Everybody needs a little inspiration in the kitchen now and then. When you've eaten kale every way you can think of, a favorite cookbook can refresh your approach to dinner.
Now imagine that you have to serve up kale for months on end, to a discerning audience forking out good money for the pleasure.
While it's nice to think that the very sight of greens fresh from the field is enough to spark the professional chef's creative fire, they too need more pedestrian sources of inspiration.
At Waxhaw's premier restaurant Heritage Food & Drink, a small culinary library greets diners stepping into the dining room. Most mornings, chef Paul Verica seats himself at a nearby table to flip through favorite books and magazines while pondering his next menu. After two decades of developing new dishes, he's learned how to keep the innovation flowing.
These days, he names three books from Michelin-starred chefs that have captivated his interest: Andoni Luis Aduriz's Mugaritz (2012), Christopher Kostow's A New Napa Cuisine (2014), and Eleven Madison Park (2011) from Daniel Humm. Each is a gorgeous compendium of recipes and full-page photos deserving of any coffee table, but their messages vary.
"These three guys are very innovative right now, but for different reasons," says Verica. Mugaritz displays more of a scientific, technical bent with "the concept of the meal as entertainment," while Kostow's Napa focuses on local and foraged ingredients. Verica describes Eleven Madison Park as a hybrid between the others. "That book's just blown me away," he says.
These aren't your Grammy's cookbooks, however. While they do include recipes, most home cooks don't have the skills or equipment to tackle them. "Not many people have immersion circulators and vacuum pack machines," says Verica, "and those are some of the most basic things [they'd need]."
Then again, it's not so much the recipes chefs are after as the back story of the dishes' development. "It's a chef's story as well," says Matthew Krenz, executive banquet chef at The Asbury. In fact, while sharing a love of their libraries, both he and Verica struggle to describe specific dishes inspired by their reading.
Instead, they point to techniques and approaches they interpret in their own ways. For Verica, this means anything from playing with low-temperature sous vide cooking to slowing the cooling process of meats for improved texture. Krenz finds himself inspired by unusual flavor combinations and extraordinary plating schemes, citing two books out of France that excite him: Anne-Sophie Pic's Le Livre Blanc (2013) and Éric Briffard's Le Cinq (2014). "They're both steeped in tradition, but with very modern presentations," he says.
While these books also present recipes requiring expensive professional equipment, do not despair of elevating your own kitchen game. Both chefs shared another more approachable source they read every day: the website Ideas in Food (ideasinfood.com). "The way that they write is simple," says Krenz, "but they're just so flavor-forward." And they just happen to have a recipe book geared to the home cook, Maximum Flavor.
You can even find a recipe for kale slaw on page 95.