Often the public perception of chefs is that they rule over all that they survey with an iron fist. While this may have been the case under the French brigade system, and is certainly reinforced by TV personalities like Gordon Ramsay, the truth is that the modern kitchen is a much more egalitarian environment. I often look to my cooks and sous chefs for inspiration and feedback while developing new dishes. I’ve found that having open ears and an open mind does wonders for kitchen morale and camaraderie; and getting beyond the mentality that, as “chef” the ideas that come to me are always better than those of others, leads to a more dynamic and delicious menu. In other words, I’m not always the lone writer; sometimes I collaborate and other times I wear the hat of an editor.
Josh Sappelt and I have worked together for many years. He started at Delfina Restaurant about one month after I did. We moved up the ladder together, with Josh ultimately serving for a couple of years as my sous chef at Delfina before he and his wife left to spend a year working at an orphanage in Guatemala, followed by 3 years living in Boston while his wife was earning a graduate degree.
When he and his wife moved back to the Bay Area, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reunite with Josh. I consider him not only a good friend, but over the years we have developed a synergy and understanding that can’t be taught. He understands implicitly what my vision for the food at Comal is, and I am lucky to have someone whom I completely trust on nights when I am not at the restaurant. Josh has great palate, and brings great ideas to the table. Often he will suggest something that he has eaten while dining out, or read about in either the press or a cookbook, and then we riff off of that together until we arrive at something that is delicious and fits our menu.
After reading about a recipe for lobster poached in coconut milk from David Sterling’s Beard Award winning Yucatan cookbook that was published last year, Josh cooked up a recipe using shrimp and brought it to me to taste. I have long been wanting to put a seafood stew on the menu, and while I had been thinking of taking a more traditional approach using a spicy tomato-based broth, this broth was light, complex and delicious. So we began brainstorming and collectively have come to a dish using mussels, clams, shrimp and local rock cod poached over the wood grill in a coconut-Seville orange broth with chayote, corn and charred gypsy peppers. As one of our Platos Fuertes, this “Caldo de Mariscos” will serve 2-3 people, and be accompanied as always with rice, beans and tortillas. We will be debuting this dish tonight, and it will continue to be in rotation on our daily changing menu going forward. And I have to say that playing in a band is a lot more fun than being a solo artist!