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A Little Culinary Insight From Chef Heinz Lauer – Local, Artisan, Small Plates, Garlic, Las Vegas & More

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone utter the word, “trend,” in the weeks leading up to 2010, well, you could dub me the new Warren Buffet.

Now, it’s not that I don’t trust these projected trends – The Food Channel, American Culinary Federation and Food Network are very trusted, notable resources. However, like anything, there can be a lot of hype and speculation surrounding trends, and – at times – they don’t materialize.

In a world as unpredictable as today, it’s difficult to gauge what’s going to transpire day to day, let alone year to year. I mean, who thought mohawks or denim on denim would make a resurgence? The ’80s are calling – they want ‘em back.

So – until I talk to an expert, I’m not a firm believer.

Therefore, I decided to consult Chef Heinz Lauer, the executive chef and culinary program chair of the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas, whose longevity – more than 35 years – background and success – including the ACF’s 2009 Western Region Chef Educator of the Year – in the field, definitely qualify him as an expert.

Here’s what Chef Lauer had to say about upcoming culinary “trends” – a word he opposes – the art of cooking, personal culinary inspiration, the rise of Las Vegas – aside from gambling – and his favorite food, as interpreted and in no particular order.

Me: “First off, Happy New Year! So, what culinary trends are on the horizon in 2010?”

Chef Lauer: ”Well, I’m not a fan of the word, trend. I do see flavor profiles changing…flavors you’ve never seen before, like Ethiopian flavors from Africa. However, I don’t see ethnic cuisines ever going away – Italian food is still the No. 1. In general, though, all ethnic foods are Americanized…they often cannot be replicated, as flavors vary by region, there are many things that can’t be brought into the country and the ambience (of where you’re eating cannot be redone). For example, sitting on a beach in Mexico and drinking a margarita – you just can’t recreate that experience back home.

I do see sharing plates/family style eating and larger appetizer plates/tapas (gaining popularity). People are more inclined to try something new in smaller portions; I think it’s born out of the craving to try new things, peoples’ adventurous side coming out, traveling more…

I think comfort food will always be here. It had an incredible comeback after 9/11 – there was an urge for family and friends and being together, and what better way than food? Food is the most wonderful thing we have…the memories we have with food reminds us of friends and family. It’s more connected to the brain. And – comfort food brings diners to the table; people are much more inclined to sit down when they recognize what’s on the menu…macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, etc.

Now, there’s a trend that’s coming, but it’s far from being here…(drum roll, please – I haven’t waited in such eager anticipation since I miscounted the New Year’s ball drop). It’ll be chefs going to small, local farmers to get produce and using what’s in season and what’s grown around them. There’s a few places doing it, but there’s a high cost involved. (Availability) will vary, depending on where you are; I’m not saying you’re never going to have to bring produce in, but you will see more local farmers and farmers markets coming back.”

(This concept was featured in last night’s Iron Chef episode, wherein First Lady Michelle Obama invited Bobby Flay, White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse to square off using fresh produce from the White House garden. See article.)

Me: “What are the most important techniques you think culinary students should be taught?”

Chef Lauer: “I think it’s important that students learn the basics – they need to know techniques, and they need to be good at them. If I teach you to braise, you need to be able to braise everything with your eyes closed.

Also, the artisanal craft – I think, and hope, it’s a craft that will find a renaissance. Such as, how to make bread from scratch, how to make sausage, how to cure meat…I show the students (the entire body of a chicken), and they look at me like I’m from the moon. They’re used to going to the grocery store and buying just a chicken breast. It’s a craft falling by the wayside; everyone wants instant gratification. It’s very important from a business standpoint…it’s much cheaper (to buy whole chicken, as opposed to parts). You get a higher return on your investment.”

Me: “What ideals motivate your cooking style?”

Chef Lauer: “Simple. Low executed. Good. As long as it’s done right. It’s better than, what I call confusion cooking, where you put 75 ingredients in a dish, and it becomes crap. (Me: Sounds like my cooking.) If you prepare properly and take the flavor of food and season properly, usually just a little salt and pepper, that’s all you need to do. If I can identify an ingredient, than there’s too much. There are, of course, exceptions, like curry. I tell my students, ‘Be realistic. You are cooking for the masses, not for yourself.’”

Me: “What is the role of garlic in cooking today?” (A little shameless self promoting never hurt anyone.)

Chef Lauer: “Garlic has a role in seasoning and flavoring and, used in the right concentration, is great. It’s here to stay. Depending on what you’re doing with garlic – if you roast it and put in a potato, it’s going to be sweeter. If you sauté it with butter, it’s going to be more pungent (just make sure you’re using it in the right capacity).”

Me: “Do you have a mentor (s) you look to for guidance in your cooking and/or teaching?”

Chef Lauer: “I’m blessed to have 37 terrific chefs, culinary experts, management – and the students – around me everyday. I learn more from my students and their questions everyday.”

Me: “What kind of influence do you think Las Vegas chefs and restaurants wage on the culinary industry?”

Chef Lauer: “Las Vegas is the new culinary capital of the world. What’s happening here is mind boggling. You have 35-40 of the best chefs and restaurants on a three-mile street…where else can you go in the world and find that? I mean, the banquet room in The Palazzo can seat 7,000 people.”

Me: “With that being said, who do you think are the best chefs in Vegas, and where would you choose to eat on the strip?”

Chef Lauer: “What’s the best wine? What’s the best water? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. These chefs have big names for a reason – they’ve worked very hard and long to get where they are. It truly depends on what you’re in the mood for…there’s The Venetian’s Valentino and Luciano Pellegrini, there’s Caesar’s Bradley Ogden, there’s Joel Robuchon at MGM, Emeril Lagasse’s two restaurants (Delmonico Steakhouse and Table 10), Spiedini, Mesa Grill, Mon Ami Gabi, Fleur de Lys, Gallagher’s Steak House…”

Me: “Ok, now I promise, last question…I know you can’t mesmerize me with your food knowledge all day. This is very important, though – what’s your favorite dish?”

Chef Lauer: “Hungarian Goulash…beef stew, lots of onion, some garlic, Hungarian paprika.”

(Mouth watering…)

Duty called, as Chef Lauer was summoned to educate the future culinary leaders of America. His insight, however, left me excited to see what culinary “trends” continue developing and emerging, in what direction the culinary world spins throughout 2010 and inspired me to hop a flight to Vegas for an eating binge.

Small plate, boasting local produce and artisan breads, at Bradley Ogden, anyone?

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