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The chef who came to dinner

Can a pro make an extraordinary meal from an ordinary kitchen?

By Bella English
Globe Correspondent / May 12, 1999

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It was a dream assignment: Daniel Bruce, the renowned chef at the Boston Harbor Hotel, would come to my house -- my house! -- and prepare dinner. But then the editor added: ``He can only use whatever you have in your cupboards and refrigerator. You can't go out and buy anything special.''

Uh-oh. Was the chef adept with hamburger? Could he do something creative with SpaghettiOs? Maybe he'd fix chicken fingers au beurre blanc. As the mother of two fussy eaters, I stock all of the above. And as an average cook, I don't normally put leg of lamb or medallions of veal on my shopping list.

Oh, well. I knew that Bruce, 39, had recently been named by Travel & Leisure as one of the top chefs in the country. The magazine listed some of his ``highlights'': lobster sausage, pan-seared swordfish, and herb-and-ginger-crusted rack of lamb. Surely, he could wave his magic whisk and create some miracle in my humble kitchen.

I resisted the temptation to go through my cupboards and toss out all the truly embarrassing items, such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Marshmallow Fluff. I did, however, remove the moldy olives and wilted lettuce from the refrigerator. It was sort of like cleaning out your underwear drawer before the chief buyer for Victoria's Secret inspected it, getting rid of all the ratty, fraying pairs of undies.

Bruce arrived at the appointed hour -- about 4 p.m. for a 7 p.m. dining time. ``Let's see what we have to work with,'' he said. He opened the fridge, unwrapped the chicken breasts, and said, ``Do you have any seafood in the house?'' Not unless you count canned tuna.

``OK, where's your pasta machine?'' he asked. I pointed him toward the package of Prince spaghetti. He seemed unfazed. Moving quickly between refrigerator and pantry, he placed this and that on the counter until he had amassed a pile of cartons, bottles, packages, and veggies. Within five minutes, he had dessert all figured out.

``We're having creme brulee,'' he announced, ``with chocolate-dipped strawberries and pralines. These strawberries look really nice.

``The main course,'' he continued, ``has to be chicken.'' Right. Either that or burgers, as that's all there was in our refrigerator.

``We're looking at an Oriental main course, maybe crispy orange chicken.'' Then he discovered a jug of maple syrup tucked in the back of the refrigerator. ``We're going to do maple-orange glazed grilled chicken,'' he said. ``Do you have any chicken stock?''

I did. Canned. He gave an involuntary shudder. ``Are you appalled?'' I asked.

``No,'' he replied. ``Just challenged.''

As the menu took shape in his mind, he changed direction a couple of times. ``We'll have a blue cheese and walnut salad, so we won't use nuts in the dessert. We don't want nuts in two courses. We'll have a duet of desserts. Is that OK?''

Duet, as in two? That would be just fine. In my house, dessert is considered a birthright. I was savoring the image of two desserts -- and the look on my kids' faces -- when he interrupted my thoughts: ``You don't mind if we have a little snack first, do you?'' Mind? Me? He obviously hadn't discovered our snack drawer yet: chips, pretzels, nuts, popcorn, crackers . . .

Naturally, he had something a little more sophisticated in mind: a white bean and rosemary dip with olives and grilled pita crisps. Next, he wanted wild mushrooms. ``I'd go outside and get them, but it's about two weeks too early,'' he said wistfully. Bruce, who grew up in Maine, is known for preparing everything from scratch: He forages for mushrooms, smokes his own salmon, and makes his own puff pastry.

Once he had the menu set, he relaxed. ``That's the hardest part,'' he said, ``conceptualizing a menu and making the flavors work together. This is relaxing for me.''

Of course, the night before he had been to a James Beard dinner in Cleveland, where he had prepared a course for 170: a Maine lobster sausage with squid-ink pasta and lobster roe. At the Boston Harbor Hotel, he supervises 30 cooks who serve some 1,100 meals a day. And though he is executive chef, he prepares many of those meals himself.

``This,'' he said, as he chopped onions, sauteed mushrooms, stirred grits, and dipped strawberries -- seemingly at once -- ``is a slow pace for me.''

Full disclosure: We did cheat, a little. When asked for fresh chives, I couldn't produce them. But my neighbor, the Martha Stewart of Milton, could. Walking around her garden, Bruce was practically in a swoon over the young stalks of asparagus that had stubbornly pushed through the crusty spring soil, the bushy rhubarb, the chives, mint, parsley, and sage. He left with a basket of bounty and an addition to the dessert menu: rhubarb compote, to accompany the strawberries and creme brulee. ``It adds a dimension to the plate,'' he explained.

For the first course, he had decided upon sauteed mushrooms -- he had to settle for the quart container in my refrigerator -- with garlic, chives, onion, and grits atop a balsamic syrup. ``Hmmm,'' he said, attempting to pry the top off the balsamic vinegar bottle. ``You haven't used this in a while, have you?''

My knives weren't sharp enough for him, so he whetted them on a stone and deftly chopped the chives he'd just picked. When he finished that, he flash-fried the fresh sage and infused some oil with it. The sage was for the chicken garnish, the oil for the grill. The asparagus was boiled in salted water until it was three-quarters done, then plunged into cold water to keep the flavor and color.

By this time, all four burners were blazing -- a rare sight in my kitchen. (Bruce has six burners at his home.) He'd mixed up the creme brulee, placed the ramekins in a pan of water, and put them in the oven to bake. He was now flouring a pan for the buttermilk chive biscuits. (No cheating: I keep buttermilk on hand for two favorite recipes, a dressing and a cake). The marinade was mixed -- using ``a very old, dry orange,'' Bruce noted with a laugh -- and the chicken breasts soaked it up. ``Normally, I'd stir-fry the chicken and serve it with rice, but you don't have any rice,'' he said. Actually, I did. But, to his horror, it was ``processed rice'' (the kind you buy in a box) and didn't meet his approval.

So he decided to grill the chicken and serve it with gingered ``seasonal vegetables,'' or, as he laughingly called them, ``refrigerator vegetables,'' whatever he found in my crisper: onions, peppers, carrots. He dug out some small Yukon gold potatoes from under the sink, quartered and dried them, and placed them on a hot pan in a 450-degree oven, where they were greeted with a jovial sizzle. ``When the potatoes hit the pan, they'll be searing,'' he explained. ``Otherwise, they'd just poach.''

Bruce gave my husband a job that he will probably brag about the rest of his life: grilling the oiled pita bread, a minute or two on each side. But when Bruce lifted the grill lid, he immediately asked, politely, whether we had a cleaning brush and proceeded to give a lesson on how to clean and ``season'' a grill.

The pita bread and white bean dip done, he artfully arranged it and set it out, along with some Champagne. Frankly, it was hard to believe that the creamy, garlicky spread had started with a can of white beans from my cupboard.

Bruce helped create the popular wine dinners at the Boston Harbor Hotel -- he still plans and cooks for them -- and asked if we had any wine. My husband led him to our musty basement, also known as ``Love Canal,'' where the chef picked out the wine. There was a Freemark Abbey chardonnay with the grits course, a Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace cabernet sauvignon for the salad course, a Monticello Cellars pinot noir for the main course, and a Simi Winery muscat with dessert.

He decanted the Diamond Creek, a 1987, using a funnel and a carafe. It was the first -- and probably the last -- decantation ever held in my kitchen. ``Any wine over 10 years old often needs decanting because of the sediment at the bottom,'' he explained.

Now, I've got right much Southern blood in me -- hence the grits in my cupboard -- and I thought I knew a thing or two about biscuits. As he began mixing, Bruce didn't like my stainless steel bowl, which had an indented ridge on the bottom rim, the better for dough to hide and stick. So he used a glass bowl instead. The buttermilk chive biscuits that emerged from his expert hand put me to shame. They were fluffy, flavorful, and flaky, rolled out and cut effortlessly, none of the old sticking-to-the-counter stuff.

Bruce then arranged them neatly in a basket. In my house, they usually go from cookie sheet to mouth. ``Were you artistic as a child?'' I asked.

``No,'' he laughed. ``Just hungry.''

Each plate that left my kitchen for the dining room had to be dinner-size to accommodate his creations. ``There's no such thing as a plate that's too big,'' he explained. Between courses, we did a lot of quick plate-washing.

``I like the presentation to look good enough to eat, but not too good,'' he said.

Case in point: dessert. Not content to simply place the creme brulee ramekin on a plate with the chocolate-dipped strawberries, he had made a paper cornet, filled it with the leftover melted chocolate, and piped the chocolate onto the plate in a squiggly, edible garnish. He nestled the strawberries on a bed of rhubarb compote, which lay atop a puddle of creme anglaise, fashioned from some leftover creme brulee mixture. He'd scavenged through my freezer and come up with puff pastry -- Pepperidge Farm, of course -- which he shaped into triangles, scored, baked, and perched against the ramekins.

The result did look almost too good to eat. But not quite. Aside from the scraping of spoons against glass, there was a reverential silence as we savored every bite.

The salad course was also a sight to see. After heating some olive oil in a nonstick pan, Bruce sprinkled a handful of Parmesan cheese over the bottom of the pan, then cooked it briefly over a medium flame. While it was still pliable, he removed it with a spatula, then shaped it over a small bowl to mold it. Within minutes, he had a crunchy Parmesan-wafer ``bowl,'' or ``frico,'' for his salad of baby greens, tossed in a red wine vinaigrette with toasted walnuts, blue cheese, and caramelized Granny Smith apples ``to counter the saltiness of the cheese.''

A professional chef is like an orchestra conductor, but at my house, Bruce was also a one-man band. Amazingly, he chopped, stirred, sauteed, checked the ovens (``bottom one's hot, top runs cool,'' he informed me), marinated, grilled, roasted, poured, baked, and so on, at top speed, with no mishaps except a slightly burned finger. ``My hands don't feel anything anymore,'' he reassured us. ``I've burned them so many times.''

Bruce's wife, Juliana, had joined us for dinner. She agreed: ``He probably can't ever be fingerprinted.''

Amazingly, too, Bruce was so quick that he was able to sit down and eat each course with us, serving as cook, waiter, and self-critic.

``Two things help,'' he said. ``Organization and knife skills.'' His advice for the home cook? ``Keep it simple. Use flavors you like and fresh ingredients.''

We knew how we liked the food -- it was by far the best ever consumed on the premises -- but how did he feel about it? ``It was eclectic,'' he said, tactful about what he had dug up in my kitchen. ``And it was a lot easier than being called out of bed at 2 a.m. to fix king crab legs for a Saudi Arabian prince.''

Three hours had passed from the time he opened my refrigerator door to the arrival of the first of four courses -- not counting the appetizer -- on the dining room table.

``Seriously, the only difference between this and my usual job is that I had 20 ingredients to work with instead of 400.'' He took a bite of creme brulee and smiled. ``This,'' he said, ``was like a day off.''

* * * * * * * *

Daniel Bruce shares his recipes with cooks

Trying to get a recipe out of a working chef is like trying to get a paint formula out of an artist. Daniel Bruce doesn't go by recipes, and he doesn't measure like the rest of us, with cups and teaspoons. (He burst into laughter when I produced some measuring cups.) He goes on instinct, merely eyeballing what he puts into the mix.

For the rest of us mere mortal cooks, he agreed to reconstruct three of the recipes he prepared at my house.

CHICKEN WITH ORANGE-MAPLE MARINADE

1 small Spanish onion

1 teaspoon salt

1 orange

1/3 cup maple syrup

Red pepper flakes or hot pepper sauce or sambal paste

8 boneless, skinless split chicken breasts

Fresh sage, for garnish

Slice the onion in julienne strips. Toss them in a bowl with the salt. Set aside for 15 minutes.

Grate the orange fine, reserving its juice. Add the grated orange and juice to the onion. Add the maple syrup and pepper flakes (or other hot seasoning) to taste.

Place the chicken in the marinade, toss, and let sit for 30 minutes. Prepare a gas or charcoal grill and lightly oil the grill. When the grill is hot, take the chicken breasts from the marinade and sear them briefly on both sides to create grill marks, then grill them until done, a total of 12 minutes. Garnish each breast with a sprig of fresh sage.

Serves 8.

BUTTERMILK CHIVE BISCUITS

3 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

3/4 cup fresh chives, chopped

1 stick butter, cold

1 small egg (optional)

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Set the oven at 400 degrees.

Sift the flour and baking powder together into a bowl. Stir in the chives. Using 2 forks, a pastry blender, or your hands, cut in the butter just until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

For richer biscuits, beat the egg into the buttermilk; otherwise, use just the buttermilk.

Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the buttermilk. Fold the mixture just until it forms a ball. (Do not overmix or the biscuits will be less flaky.)

On a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to 1/2-inch thickness. Using a biscuit cutter or a small glass, cut into rounds. Place them on a baking sheet and bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until light brown.

Makes 18 biscuits.

CREME BRULEE

For the custard:

3 egg yolks, large

3 whole eggs, large

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup sugar

2 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup milk

For the topping:

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

The night before serving, spread the brown sugar on a cookie sheet and leave it out in a dry area. (You can skip this step, but it helps the topping caramelize more evenly.)

Have on hand 8 ramekins or other small baking cups and a roasting pan large enough to hold all of them. Set the oven at 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, beat the yolks and whole eggs together. Stir in the vanilla, sugar, cream, and milk. Transfer the mixture to a pitcher and pour it into the 8 ramekins.

Place the ramekins in the roasting pan and fill the pan with enough hot water to come a quarter of the way up the ramekins. Bake for 35 minutes. Press the center with a finger; the custard should be firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

Sift the brown and white sugar together. When the custards are cool, dry the tops with a paper towel. Sprinkle sugar evenly in a thin layer on top of each ramekin. Place under a gas broiler until the sugar turns dark golden brown. Or use a propane torch -- Bruce keeps one in his car, just in case.

Serves 8.