From In a French Kitchen to In a Restaurant Kitchen is not as long a journey as it may seem. Particularly when the restaurant kitchen is one devoted to fresh, seasonal, local, hand-picked, hand chopped, hand-patted, and hand cooked food.
I had occasion to spend the day in one of the ten Paul Martin American Grill restaurants, a chain devoted to bringing celebratory home cooking to the suburbs. I was there to oversee the preparation of a meal for an elite group of managers who were to enjoy recipes from In a French Kitchen. What I experienced while there was astonishing.
The restaurant was smack in the center of a parking lot, the way so many restaurants in the U.S. can be. I was skeptical. Suburbs aren’t my haunt, and I don’t understand the suburb esthetic. But once inside the gleaming kitchen, I realized something special was going on.
First, there was the warm greeting from the twenty-odd cooks, chefs, tortilla makers, garlic peelers, parsley mincers, salmon filleters, beef choppers, burger makers, and sauce tasters. Then, there was the organic produce, from heirloom tomatoes of all sizes, to baby greens, to artichokes, to lettuces, to that denizen of the American restaurant kitchen, kale. There were the four-inch thick lamb chops from a nearby farm, the grass-fed organic beef, the wild sockeye salmon, the baby squid. Finally, there was the “piano” that included a block-long mesquite grill. It was fired up early in the morning and when hot, held avocado halves that would be thinly sliced and put atop a salad. All the meats and seafood could be cooked there; the bread was grilled there, and the flow of vegetables to feel that woodsy heat didn’t stop.
As I worked, alongside Jesus Navaraz rolled out flour tortillas; nearby, Luz Hernandez made corn tortillas in an old press. Veronica Martinez assembled a beautiful salad topped with freshly grilled skirt steak while Corey Belenger trimmed sockeye salmon from Alaska. On one burner, a huge vat of roasted beef bones and vegetables simmered for “jus,” and herbs were minced by the pound to flavor sauces and condiments.
It could have been grandmother’s kitchen made huge and modern, for the care and attention lavished on every step of every dish, and the warm camaraderie among the staff. I slipped right into it, with my fine, French recipes. When head chef Gabriel tasted the tomato sauce for Everyday Eggplant, he closed his eyes. “I’m putting that on the menu,” he said.
I left the kitchen after a long day, uplifted. When I am in a French kitchen, I’m always happy because I know that everything has been chosen and prepared with care. In this restaurant kitchen, I felt the same.
And so must have all the managers, as we enjoyed the meal made in the restaurant kitchen, at a glorious venu!
Paul Martin’s American Grill, 1455 Eureka Road, Roseville, California, 95661 Tel: 916 783-3600
AUBERGINE POUR TOUS LES JOURS
From In a French Kitchen
This is a simple, quick, fresh and light version of a dish we all know and most of us love – eggplant Parmigiana. It came about thanks to Baptiste Bourdon, my favorite market gardener whose produce makes every dish sing. It came my turn at his stand and I put in my request for two kilos of his bursting, juicy ‘coeur de boeuf ‘ tomatoes, and a half dozen small, taught, shiny eggplant. He gave me what I wanted, then turned to a crate of tomatoes behind his stand, filled a bag, and said du rabe. This means “extra” and, in this case, very ripe. By the time I got home – a matter of ten minutes’ walk – those tomatoes had practically turned to sauce. I removed their skin, trimmed out the heart, and coarsely chopped them. I sautéed onion and garlic, added the tomatoes, and put them on medium heat to cook. Then I took care of the eggplant. And then I added some cheese and some fresh basil
You’ll find the result here. It was unplanned, dictated by the most fabulous vegetables, and so fast that lunch was on the table in under an hour. This dish has become a family favorite – with me because I can whip it up on a school night; with all of us because it tastes so deliciously satisfying! There is one warning – if not made with ultra-ripe, in-season tomatoes, it’s not quite as flavorful.
¼ cup (60ml) extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 pounds (750g) eggplant, rinsed, stem end removed,
One medium (5 ounce;150g) onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, green germ removed, minced
2 pounds (1 kg) very ripe tomatoes, preferably an heirloom variety like beef heart, skinned, core removed, coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf
½ cup (5g) fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup (5g) flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 ounce (30g) Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated (to give a scant 1/2 cup grated cheese)
- Preheat the oven to 450F (230C). Brush a heavy baking sheet with about 2 teaspoons oil.
- Cut the eggplant into ½-inch (1.4cm) rounds and set them on the oiled baking sheet. Brush the rounds with oil, and season them with salt and pepper. Place them in the center of the oven and bake until the eggplant is softened and golden on the side touching the pan, 12-15 minutes. Flip the slices, brush them lightly with oil, season with salt and pepper, and continue baking until they are tender all the way through, an additional 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven.
- While the eggplant is baking, place 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion and when the slices start sizzling, reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are nearly translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until it starts to turn translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the bay leaf, stir, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cook until the tomatoes are softened and beginning to make a sauce, about 20 minutes, stirring regularly so the tomatoes don’t stick.
- Coarsely chop the herb leaves.
- Place the remaining oil in a heavy, six-cup (1.5 liter) baking dish. Place one layer of eggplant on the bottom. Sprinkle with one-third of the basil leaves, and pour over one-third of the tomato sauce. Repeat, and then sprinkle half the cheese on the tomato sauce. Top with the remaining slices of eggplant, basil, and tomato sauce, and the remaining cheese. Cover and put in the oven to bake until the dish is hot through and the eggplant and tomato sauce have married, for about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.
About 4 servings