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

Posted on March 21, 2013 by Scott Eirinberg

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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Cooking with Chef Todd Stein • Part 3 • Home on the (Wolf) Range

Posted on March 20, 2013 by Scott Eirinberg

This is the third part of a five part post with award winning Chef Todd Stein. The final post will detail the complete recipe and directions for cooking Chef Stein's versionChef Todd Stein grinding the Reluctant Tellicherry Peppercorns. of Cacio e Pepe.

Okay, Todd, we're back at my house now. We've got the ingredients to make Cacio e Pepe. This is a classic dish that few chefs cook the same way. I'm curious what you're doing.

In a bit, we’re going to toast the pepper and then add it to the pasta, the butter and the olive oil. So I’m going to grind it now.

Todd begins grinding the pepper into a bowl. He then asks me for kosher salt to add to the boiling pasta water. The pepper immediately begins to open up. The fruit forward aroma of the Tellicherry pepper fills the air.

What do you think?

Oh my. That smells so good. It’s ridiculously good. It reminds me of…remember the blue raspberry popsicles? Popsicle brand popsicles? It had that really fruity smell to it? That’s what this reminds me of!

So before we get into cooking, tell me about where you studied. I know you fell in love with Italy, but you were in France, weren't you?

Yes, I was living in France. My sister and her husband were living in Bologna, Italy at the time. That was 1995.

What were you doing in France?

I went for a month with Kendall College. And then I stayed for four months after that and worked at a bakery. So I got to go to Italy quite a bit to see my sister. You've heard about college students and kids going to Europe, whether they backpack through it or cook, whatever it is that they do, and it changes their life? In my case, it really did. At a young age in my early 20s, and also as a young culinarian, it really changed my thought on things. It’s funny, being back in Paris, this year for the first time since I was there and having a completely different appreciation, and obviously a much larger pocketbook, it was a really unique experience.

How much time did you spend in Italy back in 1995?

A few days here and there or five days here and there over that time. Probably a total of 13 days or so. But I knew the first time I went. I knew that was it for me.

Which areas did you visit?

Bologna, Florence, Tuscany, those areas, generally. I didn’t go to Venice or Rome.

What was it specifically that turned you on? It's incredible that only 13 days or so changed your life like that.

I look at France, culinary-wise, much more like building a model. And then you go to Italy, and it’s even more so about ingredients and the neighborhood that you’re in, but in a much more rustic kind of way. That’s what appealed to me. It was taking these ingredients and doing very little to them and letting them speak for themselves. Here’s a piece of grilled radicchio with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. That kind of stuff. I think being in Italy at that time shaped the way I cook, even though I didn’t initially always cook Italian food. It was that sensibility of how to treat ingredients and letting them be.

Did you learn from anybody in particular?

It was from talking to people, seeing the food, and then bringing it back and talking to the chefs that I worked for here in the States. Obviously, in the time that I was growing up as a cook in the early 90s, everything was very French influenced, not saying I was cooking French food, but that French method or technique was the basis.

There was no Thomas Keller cooking the way there is now. Jean Georges was really at the beginning of it with juices and simple reductions and things like that, but that wasn’t the base of how everybody cooks like they do now. Obviously, that was way before molecular gastronomy, but with natural reductions and keeping things simple. So for me it was taking those French techniques but using Italian ingredients.

Do you find it difficult to take that style of cooking and execute that in the States given that you can’t get the same level of ingredients here?

I don’t think you can go with simple. Like if I were just to put out a plate of grilled radicchio with olive oil, nobody would buy it because it needs to be a component to a dish. I think the thing about Italy is that it’s a few things and that’s it. I think that we as Americans expect a large portion and or multiple things on the plate. Great American chefs that cook Italian food, it’s based on the tradition, but it’s twisted to the American palate and brain. You can’t just serve a steak here with olive oil and sea salt. People want something with it.

So how do you twist things, Todd?

You’ve got to cook for where you are, the city you’re in and the dining room in which you're cooking. I think it’s taking common American ingredients and using that thought process. Everything in Italy is about what’s in your backyard. So if my backyard has “x” mushroom or these mushrooms are available to me, I’m going to use those. It doesn’t have to be a porcini because that’s what grows in Italy. I might do the same thing and use a shiitake because that’s what’s available to me. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. Whatever it is that I’m cooking, Italian food, French food, it’s what’s available at the moment.

A little more challenging in Chicago (or Atlanta), right?

I’m not going to do a dish in the winter and use frozen peas. I’m going to wait until the spring and use them. That’s not to knock chefs that do that for a dish that traditionally has peas in it, well great, then cook it in the spring, but don’t cook it now.

So how will you tweak your style now that you’re moving to Atlanta?

That’ll be interesting. It’ll be Georgia. Maybe a little bit of Florida. The great thing about Georgia is that there’s a lot of great fish. A lot of great produce that’s available and that’s grown in that area that I’m learning about, but it’ll still be that same technique and thought process.

Are you moving to an Italian restaurant?

No. For the first time in a long time, I won’t be cooking Italian and I’m actually really excited about it. It’s a lot of roasted meats. The grill in my restaurant has a three level rotisserie above it. The kitchen sits in the middle of the dining room. It’s a very boisterous restaurant. Saturday night it’ll do 800 to 1,000 people. A lot of small plates, a lot of meat, energetic and exciting. It’s in a giant warehouse that you would never know is there. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen and then you walk into this energy. There will be Italian twists, of course, because that’s generally how I cook because it’s in my DNA. I just have to disguise it as something a little different.

Grinding Reluctant Tellicherry Peppercorns. The aroma is citrus and earthy.

Have you been back to Europe since 1995?

Just once. Last year. We went back to the bakery where I used to work. My wife said to me that she would've been lost without me on this trip because she doesn’t speak French. My French came back. But even after being gone for so long, we’d be in an area and I’m like this place is right around the corner and it was. Because it (Europe) doesn’t change as much. A store that was there 15 or 20 years ago is still there. It’s crazy. But going back as an adult, as a chef as opposed to a cook with the ability to experience it at a different price level? Totally different, yet still the same.

Let me ask you some questions about the pepper. Tell me what you like about my organic Tellicherry Pepper in particular. Besides the cool blue raspberry popsicle smell.

Obviously, the nose gives it all. That’s the key to this pepper. That’s the flavor. As a pepper, it’s not overly peppery and spicy. It’s got the natural pepper characteristics, but that fruit forward smell and flavor is what’s so great. I was cooking dinner Saturday night and I grabbed my pepper mill and every time I do it’s like, there we are! And I think that’s what’s so special about it. I think it can and should be used every day.

I see that you're fiddling with the pepper mill

This coarseness (medium) is where you can best experience it. No, you’re not going to eat a salad generally with cracked pepper like that, but you might. I think that’s where it’s at its best. It’s exactly like coffee. It’s different when you grind it to different coarseness.

Do you think the Reluctant Tellicherry pepper accents certain foods better than others?

Yes. I think it’s great on a piece of meat. But when you grill a piece of meat, you’re going to lose a lot of natural flavor that (the pepper) has if you put the pepper on before you cook the meat. So sometimes I’ve used the pepper as a finish. Sprinkle it over the meat after its cooked. In long cooked braises it doesn’t really make sense. Salmon au Poivre would be great. It’s just good in so many different dishes. I hate to say don’t use it on this or that or use it on this or that. Just use it.

I think we have a new tagline for The Reluctant Pepper Co., Todd. Instead of “Just Do It,” it’s “Just Use It!”

Now check out Part 4, "Now We're Cooking" where we finally get down to making Cacio e Pepe. Actually, Todd gets down to cooking, while I crack jokes and document the experience. You'll see how Chef Stein was able to take a few simple ingredients and turn them into something worth blogging about. In the end, I'll publish Todd's version of Cacio e Pepe and how you can make it at home yourself.

Next Posts in This Series

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

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Cooking with Chef Todd Stein • Part 2 • Lost in the Supermarket

Posted on March 19, 2013 by Scott Eirinberg

This is the second part of a five part series with award winning Chef Todd Stein. The final post will detail the complete recipe and directions for cooking Chef Stein's version of Cacio e Pepe.

"I'm all lost in the supermarket I can no longer shop happily I came in here for that special offer. A guaranteed personality." - The Clash, 1979

Todd Stein has come over to my house to cook the classic Italian dish Cacio e Pepe. But first we need to go to the grocery store to pick up ingredients. We'll need everything except of course, the peppercorns. We've got plenty of those on hand at home. We head out together for Whole Foods in Deerfield, Illinois. As we start to walk down the aisles, a bunch of questions pop into my head.

Todd, what do you think of the pasta at Whole Foods? 

Their selection of dried pasta is the worst. There’s no commitment to high quality pasta at all.

Then where do you buy your pasta?

If it’s not fresh?  There’s a brand that comes in a brown paper bag called Rustichella. That’s the best dried pasta there is. Hands down.

Do tell. Where can you get it?

Fox & Obel has it. Some Whole Foods have it.

That’s when you’re not making your own pasta, right?

Scott, there are certain pastas that are better off dried. Certain dishes are better off dried than fresh.Whole Foods doesn’t have Rustichella brand dried pasta, so Todd settles for something else. He grabs a package of organic spaghetti from Italy. He’s not pleased with the selection, but we move on to the olive oil.

Todd, I'm a bit of a virgin when it comes to olive oil. It’s confusing for me. There are so many different kinds. Different countries. And I have to admit that I'm a little uncomfortable with the terminology.

The real secret? Most of the olive oil that says it’s from Italy or France? It’s actually from Greece.

Todd, I want my money back.

Greece actually produces more olive oil and sends it to other countries for export than the US, which is interesting. My sister lives in Greece and she has a friend that is a chemist who deals with olive oil and she was the one who led me onto that.

Ahhh! Your sister's friend the Greek chemist! I knew it! Hopefully she's living underground with her olive oil secret. Do you think Popeye's lover, Olive Oyl was Greek?

Could be. Not sure. I think I'd like to use a lifeline on that one.

So Todd, you don’t believe the Italian olive oil packaging when it says it’s from Italy?

Well sure if I send it to Italy and they repackage it, it’s from Italy. Yes and no. I believe Greek olive oil is the hidden gem. I think they’re usually less expensive and they’re high quality. You know it all depends what you’re looking for in the oil. If it’s something that you’re finishing just on top of a dish, you’re looking for a different flavor than as opposed to something…in this case we’re going to use it as a basis of a sauce and you want it to be rich and flavorful, but we don’t need to spend $40 on a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. We just want it to have that nice bite.

When do you spend the $40 on the extra virgin olive oil?

When you want to drizzle it over tomatoes. When you want to know that it’s there in a dish that’s just finished or just chilled or something that’s very basic. Like tomato bruschetta, you have the tomato and the bread and you can taste the great tomato and you can taste the great bread and you want to taste the great olive oil.But since we’re making an Italian dish, we really should buy an Italian olive oil. I think for the price, I think this is great. Todd picks up a bottle of Lucini Italian olive oil. I’ve been using this for years. I think this is absolutely perfect for what we’re going to do.

Do you normally buy your olive oil at Whole Foods?

Yeah. Yeah, generally.

We pick up some organic unsalted butter and then head over to the cheese section. I can't think of any questions about butter. Sorry. Soon we arrive at the cheese section and I anxiously blurt out my next question. This must seem a little weird to the people shopping around us.

Cacio for Cacio e PepeTodd, talk to me about cheese. (Like that just sounds kind of weird to say to someone in public.)

The Italian dish we're making, Cacio e Pepe, traditionally has a little bit of Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese and mostly Pecorino. "Cacio" is the Italian word for cheese.

Okay, Todd, talk to me about cacio. What do you think about Whole Foods cacio selection.

Great. They import cheese really well.

Todd gets distracted by a particular brand of cheese in the refrigerated case. He picks up a package and shows it to me.This company, Uplands Cheese, is from upstate Wisconsin and they make this Rush Creek Reserve once a year. The company only makes two cheeses. They make a hard cheese called Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is my all-time favorite cheese and this one. This is like impossible to find except right now at Whole Foods. But it’s really, really good. It ages incredibly well and it’s unpasteurized. It’s ridiculous, ridiculous cheese.

Let’s get some! (I toss it in the cart.) Okay, back to the recipe

I locate the parmesan display. At Whole Foods it's called Parmesan Reggiano and if you haven't had it, you must try it sometime. It's the real deal. The smell of it is so great. It’s the greatest cheese in the world.Scott, this cheese is amazing, I’ve been cooking Italian food for so long and this is a staple ingredient. You just always have it.

Not cheap at $22.99 a pound.

But worth every penny.

Todd, What is Whole Foods doing that their cheese is better than everyone else’s?

They sell more cheese each day. It’s fresher. There are independent cheese stores that are very good as well. On the restaurant side, I buy cheese from a lady that’s all she does is import cheese. She gets better cheese than anybody.

(I'm thinking that maybe the pepper guy and the cheese lady need to meet at some point!) Okay, Todd, so what other cheeses would you recommend withClassic Italian cheese the pepper?

Something mild and sweet. Not bland. I think it would be great with smoked mozzarella or any smoked cheese because I think the smoke and the composition of the black pepper will go very well. Cheddar would overpower it. You can go either way. Something soft and creamy or something a little harder like this Pleasant Ridge.  This is my all-time favorite cheese. (I think this is Todd’s third all-time favorite cheese, but who's counting? This guy loves food! He's a chef!)

We walk over to the wine section. I’m thinking we should at least talk wine even if we aren’t going to be drinking at two in the afternoon.

For a traditional wine with Cacio e Pepe, you would choose which wine?

Something light and crisp. Something from the area of Rome. You can even go with a light red. I would just say a Chianti. If a white, a Vermentino.There isn’t much of a selection of Chianti at this Whole Foods, so Todd just picks one out. He hasn’t heard of it, so he doesn’t necessarily recommend it.

What about a less traditional selection?

You could do a pinot noir that’s more on the fruit side because it’s going to work well with the pepper. You’re not going to want to do something that’s overly peppery already or you’ll lose the flavor of the pasta. I might also choose a sauvignon blanc. Something that’s very crisp and light. Even a rosé would work well. We grab a baguette and head to the register to check out.

What about bread?

They do a lot of things well at Whole Foods, but bread is not one of them. Did you know that Stephanie Izard who owns Girl & the Goat and Little Goat in Chicago, she’s doing her own breads that you can buy at Little Goat now? They’re very good.

We check out with a bag full of groceries and a nice appetite. All this talk of pasta, cheese and bread has made me hungry. Can’t wait to taste Todd’s cooking.

Shopping List for Cacio e Pepe - Serves about 4-6, Prep Time 20 minutes

4 oz bag of The Reluctant Pepper Co. Organic Tellicherry Peppercorns 1 lb of dried spaghetti (although this can be made with egg tagliolini or bucatini too. A dry pasta. We bought Montebello Organic Italian spaghetti. It was excellent. But feel free to substitute. Todd highly recommends Rustichella brand pasta.) 8.5 oz bottle of extra virgin Italian olive oil (Todd recommends Luciano Italian olive oil, but also likes the Greek variety, but not for this dish) 1/2 lb. Pecorino Romano Cheese (Whole Foods has amazing Pecorino) 1/2 lb. Parmesan Reggiano Cheese (Whole Foods has amazing Parmesan Reggiano) Unsalted Butter Kosher Salt

Optional Wine Pairing Chianti, Pinot Noir (not too peppery) or Rose if you're looking for red. If you want a white, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Vermentino

Coming tomorrow: Part 3, "Home on the (Wolf) Range". Back in my kitchen, we'll be preparing to cook Cacio e Pepe. I'll be getting to know Todd better and learning how he fell in amore with Italian cooking. (Pardon my terrible Italian.) You'll soon see how Chef Stein was able to take a few simple ingredients and turn them into something worth blogging about. In the end, I'll publish Todd's version of Cacio e Pepe and how you can make it at home yourself.


Next Posts in This Series

Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 3 • Home on the (Wolf) Range
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 4 • Now We're Cooking
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 5 • The Recipe

Previous Post in This Series

Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 1 • I'm Not Worthy

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