Cooking with Chef Todd Stein • Part 4 • Now We're Cooking

March 21, 2013

This is the fourth part of a five part series with award winning Chef Todd Stein. In this post, we talk prep and technique. The actual recipe and detailed instructions will appear in the fifth and final post. 


Todd, it's time to get cooking. Literally. Let's start with the pasta. How do we cook the pasta?

So the thing about this dish, more so than most pasta dishes, is that the last two minutes the pasta is going to cook in the pan because you want the pepper to permeate the pasta.

Ahhh! Pepper permeation! I like the sound of that, Todd! So how many minutes for the pasta?

The package says 10 – 12 minutes. So we’ll check it in 10. We’re going to toast the ground pepper first. When you toast a spice, it brings out its natural oil and the flavor gets better.

Todd begins toasting the pepper on the sauté pan. Can you smell the intensity of that already? It’s incredible! You need Smell-O-Vision! Oh my God. Get really close. It’s incredible. I’m just going to go a little further with it and cook it a little longer...

Cooking pasta with Chef Todd Stein for Cacio e Pepe

The pasta has been boiling for about 5 or 6 minutes, Todd.

Yes, I'm going to let the pasta go another few minutes. So back to the pepper. We need to get it to stop cooking. So I’ll literally just put a little bit of pasta water in the sauté pan to stop the pepper from cooking.

With nothing constructive for me to do, I have decided to become a human timer.

Todd pulls out a knife from the block. Scott, you need better knives. (Fortunately, Todd brought his own pot and pan.)

I’m embarrassed. I was afraid you were going to pick up those knives. Okay, you have to tell me what kind of knives to get. What do you recommend?

Japanese are the best way to go for the home. The best ones? For knives that you won’t have to sharpen every day and that won’t break the bank? I recommend MAC knives. They’re great for cooks.

Wow, Todd, that Steve Jobs is amazing. He came up with the iPhone, the iPad and amazing Japanese knives? What a genius.

Scott, I'm pretty sure that’s a different Mac.

Todd turns his attention back to the action in the sauté pan. Over a quick few minutes, Todd adds the oil, butter and pasta water to the sauce.

You can see that this is going to create an incredible sauce. So I’m doing this on a low to medium flame, so the butter creates a sauce instead of melted butter. See how it’s getting thick and sauce-like? You put the pan on and off the burner while mixing.

A series of loud sounds ensue as Todd continually shakes the pan in a certain way that says, "I know what the hell I'm doing and this is going to taste very good when I'm finished." Then he tastes the sauce. He's constantly tasting to see how things are progressing.

Todd eventually takes the pasta from the pot, drains it and then drops it into the sauce pan. He then mixes in the cheese. Our kitchen suddenly smells like Italy.

That’s good. Can you smell the intensity of that already? It’s incredible!

Chef Todd Stein cooking Cacio e Pepe in my kitchen

Wow, Todd, that is unreal.

It’s the emulsification of the butter and oil and cheese. I think this came out pretty good.

You had a lot going on there, it didn’t look totally simple to me. The timing looked a little tricky.

Yes, it can go south real quick. But when done right, it tastes like this. You would never use a fresh pasta for this dish. Ever. You would never get the texture in the pasta. It could have cooked for 45 seconds less, but it’s still okay. Imagine if it were completely overcooked and really soft. As good as a fresh pasta would be, it would have that texture. The pepper is really good.

Chef Stein says to salt the water until it tastes like the ocean

It really does highlight the pepper.

It was a pound of pasta.

You just kind of eyed the amount of pepper, didn’t you?

Yea, I’d say half an ounce? We’ll measure again and weigh it.

What amazes me watching you cook, Todd, and watching others who are great cooks, you never measure anything.

I do, but I don’t.

You just know?

Yes, you just know. It’s funny, because I don’t cook on a daily basis and I haven’t in years. But it is like riding a bike. It comes back. Could I go into my restaurant and cook on the line every night and be line cook? Probably not. I couldn't keep up.

Did you salt the water?

Yes. I didn’t salt the pasta. Because the cheese, especially the pecorino is going to be salty enough. I know I don’t need it.

How much salt did you use?

Chef Todd Stein grating Cacio

For that pot of water it was probably half a cup.  Wait until the water boils until you add the salt otherwise it will dissolve.

Todd finishes the pasta on his dish and proclaims, "Yeah, that didn’t suck!" I look at him and agree, "Yes, Todd, that definitely didn't suck."

Wow, that was special. It’s all the pepper. You wouldn’t enjoy it as much with a different pepper. You would enjoy it, but now once you’ve had it (with Reluctant Pepper) it’s not going to be the same (if you have it with another pepper).

Mmmm. That was a good lunch.  That’s the essence of why I love Italian food. If a French chef was making that dish, they’d put 10 other things in it, whether good or bad, that was too simple.  But it’s so good. The simplest things are the hardest things to make.

It’s like there’s only a few things, but they all have to be done just right. The pasta gets too soft, you go too far with the pepper, you break the butter, everything is going to throw it off.

You know it’s funny, I love this story about Julia Child who Americans considered to be one of the greatest cooks ever even though she was never a chef at a restaurant. She was interviewed on Larry King way before she passed away.

Julia Child

She was talking about a strawberry dessert that she had at a restaurant.She was blown away with how good it was, so she went home and tried to recreate it. It took her an inordinate number of times to get it right. And this is Julia Child, an expert. And after she got it right, making it over and over again was really easy. And that’s with anything that you cook is trial and error. That’s what makes it so hard in a restaurant.

We have to do it the same way every time. Sure, there are variations that a guest will never notice. But it’s trying to hit that homerun every day, every dish, every time. It’s hard. That’s why when you have a great meal somewhere, or a great coffee, or whatever it is, it sticks with you.Take “x” restaurant, I’ve had great meals and I’ve had not such great meals.  But it’s like if you have that perfect meal, you should never go again, because it’s never going to be as good. Years ago, I had an experience at Per Se in New York.

They did a 22-course meal for us, completely unexpected. When we sat down, we knew it was different because our table was set totally different.I will NEVER eat there again, because it’s in the top three dining experiences I’ve ever had. It won’t top it. I know it won’t top it ever again.

We're now snacking on some gourmet chocolate that I bought in New York.

Pasta and chocolate. This has been a good day.
Chef Todd Stein, your cooking definitely does not suck.

Coming next, the grand finale: Part 5, "The Recipe." Ingredients and directions for making Cacio e Pepe.

Next and Final Post in This Series

Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 5 • The Recipe

Previous Posts in This Series

Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 1 • I'm Not Worthy
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 2 • Lost in the Supermarket
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 3 • Home on the (Wolf) Range

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