LIS Interviews Chef Ana Sortun
|Features - Chefs and Restaurants|
|Written by LIS Staff|
Without question, Chef Ana Sortun (James Beard, Best Chef: Northeast 2005) is busy. With two outstanding, critically-acclaimed restaurants (Oleana and Sofra), not to mention a five-year-old at home, Sortun and her husband, Chris Kurth (owner Siena Farms) have their hands full. For Sortun and Kurth, food is a family affair and, lucky for us, that comes through loud and clear in the food that comes from each of Sortun's kitchens.
Mediterranean flavors fueled by perfectly blended spices and fresh, local ingredients are the components of the magic Sortun creates on each plate. LIS was invited into Sortun's Sofra office to talk food...and to take notes.
It's no secret that late winter can be tricky here in New England in terms of eating locally. How do you manage this, and what can people at home do to combat the winter doldrums?
March is the worst month of all, by far. We no longer have the storage crops that carry us through the winter, so March is just a month of holding your breath and waiting for things to come up.
Seasonally, though, we definitely use citrus from Florida, and then whatever else we can do that's practical. When it becomes hard, we use common sense. For example, I can't not have a salad on my menu, so I just need to make a good decision about where my produce comes from. It's really hard to restrict yourself. But I focus less on vegetables at that point in the year and move the focus to protein. I like using quail which is very sustainable, or lamb from a farmers freezer...
The best thing people can do at the end of the farmers' market season is to buy as many carrots, watermelon radishes, parsnips, etc., and pack the fridge. When you feel the season ending…stock up. It is so amazing to have one of those carrots in February.
How do you store produce like carrots to make sure it keeps?
I make sure it's dry and wrap it in brown paper bag, so it's not exposed to light. Then I put it in the back of a refrigerator that I don't use as often, so it's not getting opened that often.
What do you crave as spring approaches?
Anything green! The first things that we grow that come up are the wild things. Like the nettles, which are full of energy…there is so much that they provide. They're like eating an artichoke in a lot of ways, they're peppery, they're spinach-like, so you get that green vegetable taste…they're terrific.
California is way ahead in the spring, so we will use a farm called Knoll Farm and we'll get their stuff because we know they are doing great things in terms of the growing and shipping. I'm not die-hard local. I like prosciutto from Parma Italy so, unless, someone in Boston starts making prosciutto that tastes like prosciutto from Parma, I'm going to stick to the stuff from Parma. In that case, location for me is less of a priority. The priority is the people and the process.
Do your restaurants drive what's grown at the farm?
In the beginning we dictated a lot to get some things we could depend on like Swiss chard. Now they dictate quite a bit because they are the experts. They know now what really works, grows well…what's a cost effective, labor effective crop. They are watching the weather and the problems that might arise from bugs, so we are at the mercy of the farm. Last year we lost all of the asparagus from bugs, for example. They've tried things like artichokes, but they didn't work well. You can do them, but they aren't high yield. And, once you go organic it becomes even more difficult because you can't just pump a ton of MiracleGro out there. We want the farm to win most of all. Every year it's a reevaluation…like, are we going to make it? Every year has some weather curveball….
Spices are key is your restaurants, and you speak quite a bit about the potential of making dishes too heavy with spice. What is a common mistake the home cook might make with spice? When does layering move to "too heavy"?
Spices can be intimidating like wine. My advice would be to start with a few of them at a time as opposed to a whole shelf-full. Buy some blends of good quality, then you'll start to get used to a taste. Then when you try to do it yourself, you have it kind of programmed in your mind.
Some of the fragrant spices are really strong, and you have to be a little more careful and gentle. Things like cloves, allspice, and cinnamon can become dominant. They do their jobs better if used with a light hand in the background. Then there's cumin which is a no-brainer. You can put too much and it's great, or just a little, and it's great. But take one at time to figure out how it works. Then create another layer, by adding, say cinnamon, but just a little bit. The next time add another spice like paprika, and see where that goes…The fragrant ones could ruin a dish, but others are more forgiving…
Is there a seasonality to technique?
Oh, definitely. That's a huge part of seasonality. You do more slow-cooking, roasting, and braising this time of year because there's less variety…less that you can eat raw or fresh. You shift into animal protein because your body wants to feel warm and cozy.
In the spring, you still have quite a bit of technique, but what I love about the spring is the characteristics of spring flavors.The wild things that come up are bitter and sweet…they're feisty flavors. You get bitter, peppery flavors because they've really struggled through the winter. Fiddlehead ferns are bitter, the first spinach is so sweet, but yet has lots of pepper to it…different from summer spinach.
It becomes less technique driven the more you get into harvest time because it's local and fresh which means it's as alive and flavorful as it gets. Just cut it and cook it. You could steam it, fry it. saute it, boil it, eat it raw, whatever and it's delicious so it requires very little technique.
It's interesting, our same crops have two different personalities. If you look at our carrots in the summer and then the Thanksgiving time carrots, the later-year carrots are sweeter than the summer carrot. Side by side you can't believe the taste. In the cold weather, the vegetables go into shock a little bit so their sugar concentrations get really high same with leafy green vegetables.
Let's talk about the aesthetics of food. The Siena Farms stand at the Copley Farmers' Market, for example, is stunning.
It always takes my breath away every time I see it. It inspires me. You see something at the market and say, "Wow, that looks beautiful!" then you figure out something to do with it. That's the way I've always written all my menus. It starts with a list of ingredients, and the menu comes from there.
How does this then translate into the "perfect plate"?
That's a really good question. Even people that go through cooking school and study to be a chef have a hard time understanding this, or they stop at a certain point. You're taught in cooking school, when composing a dish….of course, the flavor is most important. The number two goal is to have some kind of visual appeal. You're looking for color because you can't have just one tone. You want layers of color, or just something that's eye-catching. Many people will stop there. Others say, "Now, I want texture." If I start with something soft, I might add something crunchy. But it can't be too soft or too crunchy, so maybe it's soft and crispy. Texture is part of the whole enjoyment of it. That's why they put breadcrumbs on mac and cheese sometimes. But then you can take it even further. Most do the first two (taste, color) some the third (texture), but often people don't think about how someone feels after they eat. Visualize yourself eating it and imagine how you'd feel after it. You could deep fry that same rice salad put cheese on it and people would probably love it taste-wise, but then people would say, "Whoa, I feel sick now." It's not just about portion sizes. I can tell after two bites if something is too much. And I don't want just two bites for dinner; I want to be able to try more things especially if I am out to dinner.
Outside of your own kitchen, where have you seen this done well?
My favorite place in the whole world to eat in the Boston area is Oishii Too in Sudbury. I can't eat sushi anywhere else. I love it. I am so spoiled there. Chef Kung does really delicious things. Like, he does a rice cracker salad. What he does is put a little puffed rice cake on the bottom, and then he puts tuna that's tossed in something very light…it's got ginger, a little bit of spice…and some greens on top of that. When it comes to the table it's perfectly layered, but then they cut into and cut and cut until the cake just breaks apart and the texture is in every bite. That's a perfect example of a chef who is really thinking it through.
How much of your restaurant cooking comes into your home kitchen? Is your daughter into it?
My cooking definitely comes home. My daughter, Siena, eats a huge variety, so it's fine if she doesn't like everything. She'll eat a lot of things, but then sometimes she'll get tired of things and go into a phase of saying she doesn't like it. She's around the stuff, picks it right out of the ground…she knows that's what her dad does, what her mom does. Her whole life is food. Sometimes the conversation is even about food. I don't quite know how to put my finger on her varied palate. I think when kids see the stuff growing, it makes a huge difference, and there's a big shift in their minds about food.
One time, Siena and her classmates came to the farm on a field trip. A mom said to me, "My child doesn't eat carrots," and I said, "Look that's his third one!" It's tempting…you see it, you experience picking it, the rest of the experience is eating it. Exposure is key.
How do you go about sourcing your fish?
Fish is tough. I'm not an expert on that and it's very confusing for me to understand. It's like politics for me, and I kind of try to avoid it (laughing). Some people are trying to protect a certain fish, others are paid to promote that same fish…I stay away from all the politics and just talk to the fisherman. They know the business and have seen it over the course of many years, and generally have pretty good judgment. And it's so fantastic to see all these fish CSAs popping up. Even the frozen local fish is great.
We've noticed that people tend to scoff at frozen.
That's the one thing I wish people, even some other chefs, would get over. What I find working with fish or other meat is that sometimes you'll get a better, more sustainable, fresher, more delicious piece of protein if it's been frozen because of the way they can freeze now. They freeze so quickly that the protein doesn't suffer at all. It's fresh, frozen fast…it 's a great way to preserve, a great way to retain flavor. I think things have really changed a lot in this area. I buy my animals whole. I buy a 100 lamb for the season, for example. I deal with the farm and commit to "X" amount of lamb. We get eight slaughtered at a time, they get broken down, and we cook certain parts of it and freeze parts of it. And I'd rather eat that lamb because I know how good it is even after freezing…much better than the grain fed stuff that just gets pumped out. We're starting to see this more now with meat. If you go into farm stands for example, you see meat in the freezer…some people really are shocked by that. Frozen is actually really cool. My freezer is full of corn and tomatoes…I pulled out some frozen tomatoes the other day and made tomato soup and it was like heaven. I think there should be freezer businesses, instead of aisles in the supermarket with cans full of sodium. There's a French chain called Picard that's essentially a grocery store, but everything is frozen and really good quality. You can eat more locally and sustainably that way "off season."
You mentioned frozen tomatoes. What's your preservation technique?
If we're in a hurry, and we don't have the time to can a lot of tomatoes…we'll take the boxes of extra tomatoes, we'll lay each tomato individually on a tray and pop them in the chest freezer. That way, they are individually frozen and not frozen together. Then we can take as many as we need at one time and thaw them. When they thaw, they weep their water and the skin comes right off. So then with the skins off and the water out, you have a concentrate you can cook down into a sauce.
If you had one more restaurant what it would it be?
I would do a Mexican restaurant. For me, Mexican and Middle Eastern food are hand in hand, same idea. People think Mexican is heavy, rich, and unhealthy, when true Mexican is a fresh and healthy diet. And then, thinking about the layering of flavors…the complexity of the moles to me is mind-blowing…talk about technique.
My husband and I always talk about a restaurant on a farm like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. It's something else…it's in the Rockefeller Estate about 30 miles outside of Manhattan. They employ state of the art farming…chef (Dan Barber) is amazing, and, with the exception of fish and cheese they make it all. Even their own charcoal…it's pretty neat. My husband and I think that would be great…but not without Rockefeller money!
Thank you, Chef, for your time.
Photo credits (top to bottom): Headshot: Kristin Chalmers, Kitchen: Alexandra Roberts, Plating: Alexandra Roberts, Family: Michael Piazza