With the coronavirus pandemic forcing many restaurants to close to dine-in customers, many chefs have an unprecedented amount of time on their hands. Some are using that time to continue their recipe development at home. The task is one of optimism: They want to have new dishes ready if and when their eateries reopen.
These experimental cooking sessions are forcing them to be flexible. When Matthew Cockrell goes to work at Brasserie Liberté in Georgetown, the executive chef has access to a large kitchen full of professional equipment. At his English basement apartment in Dupont Circle, the chef’s cooking setup is much more contained, with only three feet of counter space. “I’ve had to finagle it a bit by [putting] cutting boards over the stove to expand the space,” he says.
Despite the limitations, the alum of Le Diplomate and Mintwood Place continues developing a “super bright green” spring pea soup with mint and crème fraiche and duck fat fettuccine loaded up with duck bolognese, both for his spring menu.
To create the former, he relies on a high-powered Vitamix blender and a chinois (fine mesh sieve), both necessary pieces of equipment for the process of making the soup. When it comes to the pasta, Cockrell would normally make the noodles with a hand-cranked pasta machine, but didn’t want to bring one home from the restaurant over fears of cross-contamination. Rolling out the dough by hand has been trying. After honing the recipe through seven iterations, he’s finally happy with the results, though he wonders if the dough will hold up under restaurant conditions.
Demetri Mechelis is gearing up to open his first restaurant, a Mediterranean-influenced pizzeria in Mount Pleasant called Martha Dear. The owners planned to open in October, but now it looks like the restaurant could open at the end of the year at the earliest. “The coronavirus totally derailed us,” he says. “We’re just trying to take it day by day and not give up hope.”
He’s taking advantage of the unexpected downtime to work on his Neapolitan-style naturally leavened sourdough pizza dough recipe. He uses a starter that traces his career and includes bits from each of the restaurants he worked at in the last few years: Ellē, Tail Up Goat, and Leo in Brooklyn, New York.
Mechelis is testing recipes in the kitchen of the Columbia Heights condo he shares with his fiancée, Tara L. Smith, a front-of-the-house veteran who he met while they were both working at Tail Up Goat.
Though the kitchen is spacious enough for them to work together, he laments that he has to use his “Suzy Homemaker, Mickey Mouse bullshit” home oven. It takes about six hours to heat up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. He wakes up early in the morning to turn it on, hoping by the time dinner rolls around the oven and his pizza stone will be hot enough. “It won’t give you the crust an 800-degree professional oven will give you, but it’s something for me to try out and taste,” he says.
For Mechelis, the process is about practice. He keeps a careful record of his trials, though he acknowledges his dough is in a constant state of evolution. “I’m always trying to make things better and work with what I have, the season, and the temperature,” he says.
When it comes to sourcing ingredients, Mechelis is lucky because he gets produce through a CSA and has some flour from Seylou and Migrash Farm stashed away. Others aren’t as lucky.
Jocelyn Law-Yone, executive chef and co-owner of Thamee on H Street NE, has enlisted an army of friends, family members, and colleagues to go shopping for her and leave their purchases outside her apartment in Brentwood. Though she is able to get some specialty ingredients for her recipe testing, others, like banana stems, elude her, forcing her to get creative with substitutions. “Immigrants have always had to bend and go with the wind,” she says.
Overall, she is taking a pragmatic approach to the lockdown. “My father was in political prison for five years and two of them were solitary confinement,” Law-Yone says. “If he could do that, I can do a few months of this.”
Before Thamee closed on March 16, Law-Yone was on the verge of rolling out two new menus. One welcomed spring and the other celebrated the Burmese New Year known as Thingyan. Both are on indefinite hold. To keep new ideas in the pipeline, Law-Yone is working on a variety of sambal sauces and playing around with citrusy seafood dishes. Whatever she devises will end up on what her daughter, Simone Jacobson, the restaurant’s co-owner, jokingly calls “our spring, summer, fall, winter menu.”
Brasserie Liberté’s Cockrell wonders if diners will ever have a chance to try the dishes he is working on. “I’ve been hoping this quarantine will all be over in early May, but now it’s looking like it might be summer,” he says. “I’m working on spring dishes only to find out it’s June or July when we open again.”
He’s not too disappointed because he doesn’t see the time spent cooking as a waste. “I used to work 12- to 18-hour days on my feet and now I’m not,” he says. “I don’t want my muscles to atrophy.”
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