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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - American Joel Dennis has a strong bond with renowned French chef Alain Ducasse.
After working four years for Ducasse, he moved to Chicago to head the kitchens at TRU and Blue Water Grill, two of the city's top restaurants.
In 2008, the 37-year-old returned to New York City as the executive sous chef at Ducasse's Adour at the St. Regis hotel. He was soon promoted to executive chef at the Michelin two-star restaurant that offers contemporary French cuisine.
Dennis, who was born and raised in Rochester, New York, spoke to Reuters about his culinary journey that began at home and has continued with a master chef
Q: How did your mother inspired you to become a chef?
A: "I was a indoor kid, especially in my earlier years. I would hang around the house and belly up to the kitchen counter and do my homework there. I was always watching what she was doing for dinner. I was also the prep guy, cutting onions or garlic and peeling the vegetables. She tried everything."
Q: What is it like working for a master French chef?
A: "As far as culinary learning, working with Alain Ducasse was really far superior. It was better than going to school. It was like starting over again. Now, I'm on the other side of the fence, working more closely with him. It's a professional relationship. We bounce off ideas off each other, have tastings together."
Q: How do you and Mr. Ducasse collaborate on a menu?
A: "It always starts with seasonality. We think about product availability. We think about customer expectations with this caliber of a restaurant. I try to keep it in the style of Alain Ducasse, really that's my comfort zone as far as cooking is concerned. It has a Mediterranean bent to it - simple and elegant I would say in preparation."
Q: How much does Adour's menu reflect you as a chef?
A: "I'm French inspired, using indigenous and local products with French techniques. I keep things relatively simple - never more than three or four flavors on a plate. There may be some contrasts of flavors and layerings of flavors."
Q: With the seasonal changes on your menu, is there one dish that's a constant from the beginning?
A: "There is the ricotta gnocchi. It embodies that Mediterranean spirit that my cooking reflects."
Tender Ricotta Gnocchi with Black Trumpet, Sauteed Lettuce
2 heads Boston lettuce
2 ounces white onion sliced thin (60 grams)
2 cloves garlic in skin, crushed with the back of a knife
3 cups chicken stock (710 ml)
2 ounces butter (60 grams)
1/2 pound black trumpet mushrooms (250 grams)
Olive oil pressed from very ripe olives
1 ounce Parmesan cheese grated (30 grams)
4 ounces prosciutto thinly sliced (120 grams)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ricotta cheese (500 grams)
1 ounce flour (30 grams)
1 egg yolk
1 whole egg
1. Mix the ricotta cheese, flour, egg yolk and whole egg in a food processor just until combined. Season with salt and transfer to a small bowl placed on a bed of ice.
2. Shape small quenelles using 2 teaspoons. Plunge the quenelles directly into a pot of simmering salted water. Poach for 4 minutes then plunge into a container of ice water.
3. Drain the gnocchi, handling them delicately, and place in a baking dish.
Making the lettuce and lettuce jus
1. Wash the Boston lettuce well to remove and dirt from the leaves. Trim the outer leaves reserving them for the lettuce jus. Quarter the lettuce hearts keeping the stem attached.
2. Quickly saute the onion and garlic in olive oil without coloring. Add 1 slice of prosciutto and continue to cook. Add the reserved lettuce leaves and season with salt and pepper. Add 2 cups chicken stock and cook until reduced by half. Strain the jus and reserve.
Finish and Presentation
1. Heat 1 cup of chicken stock, the butter and olive oil. When the mixture is bound, delicately add the gnocchi. Sprinkle the grated Parmesan on the gnocchi and warm through, basting occasionally.
2. Quickly saute the black trumpet mushrooms in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
3. Season the lettuce quarters and saute in olive oil with little color. The lettuce should still have some crispness.
4. Reheat the lettuce jus and add 1 ounce of butter. Cook until thickened and season.
5. Place the gnocchi on 4 serving plates. Place the sauted lettuce and mushrooms next to the gnocchi. Spoon the lettuce jus around the gnocchi. Drizzle some olive oil around the plate and serve immediately.
Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney