Chef Walter Sterling does his homework. He has collected more than 100 cookbooks and references them as well as researches region-specific cuisine when creating esoteric menus for the Thursday night wine tastings at Oakville Grocery Co.
Sterling says he believes in the classics -- the food people have been eating for centuries, rather than the molecular gastronomic trends.
"It doesn't matter how far people take something out - they can put foam on it and all these weird dots and colors - but eventually that is just a trend, and like any other trend, it passes," Sterling says. "Things always revert back to the classics. It's almost genetics. There's a reason that lamb, rosemary, garlic and thyme go together: It's because we've been eating it for 5,000 years."
But that doesn't mean he's not adventurous. Sterling says his tastes change all the time, depending on what's in season and what he's craving. Today clear bloody marys and wild turbot are on the menu.
Best recipe experiment? The bartenders challenged the kitchen to a drink tasting at another place I worked. The bartenders said, "We can make better drinks than you guys in the kitchen because we know what we're doing. And the kitchen said, "Well, we can make better drinks than you because we know ingredients better than you. We know what works together."So it was the bar manager and his employees against me as the chef and my employees. We started with our least experienced employees and pitted them against each other, and they each made a drink for three people to test and decide which was better. It came to the end, and it was me against the bar manager. I made tomato water - I basically pureed a bunch of tomatoes, put some vodka and gin on it, a little brown sugar and juniper berries, and you put that in cheese cloth, and the water that drains through is clear but it tastes like you're eating ripe tomatoes. It's super concentrated liquid from the tomatoes. I took all that water and mixed it with vodka. Then I took the skins from the tomatoes and dried them out and made a powder and mixed that with a little bit of salt for the rim. And then I took the other water and mixed that with a little bit of gelatin, whipped that, folded in a little cream and made a tomato mousse. So I basically made clear bloody mary. I had the red rim from the tomato skins and salt, and the tomato water mixed with vodka, and then I floated the tomato mousse on top. And everything just tasted like clear tomato. And that was my drink for the challenge. Of course, the bar was like, "Okay, you guys win."
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Favorite dish to make? Wild turbot with artichokes and black truffles. I can't make it all the time though, because it's not truffle season. If it's not that, I like tagliatelle with tomato, chili flake, basil, parmesan and olive oil. I used to make that for Daniel Boulud all the time. Now every time I run into him, he asks me to make it.
Hardest kitchen lesson? You have to cook for other people and not for yourself. A lot of these chefs out there are like, "I'm so creative, and I'm so good. And blah, blah, blah. Look at me and look at my food." You have to be conscious of what people want and what they're ready for. If I cooked for myself it'd be foie gras and truffles and sweetbreads and skate wing and turbot, but not everybody knows what that stuff is and not everybody wants it.
What's next? We're going to open an Oakville Grocery downtown Phoenix. It should be coming in the next six months. It's got a much larger bakery, more Parisian style with more pastries and coffee.
(This is part two of our Chef Chat with Sterling. Check out part one and check back for a cool summer recipe from Sterling tomorrow. Plus, Oakville's wine director, David Johnson, dispenses wine advice Friday.)