There is so much more to dining out at a restaurant than the food being served.
Of course, delicious dishes help. But it’s not the expertly crafted turkey club special we miss, exactly—it’s the homey feeling we get as we inhale it at our favorite pub, in our favorite booth, sitting across from a work buddy. Or it’s the bartender who remembers exactly how we like our martini. Or the pleasure of ordering an impossibly decadent dessert and clinking champagne glasses in celebration.
Those things are what we miss most about restaurants right now. But as social distancing stretches on, I’ve started to think about ways to recreate restaurant magic at home. What kitchen secrets do chefs have that could up my home cooking game?
I’ve long known about a couple. For example, restaurants don’t use butter to make grilled cheese sandwiches. Mayo is easier to spread and offers a richer browning. To learn how to recreate some of our favorite dishes with that Midas touch, we consulted local chefs for advice.
Bacon & Eggs
The first rule of a good breakfast is quality ingredients, says Abbey-Jo Eans, co-owner of Happy Gillis and Columbus Park Ramen. The legendary Happy Gillis breakfast sandwiches feature thick-cut bacon from Webster City Custom Meats in Iowa, and you can taste the difference: “Cheap bacon has a lot of water and brine, so when it cooks out, it warps and shrinks,” Eans says.
Her secret to perfect crispy bacon? Oven-baking it.
“We put parchment down on a sheet pan and we cook it in the oven at 350 degrees,” she says. “We cook it for 25 minutes, but if you want it crispier, you can cook it longer—it just depends on the thickness it’s cut at. I feel like I always burn bacon when I cook it in a pan on the stove, and you avoid getting bacon grease all over your counter.”
They also have tricks for eggs. The best way to guarantee cloudlike eggs is cooking them low and slow in a non-stick pan with butter.
“People always think it doesn’t look like it’s cooking, but you want to create little curds of eggs that go together,” Eans says. Before two eggs go into the pan, she breaks them into a bowl and whisks them with two teaspoons of milk and a tablespoon of heavy cream. The extra moisture keeps the eggs from drying out as they cook.
“When you pour the eggs in the pan, they shouldn’t sizzle,” Eans says. “It doesn’t look like anything is happening at first. When you start to see parts of eggs cooking through, gently stir them. When they start to firm up, the eggs should be a little wet—not puddles, but not solid pieces. Take it off the burner and let residual heat finish cooking the egg. That makes a really nice custardy egg.”
Michael Corvino, Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room
Michael Corvino has lots of fans who come to his restaurant for the diner-style burgers, which feature two thin and crispy smash patties, muenster cheese, pickles and aioli on a seeded bun.“I like using a cast-iron skillet, which holds heat well,” Corvino says. “For the beef, I don’t mix anything in it.”
His secret is fattier beef at a ratio of seventy-five percent lean, twenty-five percent fat. Corvino shapes the ground beef into golf ball-sized rounds by hand, which helps to emulsify the fat and bind it together. Each round is liberally seasoned with salt and placed between parchment paper, then smashed down to a thin patty—he uses a tortilla press for uniformity.
“The biggest thing about cooking it is using high heat. That’s why real cooks at home are so dangerous,” Corvino says. “If it doesn’t smoke up your home and set off your fire alarm, you’re not doing it right.”
The bun is nearly as important as the beef, and while Corvino makes his in-house, he’s a strong proponent of Martin’s Potato Rolls, the same pillowy bun used by Shake Shack. Don’t overdo it with the toppings, Corvino advises: You need a good melting cheese and sour pickles to cut through the fattiness of the meat.
Ed Castello, Ça Va
It’s hard to overstate the power of a perfect French fry. These golden beauties, with their salted, crispy exteriors and fluffy centers, are pure joy—but the joy only lasts as long as they’re hot and fresh.
The pomme frites at Westport champagne bar Ça Va continually rank among Kansas City’s best. Chef Ed Castello says the secret to perfect fries isn’t complicated, although the recipe does require two different cooking methods. It starts with peeled and sliced Russet potatoes (Castello uses a French fry cutter).
“We cut them right before we cook them, and we put them in a large pot with cold water, a few tablespoons of white vinegar and a few tablespoons of salt,” Castello says, adding that the vinegar keeps the starch in the potatoes. “We bring that pot up to just barely a simmer, cooking the potatoes until they are softened, and cut the heat. I test them by trying a couple. If they’re barely cooked, not enjoyable but not raw, they’re done. Then we dry them and flash-fry them for a minute and a half in vegetable oil at 450 degrees.”
After flash-frying, the fries are spread out on parchment paper and frozen, which helps lock the starch in place. When they’re ready to be cooked, the fries go straight from the freezer to a fryer at 350 degrees for one minute. You don’t need a professional fryer, Castello adds—a pot of oil and a spatula will work, as long as you have a thermometer to check the oil temp.
“The most important step is seasoning them when they come out of the fryer and always making sure there’s enough salt,” Castello says.
Romain Monnoyeur, Westport Café & Bar
If you’ve ever been to Westport Café & Bar for its Tuesday night steaks, you know that executive chef Romain Monnoyeur knows his way around a butcher block. His gorgeously seared top sirloin steaks are locally sourced, and Monnoyeur recommends purchasing as local as possible when cooking at home. His go-to for steak is Broadway Butcher.
Monnoyeur commonly uses hangar or top sirloin steak, which are affordable and flavorful cuts, but the prep is the same no matter which cut you prefer. The first step is to remove excess fat (not all of it—fat is flavor) and break down the fiber by tenderizing the meat. “You don’t need to beat it up or hammer it,” Monnoyeur says. “Just take the portion between parchment paper and hit it with a rolling pin a little bit.”
After tenderizing, it’s a choice between seasoning and marinating. If you have an extra hour or are prepping a day ahead, marinate your steak with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs. If you’re cooking right away, season with black pepper and salt. Kosher salt is best, says Monnoyeur—the flakes are a little big-ger and will penetrate the meat for more flavor.
Monnoyeur typically prepares steak in a cast-iron skillet with olive oil. “I want the pan to be medium-high heat—the oil must be hot,” he says. You’ll know the oil is hot enough when it begins to move fluidly around the pan. “Put the seasoned side down first and sear it for five minutes, then flip it and sear it for another five minutes. I add a pat of butter, smashed garlic and fresh thyme, and the butter will get nice and foamy. As it melts I’ll spoon it back on the steak.”
For a perfect medium-rare, Monnoyeur finishes his steak in the oven at 350 degrees for another five minutes, depending on thickness. “After five minutes, I check it with my finger, and it should feel rare—still quite springy. Then I take it out of the oven and let it rest on a rack or carving station for another ten minutes, covered with foil. It rests and cooks at the same time, and that will allow the blood to go everywhere for even cooking.”
Sheila Lucero, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar
Cooking seafood can be intimidating if you’ve never attempted it before, which is why Sheila Lucero, executive chef of Jax Fish House, recommends starting with tuna steak.“The first thing when you’re buying tuna or any seafood is trusting who you’re getting it from and asking questions,” says Lucero, who recommends the seafood counter at Whole Foods. “Tuna is pretty telling of freshness. When it’s past its prime, it discolors a little bit and starts to fade. Ahi or bluefin tuna are a vibrant red, and if it looks pale or grey, it’s definitely a few days past its prime.”
Tuna’s brilliant red hue is helpful when you’re cooking, Lu-cero says. “You can see the doneness as it’s cooking and you can pull it off the grill or out of the pan and serve it to your likeness,” she says. “If it’s really nice tuna, I prefer a very light sear, sliced thinly and dressed with sea salt and olive oil—and I call it a day.”
To prepare your tuna on a stovetop, pour olive oil in a sauce-pan and bring it to medium-high heat. Season your tuna with salt and pepper. When the oil is simmering and hot, sear the tuna in the pan for thirty seconds on each side.
“I want it to still be cold in the middle,” Lucero says. “I want to taste that sashimi-quality tuna.”
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Erin Brown, Dolce Bakery
Baking is far less forgiving than cooking. You can course-correct on a sauce that goes awry and play with flavor as you build your dish, but baking is all precise measurements. Still, most of us have a reliable recipe or two we can lean on, like basic chocolate chip cookies. Erin Brown, owner of Dolce Bakery, has a few tricks for buffing up that recipe.
“One of the most important things is starting with room-temperature ingredients, including all dairy and eggs,” Brown says. “Depending on your house, or if you have your AC on, you may need to slightly warm your butter. That’s one of the biggest issues I see—things won’t blend together if your butter is cold. That’s great for biscuits, not for cookies.”
Most recipes will ask you to cream your butter and sugar together with a mixer. Brown says to do that until it’s light and fluffy but keep a close eye on it so you don’t over-cream. “Don’t turn your mixer on, go change your laundry and come back,” she says. “It’ll over-cream, and your cookies will be like pancakes. If you under-cream, then you get a denser cookie that is not as light and tender. When you’re creaming, you’re incorporating air so that the fat and sugar get smooth together. It usually takes about three minutes.”
As you add your flour and dry ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar, try not to over-mix. “You want just the bare minimum of mixing,” Brown says. “If you mix too long, you develop the gluten and your cookies will get tough. As soon as you see that flour disappears on low speed, stop mixing.”
Once the dough is formed, use an ice cream scoop to get even rounds onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Place the sheet pan in the freezer for six hours or more to help the dough set. Once the dough is frozen, it can go into a Ziploc bag and will keep in the freezer for several months.
When you’re ready to bake your cookies, thaw the dough for about twenty minutes, but be careful not to bring it all the way back to room temperature—the warmer the dough, the more it will spread. “I like my chocolate chunk cookies thicker, so we bake them when the dough is pretty cold,” Brown says.
Finally, make sure to turn your pan around halfway through baking. All ovens have hot spots. Turning the pan ensures an even bake.
If it sounds like a lot for one recipe, don’t worry, says Brown. “If you’re baking at home, that is not lazy!” she insists. “And at the end of the day, whatever comes out of the oven, just put ice cream on it and eat it in a bowl. That’s the ultimate hack.”