Behind the Scenes: Restaurant techniques you can try at home | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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Behind the Scenes: Restaurant techniques you can try at home

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With everything I learned on my experiential research outings, I most of all learned how little I know! But with each experience, I came away with newfound knowledge to apply in my own kitchen. Learning new techniques and trying them out at home yielded dining experiences that transcended my everyday fare. This week, I thought I’d share some of that knowledge by revisiting Ludwig’s at the Sonnenalp Resort Hotel in Vail to chat with Chef Dan D’Onofrio about techniques.

D’Onofrio is the sous chef at Ludwig’s who, with Executive Chef Steve Topple, patiently guided me through my 12-hour work day for my Feb. 13 column. Although I made new and exciting dishes, the most technique-intense dish was a Ludwig’s specialty, elk Wellington (beef Wellington made with elk, sans foie gras and prepared as individual servings).

I began writing with the intent to take my readers through the steps to show the techniques employed to make this lovely main dish, but when my word count hit 1,000 before I finished searing the meat, I decided to keep you in suspense and write this in two parts. There are just too many little nuances and tips to skip and not share.

Techniques, not recipes, form the foundation of cooking. For this passionate gastronome, learning new basic skills was a culinary epiphany. There are many great recipes and variations for beef Wellington, but if one can’t properly sear meat, prepare mushrooms just right or roll dough properly, even the best recipe will fall flat. When young chefs train for competitions, they don’t learn recipes; they learn techniques and proportions. With that knowledge, any ingredients put before them in a mystery basket can be transformed into beautiful dishes. It’s only then that chefs and cooks can differentiate themselves.

Wellington can be a surprisingly simple dish that makes a grand presentation. If you want to impress friends and relatives, just make a Wellington and watch their faces when you present this lovely dish! D’Onofrio is big on presentation. Even when he’s cooking at home, he takes pains to make food as tasty to the eyes as it is to the palate. Searing, seasoning, knife skills and ability to break down the meat are just a few techniques needed to create the dish.

As always, every culinary undertaking begins with preparation. Mise en place – everything in place – is the starting point and includes a 10- to 12-inch saute pan, prepared meat, cooking oil and seasonings (salt and pepper). I can’t resist spending some precious words on salt, pepper and oil. D’Onofrio places black peppercorns on a sheet pan in a 425-degree oven for about 4 to 5 minutes. Then he grinds the toasted peppercorns in a blender until extremely fine. The result: a toasted, nutty flavor that adds that little je ne sais quoi to the crust. From my experiences this winter, Kosher salt seems to be the choice of local chefs. I’m told it gives better coverage without being salty. Always put salt and pepper in ramekins or small prep bowls to avoid cross contamination, especially when working with proteins. Resist the urge to conserve the washing up, and don’t combine the salt and pepper in one bowl, as they will separate and you won’t get an even amount of each. The oil used in Ludwig’s kitchen is a 70-30 blend of canola and olive oil. At home, I use grapeseed oil for sauteing or frying. Rice-bran oil, with its 490-degree smoke point, is another great, healthy option. But the 15 cents per ounce average cost of canola/olive oil is more economical in a restaurant environment than the 51 cents per ounce of grapeseed oil.

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Cleaning and preparing meat is called “breaking down.” If using elk, buy tenderloins that appear dark red and have no off-putting smell, although dry aged meat will have a slight odor. Sidebar – one elk tenderloin will yield two servings. The membrane, “silver skin,” must be removed, as it adds a rather unpleasant impediment to biting. Taking a sharp, flexible boning knife, place the tip under the silver skin, angle it slightly upward, and slide it under the membrane until it’s completely separated from the meat. This is an important technique for preparing any type of tenderloin. Next, pat dry the meat with paper or lint-free kitchen towels. Don’t skip this step. If you fail to properly dry the meat, it won’t brown or give that characteristic dark color of a good, hard sear. And this also applies to searing chicken, meat or fish.

Pan searing any sort of protein is where patience comes into play, at least for me. Growing up, my Sicilian grandmother taught me to sear meat used in anything she cooked from Sunday sauce to simple “chops.” It’s a step I often rushed, but only recently have I come to appreciate how easy it is to seal in flavors through this all-important step. I have to fight the urge to turn the meat too soon or not sear all the sides. Often, I don’t dry the meat well enough, causing it to boil in water extracted rather than lock in the moisture. The meat must be dry properly seasoned and the pan hot. These simple alterations to my poor technique have produced lovely results that make better use of the ever-more-costly meat I buy.

Just before searing, salt and pepper the meat by pinching a small amount of each and rubbing it between your fingers from about 10 inches above the meat. You’ve seen this often on cooking programs. This gives much better coverage. Another important pointer is don’t season the meat too early. Season just before you sear to avoid “drawing up the blood” and melting the salt. If you then add more, you will have oversalted it.

Heat the pan, and add about 4 tablespoons of oil. A good rule of thumb is the oil is sufficiently hot when it’s “dancing” (ripples appear). If the pan isn’t hot enough, the meat will stick and tear, destroying any hopes of a good sear. Turn the heat down after adding the meat. Roll the tenderloins so each side has a good, hard sear that’s needed to retain those heavenly juices. Avoid crowding the pan, since that will cool it down. Multiple batches are fine; just don’t forget to add more oil. Once out of the pan, rest the meat for 5 to 10 minutes. Cutting the meat too soon causes the blood to flow out, losing moisture and making an unsightly mess.

Now, it’s time for the duxelles (that divine paste of mushrooms, herbs and shallots pronounced “dook-sells”), the pastry and the assembly. But you’ll have to wait until next week. Or, in the meantime, you could taste D’Onofrio’s elk Wellington at Ludwig’s and try to guess the techniques involved in completing the dish. Until then, bon appetite!

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.