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FOREIGN EXCHANGE: a chef shares latin lessons

Geographically, Latin cuisine covers an enormous stretch of the globe. But philosophically, it can be reduced to one simple idea: flavor definition. At least that is what Guillermo Pernot, chef-owner of Cuba Libre restaurants believes and strives to achieve. When it comes to Latin food, he claims, “Cooks tend to overdo, rather than allowing the essence of foods to peek through . . . refinement is the key to success.” Pernot, winner of the 2002 James Beard Best Chef of the Mid- Atlantic award, plus numerous other accolades, knows a thing or two about success—and even more about contemporary Latin cooking.


FINDING HIS FOOD
A self-taught chef, Pernot arrived in New York City from Argentina in 1975. At the time, his knowledge of cooking encompassed only what he had learned from his mother and grandmother, who were wonderful cooks. “My grandmother was from Barcelona,” Pernot explains, “so her dishes reflected the strong Arab influence typical of the area, such as the use of pine nuts and raisins. I learned to be brave in mixing and blending different ingredients in order to create unique flavors.”

 

His induction into the restaurant business came at Sweetwater Farm Bed and Breakfast in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1978. During his tenure, it was listed in Fodor’s America’s Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns and Getaways for Gourmets—which marked the beginning of what was to become Pernot’s highly lauded career. The chef left Sweetwater to open Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s restaurant, Allioli, in Miami’s South Beach, but came back to Pennsylvania after a short time and settled in as the chef de cuisine for Treetops Restaurant at the Five-Diamond Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. Then, in 1996, Pernot returned to his culinary roots, opening Vega Grill, Philadelphia’s first authentic Latin-themed eatery. The small restaurant—only three staff members worked the kitchen—was an instant and huge hit, quickly beckoning the press to Pernot’s door. The culinary industry followed close behind. Pernot says his life changed drastically when Food and Wine magazine chose him as one of America’s 10 Best New Chefs for 1998.


Pernot recalls the menu that sparked such attention: “Vega Grill served ‘honest’ Latin food . . . and nothing cost more than $18. The menu included Cuban sandwiches, ceviche, bread pudding, and dishes incorporating Mexican chocolate.” The chef adds, “We also used a lot of boniato, yuca, plantains, malanga, and other typical Latin foods. Some of these uncommon products were difficult to find, and they were unknown to most of our patrons until we put them on the menu.” Despite his success at Vega Grill, by 1999 the chef was ready for something new. He imagined a restaurant with a style totally different from that of the casual grill, yet likewise innovative and exciting as a Latin dining experience.

 

A NEW PLAY ON CEVICHE
Pernot wanted to maintain the ethnicity he was known for, but to do so in a more precise way. Combining a traditional, high-end Latin menu with a ceviche menu seemed the ideal concept. “The result is true Nuevo Latino cuisine.” he says. “Ceviche is traditionally known as an exotic Latin and Central American delicacy of fish and seafood marinated in citrus, herbs, and spices.  With ceviche preparations, the chef explains, “the key is in the freshness of the products . . . if you use only the highest quality and freshest ingredients, you will have great ceviche. The rest is just letting your experience and imagination guide you toward blending interesting flavors.”
Pernot uses three primary fish purveyors and buys only top sushi-grade product. A source in Hawaii provides seafood native to the Pacific Ocean. His New York City fish purveyor supplies typical Japanese seafood, and a local Philadelphia seafood merchant accommodates his requests for Eastern-seaboard fish species. Pernot insists that no special equipment, other than what is already in an adequately outfitted restaurant kitchen— sharp knives and cutting boards—is required to make ceviche.


On technique for making ceviche, the chef is precise. “Slicing the raw fish properly is important,” Pernot insists. “I use a sanitized cutting board, a very sharp knife with a 10-inch blade, and very cold, fresh fish that has been wrapped in plastic and placed in the freezer for about 30 minutes to add firmness and stiffness. I cut straight across the fillet, starting from the head end and continuing to about three-quarters of the way down the fillet. The tail end is discarded because it is too stringy to use.”


CAREFUL CREATIVITY
Rather than the traditional three-day curing technique that renders the protein completely opaque, Pernot prefers a lightly cured ceviche. A typical example is his Spanish Mackerel Ceviche with Pomelo Sections. The Huacatay Mint Sauce is used as a marinade as well as a finishing sauce when the dish is served. The chef dips the mackerel sections into the sauce and allows the fish to sit for no more than 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Although the fish is served raw in this recipe, Pernot uses a blowtorch on the skin side of the fillet to create a light, hot char. As tradition dictates, the chef uses lemon and/or lime juice in the marinade of nearly all his ceviche recipes, but he uses a gentle hand with these acidic fruits to allow the many other unique and flavorful ingredients to shine through. The ceviche provides the Latino aspect to his menu, but Pernot’s uncanny instinct for blending unusual ingredients gives it the nuevo edge. The Fluke Ceviche with Lichee-Lavender Sauce, for instance, shows Pernot’s creative flourish with ingredients. The recipe calls for fresh lime juice, kosher salt, fresh lichees, fresh lavender (leaves and flowers), and habanero chiles. The fish marinates in lime juice and salt for no longer than one hour. The other sauce ingredients are pureed together in a blender and refrigerated. At serving time, the sauce is drizzled on the fluke fillet, and the plate is garnished with whole lichee and lavender, and accented with small mounds of Sevruga caviar. The result is a dish as elegant as it is mouthwatering.

 

For Pernot, restraint is as important as creativity. He cooks with delicate amounts used in a refined manner, so that the flavor of every ingredient is allowed to make a statement. Peppers, the chef professes, are a prime example of his light touch. “I use all varieties—green, red, yellow, and orange sweet peppers, serrano and cachucha chiles, and any other variety I come across. But I don’t think a dish has to be fiery to be good. Cachucha chiles, for example, are crisp-textured and mildly hot, but with enough pungency to be interesting. I use touches of pepper to add color and an interesting flavor zing. Most of the chiles we use come from a specialty grower in Mexico.”


Pernot’s inventory of favorite ingredients reads like a long global grocery list, with unusual specialties like cactus leaves, edible orchids, prickly pears, cashews, red curry, huacatay mint, daikon radishes, dried shrimp, and fermented black beans, among others. Sourcing so many unconventional produce items is no easy task. Although Pernot orders as much as possible from local suppliers, he turns to specialty distributors in New York City for the less common products. The chef also contracts with private gardening firms that grow fruits and vegetables specifically for restaurants. Because the products are usually very expensive, he chooses ones that are especially dramatic and flavorful. “These sources are expensive,” Pernot admits, “but the items I buy from them require only a pinch to make a strong impact in a dish. The dollar can go a long way if you choose carefully. I also source directly from commercial growers when possible. It helps to give me an edge on the freshest possible products.”

 

WHAT COUNTS
To stay within a 25 to 30 percent food cost overall, Pernot also offsets his more pricey creations with traditional Latin dishes that may look extravagant but are less expensive to produce.
“Dishes like Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans), which we serve with Bife de Chorizo Ahumado (smoke rib-eye steak), red wine sauce, pickled garlic, and okra, is an example of how we compensate with lower-cost items,” he says. “We use a 14-ounce rib eye that is marinated for 48 hours, smoked, and then grilled.” Although the protein portion of this dish is expensive, the classic Latin side of rice and beans helps to reduce the total cost of the plate.

 
“[Our] Pescado is another example,” Pernot continues. “It is crispy whole striped bass, stuffed with black beans and served with mojo criollo, a traditional Latin garlic sauce. The dish is also served with a Nicaraguan vigorón salad that typically includes cabbage and cassava root. It makes a striking presentation, but the beans and salad help to reduce the overall cost.” The chef adds, “Baby goat is another dish we can save on. The cost is about $1.90 per pound, and we serve a six-ounce portion. It is a classic Latin food item, so many people look forward to having it!”


Because the cost of fresh food products can change quickly and radically when the market changes, the chef keeps a keen eye on factors that can affect costs, such as weather. A lot of rain in California, for example, can send the price of leafy greens skyward. The same can happen with citrus or tomatoes when hurricanes ravage Florida.

 

Keeping a prudent watch over kitchen economics at the restaurant allows Pernot to indulge elsewhere—such as in his stunning collection of tableware. When he first opened, the chef served mixed grills on unusual steer-shaped hibachis, and although the dish now appears only intermittently as a special, the unique hibachi inspired Pernot’s search for beautiful and unique tableware. Seasoned butters—which change daily—are blended tableside with wooden mortars and pestles and served next to mango-wood bowls filled with homemade bread. A vast mix of china, glass, metal, coconut-shell, and cast-iron dishes, and vessels in every conceivable shape are side by side with green, black, yellow, and white colors, all of which marry perfectly, like elements in an ornate tapestry. 

 

ADVICE COLUMN

For chefs who want to incorporate Latin ingredients and dishes into their repertoire, Pernot suggests they get very familiar with an old-fashioned cookbook that includes classic Latino recipes. “Learn how to make the traditional dishes well, such as rice and beans, a sofrito that suits your taste, and basic beef and potato dishes. Learning to make these dishes is a good introduction to how Latin foods are blended to create the exceptional flavors we identify with the cuisine. Other than this, just practice and experiment, and you’ll quickly find that you’ve embarked on a new world—not just a new cuisine.”

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