October 26, 2012

History of Fried Chicken with a Step by Step guide & Easy Recipe...

Down south, fried chicken is a religion, and people swear by their own recipes and family traditions. I am no authority in Southern hospitality, but will help you look deeper into the world of the amazing comfort food… Southern Fried Chicken! 

The Scots, and later Scottish immigrants to the southern United States, had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat as far back as the middle ages, unlike their English counterparts who baked or boiled chicken. When it was introduced to the American South, fried chicken became a common staple. Later, Africans brought over on the slave trade, became cooks in many southern households and incorporated seasonings and spices that were absent in traditional Scottish cuisine, enriching the flavor. Since fried chicken traveled well in hot weather before refrigeration was commonplace, it gained further favor. In the south, Fried chicken continues to be among this region's top choices for "Sunday dinner." Holidays such as Independence Day and other gatherings often feature this dish as well.

In Asia, they have their own version of this dish, called Crispy fried chicken, a standard dish in the Cantonese cuisine of southern China and Hong Kong. The chicken is fried in such a way that the skin is extremely crunchy, but the white meat is relatively soft. The dish often served with two side dishes, a pepper salt and prawn crackers The pepper salt, colored dark white to gray, is dry-fried separately in a wok. Traditionally, it is to be eaten at night. It is also one of the traditional chicken dishes used in Chinese weddings and other Asian weddings.

Korean fried chicken or seasoned chicken is traditionally eaten as fast food, at bars, or as an after meal snack in Korea. It is not often consumed as a meal. It is prepared in a way that removes the fat from the skin, resulting in a crust described by Julia Moskin of The New York Times as a "thin, crackly and almost transparent". The chickens are usually seasoned with spices after being fried. In South Korea, chickens are relatively small, so Korean fried chicken restaurants fry whole chickens before hacking it into bits. In the United States, chickens tend to be larger and Korean restaurants find it more difficult to deal with large breasts and thighs. As a result, many Korean fried chicken restaurants in the United States usually serve wings and small drumsticks. Pickled radishes, beer, and soju are often served with Korean fried chicken.

So lets get to the how to's. Making fried chicken is a LOT of work (at least according to today’s 30 minute meal prep orientation). The preparation of the chicken, the breading of the chicken, the temperature regulation, the actual cooking, the cleanup of the cooker, the kitchen and you, but the work is worth it in the delight of biting into a fresh, warm, crunchy,  piece of perfectly golden, home-fried chicken. It's a food of love thing.

There are three main techniques for frying chickens: pan frying, deep frying and broasting;

Pan frying (or shallow frying) requires a frying pan of sturdy construction (cast iron works best) and a source of fat that does not fully immerse the chicken. Generally the fat is heated to a temperature hot enough to seal (without browning, at this point) the outside of the chicken pieces. Once the pieces have been added to the hot fat and sealed, the temperature is reduced. There is debate as to how often to turn the chicken pieces, with one camp arguing for often turning and even browning, and the other camp pushing for letting the pieces render skin side down and only turning when absolutely necessary. Once the chicken pieces are close to being done the temperature is raised and the pieces are browned to the desired color (some cooks add small amounts of butter at this point to enhance browning). The moisture from the chicken that sticks and browns on the bottom of the pan become the fonds required to make gravy. Chicken Maryland is made when the pan of chicken pieces, and fat, is placed in the oven to cook for a majority of the overall cooking time, basically "fried in the oven." 

Deep frying requires a deep fryer or other device in which the chicken pieces can be completely submerged in hot fat. The pieces are floured or battered using a batter of flour and liquid (and seasonings) mixed together. The batter can/may contain ingredients like eggs, milk, and leavening. The fat is heated in the deep fryer to the desired temperature. The pieces are added to the fat and a constant temperature is maintained throughout the cooking process.

Broasting uses a pressure cooker to accelerate the process. The moisture inside the chicken becomes steam and increases the pressure in the cooker, lowering the cooking temperature needed. The steam also cooks the chicken through, but still allows the pieces to be moist and tender while maintaining a crisp coating. Fat is heated in a pressure cooker. Chicken pieces are then floured or battered and then placed in the hot fat. The lid is placed on the pressure cooker, and the chicken pieces are thus fried under pressure

Selecting the best chicken
The best size chicken to fry is a 4-pound fryer. Never fry any chicken larger than 5 pounds as it will take the pieces too long to cook. Chickens smaller than 3 pounds are too small for good fried chicken.Traditional fried chicken HAS SKIN. Skinless fried chicken is a weird invention of those who think that it makes for a lower-fat chicken (and what are those people doing eating Fried Chicken in the first place?) The skin is necessary to provide the support for the breading, and to add that element of 'crisp' that is the goal of the great chicken fryer. I also think that the skin actually helps keep the chicken meat lower in fat as it serves to shield the meat from the fat.

Follow these steps below to help you along the way:

Marinating: Some say that marinating or soaking the chicken in a brine or buttermilk for 30 mins to a few hours can increase tenderness and develop great flavor profiles.

Coating: Apply different coatings and coating techniques. Try dipping the chicken in milk, then flour, then milk, and then the flour again. Some cast-iron cooks dip it in a milk-egg mixture and then dredge it in flour. Some don't use flour at all and cover it with cracker crumbs, potato flakes, or cornmeal.

Air Drying: After you coat your chicken, let it air-dry. Air-drying your chicken for 20 minutes to a half hour after it has been coated lets the coating firm up and produces a crispier crust.

Seasoning: Use plain old salt and pepper or create special seasoning mixes. You may want to season the flour that you dredge the chicken through; you can also season the chicken itself. Some people swear that paprika enhances the flavor; others claim it's just there for color.

Cooking: The real secret to the ultimate in comfort food, Southern Fried Chicken, isn't in the recipe; it's in the cooking. Properly pan-fried chicken is tender and moist (not greasy) on the inside and golden brown and crispy on the outside. Keep your oil very hot. To make sure that your chicken doesn't get greasy, you want the oil hot enough (375 degrees Fahrenheit) that the water in the chicken stays above the boiling point during frying. The force of the steam leaving the chicken keeps the oil from being absorbed. The hot oil also makes the outside wonderfully crispy.

Some tips for keeping the oil at the temperature you want are as follows:
  • Use peanut oil, which has a hotter smoking point than vegetable oils or shortenings.
  • Allow the chicken to come almost to room temperature before you cook it so that when you put it into the hot oil, it doesn't reduce the oil temperature as much as really cold chicken would.
  • Don't overcrowd the chicken in the pan. Putting too many pieces in the pan causes the temperature to drop and takes it longer to heat up again. It can also cause the chicken to steam as opposed to fry.
  • Use a deep-sided cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven and an iron cover. Cast iron is the cook's best friend when pan-frying. It absorbs heat evenly, eliminating hot spots and its ability to retain heat keeps the temperature of the oil as even as possible.
  • Brown the chicken quickly to seal in the juices. After the initial browning, reduce the heat to allow the chicken to cook through without drying. Then return the heat to medium-high to re-crisp it before you remove it from the pan.
  • Use tongs to turn and move the chicken. Tongs won't pierce the chicken and let the juice escape.
  • Drain fried chicken on a paper towel and then place it on a metal wire cooling rack in a warm oven. This simple step keeps your cooked chicken crisp and warm. After all, what good is a crispier crust if it just gets soggy and cold while sitting in a puddle of oil?
  • Serving: Make sure its crisp, hot, and you have a napkin handy! It's common to serve fried chicken with a creamy gravy, or a kicked up hot sauce. 

Simple Southern Fried Chicken
Make 8 Pieces of Buttermilk Fried Chicken


For the marinade:
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tsp ground dried herbs, or poultry seasoning
2 cups buttermilk
3 1/2 pound chicken, cut in 8 pieces

For the seasoned flour:
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1-2 qt. Vegetable or Peanut oil (enough to fill a large cast iron pan 1/2 way)

Add the marinade ingredients to a bowl and whisk together. Add the chicken parts and toss to coat well. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the chicken is submerged. Refrigerate for 6 hours or more.

Mix together the seasoned flour ingredients in a large baking dish. Drain the chicken pieces and toss into the flour. Toss the chicken and coat completely with the flour mixture. Shake off and place on a rack and let dry for at least 1/2 hour before frying.

Fill a cast iron skillet halfway up with oil and heat to about 375 degrees F. Carefully add the chicken, leaving at least 2 inches between pieces and fry for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown, reaching and internal temperature of 180 degrees F. Allow to drain on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Serve with smashed potatoes, brown gravy and some corn on the cob. And remember, be sure that the love and effort you put into the preparation carries through to the plate and whatever your cooking pleasure, be it baked or fried, I hope these simple steps help you wow your friends and family...

Bon Appetit

Sources:  Daniel Greene/Flickr, cooks.tuckawaytv.com, wkipedia.org, norecipes.com,

October 17, 2012

A Taste of Autumn: Butternut Squash & Apple Cider Bisque & Short Rib Bourguignonne

Autumn, or Fall, is one of my favorite times of year. Great produce and bounty, unique and special to this harvest season abound and comfort is the goal of many chefs and recipes. One of my favorite foods from the fall harvest is Butternut Squash. It's versatile and can really lend itself to many applications and recipes. This bisque is rich, robust, hearty and will warm your insides. Autumn is also a great time for heart dishes  stews and stocks. Following the bisque recipe. is another great recipe for Short Ribs using the braising technique.

Butternut Squash & Apple Cider Bisque
Servings: 16, Yield: 1gallon

1yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1 oz. garlic cloves, whole
3 pounds butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1 oz.brown sugar
12 fluid ounces Vermont apple cider
38 fluid ounces vegetable stock
10 fluid ounces heavy cream
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
2 oz. butter, melted
1 fluid ounce cider vinegar

Saute onion and garlic in melted butter until onions are soft. Add butternut squash, brown sugar, apple cider, vegetable stock, cider vinegar and spices. Bring to a boil and cook until squash is tender. Puree with blender while adding heavy cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Short Ribs Bourguignonne
**Preheat oven to 350 to 375 degrees F.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 to 4 pounds beef short ribs, cut into thirds
3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup bacon strips, diced
2 large white onions, sliced
4 shallots, quartered
1 pound mushrooms
1 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup carrots, diced
2 cups red wine or half bottle
4 cups beef stock or to cover

Combine flour, paprika, cayenne pepper and black pepper in a bowl. Add the short ribs, coating them lightly in the flour mixture.

In a large Dutch oven or deep oven-proof pot over medium heat, melt butter until golden. Add the ribs, shaking off any excess flour. Sear the meat until brown, moving the ribs around covering them with the butter. In the same pot, saute the bacon for 2 to 3 minutes then add the onions, shallots, mushrooms, celery and carrots and saute until golden. Deglaze the pan with the red wine, adding a little at a time.

Let reduce over high heat for 1 minute. Add the rest of the wine and beef stock, and bring to a simmer. Once the liquid has come to a simmer, cover, and cook in the oven for 2 to 3 hours. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Bon Appetit


September 28, 2012

Up Close & Personal with Chef Jason Roberts

I first met Jason Roberts at a Key Private Bank event in Bonita Springs, Florida seven years ago. He was quiet, shy and polite. That is, of course until he burst onto the stage and rocked the house. Suddenly he brought the room alive, dancing, cooking and entertaining an audience who hung on his every word. Australian word that is, mate! Little did I know that delving into this amazingly talented chef's life and cooking, I would come to know a pure soul, with a huge heart, who was a truly unique and gifted individual, let alone that I would come to call him friend. With a wonderful smile and a glint in his eye that reveals a bit of mischief, a bit of wonder, a bit of all the places and things he has experienced, he can be a captivating presence, especially when there is an audience to be cajoled, entertained, or made laugh.

Since the very first, we clicked. As such, I have spent a good deal of time with him. I am always amazed to watch his transformation from the reserved, somewhat shy and polite New Zealand native I know, into the raucous and rowdy Jason Roberts live that you all see when the curtain goes up, the camera starts rolling, or a fan stops to have a chat with him. Revealed in those moments is an energy, humor, culinary excellence and ability to reach out to his audience, no matter how big or small. When you speak with him personally, you come to understand that he is genuinely interested in nothing else but your story, or conversation at that moment. On the stage, or in front of a camera, without warning, the visage before you explodes as if a super nova and you are at once captivated. With a stage presence that fills any venue or stage, Jason has the ability to draw an audience in and make them feel as if he is speaking to each and every one of them individually. And all with an awesome Australian accent and sense of humor. "G'Day, I'm  Jason Roberts!"

We recently sat down for lunch in a small French bistro on the Jersey City, NJ waterfront for a quiet lunch and to catch up, away from the hustle and bustle of our extremely busy schedules and to do this long awaited interview. As my friend, I see him regularly, but we have a somewhat unique relationship. You see, we also have a professional relationship. With his hectic schedule, flying all over America as a correspondent and co-host for ABC's The Chew, and me with my own busy schedule, we talk about business more often than not, rarely really getting the time to relax and talk. Our informal lunch, (scheduled and rescheduled at least 3 times) was the first chance in some time that we really sat down to spend some time just talking; about life, career and about two subjects we both love best: food, and hospitality. I wanted to delve into his thoughts on his moving to America, his new found popularity and growing notoriety in the American Food-TV market and the changes and challenges of adapting to being away from family and friends back in Australia.
Jason & Nana

Jason grew up a New Zealand native, finding inspiration in his Nana's kitchen as a child. At age four he boldly declared, “Nana, I want to be a cook!” Nana and his grandfather made their living as caterers, while his other grandmother ran a restaurant, so culinary role models were in no short supply. “I have wanted to cook for as long as I can remember,” claims Jason, “It's something I do to indulge my imagination, be creative and feed my artistic passion. To me, cooking is the most consistent of life's joys and is immeasurably rewarding, both instantly and constantly.” He expounded on his child hood, "I was born in the southern part of New Zealand, the island in a very small place called Oamaru. When I was 3, my mum and I left there and went to Queensland. When we got to Australia, we jumped ship and up until the age of 12, I grew up on a dairy farm. When you grow up in that environment, you learn to become resourceful. Growing up on a farm is a totally different situation than growing up in the city as these days, kids think milk comes from a carton and chicken from a package. I love living off the land." I asked him about his grandparents and how it developed his relationship to food.

He answered, "First and foremost I guess one of the biggest reasons I got into cooking, were my grandparents, who were both cooks and secondly, growing up in that resourceful situation on a farm. Always, since I was four years old, I can remember being around food and my mum being a good cook. But sometimes when I talk about it, or I get asked that question I cringe, thinking, 'I don't want to be that guy.' It  almost sounds like a made up story. People think 'How could you know at 4?' I just did. I did not want to be famous, I just wanted to cook. Mum, she was a housewife; my step-dad worked on the council. So I had 2 choices, I could be a housewife or work on the council," he laughed. 'I didn’t become a housewife, but I did get into cooking. I’ve always loved it. My grandmother certainly was one of my biggest inspirations." He recalled, "I look back and I remember some of the times walking through the kitchen that she ran. I remember these big burly chefs in white coats and, they were happy. There were these big blooming woman, saying, 'Oi, look at these cheeks,' always pinching me. They all loved me. There was just this energy in that kitchen and I think I’ve held onto that. Nan has passed now but I still feel her presence I think about her daily. If anything I feel enriched that she was such an important part of my life and to an extent still is." I understand and firmly believe that those who impact us make an impression on our hearts, if we let them,  and we are better people for that impact. Clearly this is the embodiment of Jason's and his Nan's relationship. 

I asked him to talk a bit about his culinary schooling. "When I was 12, I moved back to Auckland, New Zealand. I did my primary school when I was in Australia, high school and college in New Zealand. It was a school with 30 kids, very, very small," he laughs, "we were lucky if we got to cook. If you did all your homework, then you got to do the cooking the next day. It was a small town, so there wasn’t much opportunity. I got to make pancakes, maybe biscuits. It wasn’t anything big, but I just remember feeling that this was somewhat shaping my career path. In high school, I chose home economics which was sewing, cooking, etc. I was the only guy in a room full of girls. It was good," he laughed and winked, "I would get picked on by the other guys saying 'You’re doing cooking? I’d say 'Who’s the fool here, I’m in a room full of girls!' I got an opportunity to do the food for a staff meeting and I was passionate about it. I got a letter from the principle thanking me. Being 15-16, that was a big thing for me."

Young Chef Jason
"What was your first culinary job? " I asked. 'When I was 18, I got into an apprenticeship." Chuckling, he replied, "I looked like I was 11 years old. I was pint sized. No one wanted to give me a job back in New Zealand. It was hard to get a job in any kitchen. I couldn’t even get a job in bloody McDonald's! I went back to Australia to live with my Dad. He was a house painter. My first job actually was in Kentucky Fried Chicken. For a month. I stayed there, I enjoyed it, great people. It was my first opportunity in the kitchen, though I never found out what the 11 herbs and spices were," he laughed.

A love of surfing and cooking then led Jason to Australia’s famed Bondi Beach, where he apprenticed at some of the top Sydney restaurants, winning him the title of Apprentice of the Year from the East Sydney Technical Institute in 1993. "My dad got me my first real kitchen job on Bondi Beach, at a restaurant called Ravesis," he explained. "Southwestern food. This woman, Megan Brown, was eccentric. She was about 35-36 and was the head chef there. Big bright pink eyebrows. Her nickname was "Pink Eyes." She was a great, great chef. Very stern. She wouldn’t differ from the menu at all. For breakfast for instance, the only way she would serve eggs was scrambled. No poached eggs, no fried eggs. And if you ordered it another way, she would just agree, then send em out scrambled. You asked for it, but you never got it." he laughed.

Though surfing is his most well known activity, cycling has also become a big part of his life, with the chef sometimes riding 60-70 miles a day. I asked Jason to expand a bit on his lifestyle choices and his love of the outdoors, "You seem to live your life with gusto. Where does that come from?" He responded, "I started surfing when I was about 15. I can’t think of anything like it. There is nothing like when you are really relying on the elements. Nothing beats that adrenaline rush." When did you start?" I asked. He explained, "15/16, I was living back in New Zealand for 3 years. I had a group of friends that surfed. It took me a little while to get into it. But I was hooked. Besides cooking, I guess I’m all things outdoors. Whether it’s running outdoors, cycling or swimming, surfing, that's when I get to download. When I don’t get it, (the physical activity) I get pent up with frustration."

His achievements and acumen in the kitchen gained him the post of Executive Chef at the renowned Sydney restaurant, Bistro Moncur, where Jason and the restaurant earned 2 Hats of 3, Australia’s equivalent to America’s 3 Star*** system. While there, his accolades caught the attention of Australia's Channel 9, where he became the host of a new cooking program, Fresh, which aired 5 days a week in Australia and New Zealand. In January 2003, he was introduced to America on the ABC TV program Good Morning America. He also appeared The Wayne Brady Show, The Sharon Osbourne Show, E!, The Style Network’s You’re Invited, NYC's morning show Ali & Jack, Talk Soap with Lisa Rinna and he was the special Australian guest entertainment at the 2004 TV Soap Awards. In February 2004 Jason joined forces with the world-renowned US production company Mandalay Pictures to film a series of lifestyle programs titled ‘Jason Roberts Taste,' which eventually aired on the PAX network in the U.S., in October 2005, earning him 2 American Accolade Awards for Best Host and Best Health & Lifestyle program. Jason has authored 2 cookbooks; Graze: Lots of Little Meals Fast (MacMillan, 2003), which tapped into the growing trend towards eating smaller, more frequent meals, offering healthy small-portion recipes and alternative cooking methods to save time and effort, and 2006’s Elements. I asked him about his opportunity with TV.

"It  was in the last two years I was at Moncur was when I hosted the TV show. It had become a little tougher, I was working 70-80 hours a week between the two. Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) had just hit the scene and Channel 9 was looking for the next Jamie Oliver. There was a show called 'What’s Cooking' and it got canned because the TV Station and host of the show didn’t get on. There was a piece in the paper called "Young Guns Celebrity Chefs Cook-Off Australia." It was myself, Darren Simpson, Ashly Hughes. The 3 of us did a piece at our own restaurants in front of the camera and I did salt crusted chicken. I was camping it up a little bit too! I loved the opportunity. I was still very green, but they offered me an opportunity. Some people said, 'Oh you look a bit like Jamie.' If anything, it was just my being young," He continued with a wink, "but I’m much fitter than him. It was being young, someone who can cook and speak in front of the camera. I was on my way to Fashion Week and I received a phone call from Channel 9. They said we really like you, we need you now. Are you available to come in now?" I jumped in a cab and went straight to Channel 9. I was 24-25. It was awesome. It was timing. I continued to do that show for 4 years.

As we waited for our first course, I asked him, "Now you come to America, you're on National TV with ABC's The Chew. Why is it that you cook? What drives you to entertain? What's your focus?" He replied, "I started this because I wanted to be loved. Not so much the recognition for the cooking, but the recognition for making people happy." He thought for a second before continuing, "Now I realize that I have come full circle and I do this now, not for the need to be loved, but to make the people I'm entertaining feel loved and important. And," he winked, "I love to make them laugh. That’s why I do what I do. I want to hear people laugh, get excited. People watch cooking shows, I think, not so much because they decide 'Oh, I think I can be a great chef.' I believe there is some Gene. You’ve either got it (the cooking Gene) or you don’t. I think people watch Food TV because there is something warming about it. I take my cooking seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. That’s what makes it easy for me. That interaction between me and whoever is in front of me. It really comes alive when you hear them laugh. The biggest thing for me is to make sure I've got everyone’s attention."

He continued with an example of something I have seen him do time and time again as I have watched his live performances. "I was doing a show in Greensboro, North Carolina," he remembered, "I was in front of 30,000 people and we were throwing out tee-shirts. You can always attract people in the front rows with tee-shirts, but, with 30,000 people, you want to make sure you get those people way in the back. So I jumped off the stage, ran to the back and climbed this scaffolding and gave one to the farthest person in the room. I knew by doing that I would catch the whole back of the house. The camera was on me the whole time, watching me climb up and everything. I’m conscious of that, trying to bring everyone into my space."

I don’t take myself so seriously when I’m on stage. I like to get people to laugh. I think as a chef, once you’ve reached that point in your career, you can get over your ego. It’s about things I know people can go home and cook, things they can cook on a budget. Things that are accessible. I feel fulfilled as a person in front of these people, personally. This is my biggest thing, it’s exciting, I’m giving back. When it’s not so much about you, but what the customer wants, I think that’s when you reach the pinnacle of your career. When you drop your ego, when it’s not about you, when it’s about what the customer wants.

Video By Marvin Joseph. All rights reserved.

Damian Pignolet
Jason once told me a story a few years ago, while we were having dinner in Atlanta. It was about a special meal that was prepared especially for him by one of his mentors, Damian Pignolet, in Australia. While speaking about this he became somewhat emotional and the affection he feels for Damian was quite evident in his eyes. "Sitting in that space with Damian, sharing this meal as simple as it was, I could remember every mouthful of that meal and how important it was. It was moving," he admitted. "What a weird situation to sit there. You know it tasted incredible, but it wasn’t just the meal. If you think about every element that went into that dish, it was a sensual dish. It was the thought that he put into it for me and what it meant for him. It was an incredible experience. That time in my life was a turning point." I added, "He didn’t necessarily teach you how to cook, he taught you how to live." "For sure," he agreed, continuing, "I can remember, whenever he would come into the restaurant to eat, we had these paper sheets that we'd place on the tables. I would wait for it. I always could hear it, over all the din of the restaurant. The ripping of the paper." He smiled, 'I could hear it all the way in the kitchen. I guess I was attuned to it and waiting for it," he laughs. "As he ate, Damian would write down notes on the paper then tear off the corner, come back into the kitchen and say, 'Ok, we have to work on this and this and this.' I've been very fortunate to have a mentor on  my case and such a perfectionist as well."

Photo By Marvin Joseph
I found his last statement interesting, especially because this is a subject we speak about frequently; apprenticeship and how important it is to a young chef. Jason is currently mentoring someone entering the hospitality industry, and I remarked about his coming  full circle, in life as well as cheffing, he now being the mentor. He replied, "You know you really have to feel sorry sometimes for first year apprentices. They really get the shaft a little bit, until someone really embraces them. When I take on an apprentice, a first year, I really take them on, getting to know them, their family, encouraging sports and things outside of the work. I don't want them to burn out, or get involved with drugs." I interjected "This industry, hospitality can be a hard industry unless you are really called to it. With long hours, a physical toll, the stress of constant customer expectations and satisfaction, it can take it's toll on those new to the industry unless they have the guidance to manage it." He agreed, adding, "I think it can be a hard industry for those that take it half-assed."

I asked him what he thought a good mentor offered a so called protege, now that he found himself in that position. He thought for a moment as our Duck Confit was delivered to the table. We both tasted and savored the deep flavor pausing for a moment to enjoy our wine and the moment.

After we both devoured a few bites, he answered, " Damien was a mentor to me in not just food but music, life, lots of different stuff. To be a mentor to young individuals, there are two different levels. In the industry it's about food and getting them through those first couple of years. Giving them 100% of myself when they need it. In life it's about personal development. A good mentor gives you the why of life not just the how of life."

Photo by Marvin Joseph
We changed up our discussion to that of our recent hectic schedules and of a talk we had had about his missing the kitchen a bit due to traveling and TV demands. I asked him to expand a bit on that for this interview, as this is Up Close & Personal after all. We talked about his love of cooking and the rigors of his schedule and how he really rarely gets time to cook just for the sake of cooking. Now understand, friends, when talking with a chef about cooking, it's not the cooking you and I are thinking of, making our family meal or even, dinner for friends. When a true chef talks about missing the kitchen, it's about being on the line with his mates and fellow chefs putting out 250-300 covers (entrees) on a Friday night. Chefs are a unique breed. Quality classically trained TV Chefs without the ego, are also a unique breed. In a previous conversation, he had expressed to me that he hoped and he believed that he is part of a new breed of chefs; producing fun, affordable, accessible food, without the ego. I asked him to expound on that statement. "It's because I think cut my teeth young in the industry. I've done this. I stopped twisting food. Brought it back to simple basics. I get nothing out of having an ego. For me it truly is about the food"

Photo by Marvin Joseph
"As I have progressed and grown, as you get older you definitely hope you get wiser, my attitude has evolved. It's transcended. I have realized it's no longer about being loved, it's more about loving what I do. His eyes sparked a bit as he continued, "I think as we get through life, with all it's pressures, we are happy just being happy. Cooking is something that keeps me consistently happy. I find there are moments when I'm not in the kitchen and I'm not happy. There are times when I delve into a kitchen and it's like," he sighs, "it's like a pair of warm slippers, it's comfort, it's comfortable for me. That's my space. The clanging of the dishware. Those are my sounds, that's my kitchen jargon. There is a certain amount satisfaction to walking through the back end of a kitchen, even when it's not yours. At least there is for me." I asked him how that satisfaction it differs from being a "TV Chef," making the "quotes" sign with my fingers. He answered, "The impact you can make with a hundred million people. You can't do that from just one little kitchen. But with TV you can. I think that's what drives me on TV. Having a broad impact. But, you're public domain, so it's a bit overwhelming at times; travel, lawyers, PR, engagements, etc. In the kitchen, I just worry about what the patron wants. No pressures. It's more personal."

Photo by Marvin Joseph
As his friend, I have been a part of his current relocation to New Jersey here in the US, where he now makes his home. While I am thrilled to have him in my own backyard, where I get to spend time with him, I have also witnessed the effects of his transition to America and the difficulty of being away from the his family and friends back in Sydney. I asked him, "It must have been hard leaving all you knew and were comfortable with in Australia to start traveling and move to the U. S. What was the transition like and talk a bit about how you have balanced living in a completely different culture?"

"The transition of coming here and obviously re-establishing yourself is more about building credit, finding a place to live, getting a phone put in, stuff like that. Everything else is exactly the same. The reason people love my being here is because I'm Australian. So I embrace that for what it is. The Chew calls me 'The Wonder From Down Under.' If you look at my background, when I was 3, I moved to Queensland. When I was 12, I moved back to New Zealand. I’ve been nomadic my entire life. I don’t know if you’re into that spiritual stuff or not, but as an Aquarian, we have a tendency to be nomadic and like that," he snapped his fingers, "we can move straight away. That's not to say that I don't miss my family and friends back home. It's hard, but I have so many new friends here in the States that it's getting a bit easier. Plus, I try to get back to Sydney at least every couple of months, even if just for a few days."

Photo by Marvin Joseph
Changing direction a bit, I asked, "I know we've tossed this about a bit, but on the record, any thoughts of doing something food-restaurant wise now that you're here?" "The more I think about it, absolutely," He responded. "I think there are certain lengths of downtime where I can physically be teaching, training, making charcuterie. I would love to have a stable restaurant, Classical French Bistro cooking. Terrines, sausages, pates. Seasonal food. I prefer winter. Anything in winter is better. All the slow braised meats. It's the technique that I love I guess. The way the French have adopted a lot of Chinese cookery. If you take a firm grasp of French technique, you can cook anything."

As dessert and espresso was being served, I asked him "What's the biggest challenge of cooking on television, especially live. It all looks so easy from our 'viewers' perspective? He laughed, "Cooking a three course meal in 5 minutes." The he added more seriously, "Things have changed in the way I present cooking on TV. I make it less about the food and more about the moment because, the more memorable the moment, especially if you make them laugh, the more likely they are to rewind or Tivo it, etc." Sound, sage advice from a man who's enthusiasm and youthful appearance belie a wealth of experience  first, a classically trained chef for the last 22 years, and second, in his home of Sydney, Australia, a mainstay on Australian Food TV.

We then discussed what is a very common theme to our friendship, the fact that we both feel the act of people eating together is not about the food, it is about the moment. With friends or family. Food is just the vehicle. Jason cooks it, I sometimes cook it, (not nearly as well), sometimes eat it and most times, write about it. Though different mediums, we both seek the same end result. A need to offer a special moment or capture a special moment using food and shared meals and interaction to evoke a positive emotion. "I think the food is just the vehicle for good conversation," he offered, 'I know folks who can remember every meal, what they ate. Not me. I remember the meals that had great conversation. Where the meal has transcended the conversation."

With Chef Jonathan Sawyer's Kids
He works closely with the OPAL program, a Federal, State, Local initiative in Australia that is about obesity prevention, with everyone in the community working together to support Marion Families, to learn basic cooking skills and cook delicious healthy fresh food. Throughout our relationship, I have watched Jason always drawn to the kids. They love him. He brings them out of their shell, engaging them directly, talking to them, not at them. I have watched him transform shy, insecure children into giggling bundles of joy. He is at once engaging, funny and I guess, a big kid himself, which is why children just seem to be drawn to his enthusiasm for life. I asked him about this and his work with charities. "Kids are so enigmatic and I'm drawn to them because, you know, we're all big kids at heart." He smiled, "They are so easily guided. Adults for the most part are set in their ways. Take cooking shows live, or on TV, for instance. Most people are what I'd call 'fire gazers.' They are never really going to cook what they watch, but they enjoy the show. When I have a young kid in front of me and I have an opportunity to mentor, or to excite a child about an opportunity or being in the kitchen, they lap it up and I think that I'm just drawn to that energy. And, as you have heard me say before, 'You get the kids, you get the parents for free.'"

Jason’s philosophy when it comes to food and cooking is healthy, quick and uncomplicated, believing that “the family that cooks together stays together,” and that cooking together and sharing of a meal is the perfect vehicle to foster connections and deeper relationships between family and friends. "Friends, family and good nutrition, those 3 things. One of the biggest things I talk about when I get on stage is good nutrition. I believe that prevention is better than a cure. So we eat well, we exercise. We maintain it. We can live a long healthy life, because I believe in quality not quantity."

I asked him if he's content with himself, comfortable in his own skin. He answered. "Are we ever really content? I am happy, but not complacent. I've got a lot of opportunity on the horizon, an eventual new cookbook, etc. I have a great team working with me. Everyone is invested in my success and that's a good thing. It's very important to have great people to work with that I can trust with my well being." As we wrapped up, over dessert I asked him, "So what's on the horizon for Jason Roberts?" He replied instantly,
Photo by Marvin Joseph
"More time with my family. Sometimes you can never really tell which way your sail is going to blow. I'm happy to go along with this wind for now. I've worked very hard to get these opportunities, first in the restaurants to become a head chef, then this TV thing. They are very much separate. You know, it's funny here in America as people are starting to discover me, they use the term overnight sensation. I have been a classically trained French chef for 22 years and on TV in some form or another for the last 15 or so. I'm happy with where I am and the path that I'm on. Am I satisfied? No." he answered his own question, "I'm always striving to be better, achieve that next goal and of course, looking for my next audience to make happy and laugh."

Jason recently got engaged and has a son Hunter. He shares his time between Sydney and New York City, where he is a Co-Host/Correspondent on ABC’s new hit, food related, daily talk show, The Chew. He is currently working on a new cookbook, tentatively scheduled for release sometime in early 2013.
To find out more about Jason visit his website, www.chefjasonroberts.com and follow him on twitter and facebook

It has been my distinct pleasure to bring you UP Close & Personal with Chef Jason Roberts. I am confident as his star rises and he becomes more and more known here in America, you'll all come to love and respect him as much as I do.

As Always Bon Appetit, 


August 20, 2012

Farmer Lee Jones of the Chef's Garden: International man of Mystery, Intrigue, Bow-ties & Squash Blossoms...

Farmer Lee Jones
This story, for me, has been a long time coming. Six years to be exact. It was roughly 2006 when I was first made aware of the special little place out in Ohio producing these special ingredients. A chef's Garden of Eden, if you will. For one reason or another I just could not get out to see this place for myself. I had spoken to Farmer Lee, his team, yet the trip had never materialized until this year. This past July, I was able to finally accept their gracious offer of hospitality and visit during their Veggie U Food & Wine Celebration, as they celebrated its 10th Anniversary. Sometimes things happen for a reason, as Lee will agree, sometimes relationships and opportunities come when they are supposed to. I have learned that sometimes, when things fall into place naturally it's because they were always meant to; not as we would have them happen, but in their own season, picked fresh at their own most opportune time. Sound like a garden metaphor? Well it is...and that, my friends, was my experience this year at  The Chef’s Garden in Ohio. 

From the moment I stepped on the property, I felt different. The welcome I received was genuine and by the end of my weekend I had come to believe, somehow, that these folks had known me and I them, all of our lives. They treated me like family. While I was busy thinking very highly of myself, feeling special indeed, I witnessed them offer this same level of hospitality and pureness of human interaction to everyone, famous or not, chef or student, writer or blogger, or guest. This is just who these folks are and I realized how lucky we all were, in this place at this particular moment, to be invited and sharing this with Lee and his Chef's Garden family.

The specialness of this place goes beyond tilling the ground and working it with love to produce some of the most incredible produce you can imagine. This place seems to also till the souls of those that come in contact with it. It nourishes you, fertilizes your mind and spirit, inspiring you always be at your freshest, most flavorful peak. That is the real secret of this place. Lee explained this to me as we talked in the study, surrounded by his history, sitting in high back chairs high above the kitchens below, chefs bustling about readying their entrees for the competition. "The land is special," he began, "due to the glaciers. This had been a lake bed and it's nutrient rich. That's what makes this place special." In Huron, Ohio, the lake winds bring sweet, moist air; the soil, which was formerly lake bottom, is sandy and fertile. This combination offers the perfect micro-climate for "growing vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature."

I completely agree that the produce is special and even the land. I disagree, however, with what makes it so. Lake bed aside, someone had to love this land enough to fight for it and lovingly work it to help it produce its bounty. I have come to believe it is the people here at Chef's Garden who make this particular land special. With love, caring and devotion to each other first, with the land in common. And, they do it with people too. I think if you picked up this team and moved them anywhere, they would have the same result. It was my pleasure to sit and discuss with Lee, on this occasion of the celebration's 10 year anniversary, how it, this farm and this unique family came to be what it is today. He brought me back in time.

The Jones Boys: Bob Sr., Lee & Bob Jr.
"When this story began. some 40 years ago, not far from the shores of Lake Erie, my dad was working with our old John Deere tractor, designing modifications that would increase the efficiency of field production on the farm. Every week, Dad, Bobby and I harvested and packed produce, then took it to the Cleveland farmers' markets. We also had a daily stand in the front yard of the house." In 1980, a hailstorm devastated the family farm leaving them but 6 acres and the life Lee and his family family had worked incredibly hard for their whole lives, his mother's car, their acres of well-toiled land and their cozy family home, was gone in a day.

"My parents were nondrinkers, nonsmokers, and didn't miss a day of church in 25 years," Farmer explains proudly, "When they made money, they reinvested back in the farm. When interest rates hit 23 percent and the storm devastated our crops, we started over from almost nothing. I saw my dad very broken spirited," Lee remembers, "I left college, worked 10 years with no paycheck and helped put my brother and sister through college. I can't imagine doing anything else. Working with my dad is amazing."

Bob Jones, Sr.
In the farming business for more than 50 years, Bob Jones, Sr. has led The Chef's Garden to innovate how vegetables are grown, harvested, packaged and delivered to the kitchen door of top chefs around the world. It was Mr. Bob, as he's fondly referred to on the farm, who recognized the value in meeting the needs of chefs who were driving a return to sustainable agriculture, a reconnection with food producers and a focus on quality and flavor. Lee explains further, "Well the real story on how we came to be a chef's garden is a bit different than most think. All our literature says it was a family decision," winking he added, "but let me tell ya how it really happened. When that hail storm hit, we lost everything except for 6 acres. Out of 600. We were devastated," he recalled. "I had a met a French chef who had asked me about growing some vegetables, particularly, squash blossoms. The chef was looking for the same quality product available in France, so we took care of this chef and others as well. At this time we had a big decision to make, being down in acreage. Do we stick with the farmers markets or do we specialize in chefs and their needs? My dad put it to a vote. 5 hands around the table, including mine, all voted for the farmers markets. My dad looked around the table, slammed his hand on the table and shouted. "Then it's final...we're doing chefs!" That is the real story of how the 'family' decided to cater to chefs," he laughed.

To many chefs, Farmer Lee embodies The Chef's Garden. Perpetually clad in his trademark overalls and a red bow-tie, it is not uncommon to see Farmer Jones at the culinary industry's top shows and events. We spoke about his choice of attire just hours before the festival. "I've been everywhere in my overalls, Iron chef to The James Beard Awards, where everyone was in a tux and I had on my overalls," he paused, "a new pair of course but, they were still overalls." Lee has been featured in numerous national publications, including Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine and The Washington Post. The farm has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show, Food Network's Roker on the Road, CNN Business Unusual, and ABC World News. He was also the first farmer ever
Lee, Michelle Obama, Robert Irvine
to judge the popular Food Network TV program Iron Chef America. "It has become a trademark," he says with a gleam in his eye, "and I'm very protective of the image and how it affects the farm. I love it though and am happy to be the face of The Chef's Garden."

The Famous Red Bow-Ties
On this topic I could not help but to inquire about a rumor I had heard throughout our years knowing each other. I asked Lee if it were true that in his closet, he had nothing but white shirts, overalls and that he had all his ties lined up. He laughed and replied, "Yes that is actually true," and immediately invited me up to the house, a large spacious log cabin that serves as his and Mary's home and is located in the the back corner of the property that houses
It's True! Just overalls & white shirts.
the Culinary Vegetable Institute. Indeed, as you can see from these exclusive pictures, seen here first, Lee indeed has a closet full of overalls, white shirt and clearly his ties are all neatly lined up.

It is here, basically in Farmer Lee's front yard that the tents and trappings of the festival take place. It seems fitting, almost like it's just a big ol' barbecue with a few hundred of your closest friends and some world famous chefs and culinary personalities thrown in. This year's headliners were Restaurant Impossible's, Robert Irvine, Top Chef Just Desserts', Johnny Iuzzini, BBC America's Clair Robinson, Madison Cowen from No Kitchen Required and Amanda Freitag from Chopped to lend it some sizzle.

Johnny Iuzzini, me, Lee, Clair Robinson
From celebrities to chefs, to volunteers, to sous chefs and students, whomever you are, here, the hospitality of this team of people is palpable. I was fortunate on this their 10th Anniversary to be invited into their home and really get a behind the scenes look at the back bone that supports this farm: The Jones Family. On that topic, I must digress and tell a story which summed up my day with this family and team.

We have all heard the phrases, 'out of the mouths of babes' and 'everything has its start at the head and trickles down." Well, as I prepared for the day, Lee offered his home as my base of operations covering the festival, and as it was a hot day, with my physical limitations, a place to rest and take a break from the festivities. As I got myself situated, behind the island in the kitchen was a cherub faced little girl, about 8 yrs old, with red curly hair, wearing a chef's coat that said "Chef's Garden.' She introduced herself as Mary Grace, Lee's granddaughter. I introduced myself as well and she asked if I would care for something to drink. I replied, "That would be nice, yes please." She then turned her back to me, took something out of her pocket and stood hunched for a few seconds. Then she whirled around and handed me a hand written list, on a small message sized paper on which she had written five or six items to choose from, such as Water, Juice, Coke, etc. I placed my order, which she wrote down on a separate piece of paper and then she proceeded to get my drink and serve it to me, asking, "Would you like anything else?" I said no, thanked her and handed her a dollar, eliciting a big grin, and polite thank you. I later heard that she was telling everyone who would listen about the experience. I guess it was a special to her as it was to me. This, my friends, embodies the spirit of every person I met over the course of this celebration. Warm, engaging, real and well, downright hospitable.

The Chef' Garden

Chef's Garden Herbs
As the direct connection to the chef, Lee leads the passionate team members at The Chef's Garden to continually excel beyond their own high standards in quality and service, in order to deliver the finest quality vegetables direct from Earth to Table® to the world's greatest culinarians. The Chef's Garden grows and innovates as a partnership between chefs and farmers. They grow what chefs want, often what is otherwise impossible to find. And they host hundreds of chefs at their farm each year, where those chefs‚ "can do R & D or get R & R," Jones explained, " at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, a retreat with culinary library, private kitchen, and Jacuzzi." He continued, "This is a really special place. I have seen and been part of many special moments here at CVI. My dad envisioned it as a place where chefs and culinarians could come and reconnect with the land, the
Clair Robinson, Johnny Iuzzini, Madison Cowen
ingredients, with their passion for cooking and food again. So we built these kitchens and a chefs suite along with a suite downstairs for the chef's sous chefs and team and it's become almost like a retreat house for chefs. One experience I remember in particular," he smiled before continuing,"because it was so special to my Dad, was when we first opened. We were seeking help getting the word out, Charlie Trotter, who is a dear friend and has supported us from the beginning by telling other chefs about us, arranged a dinner with all of us here and Ferran Adria. My dad was just thrilled. We have had a lot of well known chefs come through here. For instance Grant Achatz came and spent quite a few days here, working on new menus and dishes with his team."

The Culinary Vegetable Institute
Sitting on approximately 100 acres, the Institute includes a 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art two story Kitchen designed by Mark Stech-Novak with full audio-visual capabilities for demonstrations; a 1426 square foot Dining Room with 22 foot ceilings (capable of seating 90); an Executive Chef Suite with luxury amenities; accommodations for visiting chefs’ teams; a Culinary Library; Root Cellar, Wine Cellar and it also includes an experimental vegetable, forest and herb gardens.

Chefs’ Haven:
Visiting chefs can utilize the CVI’s facilities and gardens for educational, team building and retreat purposes. With the farm nearby, chefs can experience The Chef’s Garden planting and harvesting methods, pick vegetables themselves and return to the CVI for relaxation or to experiment in the kitchen. Today, the CVI continues its commitment to its chefs, but they have also opened their doors to the community by sharing their facility with corporations, organizations and people who seek a unique venue for the finest in agri-culinary experiences. For more information, visit CVI's website here.

Veggie U
The sharp increase in childhood obesity and diabetes in our nation is nothing short of alarming. It's clear the majority of children today have little or no connection to the food they eat, where it comes from and how it impacts their health. This reality prompted Bob Jones and his wife Barb – along with chefs, nutritionists, doctors, educators and volunteers -- to create and launch the Veggie U program. Since 2003, Veggie U has been committed to changing these trends by reaching out to teachers and children across the country. Located in Milan, Ohio, Veggie U is a national not-for-profit organization that offers an Earth to Table™ science curriculum to fourth grade and special needs classrooms. Their goal is to place this exciting hands-on curriculum in all 93,000 fourth grade classrooms nationwide in an effort to decrease childhood disease and increase youth awareness of healthy food options and the importance of sustainable agriculture. Healthy kids also learn better and become more active contributing members to their families and communities.

Veggie U's Earth to Table™ curriculum recognizes that children would greatly benefit from understanding the connection between what they consume and how that food is grown. Educating children in an engaging, experiential way helps them to learn. Veggie U's science-based program offers a hands-on seed-to-planting-to-harvest experience. A complete grow kit is provided along with a comprehensive teacher's manual written to cover state and national 4th grade science standards. The benchmarks for these standards are included at the beginning of each lesson so that teachers can integrate them into existing curriculum.

Robert Irvine cooks with Veggie U kids
In addition to a hands-on, scientific approach to learning about plants and their components, the Veggie U curriculum incorporates extensive journal activities, mathematics, language arts and fine arts, providing an interactive and enjoyable way for students to study these core concepts. The classroom lessons include studies of soil, composting, planting, nutrition and plant anatomy. The students also care for a worm farm, raise a mini "crop", and celebrate the end of the program with a vegetable Feast Day. Veggie U has delivered more than 1800 classroom kits across 26 states. To learn more about Veggie U, visit the Veggie U website.

As we got ready for the start of the day's festivities, heading out of our cozy space high atop the CVI kitchens into the throngs waiting to greet Lee, he turned to me with an after thought, "Ya know," he smiled putting his arm around my shoulders as we walked, "it's a great place. We have a wonderful team that's dedicated and who keep me going. I can't let them and all the kids down. And, based upon the outpouring from chefs and the culinary establishment, we're blessed to have so many folks who understand our vision. The Farm and these Veggie U Celebrations, as well as our little piece of the earth out here has become world reknown. Pretty cool." I would have to agree, Lee, pretty cool indeed. This place and these people have a new fan and new member of the family and I am blessed and glad to be a part of it. I hope you enjoyed a look at this enigmatic man and his Chef's Garden family. It was my pleasure and I look forward to next year's event and bringing you more of the adventures of Farmer Lee Jones...international man of mystery, intrigue, bow-ties...and squash blossoms.

As always, bon appetit,


Sources;  The Chef’s Garden, Farmer Lee Jones, The Jones Family, ulterior epicure