Cooking school was never this fun.
by JANINE LATUS
photography by KEITH LANPHER
“Julia Child would probably just grab a skillet and whack them,” he says, “but I’m going to go with a mallet. You can do this in the food processor, but then the ones on the bottom turn to dust and the ones at the top float around like cows at the top of the tornado.”
Gonzales, 60, is co-owner and executive chef of A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg. He also is a cookbook author and a performance artist whose medium is food. Behind him, stainless steel pans and bowls and skillets are stacked on open shelves. Ladles, tongs and spatulas hang or sprout from countertop canisters or are otherwise arrayed for easy reach when the bourbon flares or it’s time to de glace du fond, “which is French for ‘scrape up the brown bits in the bottom of the pan.’ ”
These, plus a Viking stove and a series of ovens, are his tools.
Tiered in front of him are three long tables, each place set with four forks, two spoons, and three wine glasses. Seated are 26 people, slightly lubricated with Champagne and eager not just to eat Gonzales’ cooking but also to learn how he makes it. Some have traveled from as far away as Ohio and Wisconsin, here for an anniversary or birthday, a few having timed their trips for his venison feast held every fall. To Gonzales’ side is his sous chef, Nick Allen, who doesn’t even glance down at the onions he’s slicing thin enough to read through.
The idea for this combination restaurant and cooking school was born back in 2001, when Gonzales and his wife, Wanda Gonzales, were eating lunch at a many-TV’d sports bar in northern Michigan. Around them were bearded, plaid-shirted men, all of them watching Emeril Live on the Food Network, and John lamented aloud that while everyone got to watch the food being prepared, very few people got to actually taste it. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a restaurant where he could teach people how to cook what they were being served?
Gonzales (the second syllable rhymes with “sales”) grew up in Williamsburg in the Robert Carter house, right next to the Governor’s Palace. His father, Donald J. Gonzales, was a vice president in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation under longtime president Carl Humelsine. Young John moved to Holland, Michigan, in the early ’70s to attend college, where he washed dishes at night to cover costs.
“I lasted three months,” he says, and his audience laughs.
His trajectory changed when two of the night cooks drunkenly sneaked into the kitchen to dress a couple of deer they’d shot off-season. The owner caught them and the police were called.
“When I came to work at 4 that afternoon I found out that I had been promoted,” Gonzales says, “and I’ve been cooking ever since.”
He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America – “what we call the CIA,” he says – and was executive chef at the Watergate Hotel and the Jockey Club in Washington’s Fairfax Hotel, which became the Ritz-Carlton – “and they didn’t fire me, so that looks like a big jump on my resume.” He owned two restaurants – one in Maryland, one in West Virginia – and eventually was invited back to Williamsburg to take charge of the historic area’s taverns.
While there he wrote two cookbooks – The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook and Holiday Fare: Favorite Williamsburg Recipes – the latter of which contains the recipe for this night’s corn bread.
The first thing you do with the corn bread recipe,” he says, twirling butter in a pre-heated cast iron pan until it’s brown, its sugar caramelized, “is follow it. This is baking, so it requires precision. It’s not like making a soup, where you can throw in the spare pepper in the bottom drawer.”
He’s using unsalted butter, because salt interferes with the chemistry of the cooking and keeps the butter from turning brown. “And they’re going to add the lousy kind of salt to it,” Gonzales says, “so we don’t want to buy salt from the butter company.”
He pours a handful of Beattie’s corn meal out of its yellow bag and demonstrates how it clumps in his fist. “Quaker brand is like dry sand-meal; it settles out in the bottom of your corn bread. You need a Southern-style stone-ground.”
Next he holds up a red-labeled box of Diamond Crystal kosher salt. “This is what we use, and here’s why.” He tilts his head and reads the label through his bifocals. “What it says on the side here, ‘Ingredient. Singular. Colon. Salt.’ Heaven forbid you use this trash,” he says, holding up a blue cylinder, Morton’s. “Ingredients – with an ‘s.’ It has four of them – including sugar and calcium silicate, which is the stuff you get in the box when you buy new tennis shoes. Don’t use that.”
Next comes bicarbonate of soda, the base that will combine with an acid plus moisture to create the bubbles that will make the cornbread fluffy. “Without leavening this would be tough, chewy, gooey, corn meal mush,” he says. “I know this from experience; one of the reasons Nick is standing there watching what I do is because I get talking about these ingredients and sometimes forget to put them in.”
Nick Allen, 26, is also a CIA-trained Williamsburg native, who detoured to Sicily, then returned two years ago and began work at A Chef’s Kitchen.
Gonzales shakes baking soda into a cup and adds water. Nothing happens. “But watch this,” he says, and pours in vinegar. The mixture churns and bubbles over like a volcano at a science fair. “You have to have an acid and a base to make the bubbles, but don’t activate them too soon or they’ll go flat. That means don’t mix them and then turn on the oven. All of your fizzle will be gone and your cornbread will be a brick.”
Dinner classes at the restaurant run for three hours, each course paired with what the Gonzaleses call a “great-find” wine. The menu this night includes a cauliflower and corn chowder served with Fabrini Marche Chardonnay 2012. “This wine comes from Italy, on the Adriatic side,” Gonzales says, drawing maps in the air. “So look at Florence and look at Tuscany, and it’s to the right.”
It and dozens of other wines are available in the shop in front of the restaurant. All of the wines are $10, and each is selected by the Gonzaleses. “We always had wine with dinner – back when we got to have dinner together,” says Wanda Gonzales, “so we started trying to find the best low-budget wines. Then we thought it would be nice to have a store with wines for $10 a bottle that you know will be good.”
In “Chef John’s Favorites” – the list of ingredients attached to the recipes guests take home – Gonzales points out that all of his wines are highly recommended by professional reviewers “or we just outright adore them.” On the list also are olive oils and spices, most of them available in the store for the smallest of mark-ups.
This night’s soup is followed by roasted portobello mushroom and bok choy salad – the gills of the mushrooms scooped away with a melon baller to avoid their “too-mushroomy” flavor. The salad is tossed with a sesame-peanut vinaigrette that includes the citrus-infused soy sauce called ponzu (“Same shelf as the soy sauce,” Gonzales says. “Just look about a foot to the left”) and Sriracha hot sauce.
That’s followed by a jumbo sea scallop with grapes and a pan sauce that includes nonpareil capers, “which is fancy for small and expensive, but really it’s because they’re smaller and more tender,” Gonzales says. “They’re the flower bud of the Mediterranean caper bush.”
Each menu is made for a month, night after night of weaving the story of the science with the color of the cooking. The Gonzaleses build the menu from their own collection of recipes and those they find in cooking magazines, a menu chosen for flavor, usefulness for the audience and the potential for entertainment, either because it inspires stories or because there’s panache in the process. This is, after all, a show.
Wanda is the restaurant’s business manager,
responsible for payroll, paperwork and personnel, and until recently, The Book. The restaurant is open five nights a week year-round – six during December – and answering the phone and keeping track of the reservation book is nearly a full-time job. Corporations sometimes rent out the whole place for client or employee appreciation dinners, and some people plan entire Williamsburg vacations around their ability to reserve a seat.
On this night the protein is venison, imported from New Zealand at $24 a pound, a meat Gonzales committed to six months before. “Why not use local venison?” a guest asks, and Gonzales laughs. First, local venison is not USDA-inspected, and thus would be illegal to serve. But second, “Those deer up on the Parkway are starving on rhododendron buds, and these guys are free-range on a farm, eating bales of hay and fruit off of apple and pear trees.”
He slides one of the venison roasts onto his cutting board. Early in the night Allen had seared it, made a red wine glaze out of the drippings and stuck it all into the oven to roast. Now Gonzales gives it another moment to rest. It is plump and inflated, and if he cuts into it immediately, he says, “It will pop like a water balloon.” Instead he waits, and thus makes his audience wait, as the juices absorb back into the muscle, so when he does slice it the cutting board comes away nearly clean and the meat is tender and juicy, even though it’s about 98 percent fat-free.
Over it he serves a sauce of cherries and sugar and vinegar, sweet and tart, making the taste buds pop. And as his audience enjoys, he melts sugar in a pan, adds his beautiful pieces of pecan and swirls them until they’re candied, then adds bourbon and sets the thing ablaze, the flames flashing.
In one of the shiny bowls he whisks milk and cream, then adds heat and sugar and egg yolks, talking all the while, swiveling the whisk in his fist, explaining the necessity of running the custard through a mesh to strain out the little chalaza lumps – chalaza being a Greek word for the bits of tissue that anchor the egg yolk into the white, in case you ever need that word for Scrabble – and talking about how he likes to push things to the edge, even though he knows that if he stirs for too long he’ll have scrambled eggs instead of custard, and Allen, standing again with arms crossed, says, “Three, two, one,” and takes the bowl away and serves up airy sticky buns topped with the candied walnuts and the custard as Gonzales keeps talking – about the coagulation of dairy proteins, about the different kinds of cinnamon. If he doesn’t know an answer he looks it up in his collection of cooking science books.
“It’s theater,” Wanda says, “and when it’s time to perform John comes alive.”
The best part about it is, it’s theater you can eat.