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Let’s get cookin’: Off the menu

Off the Menu offers a taste of the nation’s best kitchens

Created date

February 21st, 2012

It s a little-known secret that some of the best food to come out of a restaurant s kitchen isn t on the menu, but rather, the hearty fare prepared to feed the staff. As Marissa Guggiana reveals in her book Off the Menu: Staff Meals From America s Top Restaurants (Welcome Books), staff meals bring out the essence of a chef s ingenuity and skill. While a restaurant s menu might focus on high-quality, fresh ingredients, staff meals are all about frugality. It s not easy to coax flavor out of legumes or tenderness out of a lesser cut of meat, but that s exactly what some of the nation s top chefs do in Off the Menu. The book is a beautifully photographed trek from kitchen to kitchen as Guggiana explores the unique sensibility of each chef along the way. She includes a foodie version of the Proust Questionnaire called the Escoffier Questionnaire where chefs answer questions like What is your favorite ingredient? Who do you most like to cook for? and Cheeseburger or fois gras? (Cheeseburgers were the overwhelming favorite.) These small insights are both fascinating and revealing. As for the recipes, they are plentiful and well suited for the home chef. The restaurants showcased in Off the Menu represent nearly 30 different cities and a wide array of cooking styles. As Guggiana puts it, To eat in the dining rooms of these great American restaurants is a personal pleasure, but to sit with the chefs in the most unbuttoned hour of their creative life is an honor and a story worth sharing.

Roasted Whole Croaker and Cabbage Slaw

Chef Spike Gjerde Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore, Md. This is an easy summer preparation (or any season when you re keen to grill or use that wood-burning oven, if you re lucky enough to have one). Cooking fish whole makes it much easier to achieve a crispy skin and moist flesh. The classic slaw builds a crescendo of summer flavors. Heat a wood-burning oven to 900 ' F or set a grill to high heat. Combine all cabbage slaw ingredients in a large bowl until generously coated and thoroughly mixed. Set aside. Dress each fish by salting the interior cavity, then stuffing it with lemon slices and herbs. Salt the outside of the fish and place the fish in an oiled pan or on the grill. Roast for 4 minutes per side. Fish should be firm and should flake easily. Serve with the slaw on the side. *Atlantic croakers, also known as hardheads, yield delicate, lean white meat with a sweet flavor that ranges from mild to moderately pronounced. Two 1 ' -lb croakers* or any fresh, firm-fleshed white fish, scored 1 lemon, sliced 1 cup fresh herbs: chervil, tarragon, and/or parsley Sea salt, enough to season the cavity and exterior Cabbage slaw 1 medium (1 ' to 2 lbs) head cabbage, shredded 2 large carrots, shredded 1 handful chopped mixed fresh herbs: chervil, tarragon, and/or parsley 1 ' cups mayonnaise 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar Salt and freshly ground black pepper