The Art of Cooking: Home Chef Edition

The Art of Cooking: Home Chef Edition

Perhaps best known for winning the inaugural season of Top Chef in 2006, Harold Dieterle wants to inspire home cooks to think beyond individual recipes with his new cookbook, “Kitchen Notebook.” Filled with tips from his personal notebooks, Dieterle shares some of his favorite recipes, including his signature spicy duck meatballs. The chef/owner of Perilla and Kin Shop in New York City spoke with Chefs Feed about the importance of quality ingredients, great hospitality and how the home cook can think like a top chef.

October 29, 2014
Perhaps best known for winning the inaugural season of Top Chef in 2006, Harold Dieterle wants to inspire home cooks to think beyond individual recipes with his new cookbook, “Kitchen Notebook.” Filled with tips from his personal notebooks, Dieterle shares some of his favorite recipes, including his signature spicy duck meatballs. The chef/owner of Perilla and Kin Shop in New York City spoke with Chefs Feed about the importance of quality ingredients, great hospitality and how the home cook can think like a top chef.

You open the book by talking about "making connections" in the kitchen: between ingredients, techniques and experiences. What are your biggest influences when you cook?

That’s tough to say. The dishes all need to make sense in my mind and the process can start with something as simple as an herb or a piece of fish. The triggers are never the same. There’s isn’t a logical formula behind any dish.

There’s a lot of different flavors and textures going on in my dishes. I try to keep them balanced and I try not to cook food that’s super heavy most of the time. I'm definitely passionate about Thai food, and I grew up eating Italian and German food. (My mother is Sicilian.)

What was so magical about Thailand for you?
The food was really amazing and the culture was exceptional. And there’s something to be said about Thai hospitality that you really appreciate when you’re there. Even most 5-star restaurants in the U.S. don’t even come close. The Thai take it to another level and it feels natural. That’s true about some Americans, too, but not overall.

How did you decide which recipes to include in "Kitchen Notebook"?
My co-author Andrew Friedman and I wanted to find a happy medium between not trying to do anything crazy but still taking as many chefs’ recipes as possible that would be accessible to the home chef and that we’d be able to break down into their simplest forms. And the notebook entries add an extra resource.

Is the word "fusion" overused?
Yeah, I think so. There are some things that are “fusion” but personally I don’t like that word. I do dishes that might not be authentic but I still try to respect the history behind those dishes.

In your notes on specific ingredients, you give suggestions for alternative preparations. Are you encouraging people to think beyond the immediate needs of the recipe?
Absolutely. I feel like cooks can get into a rut—both home cooks and chefs—where they aren’t really trying to expand their repertoire. So, yeah, the notes are designed to get people thinking.

Is this where the art of cooking kicks in?
Yeah! I cook by feel. For me, the thought of cooking by recipes is challenging because as a chef, very rarely are you cooking from a book. Pastry recipes get more scientific and precise, and I’m not a pastry chef. When working on a recipe for the book, I tried to make it make sense for a home cook—even the desserts are very straightforward. You don’t need an expensive culinary degree for these recipes.

You have a recipe for roasted squab with foie gras, but foie gras is banned in California. Can the dish be prepared without it or is there anything that comes remotely close to it as a substitute?
That’s a tough one. Either just omit it or you could use monkfish liver, which comes the closest to the flavor and texture of foie gras. Definitely don’t replace it with chicken liver.

There's a truism that goes, "You've gotta learn the rules first before you can break them." Is that true for cooking?
I think that depends on the rule. There are some rules that absolutely are breakable. I think that’s really an individual call. For example, some Italian chefs are split about fish and cheese. I say, if it tastes good, it tastes good. Let’s just have fun with our food.

What do professional chefs know that every home cook should know?
It all starts with the ingredients. When you have an opportunity to shop at a farmers market, you should do that. Knowing where your ingredients come from and that they’re sustainable is important. When it comes to seafood, find out where the fish comes from and make sure it isn’t overfished. I’m an avid fisherman and sea bass drives me a little kooky because it’s overfished.

What advice would you give the home cook who's just beginning to experiment in the kitchen and might be intimidated by more complex techniques?
We go through the techniques very slowly in “Kitchen Notebook.” Read the entire recipe before cooking. Read it twice or three times and then have a go at it. There’s also a lot of cross referencing. Know the proper process before you start.

There's a man who invented a pan that attempts to do a lot of the thinking for you.... You upload a recipe to a tablet that's connected to the pan and it tells you when to turn down the heat, when to stop pouring and when your food is ready. It seems like the antithesis of cooking.

I think you should always take a step back and think about what you’re going to do. It’s better to take your time, especially when you’re buying fresh ingredients. I’ve messed things up before and had to run back to the store.

How many kitchen notebooks do you have?
I probably have about 5 or so. One from culinary school. And generally, you get a new notebook for every kitchen you’re in. So I have one at Perilla and also one or two random ones at home.

What motivated you to write this cookbook?
I always wanted to to do it but didn’t have a solid concept before. Andrew Friedman (my coauthor) had worked on Jimmy Bradley’s Red Cat cookbook, as well as several others, but it didn’t make sense to do my own until now.

Interview by Sara Bloomberg

Harold Dieterle’s “Kitchen Notebook” is available at Barnes and Noble and independent bookstores nationwide.