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Chef Inspirations

A smashing New York pastry chef; salt that's sour; a dishwasher-turned-chef in Chicago; modern Athenians; Tetsuya's new Sydney digs.

A Cello Prodigy
Everyone raves about 1998 F&W Best New Chef Laurent Tourondel's deft hand with fish at his restaurant Cello in Manhattan, but pastry chef Jean-François Bonnet deserves accolades of his own. A 25-year-old Frenchman who's only been in New York for a year and a half, Bonnet takes an unusual approach to a craft that prides itself on precision and discipline. When creating a new dessert, he says, "I like to smash everything together and see what happens." This is the technique that led to one of his more exotic desserts, banana soup with olive oil ice cream. While working with olive oil, Bonnet licked some off his finger, ate a piece of banana and found the combination irresistible. Not all of Bonnet's desserts are quite so avant-garde: Bananas (hold the olive oil) turn up again in the attached recipe.

—Kate Heddings

Grain of Salt
On a recent trip to Istanbul, I was caught in a snarl of shoppers at the spice market on a hectic Saturday afternoon, wedged right in front of a stall selling a captivating selection of colorful spices, fragrant herbs and tantalizing dried fruit and roasted nut snacks. My good buddy Lori Longbotham nudged me and pointed to a shimmering pile of jagged crystals. "Try this," she said, handing me a shard. I was in no way prepared for the intensely tart sensation that nipped my tongue. "It's lemon salt," she said. Lemon salt, otherwise known as citric crystals or sour salt, is derived from citric acid and is used as a preservative, pickling agent and flavoring throughout Europe, Eastern Asia and the Middle East. Found in this country in Middle Eastern grocers and the kosher-food sections of some supermarkets, lemon salt adds a unique tang to soups, stews, brines and pickles. It brings out the best flavor in the beet soup recipe that follows.

—Marcia Kiesel

Geno Therapy
It's been said that the best cooks are ex-dishwashers, and there's no better proof of that than Generoso Bahena (a.k.a. Geno), who is currently the chef and owner of three Mexican restaurants in Chicago: Chilpancingo, Ixcapuzalco and his newest, Generoso's Bar and Grill. At 16, Bahena moved from Mexico to Chicago and took a position as a dishwasher just to be in the kitchen. His break came when a cook was late one morning and he was given the chance to peel potatoes and garlic. "My hands bled for days, but I got promoted," he says proudly. In 1987, Bahena started working for Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill and made his way up to managing chef. After traveling through all 31 states of Mexico to study his native cuisine, Bahena opened Ixcapuzalco, his first restaurant, in 1999, serving some of the most sincere, authentic Mexican food in Chicago. Now Bahena pays someone else to do the dishes, while he prepares outstanding dishes like his Ensalada Chilpancingo.

—K.H.

Still Life
Whenever Hans and Patti Röckenwagner travel abroad, which is often, they like to seek out unusual objects that they can use at their idiosyncratic restaurant in Santa Monica, Röckenwagner. Their most esoteric purchase is the shoebox-size still that's become the centerpiece of their "Ultimate Dinners," 10-course extravaganzas offered to six people at a time.

At the start of the meal, the still, crafted in Germany by a glass artist, is assembled on top of the dining table. Wine, usually Merlot or Riesling, is poured into a heart-shaped chamber that sits over a flame. As the wine heats, the alcohol vaporizes, travels through a tube and then condenses. "While you're eating, you're watching this small science project," Patti says. After three hours, enough eau-de-vie has collected for each diner to have a sip.

Hans admits that the spirit is a bit rough around the edges—"more a novelty than a great drinking experience." But, with its hints of chocolate, nuts and eucalyptus, it's not your typical moonshine, either (2435 Main St.; 310-399-6504).

—Chris Rubin

Greek Revival
Over the past five years, some of the best chefs in Athens have redefined Greek cuisine. With a greatly expanded repertoire of regional ingredients and, often, with ideas imported from France, these chefs have brought age-old traditions into the modern era.

One of the most beautiful and exciting new restaurants is the Platis Bistrot Café, where a young, talented French-Greek chef named Jean-Louis Capsalas creates such dishes as sea bass with wilted chard and zucchini blossoms, all crowned with grilled kataifi (shredded wheat pastry). The venue is dear to most Athenians' hearts: A gorgeous landmark building of pink marble on the outskirts of the National Gardens, it was for many years a beloved old cafe called Aigli (Aigli Zapeion, Central Athens; 011-30-1-336-9363).

Spondi is another remarkable example of the new French-Greek cuisine. Together with Jacques Chiboix, who owns the two-Michelin-star La Bastide Sainte-Antoine in Provence, chef Hervé Pronzato has created a mostly French menu with Mediterranean accents. Must-trys are warm foie gras with caramelized endive and a Mavrodaphne-wine sauce, and pork loin stuffed with local sheep's milk cheese and a sweet-and-sour sauce of figs and yogurt. Spondi is located in a beautiful stone mansion in a central residential neighborhood; its terrace is one of the loveliest in town (Pyrronos 5, Plateia Varnava, Pangrati; 011-30-1-752-0658).

A renovated grand old home in the heart of the gentrified Psyrri neighborhood provides the stately setting of Diatiriteo. I have to confess my own hand here; together with chef Stratos Liapis, I helped develop a menu culled from regional home cooking but thoroughly modernized. But I take no credit for the skill with which Liapis pulls off such dishes as creamy baked yogurt chicken served with marinated fresh greens; grilled spinach-and-rice cakes served with barbecued whole squid; and homemade pasta filled with chard and topped with a raw tomato sauce (Karaiskaki 28, Psyrri, Central Athens; 011-30-1-331-4601).

—Diane Kochilas

A Sydney Perfectionist Makes His Move
Tetsuya Wakuda, Australia's most famous chef and its unrivaled master of East-West fusion, does nothing by halves. Which is why it took him 11 years to move his world-renowned restaurant, Tetsuya's, out of its tiny original premises, next to a TV repair shop in an obscure Sydney neighborhood, to more spacious and salubrious surroundings. The venue that finally convinced him was originally the Suntory, a grand Japanese restaurant behind a historic house on Kent Street in Sydney's Central Business District.

Wakuda, who was born in Japan, says the Japanese connection is a coincidence. But the space, with a pebble garden at the entrance and screened-off rooms that face an interior Zen garden, feels so right that it might have been built just for him. Typically, he refurbished the garden before starting on the interior, so that it could grow in during the construction period.

The large dining room provides a wonderfully discreet atmosphere for diners with sky-high expectations. Many wait weeks for reservations, and the strict security at the entrance—you have to ring the intercom on the metal gate and prove to the guards that your name is on the list—only increases the sense of anticipation. This may seem a little over the top, but it has solved the problems Tetsuya's was having accommodating the stretch limos and security guards of some of its diners.

Although Wakuda developed some new dishes to celebrate the opening, the fundamental nature of a meal at Tetsuya's has not changed. It is still a degustation of some 14 separate dishes, each exquisitely presented on a specially chosen ceramic dish. You place your trust entirely in the maestro, with no idea of what (or how much) is to come. Don't be fooled into thinking that a vivid green salad with a tingly mirin vinaigrette signals the end of the savory courses; Wakuda follows no rules, and you have no choice but to go along with him. This you will happily do after tasting a single dish, like the lobster ravioli with seaweed vinaigrette and shellfish essence. Even something as simple as a scoop of mango sorbet conceals a core of passionfruit which bursts in your mouth, preparing it for what follows—perhaps a bavarois of blue cheese and vanilla.

This Tetsuya's may be 10 times as large as the original, but Mr. Perfection has added only 30 seats—and he still insists on closing up shop on Saturdays and Sundays—so be sure to book your table before your next flight to Sydney (529 Kent St.; 011-61-29-267-2900).

—Maggie Alderson

Published March 2001
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