It’s clear that Brooklyn’s food scene is burgeoning, but lately our chefs are being recognized outside the borough for their artistry in the kitchen.
While there are success stories like Alan Harding, who has been deemed the pioneering hero of Smith Street, and Neil Ganic, who was recently recognized by a national organization for his culinary prowess at La Bouillabaisse, there are lessons to be learned from Sterling Smith’s story. Recruited from one of Manhattan’s top restaurants, Smith lost both his job and the original recipes he created for Montague Street’s La Bouchee, after the owner decided his creations were too pricey.
Read on for more news from inside Brooklyn’s kitchens.
Chef Alan Harding, the man credited with sparking the Smith Street restaurant revolution, will be one of the featured contestants on the cable Food Network’s "Ready Set Cook!," to be aired Thursday, April 5 at 6 pm.
Harding, who arrived on Smith Street in 1997, is co-owner of Uncle Pho and Patois of Smith Street and Red Rail of Henry Street. The chef is a worthy contestant to represent our borough on the popular food game show hosted by British chef-comic Ainsley Harriott.
The TV program challenges two professional chefs to create a meal in 18 minutes using ingredients revealed at the beginning of the show. The chefs each receive a volunteer sous chef from the audience to assist in their battle for the coveted "Golden Toque" medal. (The toque is a chef’s hat.)
"This show is like the ultimate Culinary Olympics," explains the garrulous Harriott, "Combining all the best elements of a sporting event with creativity of cooking - with only one champion coming out on top."
"It was great fun. You never really get a chance to compete with another chef - like other sporting events," said Harding of the taping. "When you’re in a restaurant and busy and serving a lot of meals to your customers, the only challenge is new and interesting ways to cook food."
On the show, you "do that and make sure it’s going to be better than the person you’re competing against."
The episode that Harding took part in is called "Scream Cuisine." When the secret ingredients are revealed to the chefs - just before the clock begins ticking - they’re looking at a platter full of ugly, unusual foods: spiny lobster, leeks, seaweed, Israeli cous cous and rambutan - a southeast Asian fruit with soft spines.
As the clock winds down, Harriott continuously interrupts the chefs and invites them to chat about themselves while they’re desperately trying to prepare tasty, complicated sauces.
"[The show] allows a chef to get out of the kitchen and get in front of the camera," said Harding. "A lot of people don’t know who the chef is cooking their food - don’t know anything about the chef."
GO Brooklyn won’t tell you who wins, but the show does fan the flames of audience anxiety - becoming edge-of-your-seat entertainment after just a few minutes.
"They were worthy adversaries," Harding said of his competitors, chef Amy Chamberlain of The Perfect Wife in Manchester, Vt., and her audience member sous chef Ronald Hughes. After the time has elapsed, the chefs must present their dishes to a panel of tasters.
"It all boils down to not what you like and what would sell, but what would the tasters like?" explained Harding. "My greatest compliment for the show is [the focus is] not how the food looks but how it tastes that’s really important."
"Ready Set Cook" airs daily on the Food Network at 6 pm. For more information, visit www.foodtv.com on the Web.
Heights chef canned
When chef Sterling Smith left his post at 1 CPS in Manhattan to be the head chef of Bruce Mendez’s Tin Room restaurant in December, he thought it would be a long-term association that would enable him to one day open a restaurant of his own.
Smith brought all of his experience earned at Manhattan’s top restaurants - Lespinasse, 1 CPS and Tocqueville - to bear on his new Brooklyn position. At the Tin Room, he scrapped the Italian menu and invented a French one.
To reflect Smith’s new cuisine, the Tin Room, at 136 Montague St. in Brooklyn Heights, changed its name to La Bouchee, "the mouthful," two weeks ago. The critics, including GO Brooklyn, arrived and reviewed Smith’s new menu.
On Sunday, Mendez called Smith at his home and fired him.
"We had very good reviews," Smith told GO Brooklyn Monday. "The plates were always coming back [to the kitchen] clean." Despite this, he said, Mendez told him he could no longer afford to pay him.
"I turned the whole place around into a sophisticated restaurant with a wonderful clientele," said Smith. "They’ve never had anything - just a simple Italian restaurant knowledge."
Smith claims that despite his dismissal, Mendez told him he would continue to use his recipes and menu.
Mendez told GO Brooklyn he would "transition" Smith’s menu over time to be "classic French instead of French-American."
But Smith said he doesn’t want Mendez to use his original recipes, and continue to bank on his good name, now that he’s been canned.
"Because of me they changed the name, made it more formal - all of the improvements were made at my suggestion," said Smith. But it’s the loss of his original recipes that have the chef fuming.
Smith is particularly proud of his coffee-glazed Long Island duck with sweet potato gratin, haricots vert and coffee-duck jus.
"The duck is one of my complete signature dishes. I worked on it - the ingredients and the preparation," said Smith. "With a background such as I have, you do it over and over and over, always checking everything." Smith explained that he had his recipes written down at the restaurant and he fears another cook is preparing the same dishes to his specifications while he’s home and out of work.
Smith’s firing raises the question of just what right a restaurateur has to a chef’s original recipes.
According to local legal experts, without a contract, the chef has no rights and the restaurant owner has them all.
Brooklyn Heights attorney Richard Klass explains, "Whatever work an employee does on behalf of the employer, unless they had an agreement that they were his, all this work belongs to the employer." The only protection a "key person or higher-paid person" has is to sign "a specific employment contract with their employer to protect each side," Klass noted.
Currently, Smith is seeking legal counsel, which he points out is exorbitantly expensive. Besides, Smith said, if he had that kind of money in the first place, he would have opened his own restaurant and not accepted the head chef position under someone else’s employ.
Mendez said he was in the process of hiring a new chef. He terminated Smith’s employment, he said, because, "I didn’t like some of the food. And the pricing was too high also - wrong for the market."
According to Joe Chirico, founder and president of the Brooklyn Restaurant Association, in this biz it’s common for recipes to be passed down.
"Everybody has got his own recipe," said Chirico, doubting that if another chef is hired at La Bouchee they would want to use Smith’s recipes, preferring to use or create their own. "And anybody who trains with a great chef can take a recipe with them when they leave - maybe change the name or an ingredient here or there."
"Sometimes, the chef thinks they’re Michelangelo," said Chirico, who owns both Gage & Tollner Downtown and Marco Polo in Carroll Gardens.
"The cook can never do the same recipe as the chef," Chirico conceded, adding that although Smith can’t take his menu with him, he can continue to use his own recipes in another kitchen.
Smith Street chef and owner Alan Harding (Uncle Pho, Patois), agreed with Klass that unless Smith had a legal document protecting him from untimely dismissal and specifying his ownership of the recipes, he did not have any rights to his work.
"But if the owner hired the chef, did the changeover to get a review and then disposed of him, to me, that’s scurrilous," said Harding.
"Who knows what the story is there? On the other hand, if the owner entered into an agreement that he believed was mutually equitable and the chef insists on five cooks in the kitchen when three cooks used to do the job and the salmon is priced at $12.50 and it costs $11.95 to put it on the plate, there’s a problem.
"You are dealing with art and commerce here," said Harding. "Unfortunately they have to coexist."
Ganic gets the gold
Chef-owner Neil Ganic of La Bouillabaisse restaurant on Atlantic Avenue received the "American Tasting Award of Culinary Excellence" as part of the Awards of the Americas’ 15th annual American Gold Medal Food and Beverage Awards last month.
The weekend-long celebration featured events at Carnegie Hall and the Jacob Javits Center from March 5 through March 7.
Ganic opened La Bouillabaisse at 145 Atlantic Ave. between Henry and Clinton streets in 1993 with his wife, Amanda Green.
According to Awards of the Americas (AOTA) spokeswoman Corene Oustad, Ganic won the 2001 American Culinary Award because he was "nominated by chefs in the area either for his reputation as a restaurant or as a chef."
"I am the only chef in Brooklyn to win the award, and one of six in New York," explained Ganic. "It’s actually like winning a trophy - like winning the Oscar."
The AOTA is a San Francisco-based organization overseen by master taster Jesse Sartain. The private organization is "devoted to benefiting consumers and commercial buyers by merchandising America’s best products."
For more information visit www.awards ©2001