Home cooks aren’t the only ones weathering the Wall Street crisis and rising food costs: Star chefs are responsible for restaurant bottom lines as well as what’s on their plates. We asked five New York City masters for professional tips for how all cooks can help manage their daily and weekly food budgets.
1. Master basic techniques
“If you’re dealing with chateaubriand, that’s a very easy thing to cook, ” says 2008 Best New Chef Michael Psilakis of Kefi, Anthos and Mia Dona. With lesser-known cuts like short ribs, lamb shanks or hanger steaks, says Psilakis, “the cost is much less, but the cooking technique really steps up. That’s really the test of a true chef, when you can use that and make something beautiful,” he says, like slow-braised short ribs with spinach (at right), or herb-rubbed hanger steaks. “At the end of the day,” he says, “a veal chop is just a veal chop.”
2. Keep your scraps
“It’s smart people who want to coax the flavor out of the whole ingredient,” says chef Jimmy Bradley of The Red Cat and The Harrison. Like any well-trained chef, his vegetable tops, stems, greens and peelings don’t make it into the garbage. “You have to be a miser,” insists Alto and Convivio chef Michael White, noting that bones, braising liquids and other so-called scraps always go to use in his kitchen. Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill follows suit at home, covering the core of an ultra-ripe pineapple with sparkling water overnight, adding a squeeze of lemon or lime in the morning.
3. Use the whole animal
Like other top chefs, 2007 Best New Chef Gavin Kaysen of Café Boulud buys a whole pig or lamb, getting the best price and coaxing incredible flavors from every inch for use in charcuterie to stocks: “Everything on it is edible,” says Kaysen. Home cooks without the technical skill to break down a whole beast can follow suit by opting for larger quantities or remembering that an entire fish, says Michael White, yields cheeks or fins that can flavor a risotto, or that a whole chicken has a liver that can flavor a luscious wild rice.
4. Manage a weekly budget
Well-run restaurants manage their food costs with careful planning of a menu, says Michael Psilakis, and home cooks can benefit from the same analysis. A risotto or pasta may come in under a daily budget and your steak above, says Psilakis, but if you average out over a week you can still afford a splurge. “If you do rack of lamb tonight,” says Psilakis, “then maybe tomorrow you do monkfish cheeks to balance it out.”
5. Eat seasonally and locally
The idea of eating seasonally and locally may be a new trend, but smart chefs have always sourced that way to save on costs and improve flavor, says Alfred Portale. He and other chefs often go one further, freezing, pickling or even canning tomato marmalades, pickled ramps or at Gotham Bar and Grill, preserving a mix of sweet red and chile peppers when they’re at their cheapest. “This allows you to not just to capture the taste of the season, ” says Michael Psilakis, “ but capture the price structure of the its food at its lowest.”