I decided to go into the restaurant business because from the time I was six I can remember being in a kitchen. At home I was in the kitchen with my mom at dinnertime, helping her cook dinner and learning how to tie a bow using the back of her apron. On the weekends I would spend time in the Berghoff kitchens, where the pots were as big as I was. I started actually cooking in the kitchen of my parents’ second restaurant, Tosi’s in Michigan, when I was thirteen. Obviously growing up in kitchens and restaurants is where I discovered my love for cooking and entertaining. It is also where I discovered what’s really at the heart of it all. Simply put, food brings people together.
Think about some of your favorite memories shared with friends and family. Most likely they are around a dinner table or at a party enjoying food and drink. We may not remember exactly what was served, but we remember being together, laughing, and enjoying one another’s company. Being able to help create these memories for my family, friends, and people every day at the Restaurant is why I love being a chef. What would these memories be like if the people who enjoyed the food together, actually played a part in the kitchen preparing the food together?
This question was answered last night at the Berghoff as I watched a group of 30 employees from a local Chicago company do just this in a team building activity appropriately named “Cook Your Own”. Dressed in chef hats and aprons, my guests separated into teams, and with the help of my Chefs were each responsible for making a course of our special dinner menu. In our kitchens (not meant for that many bodies) butts bumped, techniques were learned, and laughs were shared, but most importantly memories were made. After two hours of cooking in the kitchen, we all sat down in what we call at the Restaurant, our Chef’s Room to enjoy our hard work. The menu was a Mediterranean one that ended with one of my favorite desserts, Crème Brûlée. At the end of the night, our plates and wine glasses were empty, our stomach’s full and satisfied, but most importantly our guests had grown as a team and made memories that they will share for times to come.
Before the days of the small handheld butane home-kitchen torch, crème brûlée was the signature of restaurants. And restaurants caramelized the sugar topping with much larger torches. I put it on the menu once for a sit-down dinner for one thousand guests and miscalculated how many torches we had. Needless to say dessert was a little late that night, but it was good. Today using the small, inexpensive torch available at kitchenware stores, crème brûlée is easy to make at home.
- 2 whole vanilla beans, split lengthwise, seeds removed
- 1 quart heavy cream
- 8 large egg yolks
- 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
- ½ cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 275°F.
Into a large saucepot, scrape the centers of the vanilla beans. Add the scraped bean pods as well. Pour in the heavy cream and bring to almost a simmer over medium heat (do not boil). Remove from the heat and set aside until ready to use as directed.
In a separate bowl, whisk the yolks and granulated sugar together. Remove the vanilla bean pods from the cream and pour it into the egg yolk mixture, whisking until combined. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a deep bowl. Using a ladle or spoon, pop any bubbles that have formed. Ladle ¾ cup of the mixture into each of eight 8-ounce ceramic ramekins. Set the ramekins into a baking pan that you carefully fill with hot water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 25 minutes. Shake a ramekin to check for firmness. If the custard is still liquefied, bake for an additional 10 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and allow to cool at room temperature for 10 minutes. Place in the refrigerator and chill until ready to serve. Remove from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature before serving.
Top each ramekin with a thin layer of sifted brown sugar, enough to cover the custard. Using a small butane torch, caramelize the sugar until it forms a crispy shell. You may also place under the broiler for no more than 30 seconds to achieve the same effect. Serve immediately.
Espresso Crème Brûlée: Follow the above recipe, adding 1 tablespoon good-quality instant espresso powder to the custard before baking.