A couple of months ago, I attended Euphoria, a food and music festival in charming Greenville, South Carolina, where I ate and drank for four days—all in the name of research, of course (tough job, eh?). Over the course of two nights, totaling roughly eight hours of dinner, 16 dishes plus wine pairings, I ate the equivalent of eleven Michelin stars. These dinners stoked my curiosity and challenged me to be more creative in my own kitchen, just what I needed after a prolonged bout of cooking burnout. Here are the tips and tricks I gleaned from Michelin starred chefs that will inspire me in the months ahead – and hopefully they’ll inspire you, too.
Tip #1: Brine Your Fish for the Crispiest Skin Ever
From: Chef Emma Bengtsson, Executive Chef at Aquavit, New York
Pan-seared salmon is a go-to weeknight dinner in my house, but the fish skin never gets crispy enough. When I tasted Bengtsson’s pan-seared King salmon, I had to know her secret. Bengtsson originally hails from Sweden and she has a particularly deft touch with seafood. To get the salmon skin extra crispy, she pre-seasons the fish with equal parts salt and sugar and lets it hang out in the fridge for two hours. Next, she rinses it off, and lets it rest in the fridge overnight, skin-side up. The next day, she heats a plancha or pan until very hot, places the fish skin-side down and sears it, applying light pressure. She only sears the skin side; the salmon can be finished in the oven if need be. Admittedly this preparation requires some extra foresight and planning, but overall, it’s a simple technique I can’t wait to try on my next salmon supper.
Tip #2: Finish Your Creations with Herb Oil
From: Chef Curtis Duffy, chef-owner of Ever, Chicago
A drizzle of olive oil is a go-to way to finish many dishes, but to take your dish next-level, make an herb oil. It’s easier to make than you think. In a food processor, simply blitz a packed quarter cup of herbs with a couple tablespoons of oil—experiment with olive oil, sesame oil or even a neutral oil like grapeseed—and perhaps some garlic or shallot, then store it in the fridge for up to a week. Swirl it over soup, dribble it onto grain bowls, mix it with mayo for a stellar sandwich spread or stir into Greek yogurt to make a veggie dip.
Tip #3: Use Squeeze Bottles for Storing Leftovers, Making Salad Dressing and Zhuzhing Dishes
I used to think that a squeeze bottle was a little bit twee, right up there with kitchen tweezers. But watching Curtis Duffy plate a striking Hamachi dish with numerous squirts and dollops, I had a change of heart. I realized that a squeeze bottle is one of those most accessible, affordable tools I could add to my own kitchen arsenal. Chef Ratino stocks his home kitchen with squeeze bottles too. He says they come in handy for emulsifying sauces; if a sauce starts to separate when adding butter, he adds a few drops of water from a squeeze bottle to blend the sauces. And if you’ve got extra lemons on hand, he recommends storing the juice in a squeeze bottle with a touch of citric acid, ideal for shaking up homemade vinaigrettes. I plan to dedicate one to my favorite olive oil for finishing dishes and keep a back-up one to experiment with dishes in need of a whimsical touch, say, filling one with pancake batter to make free-hand pancake shapes.
Tip #4: Dunk Fruits and Veggies In Citrus to Make Them Extra Crisp
From: Chef Minh Phan, chef/founder of Phenakite, Los Angeles
At Phenakite, chef Phan makes marmalade and then turns it into citrusy pickling brine by adding vinegar, water, sugar and salt. Then she dunks radishes in the brine, quickly swirls them around and pulls them out. The citrus bath somehow gives the radishes even more crunchy radish essence. When spring and summer roll around, I want to try this method on my own radishes as well as strawberries and cucumbers.
Tip #5: Serve Food On Lettuce Planks Instead of Toast
From: Chef Daniel Boulud and Chef Eddy Leroux, Daniel, New York City
When I’m thinking of family-pleasing dishes, I often think in terms of protein and starch. But for a beautiful dish featuring green curry-poached spot prawns, chef Daniel Boulud and chef Eddy Leroux opted for gem lettuce to keep the dish light. Instead of nestling the prawns in, say, lettuce cups, or perching them alongside a side salad, they cut lettuce into rectangular planks. For the preparation, Leroux washes an entire head of sweet gem lettuce and dries it thoroughly. Then, he cuts the head of lettuce into one-inch-thick slices, keeping the core attached so that it keeps it shape. Lettuce planks are easy to create and are a great way to present any sort of protein. An easy tip? Think about replacing toast with lettuce planks.
Tip #6: Put Your Own Spin On Family Recipes
From: Chef Suyoung Park, executive chef, Jungsik, New York
Don’t be afraid to reinvent a classic, even if it’s a beloved dish of your heritage cuisine. One of the original signature dishes from Jungsik is the Tuna Kimbap. As executive chef Suyoung Park explains, the team wanted to turn kimbap, a traditional Korean comfort food and snack, into an elevated, fine dining course. Typically, kimbap is a seaweed roll with rice, vegetables and protein, that’s served in slices. Jungsik’s elevated presentation features a cigar-like tube of crispy seaweed is wrapped around a flavor-bomb filling of Spanish bluefin tuna belly and truffle rice. I’m not sure yet how I’ll reinvent my Lebanese grandmother’s grape leaves, but it’s got me thinking about playing with the rice, for starters.
Tip #7: Turn Food Scraps Into Frozen Treats
From: Chef Minh Phan, executive chef and owner of Phenakite, Los Angeles
I’ve repurposed food waste before, like pickling kale stems or dehydrating mushy apples into chips. But I’d never considered transforming scraps into dessert. At Phenaktie, Chef Phan blends together herb stems, simple syrup and citrus, freezes the mixture and scrapes it into a refreshing, icy granita. For our dinner, she made granita from other scraps: fennel, apple peels, citrus, tarragon, mint and arugula. The results were the ideal savory-sweet palate cleanser. You can make this exact dish at home, tasting and adjusting the blended mixture to ensure you like the flavor. If you don’t feel like making granita, pour the mixture into popsicle molds instead.
Tip #8: Dry Age Your Duck for the Tenderest Meat and Crispiest Skin
We know, dry aging duck sounds intimidating and unnecessary. But Chef Ryan Ratino’s method is practically as easy as just letting the duck sit in the fridge for a while, and it pays off exponentially. The process concentrates the flavor of the duck, tenderizes the meat and most importantly, reduces the fat cap so that when you cook the duck, you’ll get supremely crispy skin. Here’s what to do. First separate the legs, thighs and back of the duck (or ask a butcher to do this for you). This helps create better airflow and in turn, prevents moisture from building up, which is key for proper aging to take place. Arrange the duck parts on a sheet pan fitted with a wire rack, store it in the fridge and rotate it every three to four days, for about two weeks. That’s all! May we suggest turning it into Crispy Duck Breast with Caper-Cherry Sauce?
Tip #9: Pickle Your Watermelon Rinds In Fruit Juice and It’ll Taste Like Sour Candy
From: Chef Minh Phan, executive chef and owner of Phenakite, Los Angeles
Chef Phan made passion fruit pickled watermelon rinds to go with mochi, and I found myself wishing aloud that I could have a whole plate of them. The texture was incredible, like a soft gummy candy, with a bright-and-tangy burst of flavor. And the great news is: you can save your watermelon rinds and make your own version of sour candy-like quick pickles at home. While Phan uses fresh passion fruit because it grows abundantly in California, you can pickle yours in bottled passionfruit juice or another acidic fruit juice, such as pineapple. Add vinegar, sugar and salt to the pickling liquid and adjust to taste. For a pickled watermelon how-to, check out Alex Guarnaschelli’s Pickled Watermelon and Watermelon Rind recipe.
Tip #10: Play with Your Dessert
From: Yoonjung Oh, executive pastry chef at Jungsik, New York
The grand finale of the second Michelin dinner I attended was a whimsical dish called “carrot cake in dirt” in which each diner was invited to pluck a “carrot” (carrot cake encased in white chocolate and decorated to look like a real carrot) from a garden of edible dirt made from carrot cake crumbles. Admittedly, I’m probably not going to try to recreate something so labor-intensive, but it’s a great reminder that even the pros like to have fun—despite taking their cooking very seriously—and that ultimately, they want diners to have fun and enjoy the moment. Next time, instead of baking another batch of brownies, consider something with a sense of humor along the lines of these Gingerbread People in Gingerbread Hot Chocolate Tubs or Melting Snowman Cookies if it’s wintertime or these Ocean Cookies if it’s summer.
Tip #11: Cook with Deeper Intention
Chefs have a reverence for ingredients and have mastered the techniques necessary for coaxing out maximum flavor with minimal effort. What really struck me about chef Minh Phan’s food was the deeper intention she set for each of her dishes. Before serving her first dish “Fig Leaf and Cedar Smoked Mochi,” Phan lit a California fig leaf on fire, explaining that the dish honors the indigenous tradition of controlled burns, which is vital for promoting natural growth and land regeneration. The practice was banned for many years in California, and so, torching both the fig leaf and the mochi was a way to honor the intention of harmonizing with indigenous first nations. It made me think about how I could set an intention for my own cooking, perhaps starting with a simple ritual of lighting a candle before cooking.