Improving upon July 4th Foods

(This article appeared in the food section of the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliated newspapers on June 29, 2011.)


Chefs are just like us.  Independence Day finds them bellying up to the grill, grabbing a brewski and keeping things simple.  But when it comes to foreign-born chefs, popular July 4th fare gets a delicious boost as these pros work magic by adding techniques and ingredients from other culinary traditions.  Or just apply their skills to making ordinary food taste better on this equal-opportunity holiday.

When Bruno Chemel of Palo Alto’s Baumé does his usual Independence Day schtick, liquid nitrogen and sous vide are not involved.  His modern French restaurant might be known for exquisite little courses with a molecular gastronomy bent but on the 4th, Chemel and his family gather with French-speaking friends to kick back, “talk story, have a bottle of wine,” he says.  And like many chefs, cook uncomplicated food.

Cooking duties are shared and this Michelin-starred chef has made himself the vegetable guy.  Chemel’s go-to dish is a juicy, smoky, grilled iteration of ratatouille, that classic French stew of eggplant, squash, onions and tomatoes, which he finishes in a skillet that simmers for an hour in a corner of the grill while the meat crew gets to work. (See recipe in following post.)

“I’m first. The BBQ is clean.  I do my veg.  They can burn their thing. At least we have something to eat,” he chuckles.

Bruno Chemel

Chris Yeo’s large family get-togethers focus on traditional dishes from his native Singapore.  After 30 years here, “I’m pretty much American,” says the owner of the popular Strait’s and Sino restaurants.  “But we still put our Asian flair into our cooking.” A good example is sweet, spicy grilled Balinese pork ribs (see recipe in following post) or succulent, easy-to-make foil-wrapped packages cooked on the grill (see recipe in following post).

Chris Yeo

Also adding some flavors from her native country on the 4th is chef Shachi Mehra of Oakland. She was born in India but raised in New Jersey and has been associated with highly regarded modern Indian restaurants that include Tabla in Manhattan and Palo Alto’s Junnoon and Mantra.

“Some Americans think Indian food just means greasy and spicy,” she laments.  That’s not what people happily consume at her Independence Day fetes.  Her subtle, fresh salads are seductive while being light.  (See recipes in following post.) She also shares some mouth-watering ideas for amping up popular holiday foods like watermelon and corn on the cob. (See recipes in following post.)

Shachi Mehra

Rather than going native on the 4th, French-trained pastry chef Veronica Laramie, born in Peru, celebrates the cuisine of her adopted country.  “It’s always all-American food,” she reports.  “It’s a barbeque and tons of beer. Corn on the cob. Fully loaded potatoes.”  With her American husband Christopher, she runs eVe in Berkeley, devoted to fresh, sophisticated fare that pleases regional foodies — nothing like the desserts she makes on Independence Day.

This would be things like whoopie pies, brownies and red velvet cake, which are almost comically American but Laramie demonstrates just how good they can be when turned out by a trained chef. For example, her red velvet cake is a recipe developed during a stint at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Says Laramie: “It’s super-moist, the flavor of the cocoa powder comes out and it has a little buttermilk to make it tangy.” (See recipe in following post.)

Veronica Laramie

Like other non-native chefs, Donato Scotti “fully embraced the 4th of July when I came here,” he says. The holiday menus of the owner/chef of Redwood City’s Donato Enoteca, “are definitely not spaghetti and pasta,”  he reports. In recent years, he’s been spending two days making monumentally delicious pit-cooked lamb, aka agnello in fossa, which becomes “fall-off-the-bone tender,”  he says. (See recipe in following post.)

Donato Scotti

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