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Cooking Lessons from Bar Chefs

With tiny spaces and big ambitions, chefs at bars are doing amazing things with tabletop appliances like the old-fashioned slow cooker.

Not long ago, I ate at a bar only when I was desperate for ballast, which meant I'd get something dumped out of a bag or cooked in a fryer, or both. These days, my local bar in Manhattan might serve BLTs with house-cured bacon or any of a dozen inventive takes on pigs in a blanket (it turns out boudin in a blanket is a natural). Sure, it's still bar food—often salty, a little greasy, and easy to handle while holding a glass of wine or a cocktail. But it's made from scratch by a chef, not pulled out of a freezer, and it's delicious.

What's more impressive, many of these bar chefs are cooking in makeshift kitchens, which inspires some creative solutions. At Rontoms in Portland, Oregon, chef Ryan Gibson doesn't have an industrial deep fryer, so he makes fresh potato chips with a countertop model. Chef Jason McCullar doesn't even have a stove at Cure in New Orleans, so he caramelizes onions in a plug-in convection oven and poaches pears in sherry by zapping them in a plastic bag in a microwave. Even with a limited kitchen, McCullar's menu reads like it belongs in a restaurant—for his crostini, for example, he marinates duck livers in sherry, sautés them with shallots and adds a sprinkle of black lava salt. "It's like solving a geometry proof," McCullar says. "You're trying to figure out a problem, and so you have to do this step and this step and this step in order to get it all done."

I've learned many cooking tricks by studying restaurant menus and figuring out new techniques as I taste a dish. Now that bars are serving inventive food out of spaces that are even smaller than the kitchen in my apartment, I decided there had to be some ideas I could take home.

I was especially intrigued by McCullar's appropriation of the slow cooker, which he uses to cook shrimp with vermouth sous-vide (inside a vacuum-sealed plastic bag in a low-temperature water bath). I've always thought that what comes out of a slow cooker is homey and homely. That was a failure of imagination on my part, as I recently learned at Fort Defiance in Brooklyn, New York.

Fort Defiance is a cozy corner bar, at least at first glance. But a close look at the drinks (created by St. John Frizell, the bar's owner and an alum of Manhattan's Pegu Club) reveals that everything is carefully considered. Even the seltzer comes out of a retrofitted soda fountain that superchills the water and filters it three times before carbonating.

The pork rillettes at Fort Defiance is the perfect bar food. For the uninitiated, rillettes is a pâté made from meat that's poached in its own fat, then packed into a jar or bowl with some of that fat. Technique isn't the point. If it tastes good, it's a winner. And this rillettes is a winner.

Frizell shared the recipe (from Sam Filloramo, the chef at Fort Defiance until recently), and I am surprised by how easy it is to make when I try it at home. First I cut pork butt into cubes and season the meat with salt, pepper, garlic, thyme, coriander, allspice and cinnamon and let it sit overnight in the fridge. Then I confit it all in the slow cooker by simmering it in rendered pork fat for six hours. Finally, after the meat cools, I shred it with a fork and mix back in some of the rendered fat until it's creamy.

It sounds complicated, but the effort is minimal. There's no burner to monitor and not much active cooking. You cube the pork. You measure the spices. You push a button. You read a book. Then you shred and stir and create a lot of rillettes, which will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Fort Defiance serves the rillettes with house-made pickles and grainy mustard, which brings out the pork's meaty taste. But I want brighter flavors to go with such richness, so I also make a quick pickle of dried apricots, raisins and mustard seed. This dish is so satisfying, it makes me wonder what else I could simmer in fat: oxtail, lamb, duck. All would be sophisticated and tasty, a good partner for a cocktail. Which is to say, it's bar food, or what bar food is today.

Oliver Strand is working on a book with chef Martin Picard of Montreal's Au Pied de Cochon restaurant.

Published February 2010
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