Archive for November, 2010

Fat Fish Blue: Fish 101

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Growing up when I thought of a restaurant kitchen, I imagined it being a bunch of pretentious fat men tweaking their mustaches and laughing while pouring large amounts of cream into every dish. You may be laughing, but that is the image that cartoons and children’s shows (when I was young, before the Food Network) painted. I have been so fortunate to spend time in the back of the house with great cooks and chefs. I have also been blessed to get to know some of them personally. No, Rachel Ray is not one of them on a personal level, so chill out… well not YET…
If you have not heard of JR Grady, you may have heard of Fat Fish Blue in Cleveland. JR is the executive chef of Fat Fish Blue, and has become my cooking buddy recently. I was first drawn to Fat Fish and JR at the Taste of Cleveland, 2009, when he roasted a whole alligator. AN ENTIRE FREAKIN ALLIGATOR! The energy that he brought to the stage was magnetic and he drew in a HUGE crowd and kept them for the whole demonstration.
JR did not come alone, he brought along his entourage. Let me take a minute to make this clear… his “entourage” was not a cocky act (I have worked and seen a lot a chefs who have people trying to imitate them and their personalities which is just feeding an ego). In the case of JR, this was his close family and friends, or a little blanket of support that were there to have a great time. No one had a soul patch nor was anyone trying to talk like him, it was all great food and a great story.
Meeting over a few beers and those stinkin’ addicting crab cakes at Fat Fish Blue, I talked JR into letting me in his kitchen and giving me a crash course in Fish 101. JR comes from the Gulf coast and knows everything about seafood and fish. I however do not and know absolutely nothing about seafood and fish. I’m always encouraging you to get in the kitchen a make a ton of mistakes, so this is my chance to get a good taste of my own medicine.
I had told JR to push me to my limits and make me cry. He of course threatened that I wouldn’t make it through the day. Walking in his kitchen lead me to believe that the challenge may have been a really bad idea on my part. However I shortly discovered that JR was a great teacher who used stories to show me how something was done or why it was being done. The day started with a bouillabaisse. I had no clue what the hell that meant until It was being made. It’s basically a water/tomato based seafood soup. I cannot exactly remember how to make JR’s Bouillabaisse; I can certainly recreate my own version, but I remember his version of “Rock Soup.”
Rock Soup was a recipe written by soldiers during WWII in Europe. In the countryside, homes and families were destroyed by many battles. The soldiers, and whomever was left from the community, found themselves in a state of famine. A soldier found a nice, round rock, turned to the soldier next to him and said, “I think this will make a great soup.” The other soldier liked the idea and ran to get water while the fire was being built. The two soldiers sat around their simmering pot of Rock Soup, drank their hot coffee and told stories. Soon thereafter, other soldiers smelled the Rock Soup and joined by offering a potato they found. The potato was added to the soup, the circle grew larger, more coffee was passed and the conversation flowed.
Not too long thereafter, a woman came along and told them she knew where to find an onion. She went and found the last onion in the town and added it to the Rock Soup. She then joined the coffee-drinking circle of conversation. A man heard the talking and smelled the Rock Soup. He had the last living chicken in the town and killed it so it too could be added to the soup and he could join the circle of now friends. As the Rock Soup grew, it boiled and its aroma filled the air. The circle and conversation expanded.
The “Rock Soup” story was only the beginning of my day in JR’s kitchen, and the beginning of his many stories. He had a story to go alongside everything he did. Chopping an onion = story. Making rice = story. Making beans = “Hoping John” story. Not every story was as deep as “Rock Soup,” but they were all certainly entertaining. The main theme of almost every story he told was about his friends and family, like how he is hoping to make it home for the holidays this year. He speaks of the southern holidays as a feast of homemade, rich food and tons of desserts, party-hopping from house to house, seeing all of his loved ones. He says that growing up in the south was about eating off the land. Meals were made of necessity. You may have one vegetable while your neighbor had another and there was a mutual trade between the two.
I love this concept. If the summers were longer and I actually had a yard for farming, I would be trading with everyone I knew. I have a decent herb garden that is used by my neighbors…same thing, right?!?!
There were two times that day that JR stopped talking and really focused on his craft. The first time, he began teaching me how to make his famous crab cakes. I would love to post the recipe, but why make them yourself if you can make a short drive to have the best? He was very particular about which ingredients go in at what time and how they needed to be mixed and shaped. I had a lot of respect for this attention to detail. I have the same mentality when it comes to making cookies. It’s a craft and that is why his crab cakes are the best around! Just to let you know, making these cakes is a little time consuming, as they do not come frozen. The beautiful cakes are made in-house.
The second time he went quiet, it was merely to make my nerves go haywire. A little background: I do not know jack about fish (except sharks because I am obsessed with them and their ability to take a limb off). Beef, poultry and vegetables, on the other hand, I am very secure with…but fish, no way. JR ordered a half halibut and let me butcher it. Let me tell ya, I was terrified that I would mess up and lose Fat Fish a lot of money. The thing about cooking in others restaurant is that messing up their recipe can affect their reputation. I mean, I can chop an onion, but I didn’t know how he wanted them chopped for his recipe. However, the longer I was there, the more confident I grew and began feeling wonderful about my minor accomplishment.
Anyways, back to butchering a halibut… terrified. Three things you need: a very sharp knife (if you do not have a knife sharpener go to to order one now!), a steady hand, and a great teacher. I am a great teacher but I have to be confident with the information I’m passing on. Butchering a halibut is not my forte. I could not sit here and walk you through it, but I can pass to you the key things I learned. First, practice makes perfect. I always say this. It’s hard, though, because fish can be quite expensive in these parts. But if you are feeding a small party, instead of buying 8-ounce steaks, you can get away with 4-ounce fish filets. Plush fish is much more elegant and unexpected. Next, the more confident you are in slicing and skinning, the more even and smooth it will be. When JR told me this, a light went off. I never thought of this in cooking but always in pouring drinks. If you pour your steamed milk faster, with confidence, you prevent spilling and make the drink of better quality. Finally, when cooking your fish, lay the skin side down. You will only need to turn it over once, and you want the presentation side to cook second.
If you are looking for a night of fun with friends, family, or a date, be sure to make your way to Fat Fish Blue. Their food is delicious reasonably priced. The atmosphere is always festive, and now you know that the executive chef brings a lot of soul and heart to the kitchen and the table.