(Originally published February 21, 2014 on Examiner.com).
It has been a while since a twenty-two-year-old cook from Melbourne, Australia wandered into a kitchen in London and told that restaurant’s renowned chef that he’d work for free. Since that time and the eight years that followed in ChefMarco Pierre White‘s kitchens starting as a commis and finishing as a head chef,Curtis Stone has taken a very different path than most other chefs to opening his own and first restaurant, a twenty five-seat restaurant in Beverly Hills named after his granny Maude.
Curtis Stone has achieved such acclaim as a celebrity since first being recognized as one of London’s top chefs (when he was just twenty-five-years-old) that many don’t fully realize the solid culinary foundation upon which that celebrity was built. With Maude, Chef Stone returns to the kitchen full-time for the first time since 2002, with an all-star team, preparing a seasonal menu featuring a different seasonal ingredient each month on its nine course prix-fixe menu. Though there’s no one wandering through Stone’s new kitchen in his long johns smoking a cigar and dropping an armful of freshly killed pheasants on the pass, the spirit and attitude of Chef Stone’s mentor, Chef Marco Pierre White is present and apparent especially in Chef Stone and his team’s approach and attention to detail.
At the end of Maude’s menu; with one of the petit fours, Chef Stone pays homage to his granny’s fudge, the first item he learned how to cook as a child at his granny’s house. However it was Marco Pierre White’s cooking a few years later that inspired him to pursue becoming a chef. Chef Stone remembers when reading White Heat, Marco’s first book, how some of the dishes in this book were so detailed and so difficult to do. He remembers trying some of Marco’s recipes, and not being able to get close to how these dishes looked in the photographs. When he finally went to work for Marco, he understood how much practice and refinement it takes to do these dishes like Marco’s foie gras parfait. Curtis learned this item from Chef White, and then Curtis traveled around the world and saw that plate repeated everywhere including here in the United States. Chef Stone remembers making another rabbit dish where after roasting the loin, he’d take the belly flap, crisp it and then julienne the flap, recook the sliced flap so it was crispy little pieces of the belly flap that was served with asparagus and baby leeks. This was one of those dishes, Chef Stone remembers seeing with those tiny little ribs of rabbit and thinking to himself, “my God how on earth do they french the bones on those tiny little ribs.” But he notes, there was an absolute method for doing this. While plates like these are now outdated, they still remain really relevant to Curtis because such attention to detail that a chef puts into food Curtis believes is really important and shows through.
On Maude’s current menu, this attention to detail is reflected in dishes like the “Snake River Farm’s Beef.” With this dish, trimmed broccoli florets are placed on the plate with the beef and the rest of the broccoli is turned into a puree. Typically broccoli puree is one of the simplest things to do in the world, but the way Chef Stone and his team do it is relatively complex. They cook and use only the broccoli flower, not any of the stem. So trimming the broccoli florets is time consuming. These florets are then blanched, cooled, and then put into a food processor. Though they’re too dry to turn, but you want it to be dry so it’s full of broccoli flavor and not thinned out with cream, chicken stock or water. So, as Chef Stone pointed out, what is seemingly so simple actually takes time to achieve the taste and texture you’re looking for. Thus, in regards to his mentor Marco Pierre White’s impact upon Curtis approach to his menu, and in general, his restaurant, Curtis said, “I guess a lot of that method whether it is how to make a broccoli puree or how to french the bones on a rabbit rib…a lot of that detail lives in those great fine dining restaurants. I want our food to be just as detailed as some of those restaurants, but I want our environment to feel a lot more comfortable so people can actually have that incredible experience without all of the palava that sometimes comes with it.”
Other dishes on Maude’s menu that define where Chef Stone and his staff’s cooking is today, include the “Duck, Duck, Goose” raviolo. This plate takes something old and familiar that Curtis has done before, chicken mouse and raviolo, and re-imagines it using duck, a duck egg’s yolk and a citrus component, finger limes.. For this dish, Curtis’s team initially tried to think as far out of the box as they could starting with a warm emulsion and a smoked emulsion, for the sauce. Though his team went around in circles on this dish. And what they thought ultimately was better? A beurre blanc something that’s been done for hundreds of years. They still brought in new ingredients like the finger lime to get pops of citrus and intensify the flavor. They also use the egg yolk from duck eggs, salt and cure them, then uses a dehydrator so the salted and cured yolk can be shaved over the pasta. Chef Stone said, “this was something that was a little of a different you don’t see.” Though after looking at very new ways of doing the sauce, his team eventually decided that the most delicious execution always comes first when they develop a dish. As Curtis concluded, “if it is better by doing it a new way, great let’s endorse that new way and do it, but if it’s not more delicious we’re not trying to show off to other chefs, we’re just trying to do a great job and put the most delicious meal on the plate.”
However Curtis admitted, as a chef who has been out of the kitchen for a number of years, when he walk into kitchens today and sees people using liquid nitrogen, circulators and dehydrators, there’s a part of him that feels like he doesn’t need all of that bullshit to cook. But then when he gives it further thought, he realizes that even the smartest chefs need to embrace these new technologies and methods, which is what Curtis has done with how his team decided to use a dehydrator with the duck egg yolks that they shave onto the raviolo. One of Curtis’ all-star team members, Brandon Difiglio, who spent time at both elBulli and at Melbourne’s Vue de Monde, brings this new way of thinking to Maude’s kitchen.
Thus, Maude incorporates a lot of Marco Pierre White’s philosophy but expands, builds upon, and supplements those beliefs and attitudes in part through what other team members brings to the table. Additionally, California’s bounty of fruits and vegetables is added to the restaurant’s cooking equation. Curtis reminisced, “Marco was close to some of the ingredients. He was a big hunter and still is. He really cared about game maybe less so about fruits and vegetables- that was less of a priority for him. I use to go to Rungis Market in Paris, a big market once a week. Would drive, get the ferry, go across and buy all of the foie gras, all of the beautiful ingredients there and distribute them between all of Marco’s restaurants. We had our finger on the pulse with ingredients but not like you can here. Every week, I’m at the farmer’s market. Every week I’m visiting different farms. I work really closely with those farmers. I think that you build a much stronger bond and a much greater understanding about that ingredient, and when you do, you can create better dishes.”
An example of this, Stone cited the crimson turnips used in the Lobster crudo dish. These started out as just turnips then he found these crimson turnips and they totally changed that dish. “These crimson turnips have a real rich earthiness,” that Chef Stone said, “You can’t get them by just calling your supplier. You have to go to the source and speak to him about what he can and can’t do. I was up at Alex Weiser’s farm a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about sunchokes, and unless you’re up there to see firsthand that there is ice on the ground, you won’t understand that this is one of the ways these sunchokes get their intense flavor and nutritional value, just like they do on the East Coast.”
Like many other LA chefs, this bounty is what Curtis loves about California. Curtis can buy his sunchokes, carrots, and parsnips from Alex Weiser that are full of flavor, then go to the next stand down run by a different farmer, which is from the coast in Santa Barbara with beautiful sunshine, and buy all of his peas, and Brussels sprouts from him. That’s why Curtis believes we’re all so lucky to live here.
If you ask any chef that cooks at a high level what their dream is, that dream is to work in a little 25-seat restaurant like Maude. That’s what chef Curtis Stone and many other chefs have dreamt about all their lives. Because they don’t have to do three hundred covers, chefs can really focus in on the ingredients and the detail doing only 50 or so covers a night especially with a prix fixe menu. Due in large part to this format, Chef Curtis Stone has been able to attract a number of talented chefs to work with him in his kitchen.
Stone’s team includes chefs Gareth Evans and Brandon Difiglio. Gareth, an English lad, worked with another Marco Pierre White alum, Chef Gordon Ramsay for several years, as well as Thomas Keller at Per Se, and with Joel Robuchan in Paris. Brandon, in addition to spending a year at elBulli, also worked with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Curtis met Brandon when Brandon was working at Vue de Monde a restaurant ran by Curtis’s grammar school classmate chef Shannon Bennett in Melbourne, Australia, which has been ranked as one of the top one hundred restaurants in the world for several years. Additionally Chef Josh Emett, who was Garett’s chef de cuisine at Ramsay’s The London in NYC, and Curtis were good friends so when Curtis was putting together his team Josh brought Gareth’s name up and made an introduction.
Curtis, Gareth and Brandon champion the menu development. Some of the other chefs participate as well, including Pastry Chef Vanessa Garcia. For example, Gareth came up with the idea for the, “Terrine” which is quite a refined take on a terrine. The pain perdu was Curtis’s idea which was developed further before Curtis suggested incorporating the citrus element – adding a tangerine gelee over the top of the terrine. Next, Brandon started a discussion about what’s the best thing to eat with a terrine – and mustard became a topic of conversation . They decided it would be nice to add a condiment with a different texture and temperature and this is when Brandon came up with the idea to do the mustard ice cream. So Curtis, Brandon and Gareth collaboratively devise each menu item, together as a team.
All three sketch their plating ideas on a chalkboard. Curtis noted that during one of the early design ideas for the restaurant was to have a big chalkboard in the middle of the dining room, which could be used for the chefs’ dish sketches, and would remain on the wall throughout the entire month. “Though this would have been cool,” Curtis said, “it turns out we’d need way more than one chalk board. You can’t imagine how many dishes we started with and how we narrowed it down. It’s a very collaborative process. These guys are super talented, I’ve seen some amazing things, and they work their asses off so I want to be sure they are included in the development process.”
Before his team gets to any specific dish ideas, they start with the ingredient of the month. For February the “hero” ingredient is citrus. They looked at all of the varieties of citrus they could get their hands on, and wrote them up on a wall. Next they discuss the possible applications of this ingredient and add those to a separate column on the wall. With citrus they ask what can they do with the zest, fruit, segments, cells, or juice? They can turn it into an oil, dehydrate it, freeze dry or boil it. They ask themselves how these techniques fit into this season’s food. They then look at what else is available and add that to the wall in a third column. For example, throughout the months of February and March, spiny lobsters are available. There also are crimson turnips, carrots, parsnips, etc. So now from the matrix formed by these three columns (varieties of the featured ingredients, applications for these varieties and other available ingredients) they super impose a course structure that consists of snacks, a salad, soup, a crudo, terrine, a ravioloor pasta, and a final main-course. Starting off with something light, a salad, then moving into a soup followed by something raw, Curtis believes is a nice way to start a meal. So, with each course they start kicking around ideas, drawing from their matrix until they eventually end up with three or four formulated dishes for each course.
The ingredient of the month is used in many different subtle ways on the menu, like the blood orange reduction in the “Garden Salad“, the finishing citrus marinade and salt on the spiny “Lobster” crudo, the previously mentioned finger limes in the sauce on the “Duck, Duck, Goose” raviolo, and the Buddha hand zest on the main “Snake River Farm’s Beef” dish. According to Curtis, how they use the ingredient has to be interesting because they can’t do the same thing nine times. Everyone would be bored if they just served an orange salad. So instead they have to come up with more inventive ways to keep the diner interested, and also to keep his kitchen engaged. Chef Stone wants his guests to look at his monthly ingredient in a way they haven’t thought about before. “So looking ahead at April’s featured ingredient peas,” Curtis note, “you can eat the flowers, you can eat the tendrils, you can eat the snap peas. There are so many different things you can do with them.”
In terms of processes and technology, though Curtis is a little more old school than other members of his team, he has embraced technology as well as the more modern methods used in today’s kitchens. However, Curtis doesn’t want his kitchen to become a molecular one. Plus his team keeps the chemicals used in molecular gastronomy out of his food. According to Chef Stone, “you know there are a lot of chefs playing with chemicals these days, and I don’t love that. There are different applications for different things but some of the older, simpler techniques are better. Yes we have a circulator in here. We haven’t used it on this month’s menu. We could have used it. We could have used the circulator with the beef to come out perfect medium rare, but I’d rather exercise that skill in cooking rather than rely on the technology to make it good.”
Though a little 25-seat restaurant is what chefs often dream of owning and working in, the economics of such a small restaurant like Maude, are difficult. Typically restaurants like these, Saison for example, have to charge a lot of money to make it work. However instead of charging $125.00 for Maude’s nine course prix fixe meal, which relative to other similar caliber places in Los Angeles would be reasonable, Curtis has set this month’s current menu price at $75.00 which is more accessible. Curtis did this on purpose. He doesn’t think food should exclude anybody so Curtis and his team thought of different ways they could make their restaurant accessible to more people. Curtis wants chefs to be able to come and eat here. He doesn’t want Maude to be a restaurant just for the wealthy. They started off with a very accessible price point, though Curtis notes that price will probably change depending on the monthly ingredient. Citrus in February isn’t a crazy price. Later on in the year there will be more expensive months when the monthly ingredient will feature items like morels or truffles. These ingredients have much higher food costs. If people want to come in and spend money they can, Maude does have a really special wine list along with the right team out front to sell it.
“When I stepped away from the stove, my understanding of food became far greater,” Marco Pierre White.
According to Maude‘s chef, Curtis Stone, chefs draw inspiration from a variety of places. For Stone, the first place he gets inspiration from is the garden. He’s a keen gardener. He’s always gardening and those ingredients usually spark most of his ideas. Stone believes another place a chef gets inspiration is from other chefs, from their books and restaurants, plus somewhat uniquely for Curtis Stone, he draws inspiration from standing in the “Top Chef Masters‘” kitchen, the show he hosts. Here he has watched these other “top chef masters” cook, and has drawn a lot of inspiration observing them.
Since Stone left Marco Pierre White’s kitchen, and achieved success outside the kitchen on TV and through other media, the one luxury he had that other chefs don’t have is time, simply because he hasn’t been in a kitchen every night doing service every night. Stone noted, “When you’re doing service, after working five nights a week, on Sunday you’re so exhausted that the last thing you want to do is go out for dinner, so that only gives you one day a week you can actually go out a week to eat and think about food.” Whereas instead for Curtis, over the last six or seven years he has had time to do “Top Chef Masters” and watch what other chefs are doing. He also has had a lot of time to think about what different dishes, ingredients and components and how these different items can be used in the kitchen.
In his current kitchen his team members don’t really have a second to stop and think. They get in at 8:30 in the morning, prep until 5 PM then clean down to get ready for service, which takes them through to midnight, when they clean down their stations and then drive home a little brain dead, Stone stated ” that’s just the reality of it.” So the creative process can be a challenge with such a huge time commitment and focus especially for Maude’s concept where they change the menu each month. What they’re doing is going to be difficult, but that’s why Curtis did it, he loves this challenge.
With the luxury of having time, Curtis has also eaten in a number of restaurants all over the world. Thus he has seen some amazing food, which he’s had time to think about rather than having to be in a kitchen every night making broccoli puree. So, when Stone stepped away from the stove, his exposure and knowledge of food became far greater. As Curtis noted, “Once you’re actually a diner, as opposed to being a chef, you get that other perspective and I think that is really helpful because sometimes chefs will cook dishes to try to show off their skills as a chef and sometimes they cook dishes to try to really impress their diners.”
Additionally what Curtis has been doing foodwise on the more familiar television and media side of his career had been quite different. He still cooked; he’s cooked every day of his life since he was sixteen, but in a restaurant like Maude, cooking is about the art of perfection because all your raviolis, for example, have to be perfect. These raviolis all have to look and taste the same plus be cook the same amount of time. Since they’re doing fifty a day of this course they’re obviously going to get good at making raviolis, including the pasta dough every single morning. On the television and media side, where Curtis has been developing recipes for magazines, books, TV shows and whatever else, he can never do the same thing twice otherwise it’s redundant. So, according to Curtis, instead of doing the same thing again and again, in the media world he constantly has to move, be new, and different. In the media world there’s less refinement, but there is much more creativity.
In contrast, Curtis pointed out what Marco Pierre White did instead when he became the youngest British chef to obtain three Michelin stars. Curtis reflected,
“Marco started like that and just got better, better and better, but it became quite narrow in terms of what we did as a business. In terms of our restaurants we kept doing the same things again which is why he won three Michelin stars. Let’s face it. You don’t get three Michelin star by changing your mind every five minutes trying something different. Consistency is what the Michelin guide looks for and what a lot of diners look for as well through refinement, refinement and refinement. He really drilled that into me. He also said to me it is much more exciting to work in a two star than a three star. You’ve chosen a three star because it is the best, but it’s not always exciting as a two star, because in two stars they don’t have to have that crazy consistency and absolute perfection.”
Marco Pierre White has also complained about how television, with its celebrity chefs, has adversely affected many who enter the industry. White has stated that he feels new apprentices “come into kitchens with the wrong attitudes, they want to be stars, they want to be celebrities.” What Marco has advised these young people who come into the industry is to “keep your head down, learn your job, obtain your knowledge, and build a foundation. Then in five years, six years’ time then decide what you want to do.” This advice is pretty much what Curtis Stone did spending eight years building his culinary foundation in Marco’s kitchens before pursuing other less traditional opportunities that present themselves.
Curtis recounting this past stated,
“I think with all the media attention around the chef world a lot of things have changed, that’s for sure. I think back to when I was an apprentice coming through the ranks it was before the Jamie Olivers. Before the TV shows even started. I’m not sure when the Food Network started here, but certainly in Europe and Australia there was no such thing as a celebrity chef. There was a huge shortage of young people who wanted to join this industry because it’s really hard work. There’s no two ways about it. We work 16 hours a day. We don’t blink at working these hours. But when you look at another industry …it’s like what, you work until midnight, but you start at 8:30 in the morning? And that’s what it takes to be at this level in a kitchen, and it’s not easy. So, I think what has happened is that the industry has gotten more limelight which has done exactly what Marco said, it has brought people into the industry for the wrong reason because they want to be the next Top Chef contestant. There are only a handful of those. There’s hundreds of thousands of new apprentices each year so they can’t all be on these shows. Regardless, there are more people coming in which is the good news, because a lot of those people come in and they fall in love with the craft and they fall in love with what we’re doing, which is really special and really important.”
“It’s important to keep new people coming into our industry because if you don’t you end up with a real de-skilling of the industry. That’s happened already and it is continuing to happen. I remember when I first started it was normal for restaurants to be buying whole fish and filleting them. It was normal to buy whole primals and break them down and make sausage out of this part and using this piece to do something different. Nowadays, everything just gets brought in portion control. Fish comes in filleted, Meat comes in sliced and it’s literally open a bag and start cooking. That’s a real shame because if the young guys coming into the industry don’t learn that, how on earth will they ever teach it to someone? They can’t because they don’t have the skill. It is important that we do buy meat in bigger pieces.”
In regards to Marco’s point of putting one’s head down and working hard, Curtis felt that a personal brand and possible celebrity should take care of itself if a person does a good job. Curtis recalled that when he was twenty five years old and included in a book of London’s finest chefs, opportunities then came his way, and he chose to take some of those opportunities. But Stone emphasized that these opportunities didn’t happen because he chased being a celebrity chef. He didn’t get included in that book on London’s finest chefs because he went for an audition for a show like “Top Chef.” Instead the book’s authors came and reviewed the restaurant where Curtis was head chef. They also reviewed a bunch of different restaurants and fortunately included Curtis in their book. So, for Curtis Stone, his personal brand sort of evolved after that and included television, endorsements and books.
However, as Curtis has also noted, he’s done things a bit backwards in that he has achieved success in the entertainment world on television and then decided to come back and open a tiny little restaurant rather than the other way around like most celebrity chefs. Maude, his new restaurant, isn’t about building a brand because this restaurant only seats a handful of people each night. So instead of being so brand-oriented and pursuing the next big NBC TV show, Curtis has stepped back some from that lime ight to pursue his passion for cooking and enjoy the camaraderie of his team.
Though Curtis also noted,
“Who knows what is around the corner. I think in life whether it’s business, kitchen or in general, stuff comes up. This stuff can be an obstacle. This stuff may be an opportunity. You have to decide on which one they are. I think at the end of the day, you just have to be true to yourself. If being true to yourself means you really want to be on television and that’s where you want to go, then you probably shouldn’t go work in a restaurant. Instead you can go work for a food stylist, you can go work for a TV network that does cooking segments because if your goal is to be on television that’s the route you should take. If your goal is to own your own restaurant and do what I’m doing here, then this is the right route to take.”
Though hearkening back to the words of his mentor, Chef Marco Pierre White, Chef Curtis Stone concluded, “Learn the basics first and then decide what direction you want to go.”