The pressures of the pandemic have forced many of us to be more resourceful in the kitchen and learn new tricks; for others, it’s made us admit that we have a long way to go in the cooking department. No matter where you fall, the six chefs we spoke to have strategies for being creative with what you have at home, and ideas for creating meals that are both comforting and delicious.
Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn)
Dominique Crenn, the first female chef in the United States to receive three Michelin stars, is the visionary behind San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. For the past few months, Crenn has been enjoying time at home with her fiancé and children, and at Atelier Crenn, the team is giving back to the community through delicious food. “We are creating dishes for our community, so I’ve been able to go into the kitchen and cook a bit,” she says. “Being extremely careful and following all protocol, of course.”
Crenn’s scaled-back home kitchen may not have the wide range of tools available at her establishments, but that hasn’t stopped her from experimenting and playing with flavor: “I believe a lot in preserving and fermenting. This is a time when you can be looking into how to make your own vinegars, pickles, canning your vegetables, making kimchi….There is time to work on these projects that are delicious, good for the planet, and good for your body!”
Out of all the tools available at Atelier Crenn, Crenn has been missing the smoker most. “I love the flavor of smoke; I infuse broths and creams with smoke at the restaurant to give them depth,” she says. “I suppose I could have one in my home, but it would make the entire building smell quite strongly!”
Dominique Crenn’s Ratatouille
The comforting staple Crenn returns to time and again is ratatouille. “It’s such a simple dish, but it’s so visually appealing and is absolutely delicious,” she says. It’s not only a favorite for Crenn, but for the entire family: “My six-year-old daughters are extremely healthy and love fruit and vegetables so much. I love coming up with colorful dishes for them, often using produce from our farm.”
How to make restaurant-quality ratatouille? Crenn explains: “Onion, garlic, red pepper, crushed tomatoes on the bottom with your herbs…I personally love using basil, zucchini, tomato, eggplant, and yellow squash on top. I slice all of them very thinly into disks. Then you have so much fun layering them one after the other to create a wheel around your dish—I love the shallow roasting dishes from Le Creuset—until you have this beautiful kaleidoscope of colors before you. Olive oil, salt, pepper, and then into the oven to roast at a high heat.
“You don’t need much with this; it’s a meal in itself. Good bread. Delicious French cheese. And a glass of rosé….It’s like being in the south of France. You feel satisfied, but also light.”
Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli (Don Angie)
Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, the husband-and-wife team behind the West Village’s lauded Italian spot Don Angie, are “sticking this out” in their one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.
“We definitely miss being at the restaurant and our staff and customers, but we are fortunate that most of our family and friends are staying safe and well during these times, and that is the most important thing,” they say.
The couple urge flexibility and creativity while cooking at home. “People are working with limited supplies from their pantries and shouldn’t worry so much about following recipes to a tee,” they say. “They can swap out ingredients as needed and get creative with what they have. That’s how the best new discoveries are made!”
For instance, “Scott has been nurturing a sourdough starter, and one of our favorite discoveries is the many other uses for it aside from bread-making. We’ve used it in everything from pancakes to pie crust, to even in our pasta.”
Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli’s Fresh Pasta
“Pasta making is really fun because it’s so versatile—there are so many different styles of dough and so many different shapes to make,” say Rito and Tacinelli. “We make a few different types of fresh pastas with a blend of a few different types of flours (00, durum, semolina), some recipes with eggs or egg yolks, and others with just water.
“Some are made entirely by hand, and some are made with the assistance of a pasta sheeter. It’s a fun project for us to work on together, and the results are well worth the effort!”
Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita)
Holly Smith, the mastermind behind Kirkland, Washington’s Cafe Juanita, is hopeful that this time will further illuminate our relationship with food and the food industry. “Good things always come from bad during challenging moments in time,” she says. “I’m optimistic that connectivity to food and an awareness of our food chain, and the people who live and work along that food chain, will create a change in our expectations and commitment to safe and accessible food for everyone.”
With her restaurant closed for patrons and her son attending school remotely, Smith has plenty of time to spend at home: “To amuse ourselves we have targets outside for throwing knives, a BB gun, and a tomahawk. We’ve also rebuilt our garden boxes and planted seeds that are starting to emerge.”
While Smith is missing the restaurant, her home kitchen has all of the tools she needs with six burners, a flat top and grill, multiple ovens, a well-stocked Sub-Zero, and an island stove. When it comes down to it, Smith feels that “a cast-iron pan and a nice Le Creuset pot are all you need…[and] maybe a microplane.”
For those looking for big bursts of flavor to keep on hand, Smith recommends stocking your kitchen with kimchi, pickled vegetables, capers, tapenade, hot sauces, and yuzu kosho (a hot, citrusy Japanese condiment). “I keep those things around to add extra punch,” she says. “Grow herbs on your window sill, front steps, or garden.”
Holly Smith’s Rice Noodle Salad
“One of our favorites as the sun comes out is a cold or room-temperature rice noodle salad with every veggie in the house,” says Smith, who uses charred broccolini, raw carrot ribbons, charred and raw green onion, avocado, and arugula. For the sauce, she combines garum (a Vietnamese fish sauce), lime, tamarind, and a pinch of sugar.
Use any rice noodles you’d like. “I have been experimenting using wider rice noodles, but vermicelli noodles are an easy first start,” she advises. “Lotus Foods has pad Thai noodles that are organic and easy to find in many grocery stores—I cook these a little longer than recommended since they are not being cooked in a sauce and seared hot.”
Add garum (3 Crabs or Red Boat brand), tamarind paste, and veggies. “While I enjoy seafood—we are fortunate to have access to amazing spot prawns and octopus—and tofu, a well-seared and rested steak sliced on top or grilled chicken thighs are also great,” she says.
For enhanced flavor, a trick she offers is adding marinated shallots: shave or thinly slice them, and then place them in a shallow dish with garum for 30 minutes to an hour: “You still need to make the dressing, but these shallots will punctuate the entire dish. I also like to have some chilies available to spice things up.
“Lastly, and most importantly, keep your sense of humor, try new things, and be kind to yourself and whomever is cooking for you.”
Tom Naumsuwan (Wayla)
Bangkok-born chef Tom Naumsuwan’s Wayla brings a full sensorial experience inspired by Thai street markets to New York’s Lower East Side. The buzzing downtown favorite usually keeps Naumsuwan in “go-go-go action mode,” but sheltering in place has allowed for a slower pace.
“I’m able to spend more time cooking, experimenting with new ingredients, and appreciating things in life,” he says. “One positive note I take away from the current situation is being able to pause and reflect.”
The stovetop and rice cooker have been Naumsuwan’s home kitchen stars. “We cook a new batch of riceberry every few days since we eat rice in almost every meal,” he says. “Riceberry is a healthier version of rice, and it’s delicious.”
Throughout his experimenting, Naumsuwan’s wife has been his lucky taste tester: “I’ve been cooking different meals for the past few weeks such as marinated pork (Thai style) and Shrimp tom yum. I would say we probably use Thai chilis and dried chilis the most, since we love spicy food. I’ve also recently started to bake, so you might see a new, yummy fusion Thai dessert soon!”
Tom Naumsuwan’s Yum Nam Tok Moo With Sticky Rice
After marinating and grilling the pork, throw it into a salad with cilantro, shallots, roasted minced rice, makrut leaves, chili, and lime juice. “I love this dish because it’s not only delicious, but also healthy, since most ingredients used are herbs that are traditionally used as healing medicine or healthy meal supplements in local culture in Thailand,” says Naumsuwan. “The dish is also a burst of flavors all mixed into one bite.”
“While it might be challenging to find all the ingredients you need now, look around and be creative,” he continues. “Some ingredients are perfect substitutes for each other, and you don’t always need fancy ingredients to cook up a good dish. Sometimes it’s about preparing it properly and paying attention to the little details.” For example, while making curries or stews, he suggests cutting meat and vegetables down to the same size to allow the sauces and seasonings to be evenly distributed.
Erik Ramirez has infused modern Peruvian cuisine into New York’s food landscape, with Williamsburg favorite Llama Inn and Llama San in the West Village. Ramirez is sheltering with his partner and their two sons, ages three and five, in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. “I’ve never been more grateful for our backyard,” he notes.
Reflecting on quarantine leaves him conflicted: “It has been nice to spend more quality time with my family, but at the same time it’s also been very difficult due to the uncertainty of the future of the restaurant industry. That’s something that’s never fully gone from my mind.”
Their simple home kitchen has an island opposite the stove for easy meal preparation, though not having an industrial hood has been a minor setback. “You can only open so many doors and windows when you light shit on fire (on purpose),” he says.
When in doubt, you can always turn to humble staples: “I’ve honestly discovered a whole new world of cereal. If I need a quick meal, I pour a bunch of healthy, fiber-full cereal with a milk of choice—ours is oat—and pack in the fruits such as apple, banana, raisins, and blueberries. Plus, the kids love it.”
Erik Ramirez’s Banana Nut Muffins
Sometimes the most comforting dishes are the tried-and-true recipes that transport our senses back to childhood.
“My lady is a seriously good cook,” he gushes. “She makes the most amazing banana nut muffins. They are basically a staple here. My kids eat them up. They are super comforting straight out of the oven with butter slathered on them.”
When Ramirez tried to stray from the beloved classic, it wasn’t quite the success he was hoping for. “It’s actually funny. I made a super-fancy quinoa, gluten-free banana bread that was delicious and complex, but because it wasn’t their mom’s they wanted literally nothing to do with it,” he says. “I love this recipe because it’s super accessible and literally comes out right every time, so even the most novice baker can nail it.”
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