Chef Christo is a working chef in New York City. Before you write him off as a food-elitist, know too that he grew up in New Mexico on a farm. He learned to cook in the family kitchen and his sense of earthy flavors and textures can most likely be traced to these origins. Always a cook-at-heart he also worked for more than a decade as a fashion stylist for major magazines. That unique experience most likely contributes to his sense of design for each plate. I’ve worked side-by-side with him in two “just for grins” competitions and he cleaned my clock in each event. I’m a backyard cook who does things the EZ way and Christo is an experienced chef who does them, well – his way.
I sat down with Christo at one of Mario Batali’s NYC restaurants last month where we both cooked for Char-Broil’s Outdoor Chef segments on The Weather Channel. Between laughter and “oh yeah top this” conversations that only guys seem to have, regardless of their passion – cooking, hunting, sports or racing – we got to the heart of the matter as to why Christo cooks. It’s his passion and he shared these secrets with me to pass along to you.
As he’s beat me both times we’ve competed I figure I’ll borrow some of his tips and practice a bit. I suspect he’ll wonder why I’m smiling so broadly the next time we meet and hears me say…
Welcome to the Cookout! ~ Barry CB Martin
CB: Christo, I’ve seen you concentrate as you prepare ingredients – surely a key to any successful cooking outcome. How do you go about planning for these amazing looking – AND great tasting dishes?
Christo: The very first tip is to imagine. I like to visualize what the food will look like before I start to make it. If I am making a Cornish hen I try to think how it will look on the plate, if I am going to cut it in half or leave it whole and what kind of sides am I going to serve with it. This mental image makes all the difference in the world.
Take a look at this example: a half a bird is so much visually different than a whole bird. So take a few extra minutes in the beginning and imagine what your food will look like, if you can’t imagine then look online or go through your cookbooks and get some picture ideas. This picture in your mind will keep you on track as you prep, cook and assemble the dish.
CB: We’ve “competed” head-to-head in a couple of friendly events. Both times you and I looked at one another in disbelief at the knives we had to use. I don’t have expensive cutlery – I’m a home cook. I see that your knives are professional grade. What suggestions can you make for the home cook – who doesn’t have the need to spend hundreds of dollars on each blade – how to select and care for this most important tool?
Christo: This is an easy answer – because I can relate to the home cook who absolutely needs to control the cost of equipment – and make sure many items have multiple uses. I get that.
The critical factor in choosing and caring for a knife is to first ask yourself “Can I keep it sharp and can I keep the edge.” Those are two different things. Keeping your knives sharp is not a difficult thing to do, you can use a sharpening stone or even one of the more affordable electric sharpeners that grind down the steel of the knife to keep the material honed…and that only needs to happen a couple times a year, even for the most active home cook.
But keeping the edge is something to do just about every time you use the knife. I use either a hand-held steel – these come with some of the more popular and budget-wise knife sets – it’s the long metal rod with a textured surface – when I just need a quick edge before carving a roast. The very edge of the sharp part of the knife blade can become wobbly with regular use and gliding it along the steel will take out that wobble.
My preference to make an edge is a stone and I use a ceramic sharpener when I want to maintain the edge. This style of sharpener, I have found, is the best at keeping the edge sharp since the knife is exactly at the right angle for sharpening, you don’t need to do a thing besides gently glide the knife between the rods.
CB: Let’s talk about flavors. Your food always looks great and when I’ve had the opportunity to taste – wow! You can marry some seasonings to really REALLY enhance the flavor of the protein. That salmon filet you cooked for the All-Star cook-off was exceptional…and I’m a Northwest native who cooks and enjoys a lot of salmon! What are your “go-to” ingredient seasonings?
Christo: One of my secret tips is my special salt and it’s so easy you can make your own. I find that as a chef having my own unique flavor profile is what sets me apart and keeps people coming back. I have a few salt blends that I make for different applications and I use them every time. For chicken I make sure it leans more heavy on the rosemary, for beef I have it lean towards onion, and thyme and for pork it has a sage essence.
Making the salt is easy. I use fresh herbs that I let sit out a day or two to dry a little bit then I grind them in a spice grinder or coffee grinder mixed with kosher salt. You will find that when you do this you will have a vibrant color and a somewhat moist salt and that’s OK since you are going to pour it into a bowl and mix in more kosher salt using this a base. You can add other spice powders to this as you like, garlic, ginger, onion and don’t forget to add in some white or black pepper.
I go through so much of this salt that I am making it all the time so I keep mine in a little old broken plastic container but if you make it you should keep it in an airtight canister of some kind if you don’t use it that quickly. Try different combinations to see what you like best and you will notice the difference in your foods flavor and in the reactions you get to it. People will say things like “my chicken never comes out tasting this good” and you can sit back with confidence since you know the secret.
CB: Great tips Chef! Thanks. I .. uh .. learned alot!
Christo: I hope these little suggestions will help you in the kitchen. Uh..I mean help your readers.
See Chef Christo and Barry cooking head-to-head in NYC.