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An Evening with Chef Ben Pollinger

Chef Ben Pollinger with his Loup de Mer en Papillote

On October 17th 2011, I attended a riveting “Across the Seven Seas” cooking class at De Gustibus Cooking School, which was taught by Ben Pollinger, Executive Chef of Oceana, NYC’s Michelin-starred shrine to seafood.  Ben was joined by Oceana’s Executive Pastry Chef Jansen Chan, who concluded the class with an impressive demo of four ethereal custards.  Pollinger’s dedication to showcasing the pure flavors of the ocean through his innovative cooking techniques was palpable in every bite that the class enjoyed that evening. Pollinger’s informative demonstrations included boning and filleting a whole fish (a branzino) from start to finish.

A New Jersey native, Ben Pollinger graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, as class valedictorian.  Ben’s distinctive cooking style is heavily influenced by his work and travels in France, Italy and Spain.  In addition to sustaining Oceana’s Michelin star for five years in a row, Pollinger is a father of three, an avid gardener and also makes the time to contribute to various charitable organizations including City Harvest, Share Our Strength, Autism Speaks and the James Beard Foundation.

Pollinger’s five-course menu was magnificent, elevating the fresh seafood flavors with nuanced, expert preparations.  The featured dishes included Striped Bass Sashimi with peach chutney and macadamias, Loup de Mer en Papillote and Whole Roast Branzino stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and olives.  The menu was paired with three delightful Italian wines from the Banfi Vintners portfolio: Vigne Regali Pricipessa Perlante Gavi Sparkling, 2010 Vigne Regali Gavi Principessa Gavia and 2009 Vigne Regali Dolcetto d’Acqui L’Ardi.

The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Chef Ben Pollinger is below…

WC: I’ve read that you have a 500 square ft organic garden, where is it located?

Ben: It’s a home garden. I live in Oradell, New Jersey.  Just to be completely honest with you, when it was 500 square ft, I was living in Lodi, New Jersey.  It’s a little bit smaller now, probably 300 square ft.  I moved last year, last summer, and had to replant my garden and it’s still a very large garden.  Just because of my yard layout, I have another thirty pots with all different kinds of herbs, so besides my vegetables and such, I probably have about 30 different herbs.  This year, I  also planted a peach tree in my yard.

WC: What suggestions do you have for New Yorkers interested in urban gardening?

Ben: You need living soil for any kind of garden, but particularly for planters and potted plants.  You need good living soil, not just sterile topsoil that you find at the garden center.  You need living organisms in there.  If you can, this is probably exceptionally hard, but if you can get farm soil, I would do that. I would suggest going to a farmer’s market and asking a farmer, “hey, can you bring me a five gallon bucket of dirt and I’ll buy it off of you.” I would start with good Hudson Valley black dirt, North of NJ, old alluvial soils from ancient times and it’s rich, black and really great. Try to buy a bucket of black dirt off of a farmer.  If you can, amend your soil with compost. At the farmer’s markets in the city, you can buy organic compost with worm castings and stuff like that.  That’s going to give you living microbes and living microorganisms. That and some worms, and each season, I would continually refresh your soil with fresh compost and get your hands on a mix of leaves.  Keep your soil vibrant and alive.  I know this is hard to do in an urban setting.  In my garden, I add all of my leaves every fall.  I dig them into my garden and they break down.  Every summer, I take my grass clippings from the lawn and spread them like mulch in between the plants.  Continually amending the soil with living matter. If you’re ambitious, I would buy a composter for your sink with red worms in it.  They look like earthworms, but they’re small and red. If you can deal with worms in your place and you have enough room, get a composter.  The key is good living soil.

WC: As a father of three and Executive Chef, how do you find the time for your philanthropic endeavors?  How do you balance it all?

Ben: It’s time management and organization.  A balance of committing to what you can handle.  Unfortunately, you can’t fulfill every request.  Every cause that you’re asked to do is a great cause, but you can’t fulfill every request.  It’s a matter of supporting the causes that are closest to you and good time management.  It’s a challenge.  Long days.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Ben: I would say, two main experiences. One is not a particular moment in time, but the general experience of having worked at Tabla for Floyd Cardoz, was the most significant experience that I’ve had for several reasons.  It opened up an entire new world of cuisine, a style of food, a cuisine and ingredients that I had never been exposed to before.  In terms of the whole Indian pantry and certain Indian techniques.  Things that I would not really have ever learned anywhere else, and those things affect me not only in the way of knowing how to work and use Indian spices in an Indian manner, but just the general sense of how to use these ingredients now, and also the flavor profiles.  Different kinds of flavor profiles that exist in that cuisine, things that I have been able to work into my cuisine now.  Whether it will be some dishes that are Indian inspired or will seem Indian, but there’s even a Greek dish on the menu tonight, incorporating dill and anise seeds, as well as adding fresh dill, gives another layer of flavor.  Taking spices that I understand how to work with from an Indian perspective and using them in a non-Indian way.

The other main thing is working under Floyd is really where I learned to be a Chef.  As opposed to being a cook or even a good Sous-Chef.  He really taught me how to manage the business side of running a restaurant.  Food is first, but you also need to hold the business side together.  He really taught me how to do that.  How to manage the labor and ingredient costs, how to manage scheduling and planning a menu.  How to maintain a restaurant.  He taught me how to run a restaurant.

The other main experience overall would have been the year that I lived in Monaco and worked for Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV.  The life experience of living overseas and living in a different culture was just huge.  The general flavor profile and style of cooking and food that exists in the French Riviera and the South of France.  More in general, the Northern Mediterranean, South of France, North of Italy, Coastal Spain, there are a lot of similarities in those areas that really affect my cooking.  A lot of them are really driven by the same kind of lightness of flavor, clarity of ingredients.  This may sound like a cliché, but olive oil instead of butter.  It’s really a lighter, cleaner style of cooking that I think overall really defines what I do, defines my style of cooking.

WC: Where does your affinity for preparing seafood and fish stem from?

Ben: Most restaurants, particularly at our level, generally break down the cooking responsibilities.  They create stations based on either ingredient and/or the equipment that you’re cooking it on.  A lot of the restaurants that I worked in were very classic, where you have a cook who cooks fish, a cook who cooks meat, a cook who cooks vegetables, and as a cook, the fish station was my favorite station to work.  I love cooking meat, and I’m very good at cooking meat as well, but I really just like the fish because there are so many more different varieties out there than meat. I think that fish can require a little bit more finesse to cook and it’s a little less forgiving, so it’s a little trickier to cook and a little more challenging.  It’s kind of more reflective of how I like to eat these days, a little lighter.  I still eat plenty of meat, but I like how fish is generally a lot lighter than any given meat.  As well, from the perspective of being a Chef, from an artistic perspective, you can apply a broader palate of other ingredients and styles and flavors to fish that are a lot more challenging than what you can do with meat, you can do a lot more with fish.

WC: Do you have a favorite wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Ben: Champagne.  It’s so refreshing and crisp, there are so many different styles within Champagne as well.

WC: If there were a wine you could drink every day, what would it be?

Ben: Champagne. I don’t drink anymore, but when I did, I really enjoyed the bolder Champagnes.  A blanc de noir or even a full-bodied yeasty Champagne, like Bollinger, Ruinart, Krug. Bigger, fuller Champagnes would be my preference.

WC: Do you have an all-time favorite ingredient to work with?

Ben: Good question.  Olive oil.  I use a lot of olive oil and there are so many different styles of olive oil.

WC: What is your wish for the future of food and dining in the U.S.?

Ben: I hope we get to a point where people have a better understanding of where their food comes from.  And not that everybody has to be into everything, some people tonight were squeamish about when I was taking the guts out of the fish. That’s fair enough and you don’t have to be into that, but I think that people need to really understand that their food comes from a living animal that had to be killed to be put on their plate, and to respect that process, and that your produce comes from the land.  Your chicken doesn’t come from a Styrofoam package in the store, it comes from a chicken.  I think we need to have an understanding of where our food comes from because the next thing we need is to live our lives in a manner, and eat in a manner, that supports overall sustainability and good health of the planet.  I’m not against farmed protein or even farmed fish, but I think we need to have all of this stuff in a manner that’s sensible.  We need to have more of our food come from more natural sources and raised in a manner that is natural.  We need to raise our protein in a way so that we don’t need to jack them up with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick, or with hormones to get them to grow faster.

I wish we could get to a point where we treat food less as a commodity, and more as an actual ingredient that we’re going to eat.  There’s a quote from this book Tomatoland, a farmer is asked what he thinks about the way that his tomatoes taste.  He responds that he doesn’t get paid by the taste, he gets paid by the pound.  We need to grow foodstuffs that are for taste first, and support artisanal production.  We need less industrialization of the food process. We need to have an understanding that quality food costs money, quality food can’t be cheap.

In terms of food and dining, I think there’s room across the spectrum of restaurants, for everything from very casual street food and small Mom & Pop restaurants, all the way to ultra-luxe dining, there’s room for all of it, but I wish we got a little bit closer, particularly on my end of the spectrum, to cooking more from a natural perspective.  I don’t want to say that we should be stuck in the past and not move forward with new technology, but I want there to be a bit more emphasis on teaching folks how to cook, how to cook traditionally, and then move on to more modern things.  But you have to understand where you came from to go someplace.

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