Back of the House

Ever wonder what actually goes on in the home kitchens of culinary professionals? Do they really prepare precious little snacks for family and friends in their not-so-frequent free time or are they using their ovens to store sweaters? We knocked on a few doors and managed to track down the truth. it’s not as far-fetched as you might think.

Owen Maass
Sous Chef, Nordstrom Café Bistro
What’s Cookin’: My Average Caramel Corn

Maass was initially headed for a career in fine art, but fortunately for Cincinnati diners, he put down the paintbrush and stepped up to the stove. His whimsical “average” caramel corn belies a strong understanding of technique and flavor often hidden behind his silly and somewhat sarcastic facade.


My Average Caramel Corn
4 servings

½ cup popcorn kernels
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces heavy smoked bacon, finely chopped
½ cup unsalted raw peanuts (one 2.5-ounce package)
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt or coarse sea salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup heavy cream
1 oolong tea bag
non-stick vegetable oil spray
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup water
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Heat the popcorn and oil in a heavy-bottomed, large pot, covered, over medium-high heat, until kernels begin to pop. Using oven mitts, hold the lid on the pot and shake it until the popping stops. Pour the popcorn into a very large heatproof bowl.

Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until almost crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain and cool. Add the bacon and peanuts to the bowl with the popcorn. Sprinkle with coarse salt and cayenne; toss to coat and set aside.

Bring the cream and the tea bag just to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and steep for 15 minutes, occasionally pressing on the tea bag with the back of a spoon to release more flavor. Discard the tea bag.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and coat with non-stick spray. Coat two wooden spoons or heat-resistant spatulas with the non-stick spray as well, and set aside. Stir the sugar, ¼ cup of water, and corn syrup in large saucepan over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to high and boil, without stirring, until the syrup turns deep amber. Occasionally swirl the pan and brush down sides with a wet pastry brush for about 13 minutes, as it slowly deepens in color. Remove the finished caramel from the heat and immediately add the tea-scented cream. Be careful, the mixture is very hot and will bubble up. Stir until well blended and immediately drizzle the hot caramel over the popcorn mixture. Toss the caramel corn with the sprayed spoons until it’s all evenly coated. Transfer the caramel corn to the prepared baking sheet.

Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake until the caramel is shiny, tossing the mixture occasionally, about 20 minutes. While still warm from the oven, sprinkle the caramel corn with the thyme leaves. Cool the corn completely on the baking sheet, tossing occasionally to break up the large clumps. The caramel corn can be made up to two days ahead. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Matt Buschle
Chef/Owner, Virgils
What’s Cookin’: Smoked Cheddar Mac and Cheese

Buschle is known for making everything but the napkins from scratch at his cozy, Bellevue café. “Scratch cooking is about versatility and quality control—it’s not about an item being close, it’s about it being right,” he says. So we weren’t surprised to find béchamel as the base for his mac and cheese. The challenge was convincing him to scale it back so we wouldn’t end up with enough to feed the whole neighborhood. Fortunately for Bellevue, he does.

Smoked Cheddar Mac and Cheese
6 servings

8 ounces (about ½ pound) jumbo gigli pasta
3 Tablespoons butter
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons shredded horseradish
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika, plus more for top
2½ cups heavy cream
3 cups grated smoked cheddar cheese
1 cup diced country ham
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup cooked spinach, squeezed of all water

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente, according to package instructions. Drain well and reserve the pasta in a large heatproof bowl. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large pot over medium heat melt the butter. Add the flour, salt, and  teaspoon smoked paprika. Stir constantly over medium heat for about 3 minutes until it begins to smell toasty. Slowly stir in the heavy cream. Whisk constantly for about 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens.

Remove the sauce from heat, and stir in 2 cups of the cheese. Continue to stir until melted. Fold in the ham, tomatoes, spinach, mustard, and horseradish. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss gently until well combined.

Turn out half of the cheesy pasta into a two-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with half of the remaining cheese. Add the rest of the pasta, followed by the remaining cheese. Dust with smoked paprika and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The top will brown lightly and develop a slight crunch.

Julie Francis
Chef/Owner, Nectar
What’s Cookin’: Curried Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Local Greens, Fried Farm Eggs, and Salsa

When she finally takes a night off from her Mt. Lookout restaurant—where she has worked at least five days a week for the last seven years—Francis prefers to eat mostly vegetarian, and always with serious spice. A longtime proponent of the local-foods movement, she knows the best seasonal vegetables to select, and has plenty of farmer friends on speed dial. “There is so much mass-produced food available now, I just want something real, something that someone has taken the time to grow or tend. It will taste better, and ultimately make my dishes better,” she says.

Curried Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Local Greens, Fried Farm Egg, and Salsa
4 servings

For the sweet potatoes
2 medium-sized, purple Japanese sweet potatoes (A dense, super-sweet variety) cut in ½ inch dice
3 Tablespoons coconut oil
1 onion, diced
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
2 Tablespoons minced ginger
2 serrano peppers, minced
2 Tablespoons turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin

For the topping
3 Tablespoons olive oil
5–6 handfuls of local greens (kale, chard, or spinach)
4 local eggs
2 Tablespoons coconut oil

In a high-sided sauté pan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Sauté 3 to 5 minutes until the onion is browned. Add the peppers, turmeric, coriander, and cumin. Sauté one more minute. Add the sweet potato and stir to coat with spices, cook 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1/4 cup water or vegetable stock and cook for 15 minutes, until sweet potato is tender.

In a separate pan, sauté the greens in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Remove the greens from the pan and fry the farm eggs on medium heat in the coconut oil sunny side up. Serve the sweet potatoes with the greens, top with the fried eggs, and garnish with the salsa.

Stephen Williams
Chef/Owner, Bouquet
What’s Cookin’: Cheddar-Bacon Buttermilk Biscuits

Williams is the grandson of two serious Southern cooks. “My paternal grandmother owned a little greasy spoon in Hazard, Kentucky, called the Coffee Shop, and my other grandmother excelled at the classics, like mashed potatoes, green beans simmered with a ham hock, and biscuits,” Williams explains. When he offered to make some cheddar-bacon biscuits, we knew they’d have serious street cred. His Covington restaurant and wine bar is known for taking fresh, seasonal ingredients and preparing them with lots of love, plenty of pork, and minimal fuss.

Cheddar-Bacon Buttermilk Biscuits
4 servings

4 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
2 Tablespoons baking powder
3 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into small dice
½ cup minced, cooked bacon
4 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
1½ to 2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with non-stick spray.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and pepper. Fold in the bacon and cheddar. Stir in 1½ cups of buttermilk until a dough consistency forms; add more buttermilk if necessary.

On a well-floured work surface, gently press out the dough to ½ to ¼ inch thickness. Using a small cutter, cut out golf ball–sized biscuits. Place biscuits on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes or until just golden brown.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue.
Photographs by Nathan Kirkman

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