Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Penn Appetit Talks with Chef Daniel Stern

We recently had the privilege of sitting down with Daniel Stern, chef of the acclaimed MidAtlantic and R2L restaurants in Philadelphia, and formerly of the celebrated Gayle in South Philly.

How would you say your cooking style has evolved over time?
I think as a chef you grow and you never stop growing. A lot of it is about the experience of getting inside the food and the flavors and really understanding them and also having the confidence that you know what it is you’re looking for. And sometimes when you just have time to work with ingredients or play with things or have creative time, it takes you somewhere that you didn’t know you were going.

What is one example of a dish that evolved through that creative process?
When I opened Gayle, and I had a smoked salmon dish on the menu, and you know, it’s just a nice cut of smoked salmon and some apples and little salad or whatever, but somehow or another it evolved into a soup, a chilled soup with apples and some potato garnish. There are always things that I find that I make and somehow they get filed away somewhere and they show up later on as a component of a dish that I never thought I would use.

I play a lot with temperatures and textures, and I remember before I opened Gayle, being in my home kitchen I was doing some catering and I was making rice for some reason, and I noticed that when I was cooking the rice, there was some of the liquid or whatever that kind of dried to the side of the pot, and I peeled it off, so then I started playing around with that, and I overcooked a bunch of rice and put it in blender, and that turned into ten different things. We have a horseradish ice-cream that we serve with oysters over at R2L, and it’s not a typical ice-cream, and its’ made because I happened to be in the kitchen one day and I noticed something, and it’s rice turned into something that could sit for a little longer than regular ice-cream, and also be neutral, and you can flavor it with whatever you wanted to.

Do you have time to cook for your family?
I just made my wife a surprise birthday brunch last Sunday. You know, French toast, and strata, and potatoes, and salmon salad, pastries.

What did she like the best?
I think she just liked the surprise the best. But I would imagine she enjoyed the quiches with lots of cheese…and the Bloody Marys, they were pretty good.

What trends do you notice in the Philly food scene?
I’m not such a trend watcher, but like I said, there are not just people opening little BYO’s anymore, which are great, but people are branching out into more diverse kind of restaurants. And I love that we’re sort of a city of neighborhood restaurants, but also you see people starting to open things that are a little more risky, and a little more edgy, and that helps keep the energy up.

Do you have any easy meals that college students can make?
It’s funny, but there’s so many decent canned products now, like there are organic beans and soups and stuff like that, and then you just go and get a piece of chicken or something and throw it in there. It’s pretty simple. Believe it or not, I’m like a nachos and pizza freak. I do that at home all the time. Just beans, and some meat or chili mix, some good cheese. Stews are really easy to do in one pot. Just chicken, and either some vegetables and some store bought stuff, and a nice loaf of bread, add garlic and butter, and you’re all set.

What kind of cheese do you use?
I think cheddar. Good white cheddar.

No jalapeños?
Yes, definitely.  I like spicy.

Why did you want to showcase traditional Philadelphia food in a slightly more upscale environment?
I’ve worked for a lot of very well known chefs who are from other places, but they all came here to cook, and to open their restaurants. Whether it’s France or Switzerland, everyone has their regional cuisines that they’re proud of, and we have that in this country as well. I love cheesesteaks, or whatever, but that’s not all we’re about.

We noticed that you don’t have any cheesesteaks on your menu.
We have a great roast pork sandwich though.

If you had to do an updated version of a cheesesteak, what would you do?
At my other place, I actually have a cheesesteak on the menu, and it’s more of a finger food, but it used to be a venison cheesesteak.

What’s your biggest food weakness?
French fries.

Where do you get your French fries?
That’s the thing—it doesn’t matter. They could be good, they could be horrible. If I go to the stadiums, the Crabby fries from Chickie’s and Pete’s. We have a great version here at MidAtlantic, they’re al little different. They’re more wedges, and we prepare them a little differently than traditional fries. We blanch the potatoes first and cut them in wedges and then fry them. They’re insanely crispy, and we have a nice dry salt that we put on them, a seasoned salt that we make here. They’re a little addictive.

What would you eat for your last meal on earth?
As much time as I spend working and playing with food, it really comes down to who you’re with, so it would be more about probably sharing a really killer pepperoni pizza and a nice bottle of wine, and possibly a martini, and just having it with my friends and family.

What advice do you have for people who want to get involved in the restaurant industry?
It’s roll up your sleeves, find someone who is willing to take you on, listen, learn, and be open to working hard. I remember talking to one of my mentors, and we were kind of discussing cooking as an art. And this is somebody who, to me, brought cooking to a new level, and really made it an art form. And he said to me, “Daniel, it’s not an art, it’s a trade. It’s something that you have to work at very hard, very diligently, and you have to practice, and you have to learn the fundamentals, and…work. Do things over and over and over and over again until you learn them from the inside, you know? And I think that’s really the way it is.

-- Noa Bendit-Shtull

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