Frank Chen

Frank Chen

serving people food is really rewarding

The inaugural supper club was inspired by an amazing cornbread that was made at The Plimoth in Denver, Colorado.

This supper club didn't quite follow the normal three ingredient rule that I laid out in the previous post. The theme was just corn. I wanted to make and share a cornbread that surpassed that of The Plimoth, and also utilize corn in every dish.

Before we get to the food, I want to outline what you should take away from this post. I'll talk briefly about the essence of the invited personalities to my first supper club, a quick homage on "food appreciation", and finally, the concepts that I used for this particular menu conception. As I continue with my supper club posts, I'll sometimes return to menu conception, other times on cooking execution and timing, or straight up recipe how-tos. Expect to learn something new every time.

the club personalities

Un-repeated members present this time were J and R. Names have been shortened to protect the innocent. I don't think they need protecting per se, but it adds a sexy, mysterious element to it, so I'll stick with the shortened names.

J is the type of person who I would describe as a generous enabler. He won't stop you from eating another plate of fried chicken, even if you're on the brink of throwing up. Hell, he'll even pay for it. This kind of theme pervades his personality, and I love it. This is why I keep him around. His type of generosity is rare nowadays, and he's a refreshing role model for my imaginary self every time we hang out.

R is a humble, stay-in-the-present sort of dude. He doesn't think frequently about the future, enjoys what's in the here and now, and doesn't dwell, complain, or shit-talk. He is a straight shooter, and has illuminated refreshing perspectives on many avenues in my own life. He also eats a lot, and doesn't seem to gain any weight. He's probably hungrier and more relaxed than you right now.

I highlight these essences because they form the positive interactions that led to a hopefully successful evening. They're the type of people who are open to more than just a feeding, but rather, a complete experience. I want them to have seconds, I want them to tell me right then and there how they're feeling, what they're tasting, and what all of it reminds them of.

Indeed, the supper club was created with some selfish intentions in mind, but ultimately, its success is tied to my guest's enjoyment. Making sure that the personalities mesh and build on top of one another is part of that enjoyment.

the cornbread anchor & food appreciation

I want to talk a little bit about food appreciation, and I'd like to start with the concept of "specificity". Specificity in what you want is important in cooking.

Taking the example with cornbread, I want:

  1. concentrated, dense corn flavor
  2. secondary flavors of thyme and cracked black pepper
  3. a slightly crispy top
  4. a slightly wet middle, properly seasoned
  5. properly sweetened, caramelized and crunchy sugar
  6. just shy of crumbly but soft

To me, these characteristics describe the "best" cornbread for me, but best is subjective. We see this kind of bickering in food reviews, where people write vague statements such as, "OMG this was the best/worst cornbread ever!"

The point I want to make here is not to judge foods based off of blanket statements involving the "best" or "worst." "The best" is a somewhat lazy way of describing food. "Best" is throwing a vague, shitty tablecloth over the details that comprise your opinion.

Going back to the point of specificity, you'll notice that I v specific about the details of my cornbread. Those six points above are details that I appreciate in an ideal cornbread, and those are the standards I will use for all future comparisons of cornbread. The cornbread made in Denver at altitude is surely different from the cornbread made in my kitchen, which is surely different from the cornbread made somewhere else, but they are all subject to the same standard.

Because I am being so specific, even if a cornbread hits four out of the six qualities, I know exactly where it falls short, but more importantly, I know the four points that can be appreciated in the moment. That appreciation in a point of time is critical for many areas in life, cooking and eating included. All we're doing in this case is taking a more granular view of our experiences, and that enables us to enjoy so much more without feeling like we somehow got gypped out of a "best" experience.

menu conception

We've been talking about this stupid cornbread for what seems like an eternity, so before we continue with that, we can talk about the conception of the rest of the menu. Rewind. Corn theme.

When faced with an ingredient that I have to extend across an entire menu, I begin by understanding the characteristics of that particular ingredient. Knowing its composition is just the first step, but it's an important one because it informs us on how it will react to kitchen experimentation.

You can do this for any ingredient. A little bit of thinking goes a long way. The five senses is a nice way to start:

  1. What is the composition of the ingredient?
  2. Look at it. What color is it? How do you feel looking at it?
  3. Smell it. What does it smell like? What does it remind you of?
  4. Taste it. What does it taste like? What does it remind you of? What's the texture like? What do you hear when you're chewing?

I do this with all my raw ingredients and while I'm in the midst of experimenting at all stages. It's a line of questioning that I employ as frequently as I do seasoning. Corn and it's color, aroma, flavor, and texture can be modified when heated, cooled, chopped, blitzed, powdered, and cut with other foods. The heirloom, colorful corn on the cob you get from your favorite farmer will have different characteristics than the corn on the cob you get from a supermarket, which is different from frozen corn, which is different from canned corn. While you don't need to do a crazy academic breakdown, understand that your output will be dependent on the inputs and what you do to those inputs. When you know the characteristics of your ingredient at every step of the way, you'll be able to better control the outcome.

There's another concept I employ, which is a bit more meta. I talked about the composition of ingredients, but sometimes you'll be using food products instead of actual ingredients. You can zoom in and zoom out on how processed you want the food item to be. Zooming in, you can use a food product differently than what it was intended to be, like crushed cornflakes as a breadcrumb for hot wings, or zooming out, you can re-create a corn product, like using purple corn to make purple maize corn tortillas. The possibilities are endless. It's mostly asking the right questions and trying a bunch of stuff in the kitchen.

So back to that cornbread. Cornbread was only part of the main dish. The rest of the dish would be delicious others that would be paired with the cornbread. I went with traditional Thanksgiving favorites, hearty items that would complement a rich, dense hunk of bread. Rosemary roasted chicken, broccolini blasted in chicken fat, and roasted butternut squash. Obviously, not a lick of corn used aside from the cornbread, but the cornbread was supposed to be the spotlight for the main course.

The cornbread had five to six cycles of experimentation before I was content with it. It wasn't entirely a "mix it and fix it" sort of deal. Some of these accoutrements included:

  1. precisely measuring the corn flour to all-purpose flour ratio for the right consistency.
  2. brown butter sautéed corn into the batter for texture.
  3. balancing the sweetness of the corn with the brown sugar.
  4. seasoning with salt and thyme.

What you'll notice, hopefully, is another concept here, which is flavor layering. Normal cornbreads rely on the corn flour to ensure that the corn taste comes through. I was thoroughly not impressed with just corn flour, so I had to find another way to get corn into the mix. I'll skip over the parts where I screwed around with flour ratios, which was really to get the moisture content I was looking for.

What's the best way to add corn flavor? Add corn. Maybe not in it's original form, but heating a generous handful of freshly cut kernels in some brown butter (delicious in its own right) not only adds texture to the final product, but the butter caramelization deepens its sweet taste. Therefore, I added less brown sugar to make sure we weren't sweetening the pot up too much.

This is flavor layering. I'm using corn in multiple stages of the bread itself, taking into account the raw ingredient (corn) and a food product (corn flour). There might be modifications and other additions that help enhance them (heat and butter), but I'm combining it to layer that corn flavor in. Can you think of anything else I could've done to add to the corn flavor? How about water for the batter that has corn flavor extracted into it from the cobs? I didn't do this, but that is potentially another way to layer flavor.

Now, thinking about the appetizer, sometimes I just want the corn in it's original form. Not everything has to be layered like crepe cake. When things are simple, you want the quality of the original ingredient to stand on its own. So, not frozen corn, not corn from a can, but the freshest ears of corn. I cut them from the cob when ready, and this corn offered an uncanny sweetness and aroma that canned or frozen corn couldn't offer.

Because the corn was in its original form, my goal was to keep it crunchy but not raw, sweet, but also peppery. Sautéing seemed like a good way to go, but keeping it crunchy reminded me of "salad", so I had to create a dish where the corn's sweetness was expressed, but it still retained a pleasant crunch. I eventually settled with a corn succotash, mixed nicely with water chestnuts and black eyed peas, finished with caramelized shallots and chives.

Finally, for dessert, I originally attempted some kind of corn flavored egg concoction. Experiments included a corn mousse, corn flavored whipping cream, and corn meringue. Once again, it's critical that you know the characteristics of the ingredient. Desserts are sweet. Corcan sweet, but it requires the right variety and some heating. Or, it might just require some sugar. We want to continually practice this kind of logical questioning:

  1. What varieties of corn have more sugar than starch?
  2. How can I bring the sweetness out of corn?
  3. How can I extract the corn flavor into something else that can be made sweet?
  4. What are some traditional desserts that can take on sweet corn?

This was a trying experience since I fucked it up from the start. My initial thought was, "I'll just mix corn and some milky liquids together so I get a milky liquid that tastes like corn, and I can use it in a dessert." This is extraction. Before you go off and pour raw corn into heavy cream, I'll save you the trouble and nicely recommend not blending raw corn into cream and whipping it. Even after filtering it with a sieve, it coated my mouth like a wine full of tannins, since the fibers have not had time to break down. It's like eating cream in a field of hay. It coats your mouth with this unpleasant texture, and I wouldn't doubt experiencing corn farts afterwards.

Thus, for the dessert, it was less about flavor layering and a little bit more about extraction. I wanted the qualities of corn to be expressed in the ingredients used to make classic desserts. Slow extraction of corn flavors into cream, or maybe pureeing sweetened and sautéed corn before adding it to a whipped base of egg whites is what I was thinking. If I were successful, it might've been a delicious corn cream, with candied corn, in a fruit salad. Sounds interesting right? Unfortunately, extraction of raw and cooked corn just didn't jive with my taste buds, so I ditched it all and just did a normal fruit salad with a vanilla Swiss meringue.

As a short note, ditching things is going to be part of the process. I won't serve anything that I wouldn't happily eat myself, and that's the non-negotiable standard that I hold myself to.

menu preview

That's the final menu for this round of supper club. I won't delve too much more into the details, since several items and experiments went horribly wrong, but that's the experience of being "in the weeds." You live and learn.

As a point of reference, here's a round up of all the concepts we hit on:

  1. understand the characteristics of your food
  2. understand the quality of the food in multiple products and stages
  3. five senses
  4. how can you use the food in its original form?
  5. what kind of food products are there?
  6. how can you use the food in it's original form and re-create a food product?
  7. what modifications can you use at every stage?
  8. how can you layer the ingredient using flavor, texture, and taste?
  9. how can you extract the flavor or essence from the food?
  10. what are some classics that can take on the flavor of the ingredient?

Go forth, and do not be afraid to experiment in the hot box.

The whole point of running a supper club was so I could experience the joy of serving. For myself, I took it one step further and treated the experience as a one-man restaurant team. This meant, how many days in advance did I have to start prepping? What parts of the prep could be done beforehand, so that certain items didn't spoil, and what parts of my dishes needed to be done the day of, the hour of, or even right before serving? What tradeoffs did I have to consider? What challenges did I encounter? What could I have done better?

Plating was obviously the one thing that needed to happen, especially since this supper club was not a pot luck. Everything was made to-order, essentially. The amount of time the food was between the oven or on the stovetop and the plate was as minimal as possible.

This meant the experience was less about me eating, and more about talking to my friends, keeping up conversation, while focusing on the cooking task at hand.

I can tell you first hand that the amount of fucking dishes this generated was enormous, which is something that I wanted to improve on. It was always easier to grab a clean spoon than to wash or wipe an existing one, and when your'e working against the clock you sometimes just don't have the time or the brain space to have to wash dishes at the same time. The amount of pots that I used was also astronomical. One pot for stock, another for mashed potatoes, another needed to boil water to blanch vegetables, another to make a quick sauce. I was quickly running out of pots, and at times I had to sequentially do tasks with washing in between in order to make the dish a success.

There were always tradeoffs as well with regards to what could have been done previously, and that was mostly a judgement call based on the quality of the food and how that went.

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