Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hail to the Chef: Pajo Bruich, Pajo's Catering

By request, I have edited this piece. -cakegrrl

Chef Pajo Bruich

This installment of "Hail to the Chef" profiles Chef Pajo Bruich, of Pajo's Catering. Pajo has successfully established himself in the Sacramento and Napa areas as a chef highly skilled in the "Molecular Gastronomic" style of food preparation. If you have never heard of this style, read on. Pajo has kindly answered this round of questions exactly in the way I would describe the way he makes his food, with great passion, care, and attention to detail.

1. What made you want to become a chef?
It really all started with the cliché, from Grandma. My Mom’s Mom is a fantastic cook who taught me my love of baking. That’s probably where my sweet tooth comes from. My Dad’s Mom is Serbian and her food is amazing, with strong Eastern European influences. I always cooked since I was very young. While in college I discovered that I really enjoyed cooking for others, and I hosted “family” dinners often. I decided to pursue a career in cooking, but on a level of fine dining, which I found intellectual and 
artistic. I believe that my entrepreneur spirit paired with dedication to hard work has gotten me to where I am today.

"Pan Seared Alaskan Halibut"
Sweet Corn Pudding, Sauce Barigoule, Piperade, Chive Essence

 2. Where did you receive your training?
My path is quite different from most in my position I suppose. Starting at the professional level quite late at the age of 25, I was tired of schooling. So I really spent all of my free time reading cookbooks and practicing techniques. I always tell people it all took a turn when I bought The French Laundry cookbook, which became a culinary bible of sorts to me. It became my technical handbook, and I worked through all the recipes, taking no shortcuts until I had learned core techniques. By this I learned to love the process of cooking and learned not to take shortcuts; rather that long hard work in the processes equaled amazing results in the cuisine. This process of self education has also had an impact on my ability to teach myself very new, modern techniques which are not being done locally.

3. Who have you worked with that you have really admired?
I admire everyone that I have worked with. I have learned to admire the hard work and passion that these people have displayed to me. It really has become the grounds for my career and approach to cooking professionally.

"Mishima Ranch Wagyu Striploin"
Pomme Dauphinoise, Black Truffle, Tropical Spinach, Chanterelle, Sauce Bordelaise

4. What is a typical day like for you when you prepare for an event?
All of my events start weeks in advance with planning. But the food prep starts about 3 days prior, usually about 12-14 hours of prep per day. The morning of the event, I am up very early checking my prep lists, inventory lists, double checking staffing, etc. I confirm all the necessary flatware, stemware and dinnerware for each course are ready to go. Everything must be triple checked, labeled and organized. I need that sense of security in order to perform to the best of my ability.

Staff all meets and we travel together to the clients location. Generally we arrive about 4-5 hours early. I always do a pre-site visit, so I will have a game plan and approach of execution. We will stage the kitchen for remaining prep. For dinner service, we stage the stemware, flatware and dinnerware and label them all for each course, as everything gets changed at every course.

I will orchestrate the work load to the kitchen staff and then oversee the dining table design and setup with my serving staff. If Anani Lawson, our Sommelier is working, he or I will check that all wines are properly cooled to the desired temperatures. About an hour prior to the guests arrival, we gather for a staff meeting. We will discuss the menu in detail, the origins of the products, the proper utensils to be used, how to eat the dishes, the anticipated timing of each course and more.

When the guests begin arriving, we have champagne and canapés to greet them. We will all be very interactive, usually with everyone in the kitchen. After about an hour, the guests will be guided to the dining table and dinner will begin. I start with an amuse bouche and maybe another canapé, then dinner begins. I try to do about 6 courses followed by mignardises, usually chocolate from either Ginger Elizabeth or Wendy Sherwood of La Foret Chocolates in Napa.

After dinner, I will join the guests for a glass of wine and get to know them better. We usually always end up talking about the dinner in detail, and I end up answering all those questions about how and why. It really is great fun.

My staff and I clean all of our equipment, dishes, and load the vehicle. From there we will clean the kitchen, most of the time leaving it cleaner than when we started. That is the standard I demand. Then we all get to go home, or go eat and have a drink together!

"Compressed Watermelon Margarhita"
Cielo Tequilla, Lime Syrup, Orange Juice, Lime Zest, Fleru De Sel

5. What are/who are your primary cooking influences?
Locally it is the chefs like Eric and Courtney of Carpe Vino, Michael and Molly of Hawks, Billy Ngo of Red Lotus and Kru, Kelly McCown of Ella, Noah Zonca of the Kitchen, Michael Tuohy of the Grange, just to name a few. But I really look at the way they strive to have great food and deliver a certain experience to their guests. This influences me by looking at the types of experiences my clients are having locally and adjusting how I deliver a personal experience to them.

Outside of the area I take inspiration from The French Laundry, Meadowood, Benu, 11 Madison Park, Alinea… all of these places are on a constant uphill journey to evolve and deliver their guests the next great dining experience. From service to cuisine, nothing is overlooked. I model my standards of operation after these places.

6. What are your favorite and least favorite foods to prepare?
One of my favorite things to prepare is actually stock. It is the base of all amazing sauces, which I am a fanatic about. It is also one of the first things that I learned to make properly and the smell, the process of it all really resonates on an emotional level to where this journey all began for me.

I am not particularly fond of blue cheese, but I am making every effort to train my palate to like it. So cooking with blue cheese can be challenging, luckily I have my wife who can’t get enough blue cheese. So I rely on her amazing palate and my intuition when preparing dishes based around blue cheese. I do understand the flavor profile of blue cheese very well though.

"Salad of Toybox Tomato"
Heirloom Tomato Sorbet, Green Zebra Gazpacho, Compressed Cucumber Ribbons, Liquid Buratta "Spheres",
Aged Balsamic "Caviar"
7. Please tell me about your most overwhelming moment in the kitchen?
I was in Montecito cooking for a high profile client on a collaborative dinner, with Chef Roberto Cortez. We were joined by Sommelier Anani Lawson and were hosting a truly spectacular dinner in the most amazing home. The Family had just returned the day prior from their vacation home in France. While we were on our first hot course of the night, which happened to be the third course of the dinner, the propane tank ran out. We were in the middle of a risotto with ginger glazed kurobuta pork and a coffee syrah glaze, and still had a seared halibut and a lamb belly to execute in the upcoming courses. I quickly started looking at our options, which were basically panic, which there was plenty of, the fireplace, and a small bbq outback. Within minutes I had the bbq lit to high and the oven cranked up to 450 degrees. I learned that night just how well you could sear fish and lamb belly on a sheet pan on a bbq. We had to even utilize the microwave to heat our stock! We were able to pull the night off without any stops!

8. Who are your favorite chefs or famous chefs?
I definitely admire Thomas Keller, Christopher Kostow, Grant Achitz, Corey Lee to name a few for their commitment to excellence and desire to push the envelope.

Locally, I really admire everyone I have worked with and learned from.
Without them my story would be different.

"Eye of Grass Fed Beef"
Deconstructed Flavors of Steaksauce

9. White wine or red wine? Do you have a favorite wine varietal/label?
Depends on the mood… Love Hartwell’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc / Rombauer’s Chardonnay / Turnbull’s Black Label Cabernet. 

10. What is your "can't live without" kitchen tool and why?
Love my pastry knife and fish spatula... used both pretty frequently when plating.

11. Please tell me how you go about planning your menus.
It starts with seasonal food. Knowing that we tie emotions into food, I choose ingredients that people connect with. Right now I am using apples because people associate them with their memories of fall.

I start by brainstorming what flavors I want to use and come up with a list of all the local ingredients available. As I brainstorm, ideas develop into flavor pairings and I run with it. If it happens to start with beets, then rhubarb comes into the mix. I think about those two flavors, and start building; arugula, goat cheese, walnuts, maple syrup, etc… These flavors can be many dishes, a salad, key elements to a fish, foie gras or pork dish, even a dessert course when we manipulate the sugar levels. Flexibility is important until the menu as a whole develops however.

I think about all the elements of classic dishes, or try to develop new dishes that highlight particular flavor combinations by utilizing new techniques. Right now I am working on lots of new dishes, one being a deconstructed version of butternut squash soup. This has a butternut squash “Espuma” or light mousse, a compressed apple relish, green apple consommé, crème fraiche “spheres”, madras curry crispy dehydrated marshmallows, blis maple syrup caviar, crispy Serrano ham, compressed celery, lime cells and a browned butter and sage powder. Sounds like a lot, but I will balance the flavors, sweetness, creaminess, acidity, and salt to be an amazing dish presented in a very uncommon way. People will be able to identify each flavor individually, or eat them together. I often refer to this flavor building as a “symphony” affect, where you can identify specific flavor notes, but the sum of them together is quite amazing.

For the overall menu, I have to think about the flow, which wines will be drank with each course, the acidity levels, the textural variations. I will choose a few proteins which I want to feature that pair with some of the local ingredients on the list. I am seeking to make each course better, elevating the experience with every bite. Overall, the menu has to be an experience within itself!

12. If you had a different career choice, what would it be?
I would have to say I always wanted to be an actor for some unknown reason. But today, I would have had loved to get into making movies. I think the creativity and hard work that goes into film making is very artistic and admirable.

13. What are the most important things to remember (can be relative to
anything) while working as a chef?
I think it is important to remember that our job is to cook for people, we are in the hospitality industry. So we should remember to think about our clients and how to do our best job at making them happy. Also, it is important that as Chefs we do not get comfortable, but that makes us a little boring and lazy. I am constantly reminding myself to evolve, get better, and push my own limits for my clients sake. 

I might also add that as a diner as well, I remember to put a large emphasis on the cuisine in order to size up a restaurant. It is not all about the ambiance, but rather the spirit of the Chef in kitchen making its way to you on your plate and through his staff. Good restaurants have good Chefs making this happen. And, I try to remember that too much emphasis or hype on a particular restaurant, chef or style of cuisine can actually jeapordize the experience I have, but only when the food falls short. I go to restaurants to eat…

14. What is the most important thing you have learned in your culinary career?
I have learned discipline and respect. This is a very tough business filled with very hardworking and passionate people. I have learned to admire and respect my colleagues for their passion and efforts. I have learned to have disciple and focus in pushing my own limits to be successful. I have also learned the value in teaching others and inspiring my staff to be great.

15. Why did you choose the style of molecular gastronomy? Can you
explain it to people who have never heard of it?
Well its funny because I never chose to cook that "style". Rather, the natural progression and evolution of my cooking was to push my own limits, to be better and progressive. So by nature I gravitated toward learning newer techniques to elevate the dining experiences for my clients. My style of cooking, I think, is first ingredient driven, based on local seasonal ingredients, followed by technique and always with flavor at the forefront of the equation. "Molecular cooking"essentially entails cooking at a cellular and scientific level. It is evaluating the processes which take place during cooking in an effort to adjust our approach to those processes, resulting in a better product. Once we understand the processes at a chemical level, we can manipulate them to enhance texture, flavor and more.  People have misconceptions about additives, powders, etc. The ingredients we use to enhance textures and flavors are natural ingredients found in nature. By understanding them we are able to enhance our diners experience with food.

16. Have you ever cooked for anyone and felt intimidated they might not like the meal?
In the beginning it seemed like every meal! People were afraid of the way I wrote my menus and of the ingredients being used. Currently I am working on a dish called "72 Hour Confit of Berkshire Pork Cheek", another that has goat cheese "noodles" and one with "aerated foie gras" - this would have been a hard sell 3 years ago. But people have taken to the style of my cuisine and learned to trust me. I think that is important.

17. Do you have any special events coming up so that people can see/taste/experience what you do?
Yes. November 11th, 12th and 13th, I am hosting a collaborative dinner series here in Sacramento focusing on these molecular techniques. Chef Roberto Cortez is flying in from Europe to cook for three nights.

Each night the two of us will be offering a 1 hour demonstration or class (including bites and tastes) on the most modern techniques being used by leading Chefs all around the world today. That will follow with a 6 course dinner, each of us preparing 3 dishes. Cost is $120 per person, limited to 16 people per night, with the demonstration included. Click HERE for more info. We already sold out Friday, so seats remain on Thursday and Saturday only. 

18. What is your favorite ingredient to use this time of year?
Apples. Though many people think my style is not traditional, I really like classic flavors. I think apples really bring fall and winter to life and they are so versatile. I use them for dishes like an amuse bouche, paired with vegetables, foie gras, pork, cheese and of course dessert. I really enjoy taking a popular seasonal ingredient and introducing it in various forms to a diner.

"Valrhona Chocolate Mousse"
Hot Fudge Brownie, Crispy Cocoa Shortbread, Raspberry Sorbet, Pedro Ximinez Gastrique

19. What are your future plans in the culinary world?
Right now I am just about to launch a new company by the end of the year called “The Private Table”. It will focus specifically on providing a very high end, intimate food and wine dining experience to private clients.

I am also launching “The Chef and The Sommelier”, a collaborative company with Anani Lawson. Anani is currently a Sommelier at Per Se in New York, and a former Sommelier for The French Laundry in Yountville for the past 9 years. We plan to offer a very unique experience to people searching for extreme luxury in private dining.

On the local scene, I will continue to host my local monthly dinners at Steel Magnolia. These are about $65 average per person, and include a 1 hour cooking class followed by a three course dinner with wine pairings. They are really an amazing bargain and probably the biggest secret in town. They have been extremely successful. You can join my mailing list to be notified of the dates here 

 "Pliable Valrhona Ganache"
Raspberry Sorbet, Hazlenut "Soil", Mint Blossoms, Fleur De Sel
20. Best meal ever?
Pierre Gagniere, Paris. I still have not intellectually digested that meal. I am not sure when I will actually grasp the depth of that meal, every bite had so much meaning and feeling in it. It definitely went far beyond just food and the experience was more than just a meal. Every one of our 24+ courses was executed with perfection, thought and finesse.

I also must say that my experiences at The French Laundry have been quite special, as I hold my connection to it very dear.

Try Pajo's cooking yourself at one of the dinners he is hosting with Chef Roberto Cortez. Seats are still available November 11th and 13th: Click here for more info.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The most amazing article I have ever read.

Pajo is a true professional and will go to the very pinnacle of his profession.