We're going behind the scenes and getting up close and personal with some of the Valley's favorite chefs, learning what it takes to make one of their best-known dishes. Welcome toThe Trail
It's hard not to smile when you walk into Crepe Bar in Tempe. Everything from the walls -- hand-painted in a colorful pattern -- to the young employees to chef and owner Jeff Kraus exudes energy. It's infectious.
The fact that there's always plenty of hot and cold brewed coffee flowing may also be to blame.
Sitting at one of the small tables close to the counter with a cup of Heart Roasters La Esperanza coffee on a recent weekday afternoon, I can barely catch a glimpse of the chef through the window. Service is winding down, but a few diners -- several of whom are clearly regular customers -- linger in the dining room, though no one seems to mind. The back of the house is tidying up while the front of the house clears out.
After a few minutes, Kraus emerges from the kitchen wearing his trademark custom-made blue denim apron and a smile.
"You guys ready to do this?" he asks, offering a fist of tattooed knuckles for bumping.
Today, we're at the restaurant to find out what goes into making one of Kraus' signature crepes, the 13 Mile Vegetable Curry.
And if you're wondering how much work can really go into making a crepe -- and a vegetarian one at that -- I don't blame you. Except the truth is that Kraus puts a lot into this dish. A lot of time (to ferment and pickle some of the vegetables), and a lot of thought (into how to build several different flavors from each ingredient).
"This dish is insane," the chef assures me.
It's exactly 13 miles from Crepe Bar in Tempe to the Farm at Agritopia in Gilbert -- if you take surface streets instead of the freeway, according to Kraus.
The distance is where this dish gets its name.
Everything that goes into the filling and garnish for the vegetarian dish comes directly from the nearby farm -- or, to be more accurate, Kraus comes to it. This time, we tagged along on the weekly trip to fetch his order from the farm.
On a humid Wednesday evening, we pile into the car and head to Agritopia to meet with farmer Erich Schultz.
The fact the ingredients for this dish are subject to the seasons and general will of Mother Nature (who can be finicky at times) makes this one of "the most challenging and thought-provoking dishes on the menu," Kraus says.
In the past, the filling and garnish have consisted of beets and carrots. But right now, the dish features cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and eggplant.
Unfortunately, when we arrive Kraus learns there are no cherry tomatoes to be had.
"So, are they done?" he asks, meaning for the season.
The answer is yes, but fortunately Kraus says he has enough left at the restaurant for now. The rest of the restaurant's order consists of two cardboard boxes of vegetables and a few dozen eggs. In exchange, Kraus returns two broken-down boxes from last week, which the farm recycles.
Then it's time to head back to the kitchen.
Since returning from a recent trip to Copenhagen, Kraus has been experimenting with different cooking techniques and flavors, most prominently fermentation and the vast array of flavors that can be produced by it. Much of the inspiration came from his visit to Noma, the two-star Michelin restaurant that's been named the best in the world four times in the past five years.
Kraus and his staff -- some of whom joined him on the trip -- didn't just dine at the world-famous restaurant; they went into the kitchen for a glimpse behind the scenes. And, yes, they met chef Rene Redzepi. They have the photos to prove it.
For this dish, Kraus uses two different fermentation techniques for the garnish of the crepe. Using fermentation allows him to create an wider variety of textures from a limited number of ingredients.
First, the chef takes Agritopia carrots and selects the largest ones, the ones big enough to be sliced on a mandoline. He carefully shaves off thin slices of carrot, leaving the leftover pieces for later use in the filling of the crepe.
"This is one of my favorite pieces of kitchen equipment," Kraus says as he gingerly slides the produce against the blade of the slicer.
These shavings then get pickled, a fermentation method that uses heat to preserve the vegetables in a vinegar-based brine. Unlike more delicate vegetables, the carrots can be subjected to a heat-based method of fermentation without breaking down and becoming a mushy mess.
The softer vegetables, cucumber and cherry tomatoes, are subjected to lacto fermentation, "lacto" referring to the lactic acids responsible for preserving the vegetables. These acids break down the veggies and soften their texture.
It's a simple, if lengthy, process that involves vacuum sealing the tomatoes and cucumbers in a 1.5 percent to 2 percent salt solution. Over the next several days the salt will draw out the liquid from the vegetables, transforming both their appearance and taste.
Kraus combines all three of the vegetables and sprinkles them with black sesame seeds, then the garnish is ready to go.
In comparison, the filling of the crepe is a simpler process.
Kraus uses the leftovers from the shaved carrots as well as the carrots that were too small to slice. They're roasted slowly in a cast iron skillet over low heat with butter, olive oil, bay leaves, and coffee beans.
"And how do you know when they're ready?" Kraus calls out, giving the kitchen staff a pop quiz.
"When they're fork tender," he says, answering his own question. "Or knife tender."
The eggplant he roasts in an oven before combining both components and making a puree. Adding a curry of coconut milk, fennel, garlic, and other spices gives additional flavors the mix.
He throws in a few cherry tomatoes that have been confited in olive oil with bay, thyme, lemon, and garlic; their bright color and texture contrast rather sharply to the rest of the puree.
The end result is an unattractive but fragrant mash of veggies.
Finally, it's time to plate up, a process that normally would take only a minute during service.
Kraus estimates it's about three minutes from when he starts cooking the crepe to when the 13 Mile Curry Vegetable is plated and ready to go.
Things have to be efficient at Crepe Bar because this restaurant has an unconventional kitchen. There's no hood, no grill, no walk-in, and no ventilation system -- in other words, none of the things you would expect to find in a restaurant.
Kraus and his crew work with just two crepe griddles, one commercial-grade induction burner, and a reach-in fridge. When you consider the menu, it's quite a feat.
Prior to service, the chef preps about three delicate curried cheese crisps that adorn the final product. To make them, Kraus sprinkles Parmesan cheese (though he says you can use any hard cheese) directly onto the crepe griddle and lets one side brown before flipping it over.
When each side has crisped, he slides the whole thing off the griddle and drapes it elegantly over a plastic water bottle. It sets almost immediately in a dramatic curve.
If you've eaten Kraus' food, you know there's an element of artistry, and this dish is no exception.
Before laying down the crepe -- which he fills, folds into a square, and browns on each side -- he paints a bright green stripe of pesto on the plate. Next come the two halves of the main dish, which he piles up with pickled garnish and fresh greens tossed in vinaigrette.
Carefully, he balances the cheese crisp on top.
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SHOW ME HOW
When you look at the final product, it's hard to wrap your mind about the number of components that make up the dish. The best way, maybe the only way, to appreciate it is by taking a bite.