Chef News

Sweetbreads Puttanesca at Home with Joshua Hebert

We're peeking behind the scenes and getting our hands dirty in the kitchens of some of our favorite chefs, foodies and Phoenix tastemakers.  

In the kitchen with: Joshua Hebert of Posh

Making: Sweetbreads with artichoke, white asparagus, fresno chiles in a mustard caper sauce. AKA: Josh's Riff on Sweetbreads Puttanesca

Josh Hebert comes out to greet us smiling hand outstretched outside his Spanish-style home in South Scottsdale, with a black apron tied over his summer shorts, t-shirt and sandals. Inside, the look is updated, sleek, modern and relaxed -- and we quickly meet his lovely wife, Mary, and two large-breed dogs who will be sequestered for the duration of our visit.

Hebert's already set out his fresh, out-of-the-norm ingredients -- many of them snagged from his restaurant. We see sliced red chile, white asparagus, artichokes, an artichoke mixture, chives, capers, mustard and sweetbreads. This promises to be the kind of meal you'd find at Posh -- highbrow comfort food.

, we spot Hebert's chef's knife kit -- though in this case it's really more of a tackle/toolbox. We expected to see the microplane rasp and knives but we were giddy to handle some of the new tools of modern, forward-thinking chefs. Under the sushi mat, we found a high-volume medicine dropper and one-hit smoker (a pipe attached to a rubber tube. Huh? What exactly is this chef doing in the back of the house at Posh anyway?)

Hebert explains the use of a high-volume medicine dropper in making things like coagulated fruit juice spheres (oh! duh!) and turns out the smoker is for loading up a cloche with wood smoke for a whimsical presentation.  Hebert shares that many of these items, including the thermal circulating bath he uses at Posh, come from Polyscience.

The most practical tool in that box might be the Tums. We ask him about it and he just smiles and chuckles knowingly. We would imagine that cooking and tasting that many inventive meals night after night might give us a sore stomach every once in a while, too.

We make a joke about chefs using foam and its overuse and Hebert immediately knows that we're referring to Marcel from Top Chef. He laughs but then changes his tone slightly. He likes it as just one way to experience food. "There are some new technology and techniques that can be good for food, and some can be chintzy."

In Posh's kitchen, Hebert and the other chefs mark a checklist throughout the night including the different cooking techniques that they've chosen to use at each table, making sure not to use any more than once - like foam or gelée.

"Precision in temperature control is very exciting. Fish cookery has changed completely." he says, explaining that the sweetbreads that we will be eating were cooked in a temperature controlled oven for 4 hours to melt the sinew and create a buttery soft texture. 

While we've been excited about the sweetbreads, we had to divulge our inexperience in tasting baby farm animal (calf, lamb, beef or pork) thymus gland. Hebert explains that it is actually very easy to eat if you don't know what it is -- like a "fluffy chicken nugget," he adds, as he heats up the ceramic cooktop that is what most of us use at home (a far cry from the BTUs he spends most of his day cooking over). He tells us that the servers at his restaurant are trained to gently educate diners about sweetbreads. Typically the diners are afraid of eating it or they think it's a dessert of some sort. We agree that education is definitely warranted, in either case. And, as you'll find, we'd vote to keep it on the menu at Posh.

Hebert dredges the precooked sweetbread pieces in all-purpose flour and begins to create a crust in the preheated pan filled with mixture of melted butter and bacon fat. It starts to smell like some seriously sensational weekend cooking. As we gab he goes back and forth between basting the sweetbreads in the cooking liquid with a spoon and swirling-sniffing-sipping a glass of white wine.

We wondered if Hebert ever has any challenges with Posh's unique menu system, since you show up and mark on a sushi-menu-style paper what foods you like and don't like, and any other preferences. He says it only is difficult if people "see it as a challenge." That's "not what it's about," he explains. "We see it as the most accommodating tasting menu on the planet."

Hebert divulges that the top two requests by far are gluten-free and "no raw onions."

We ask about future plans, and Hebert talks about spending this last year practicing for fall and playing around with common savory ingredients in sweet dishes and vice versa -- like black peppercorns and marshmallows or licorice root in braised dishes. Avocado and chocolate pairings have been popular, too.

Once the sweetbreads have properly gained a "good color," Hebert keeps the sweetbreads warm in the oven and the rest of the cooking moves along quickly. We ask what might be a good substitute to sweetbreads if we can't get our hands on any. He suggests a chicken breasts or thighs (for the richness) or even a light white fish.

To the same pan, Hebert adds ½ cup chopped sweet onion, ½ cup chopped celery, 2 minced garlic cloves and once softened, a ¼ cup vermouth. He simmers until almost reduced. It's the rest of the ingredients turn to jump into the pan. That's the ½ red fresno chile julienned, ½ T Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon capers, 1 teaspoon of the caper brine, 6 stalks of trimmed peeled white asparagus, the zest of a lemon, 2 baby artichoke hearts quartered and ½ cup of the artichoke stock that had previously been designated as a pasta sauce - though he notes that there's enough to still do that for another meal.

He adds back the still-warm sweetbreads and swirls in 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Just then his wife asks about wine pairings with artichokes. He explains that he would pair it with any oxidized wine which would be a fruilano wine. Those wines have a "copper penny" quality that controls the bitterness of foods (like artichokes) quite well.

Hebert arranges the meal family-style in a rustic fluted casserole dish and tells us that meals at his house are usually one-pot or one-dish. Before handing over a plate to taste, he turns up the heat on the butter/bacon fat mixture to create a browned butter sauce that he then pours over the top, sprinkling the whole thing with the chopped chives.

We concur with the "fluffy nugget" description (especially with the crispy crust) but the dish also has a richness that makes you continually reaching over for another bite with the tender-crisp pale asparagus and bright caper lemon brown butter sauce. It's the ultimate puttanesca/picatta afternoon nibble.

We would like to move into Hebert's house just so that he can casually pull together more meals like this for us (perhaps there's a spare room - ha). We suspect not, and in that case, we'll just have to make a reservation at Posh. Thank you, Chef Hebert, you made us feel so welcome, we can't wait to chew the fat again.

(Full disclosure: Jennifer Woods has known Josh Hebert since 2005 when Hebert headed-up Dual Restaurant in Gilbert. She sold him his restaurant wares and tabletop for Dual and, to this day, has a particular interest in inspecting the new-ish tools of a progressive kitchen -- so she had a good time with this assignment.)

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