Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An Interview with Alex Grunert, Executive Pastry Chef, Blue Hill at Stone Barns

When I met Alex Grunert back in 2005 he was the Executive Pastry Chef at both Bouley and Danube restaurants in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood. My first meal at Bouley was finished with such divine desserts that I simply had to meet the pastry chef. Since then, Alex Grunert has moved above and beyond Bouley and Danube to the celebrated Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the renowned Farm-to-Table restaurant located north of New York City in Pocantico Hills, recently a location for this season's Top Chef episode Down on the Farm.

Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, Alex began his career at age fifteen at the prestigious Hotel Inter-Continental restaurant, Vier Jahreszeiten, in Vienna. During his eight years at Vier Jahreszeiten, Alex learned the fine arts of viennoiserie and pâtisserie, and rose to the position of Demi-Chef Pâtissier. From Vier Jahreszeiten Alex moved to Oberlaa Konditorei—the famed Viennese pâtisserie—to manage chocolate production. It was here that Alex had the tremendous opportunity to learn under the hand of master pâtissier Karl Schuhmacher.

Having pretty much perfected traditional pastry, viennoiserie and chocolate production, Alex side-stepped tradition, moving to New York City in 2000 to work as Pastry Sous Chef at Danube. Alex again proved his talent and soon became the Executive Pastry Chef for both Bouley and Danube restaurants, no surprise to anyone who knows his desserts.

Flourless Chocolate Brownie with Seckle Pears, Tonka Bean Ice Cream, "Gluehwein" (spiced red wine), Salted Chocolate Crumbs

Matsu Apple and Celery Gelée with Pickled Watermelon Rind and White Mellon Flesh with Yogurt-Vanilla Sorbet

Today, at the helm of the pastry department at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Chef Grunert finds himself a veteran surprisingly learning new things, thinking about ingredients in new ways, and performing new duties that he never thought he'd find himself doing—hand picking ingredients that inspire his creations being just one.

A friend to my tummy and my heart, Alex sat down with me recently to talk about his work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his new boss, Executive Chef and Co-owner Dan Barber, and what it's like working at a Farm-to-Table restaurant with ingredients grown in the kitchen's own "back yard."

CS: I'd love to start by hearing what it was like for you when you first went to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. After all, this Farm-to-Table restaurant is quite different than what you're used to.

AG: Yes, it's very different. I can only use seasonal ingredients and when I first came to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns it was in the early spring and only strawberries and rhubarb were in season, so I had to make desserts using only strawberries and rhubarb. So in four weeks I created fifteen different items—entremets and desserts—with rhubarb, or strawberries, or both. It was so hard to come up with so many new desserts using just two ingredients, so I went to the kitchen director and told him I thought maybe this wouldn't work out for me.

I was surprised when he said that in all his years he had never seen someone come up with so many different desserts using just strawberries and rhubarb. So I guess I didn't have to do so many! Now whenever we have culinary students coming to Blue Hill at Stone Barns he always tells them, "This is our pastry chef Alex, you've never met anyone who can do so much with strawberries and rhubarb."

CS: So you don't have to develop so many new desserts as you thought at first, but still, using only ingredients that are in season, you must have to stretch your imagination every time something new pops up from the ground.

AG: Working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is my biggest professional challenge, ever. Because I do have to constantly develop seasonal desserts, so I can't do just anything I want by using out of season fruits. But using only seasonal ingredients is good for me, it makes me think more! It's almost like being back at school, I'm constantly growing and learning.

Golden Beet Cake with a Pistachio Mayonnaise and Ice Cream, White Chocolate and Molasses

AG: Plus, I'm like a farmer now! I begin every day by going into the gardens and picking all the fruit I'll use in my desserts that day. I'm not used to picking my own fruit! It's more work for me and my team, but it's so nice to spend part of my day outdoors in a garden when I'm more used to being shut in a hot pastry kitchen—although my kitchen here is wonderful. But I was outside so much last summer that I got a tan just from picking fruit!

Also, it's beautiful up here. I live in the city, so my work environment couldn't be more different or more relaxing. It's funny, a lot of my chef friends in the city didn't understand why I would want to commute out of Manhattan, then they come up to experience the food, to see my kitchen and the gardens... then they get it.

CS: What's the most unusual thing you've learned or done since coming to Blue Hill at Stone Barns?

AG: Making maple syrup! I learned how to make maple syrup! Can you believe that? It's just unbelievable to realize where all these ingredients I've always used, and sort of taken for granted, actually come from.

CS: So how do you make maple syrup?

AG: You don't know? Just kidding, I didn't either! Well we started by drilling a small hole into the maple tree then fitting it with a plastic pipe that goes from the tree into a bucket. The sap comes out so slowly, drip by drip, and it's like water. In a few days, when I have enough in the bucket, I do a ten-times reduction to develop the caramelization and thick consistency. You have all this watery sap at first, then at the end you have about a pint of syrup from a whole bucket. It's crazy how much time goes into making real maple syrup.

CS: Now you knew I'd eventually get around to this, so don't laugh. The TV show Top Chef did a recent episode, Down on the Farm, where they came to Blue Hill at Stone Barns for a challenge. So what was it like having the hosts and competitors—not to mention the crew—of Top Chef in your kitchen?

AG: Well that was an experience! It was crazy to see all those Top Chef competitors working in our kitchens, and with all those lights and cameras, I was impressed they were able to cook anything at all. There was my kitchen full of all this TV equipment, it blew me away. It was so interesting though, to see three people I didn't know cooking in my kitchen and being filmed while they did. The Top Chef people interviewed me and then I got to sit outside for the tasting. I was at Team Chicken's table.

CS: So, honestly, how was Team Chicken's food?

AG: It was good, really! Especially considering they had to cook on camera. I tried the strawberry tarte too, which was good. The pastry was flaky, it had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. It's funny, now I know how farming works, and thanks to Top Chef, I know how TV works too. For both, as for a dessert menu, there's a lot more time and effort going into the finished product than you'd think.

Bartlett Blue Panna Cotta with Honey and Bartlett Pears, Concord Grape Sorbet

CS: Dan Barber, your boss, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns co-founder, tell me a little about him.

AG: Well I can only say good things. Not because he might read this, but because I only have good things to say. Dan is incredibly interesting and intelligent. He's like a visionary, but he likes to keep things simple. I like that he's very straight-forward and direct with everyone. I think he lives for what he's doing here, he really believes not just in the food, but in the concept and practice of Farm-to-Table. It's funny, but for the first time in a long time I really look forward to coming to work. Dan has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about food. Everybody here, not just Dan, respects and cares for our produce.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns really tells the story of the Farm-to-Table movement and we share that story with everyone who walks in the door. Like working here, dining here is a learning experience, and a pleasure nobody could ever forget.

Bavarian Spelt Chips, Dulce de Leche, Sweet Pickled Plum and Plum-Armagnac Sorbet

All the photographs in this article are courtesy of Thomas Schauer Studio for Photography. You can find the internationally renowned food photographer at his website, Thanks Thomas!

Chef Alex Grunert's Current Dessert Menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Candied Meyer Lemon with Passion Fruit and Yogurt

Pineapples with Cilantro and Bitter Orange Sorbet

Gin & Tonic with Meyer Lemon Sorbet and Pickled Buddha's Hand

Black Panther Soybean Tofu with Blood Orange Sorbet

Toasted Oatmeal Ice Cream with White Cinnamon and Caramelized Lady Apple

Parsnip Cake with Caramelized Ginger Ice Cream and Bergamot

Mocha Parfait with Toasted Soybean Powder, Banana Toffee, Campari Orange Gelée and Baby Minotina

Apple Cider Granité with Maple Sap Sorbet and Cream of Bavarian Spelt

Petit Fours

Parsnip or Chestnut-Whisky Macaron

Raspberry-Vinegar Chocolates

Yogurt Meringue Sticks

Cinnamon Marshmallows

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is located at 630, Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, NY
For reservations, call 914.366.9600


--Interview by Regina Varolli

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