Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Chef photo by Rina Oh

Small Plates Chefs in the Kitchen

In the Kitchen

I have been lucky enough to have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. I have experienced firsthand the creativity, culinary  expertise and, sometimes, what seem to be the bizarre ideas of many  chefs - some starred, most not - all eager to create uncommon tastes.  Many of these trail blazing chefs were in Northern Spain, which to my  mind seems to have eclipsed France as the fountainhead of all things  culinary.

azurmendi_egg yolk infused with hot truffle oil and covered by saffron

I believe that the modern Spanish tapas culture, similar to the Eastern  Mediterranean meze but far more elaborate, became instrumental in  allowing individuals in kitchens to experiment and develop small plates  full of variety, color and flavor. It was really not until the late 70s  that tapas had morphed from a piece of hard cheese or a slice of salty  jamón on bread accompanying a glass of wine - the original tapa was  free, just something salty that created thirst so more wine would be  drunk - to the current cooked small dishes; many miniature culinary  masterpieces that engage all senses with their design, ingredients  variety, and taste. Many bars in Spain are renowned for their special  tapas, such as the bar across from the Plaza de Toros in Madrid known  for a variety of different little plates of cooked wild mushrooms or the bar in Toledo, near the El Greco house, famous for its cangrejo and tsanguro tapas. Even very well known establishments, such as Boca Grande in Barcelona, are apt to create unusually delicious small plates that  cause their clientèle to return time after time. 

Small Plates Seafood Meddley

“Healthy Eating” has become a fad in the United States where public relations  and marketing agencies are pushing on behalf of their clients “no fat, no gluten, no salt, no refined sugar” pre-cooked then frozen meals as healthy food! It is a  very unfortunate situation that accommodates the puritanical prejudices  of American society to the detriment of fresh food and good taste;  unless of course you have an allergy or other medical condition that  requires absence from the above. If you are healthy, don’t fall for it;  these foods have NO TASTE. In reality, fat creates taste... salt adds  taste... and refined sugars also add taste.

Small Plates Massimo Restaurant Modena

To quote Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern “The heart of good food is to start with the most delicious ingredients you can get”. Everyone can  create good food... what great chefs have done is train their palate to  differentiate the taste between similar ingredients. Never settle,  unless you have tasted the very best of each ingredient; then you can  decide which variety to use, from which region and what brand (such as  in olive oil). Also, consider synergies between ingredients. Many times  1+1 does not always equal 2; synergy between the ingredients could make  them equal 3 or even 4. Most times what happens in a creative kitchen is similar to what happened in a medieval alchemist’s laboratory. A  kitchen might start with a recipe but that is just the foundation;  understanding that ingredients and cooking techniques are the building  blocks to creating something deliciously new is what great cooking is  all about.

There is a “Flavor Equation” that most good cooks instinctively understand.
 Presentation+Taste+Aroma+Mouthfeel=Great Food.

Small Plates Scallops and Caviar

Let’s not forget “You eat with your eyes first”. Presentation is important in how the dish is perceived. Many of the excellent chefs  that I have met use tweezers to compose a small plate or individual  appetizer; similar to painters with brushes and palette knives. Each  empty plate is a blank canvas and a well finished plate should be  perceived as a fine work of art.

The taste of dishes depends on a harmonious combination of salty, sour, sweet,  bitter and savory (the last referred to as umami). Those are the basic  taste qualities that our taste buds can discern.

Even the best looking dish will be discarded if it doesn’t smell right. Smell is extremely important in the kitchen. As my mother used  to say “If you can smell anything but the sea on a fish, don’t buy it and certainly don’t eat it”.

Finally, the mouthfeel. The temperature, texture, piquancy, pungency and astringency of a dish  play a major role in whether it will be accepted or not. Too hot or too  cold, too spicy or too bland, too sour or cloyingly sweet all these  attributes, even though the tolerances vary with each individual, are  generally the most important to be considered when creating in the  kitchen.

So, train your palate and then go and fearlessly create exceptional meals.




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