Take It From The Top

Cooking in a grand style at a grand hotel.The drive to The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel is a long one, but I often make it a few miles longer by going through Berlin. Heading north on Rte. 16, homes and businesses thin out with only a few clusters of buildings large enough to be called towns. From Berlin to almost the final destination, the route parallels the Androscoggin River – one of the prettiest drives in the state. But the best part of the journey is the negative edge, where the road passes through the highest part of Dixville Notch and you see no pavement ahead, only the sky. You hold your breath and trust the road will continue on the other side, and there it is below – The Balsams – snuggled between towering cliffs and soaring evergreens. I have made this trip a handful of times, but the vision impresses me anew with each visit. This time I made the journey to make acquaintance with the new executive chef, Joshua Berry, and to experience a “Taste of The Balsams” cooking class.Chef Berry stepped in recently after Delaware North’s management contract expired. A new group, headed by Jeff McIver, has revitalized the veritable grand hotel from the front desk to the kitchen. The Balsams’ reputation was built on the dining experience and, I am happy to report, the thrill is back.Oh, there is a nice ski hill, groomed, rolling fields for Nordic skiing and in season a stunning Donald Ross golf course. But it’s really all about the long tradition of fine food served with an air of propriety in an elegant setting.Food styles at The Balsams have always been classic New England preparations. Chef Berry is building on that tradition, and bringing a touch of the novel and a taste of today. His plates are designed to balance flavor components of each and every bite.Berry was, most recently, the executive chef at the Griswald Inn in Exeter, Conn., but he is back home in The Balsam’s kitchen. He graduated from the hotel’s apprenticeship program some 15 years ago. Patricia Talmadge, garde manger sous chef, and Matthew Holland, executive pastry chef, are also graduates who migrated back to the mother ship. Tradition remains in the lifeblood of The Balsams, but now with a younger outlook.The apprentice program at The Balsams is unlike traditional cooking schools with heavy tuitions. The hotel actually pays apprentices a wage while they are learning and simultaneously providing services. But the course is tough, says Berry, and only about half of the 10 or so accepted students each year make it all the way through the 4,000 required hours.That is about three and a half years of peeling vegetables, working the line, and scrubbing pots and pans. But students live the excitement of a big hotel kitchen and learn the necessary skills to be an executive chef, especially for a large operation.Taking a culinary class at The Balsams gets you behind the double doors of the kitchen into the bright and white world of over-sized chef tools, huge caldrons of chicken stock and the still-present evocations of retired Executive Chef Phil Learned. He had the kitchen walls painted with inspirational messages in large black letters years ago for present and future chefs. “Nothing is more important than a clean kitchen” and “Food must look good & taste good. If it’s not perfect, don’t serve it” are forever written on the subconscious minds of everyone who has passed this way.Getting your hands into flour is nice, but having the attention of Chefs Berry, Talmadge and Holland is priceless. If their infectious enthusiasm doesn’t spike your food fervor you are missing some unidentified connection between brain and stomach.The two-day affair starts with meeting the chefs for a drink in the Tavern for introductions. This class has a Northern Italian theme and Chef Berry knows it well from experience abroad. By the way, the Tavern is the only spot in the hotel where you will find a TV, although they do have free Wifi now. It’s where you will find an a la carte lunch as the grand lunch buffet is only available in summer. In the evening a band plays dance and easy listening music here.Sipping on Italian wine and sharing stories, we find out class starts at 9 a.m sharp. Chef Berry explains how apprentices who sleep in are roused – with a glass of ice water. I arrived promptly the next morning with apron and recipes in hand.A tour of the kitchen starts the day – roomy walk-in coolers store everything from produce to pre-prepared foods. Huge pans and tools hang from racks and dishes are stored in steam-heated cabinets. A gigantic steam kettle at one end is run from the same on-site biomass plant that heats the rooms. The wood-fired plant provides all the steam and electrical energy needs for the hotel complex.Over the course of two days the students learned tricks and tips they could use at home. We discovered that making gnocchi and pasta aren’t complicated. I had never attempted risotto before, imagining that the mean spirit of Gordon Ramsey would curse my creation and dissolve my will on the spot. We learned the secret is to add the hot stock slowly as it is absorbed and that the final result should be creamy ? it should run on the plate for two seconds when served.Here are a few more tips gleaned from the class:Al dente means “to the tooth.” There should actually be a small circle of uncooked pasta at the center of each strand.When adding tomato paste to a ragu it should be caramelized in the pan before other liquids are added.Finishing a meat Bolognese sauce in the oven as opposed to the stove top keeps the meat tender.Use a figure-eight pattern with your arm to toss items up in a pan.When cutting vegetables create a flat side first to keep them from rolling or the knife slipping.Grip a chef’s knife with your finger and thumb at the shank of the blade, not the handle.Good, light gnocchi is made with baked, not steamed, Maine or Idaho potatoes that are riced before adding the flour and eggs. The key is minimizing water, so less flour has to be added.Smashing garlic or mincing garlic is appropriate in different situations.Chlorophyll produces gas, but boiling salted water extracts the chlorophyll and makes the food easier to digest.White vegetables (parsnips) should have an acid in the boiling water; red vegetables (peppers) should have salt.Adding an alkaline-like baking soda or cream of tartar to the cooking water will make vegetables softer without the need to overcook them.Italian pasta is made under more pressure than American varieties, but in a slower process that creates miniature rings on each strand that help retain the sauce when cooked.The class created or watched the preparation of a four-course lunch on each day. Of course, the best part was enjoying the fruits of our labor alongside the top chefs who had guided, explained and demonstrated each step of preparing this Italian-themed menu. We all sat at the table with gnocchi with browned butter and roasted squash, wild mushroom risotto, polla alla cacciatore, vitello tonnato, bruschetta, and ragu Bolognese with our hand-made pasta. Desserts were a vanilla bean gelato with a pear crustada and a zabaglione with fresh fruit, all enjoyed over the course of two days with appropriate wines for each course. This appetizing virtual journey to Northern Italy was ours to take home in spirit and recreate with confidence in our own kitchens.Another Balsams tradition, the Culinary Symposium, will be held on March 10. Here, alumni of the apprenticeship program come back to teach and pay forward the skills they have honed and experiences that have broadened their repertoire. Current apprentices and the public are invited to this demonstration-style experience held in the Balsams amphitheater.RisottoThis Italian rice specialty is made possible because of the high starch content of Arborio rice that is traditionally used. By adding hot stock, a little at a time, you can adjust how al dente you want the rice. A big misconception of risotto is that it is very thick and heavy. Actually risotto when plated should run for two seconds before stopping on the plate. It should not be an ice cream scoop of rice mush.1/2 cup white onion, small dice
1 garlic clove, minced
Olive oil for saute
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
Splash white wine
2 quarts of beef, chicken or vegetable stock, hot
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
GarnishesSaute the onion and garlic using a medium-sized sauce pan on medium-high heat. When the onions turn translucent, add the rice, gently stirring until coated with the oil. De-glaze the rice-onion mixture with a splash of white wine. Ladle the hot stock into the rice mixture one cup at a time. Let the rice cook down and absorb the stock before you add another cup. Stir and add another cup of stock until the rice looks “creamy” and it has a little bite or is al dente. Turn down the heat and fold in the butter and cheese. Season the risotto with salt, pepper and your garnish ingredients (oven-roasted mushrooms, fresh herbs, shellfish, spices, etc.). If the risotto is a little thin, return it to the heat and add another tablespoon of cheese; if it’s too thick, thin down with a little stock. Add a drizzle of truffle oil or slivers of truffle if desired.Executive Chef Joshua Berry, The Balsams