Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Behind the scenes in restaurant kitchen

My risotto arm still aches, even after a good night's sleep. Come to think of it, I can feel the muscle in my left arm too.

But the folks who dined on the risotto I made for last night's group at Sapore, enjoyed it so much that Loretta asked me to come out into the dining room and meet them. In between the rather daunting kitchen tasks that need her attention at this restaurant, she's frequently cruising the dining room to greet guests, check their satisfaction and the meal's progress.

Risotto, a dish made with Aborio rice, stock, butter, cheese and other ingredients, is one that requires constant stirring for at least 20 minutes and sometimes longer. It felt like longer, but it was rewarding to watch it absorb the ingredients and transform itself in the pot into the food miracle it becomes. All I really did was steadily stir as Loretta eyed the mixture bubbling away on the stove-top and added ingredients at the right time.

After finishing my day in the newsroom Friday I joined her, and chef Alex Payne in cooking for the Friday evening diners at Sapore, the 30-seat restaurant at 8623 Mayfield Road, next to the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking in Chester. It's open for dinner just on Friday and Saturday evenings as a place for students at the Paganini -run International Culinary Arts and Sciences Center to get real-life restaurant experience before they graduate. I'm no trained chef, but can take directions and stay out of the way, so I enjoyed the opportunity. As it turned out, it seemed that I made a real contribution to the evening's success.

ICASI graduate Gail McNally was running the front of the house on this night with Amy Davis as wait staff. When I arrived at 5:30 they were polishing the glassware to make sure it was spotless, checking table settings, lighting candles and seeing that the fresh roses on each table were perfectly in place.

Loretta explained that on this evening five couples on hand for a "Romantic Parents Night out" were expected along with a couple of tables of outside reservations. The parents all had children next door for a pajama party/kids cooking class at the Gingerbread House, which is the name Paganini has given to the original school where recreational cooking classes take place. The program there is now under direction from her daughter Stefanie while Loretta puts most of her considerable energy toward the professional chef program at ICASI.

The "romantic" couples would have a set menu, including the yummy risotto with zuchhini and shrimp. The others expected would be ordering from the 4-course menu with two or three choices for each course.

I quickly learned that "rush and wait" aptly describes the restaurant kitchen scenario. Tense moments came when one person was running late and the others in her "Romantic Couples" party did not want to start their meal until she arrived. Since we were timing each of the four courses to be ready at the same time, that tended to back everything up.
The 4-1/2 couples all were welcomed with a lovely Bellini , sparkling andserved in a flute and made with fresh peaches and Prosecco (Italian bubbly).
Then came a rosemary piedine flatbread with a diced tomato, basil and balsamic for an appetizer as they waited. The Bellini and flatbread intended for the missing person looked lonely as they waited on the kitchen's sideboard for the latecomer's arrival as I began the risotto.

But risotto waits for no one. When it's finished it must be served or it will turn into mush. So after giving the couples nearly a half hour to converse, the fig and prosciutto salads were served.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the shrimps and zucchini which had been waiting in little bins in the hot and cold mise-en-place were stirred into the steaming risotto and we began plating it, adding fresh herbs grown in the garden out back. Every menu here is designed around the freshest ingredients available locally.

The mise-en-place ( French for "everything in its place" ) in any restaurant kitchen includes ingredients prepared in advance to be used in the meal. They are made and measured according to the various recipes that will employ them and put in little bins so they can be added when they're needed without scrambling around.

Any good cook knows that timing is half the battle in preparing a meal and organization is key not only to a tasty preparation but a pleasing presentation of a dinner in which hot dishes are hot and cold dishes cold all served on time. Orchestration of fine dining is an art when it's well done and seems leisurely to the diners, but those in the kitchen know that's a carefully created— and sometimes hard won — illusion..

Not everyone is interested in a blow-by blow of this experience, so I'll save details for another time, along with many of the photos I shot that night. Perhaps it will morph into a Food page for the News-Herald some future Wednesday since I can also share some recipes then. Let me know of your interest in your comments at the end of this blog and I will take it from there..

In the meantime, consider reserving a dinner for yourself at Sapore at 440-729-1110.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

dim sum in cleveland

The invitation to have dim sum with someone who knew what we were eating was too good to pass up. So I joined Molinari's chef Randal Johnson, along with his son, chef Kyle and daughter, Dana at Li Wah in Cleveland's Asia Plaza on Sunday morning.
It was Air Show weekend so I was surprised at the crowd, which was lining up at the door a half hour after we sat down shortly after 11 a.m.This place is open until midnight seven days a week, and serves dim sum all day.
My last dim sum was in Toronto and before that in San Francisco, both cities with much larger Chinese populations than Cleveland's, so my expectations were high. Dim sum is a meal made for sharing and predates both the Spanish tapas and small plates that have appeared on menus in recent years.

As carts laden with different dishes are loaded in the kitchen and pushed around the room, diners make their selections by pointing. The bill is tallied according to the number of dishes on the table at the end of the meal. The menu, which pictures many of the dishes is some help, and indicates with an S, M, L, or SP the prices, ranging from $2.25 to $6.95 for SP meaning Special. Each plate had 3 or 4 four servings. We all indicated we would eat with chopsticks rather than the offered tableware. Since I was dining with two chefs and Dana, who has been a foodie almost since birth, I trusted my dining companions to order and interpret.

Li Wah is inside Asia Plaza at 2999 Payne Ave., just a short distance from the Superior exit off the Innerbelt. So missing the Air Show traffic was a snap. Just inside the entry in a glass case hung beautifully glazed ducks and chickens along with a roast pork with its layer of fat cooked to a crisp.
We'd been seated just five minutes when the first of carts came by and soon our table was laden with eggplant stuffed with shrimp, bean curd buns with pork, siu mau, salt baked squid and other wonders of good eating. Condiments on the table included a chili oil and soy sauce, which my companions pooled on their plates and I followed suit. Some dishes, like the roast pork came with their own little bowls of sauce. The pork was really amazing with its outer fat layer reduced to a crunchy and flavorful crust while the meat underneath was falling apart delicious. We passed on the tripe and other innards but ordered seconds of the shrimp stuffed eggplant.

I thought we'd be there for hours, but by 12:30 we agreed we were done. The bill for all four of us was $56. The Li Wah experience proved a good one and I will be back.
We then strolled through Asia Plaza to the market, a new one since I'd last visited here. Mall shops of the herbalist and acupuncturist were closed but other shops were open although not bustling with business.
The Park to Shop Market at first looks like a standard supermarket until one begins to give the merchandise a closer look.

Kyle bought a durian, a prickly- skinned fruit that is prohibited aboard public transportation in Bangkok. I leaned over to smell it, because it is reputed to smell awful but could smell nothing. A passerby who noticed me checking it out told me the smell is released only when it is cut open. "The flesh is like custard," she said. "It is very sweet and delicious, but some people think the durian smell is bad."
I'll check in with Kyle about the durian's smell and taste later this week. Randal bought hot sauce, and Kyle also bought frozen silky chickens, an all-black fowl. "Even its bones are black," he told me, adding that the black is natural and not the result of any preserving process. Dana bought cute Hello Panda candies. I purchased herbal teas aimed at those with headaches and digestive distress.

If you are looking for live frogs, snails, fertilized eggs, duck eggs, 50 pound bags of rice or vegetarian meat, this is the place to be. The market staggers on into rooms that have cooking pans, china bowls and herbs, all imported from various Asian countries.