine percent of the product is American. But we also do Italian things. We do Japanese things. We do French things. And that’s what it means to be an American restaurant right now. In this industry, there’s an impulse to label and categorize, both the type of food you’re cooking and the type of restaurant you’re running. I tell my crew that we just want to be the best example of X. We want to be the best BYOB in the city. We want to be the best fine dining. We want to be the best date night. We want to be the best of everything. And if we feel like we’re slacking in any category, we push.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
Recipes from four tasting menus, one from each season, fill the following pages. Each features eight savory courses, a dessert, and a complementary cocktail from our bar next door, In the Valley. Together they form blueprints for re-creating a Laurel tasting menu at home. They’re designed to give you the flow and balance in flavors, temperatures, and textures we engineer at the restaurant, so if you’ve got the time and ambition, I would highly encourage you to prepare a whole menu and throw a kickass dinner party (and please invite me). Obviously that won’t work for everyone, so while these recipes are designed to complement one another, each can also stand on its own. Page through the book and see what jumps out at you. Want to learn how to process a whole lobe of foie gras (here), or bond black-trumpet stuffing to a butterflied Dover sole (here)? We’ve got you. Or maybe the gnocchi that are my daughter Grace’s favorite (here) are more your speed. Different recipes—and the recipes within the recipes—throughout this book cover skill levels that range from beginner to very proficient, and it’s perfectly okay to cherry-pick. As a professional chef and habitual cookbook buyer, I have always thought that a cookbook was worth buying if I get one idea or one recipe out of it. I think of it as improving my repertoire, $30 to $50 at a time.
MEASUREMENTS AND TIMING
The recipes included in this book are real dishes that we cook at Laurel, and they are authentic with regard to how they’re made at the restaurant, which usually means according to metric measurements. We weigh almost everything in grams, but in transcribing our recipes from dozens of black Moleskines for this project, we’ve also included their American conversions.
Every dish we serve at Laurel has multiple and sometimes time-consuming components, and since our kitchen is about the size of a walk-in closet, we have to be strategic about how we utilize time and space. So apples roast for thirty-six hours in a barely warm oven; onion tops can spend half a day in the dehydrator; lamb saddles take twenty-two days of hanging to cure; proteins circulate sous vide overnight. Hang around our kitchen in the afternoon and there’s a high probability you’ll hear, “Siri, set timer for seventy-two hours.” Please read a recipe in its entirety before starting to cook it in order to determine the schedule best suited to your kitchen (and your life). Except where it makes sense to do otherwise, we’ve written these recipes starting with the component that takes the most time, progressing to the component that takes the least. The upside to this method is that almost everything can be made in advance and then finished to order in less than ten minutes (as described in the “To Plate” portion of each recipe), which is exactly how we do it at the restaurant.
Our master recipes are batched out in portions of ten, fifteen, and twenty, because that’s how they’re best suited to our space and our reservation book. Because that’s not the case for the home cook, we’ve scaled the majority of the recipes down to the number that suits each best. With some exceptions, smaller courses like the Wellfleet Oyster Cream (here) are typically scaled for four or six, while the heartier, protein-driven courses like Braised Lamb Neck (here) are portioned for two or four. Some dishes require components that can’t be scaled down in a meaningful way—try making just a tablespoon of black raspberry preserves, duck jus, or chive oil—and in those cases you’ll have some leftovers. Fortunately, black raspberry preserves, duck jus, and chive oil are delicious on lots of other things not in this book. This also goes for pickles and ferments, which we usually prepare in one-pound batches. Store leftovers in the fridge for future snacking.
Although we focus on seasonal ingredients, our menus don’t so much represent moments in the Mid-Atlantic as they are mosaics of what our farmers are growing in a given week, what our foragers are harvesting from seashores and woods, and what we’ve preserved through canning, pickling, fermentation, and dehydration throughout the growing season. Each recipe is presented the way we make it, right down to the apple blossoms, bachelor’s buttons, and Olio Verde, the Sicilian extra-virgin I keep in a squeeze bottle at my station to finish certain dishes. Appropriate substitutions are noted throughout the book. As for pantry ingredients, a new generation of accomplished home cooks has forced food stores to up their game. Things like agar-agar, xanthan gum, canned Burgundy snails, and bottled yuzu juice are easier than ever to source. If all else fails, order online.
Activa: An enzyme that binds amino acids in proteins. Its generic name is active transglutanimase, but it often goes by the nickname “meat glue.”
Agar-agar: A seaweed-based hydrocolloid used for gelling.
Black garlic: Garlic that has been cooked very slowly so that the sugars have caramelized. We buy this ingredient, but we also make our own versions with other alliums like shallots (here) and garlic scapes (here).
Burgundy snails: Snails from Burgundy, France, sold cooked and canned. These are the most consistently beautiful and tender escargots I’ve ever had.
Citric acid: A powder derived from isolating the acidic compounds of citrus fruit.
Cremodan 30: An ice cream and sorbet stabilizer containing locust bean gum, monoglycerides, guar gum, and carrageenan.
Feuille de brik: A sturdy, crepe-like dough that crisps up very well. It is sold in large sheets.
Gelatin: An animal-based thickener in powdered or sheet form. It comes in bronze, silver, gold, and platinum grades, each creating a stiffer gel than the last. We use silver sheets for all of our recipes.
Glucose syrup: Glucose is a simple sugar that is less sweet than white sugar (which is a mixture of the two sugars glucose and fructose). In America, glucose syrup is predominantly made with corn.
Isomalt: A sugar substitute that’s a sugar alcohol. It typically comes in powdered or pebbled form.
Kasu: The residual yeast, or lees, left over from making sake. It has a strong fermented-rice flavor.
Koji: Inoculated fermented rice used to make everything from sake to miso. We use it in extract and vinegar forms.
Malic acid: An isolated acid derived from apples.
Seaweeds: We use dried kombu for enhancing many of our stocks, though the Bourbon-Glazed Grilled Lobster (here) calls for bladderwrack, a fresh seaweed harvested along the Atlantic. We also use liquid kelp extract.
Tapioca maltodextrin: We use this starchy thickener to stabilize and disperse fats when making powders or crisps.
Tartaric acid: Cream of tartar, a versatile ingredient derived predominantly from grapes that can be used in leavening, souring, and as an antioxidant.
Trimoline: An inverted sugar derived predominantly from beets.
Truffle jus: Liquid derived from fermented truffles. We buy it from D’Artagnan.
Ultra-Tex 8: A hydrocolloid derived from tapioca root.
Versawhip: A modified soy protein used as a substitute for eggs in whipping.
Vin jaune: French wine made from late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
White soy sauce: A lighter, more delicately flavored soy sauce, made with a greater ratio of wheat to soy.
Yuzu: A distinctive Japanese citrus fruit that’s not typically eaten; the juice and the rind have many applications. We use bottled juice most often.
Xanthan gum: A vegetable-based thickening agent. We often thicken sauces with xanthan to reduce the amount of butter used and for the better flavor release it facilitates.
A short glossary of plants and produce also appears in the back of the book.
Here are some ingredient standards that apply to the recipes unless otherwise specified:
• Butter is unsalted.
• Milk is whole.
• Eggs are large.
• Olive oil is extra-virgin, your preferred brand. Olio Verde, my favorite, is called for specifically throughout the book to finish certain dishes.
• Salt is Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Do not use Morton’s; the food will turn out twice as salty. Other salts that appear in this book include Maldon sea salt for finishing, and curing salt for charcuterie.
• Sugar is white granulated. Light and dark brown sugars, caster sugar, and sanding sugar also appear in this book and are indicated by name.
• Citrus juices are freshly squeezed. The only exception is yuzu juice, which we buy bottled. All zest is freshly grated.
• Flowers, herbs, and garnishes are fresh.
• Fruits and vegetables are medium in size, washed, and peeled. For items that run extra dirty, like mushrooms, daylilies, celery root, and some other foraged plants, additional cleaning may be noted in the process.
• Except for boiling, all water we use is filtered, since Philly tap water runs high in calcium.
You might see an unfamiliar piece of equipment listed here or there throughout the book, but don’t worry—I don’t expect you to run out and buy a Pacojet. With very few exceptions, all of these recipes can be made with everyday kitchen gear. Here are some general notes to consider.
Vacuum Bags and Sealers
You’ll often see a recipe call for vacuum bags. These are the plastic bags that go with our sealer, which combines ingredients in an oxygen-free environment. We use the sealer for four techniques: (1) compressing the flavor of one ingredient into another, as in the Marigold-Compressed Kohlrabi (here), (2) fermenting, (3) pickling, and (4) prepping ingredients to cook sous vide in a water bath. There are two types of sealers on the market. A chamber sealer is what we use at the restaurant (and also what you’ll find in most professional kitchens), and it works for all these techniques. The FoodSaver and similar versions are smaller, less expensive, and widely available, but they only work for two of the four techniques: fermenting and sous vide. Since compressing and pickling involve wet ingredients, you need a chamber sealer, which is compatible with liquids. The FoodSaver will suck some or all of the liquid out of the bag, even on the wet/moist setting, but it works fine for fermentation and for sealing ingredients for water-bath cooking. For compressing without a chamber sealer, the closest approximation is macerating the ingredients together for thirty-six hours. You won’t change the texture of the fruit or vegetable, but you will get some flavor in there. To pickle without a chamber sealer, just use the traditional crock or glass jar method people have been using for centuries. We use bags at the restaurant to save space. And if you don’t have a sealer, here’s a cool hack: Grab a sturdy zip-top plastic bag, the kind with the little plastic zipper at the top, fill it with the ingredients, and slowly lower it into a pot of water while it is still open. As you lower it, the surrounding water pressure will naturally compress the ingredients in the bag and expel the air. Lower the bag until the zipper is just above the surface of the water, then seal.
NO SEALER: Macerate
FOODSAVER: Traditional pickle
NO SEALER: Traditional pickle
NO SEALER: Water-pressure hack
Sous Vide Cooking
NO SEALER: Water-pressure hack
Each recipe that involves vacuum sealing will specify a bag size of small, medium, or large, and whether to seal on low or high. Each sealer model is different, so consult your manual. Ours counts down from sixty seconds. For low seal we stop the process at forty-five seconds. For high seal we let it count all the way down. I’m pretty sure we have the ability to preprogram these settings, but we’ve never gotten around to doing so (or have never been able to figure it out), so my chef de cuisine, Eddie Konrad, and I usually just stare at it and count.
Sous Vide Cooking and Immersion Circulators
While you can often get around the need for a vacuum sealer, there’s no easy way to substitute for the control and precision you can achieve with an immersion circulator. We cook most of our proteins at Laurel sous vide at least partway, so many of the recipes in this book reflect that. If you don’t have one already, there are several easy-to-use immersion circulators on the market designed for home cooks. Anova’s model attaches to any deep pot and costs less than $100, a worthwhile investment you’ll wind up using even when you’re not cooking from this book.
We dehydrate a lot—and I’m not talking about getting thirsty during service. Onion tops, strawberries, mushrooms, and garlic scapes are just few of the things that get dried in our Excalibur dehydrator. This lets us preserve foods from other seasons, create new textures, and turn waste into something usable and delicious. If you have a dehydrator, great. If not, your oven set to its lowest temperature can perform the same function. Arrange whatever you want to dehydrate on a wire rack set into a sheet pan, and leave it in the oven anywhere from twelve to twenty-four hours, but consult independent recipes before getting started. Note that the recipes for Black Garlic Scapes (here) and Black Shallots (here) would tie up your oven for three weeks, which is obviously not feasible unless you happen to be on a raw diet. An electric dehydrator will be significantly less obtrusive. “Black” alliums can also be made in a rice cooker.
- "This gloriously photographed book does belong on a coffee table, or at least a bar, so that even if you're not cooking the recipes you can at least imagine them in an aspirational way."—-Forbes
- On Sale
- Sep 17, 2019
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Running Press