Culinary Externship: Fish & Duck entrees at Prospect
For my third week at Prospect, a fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco, I worked the Fish & Duck dinner entrées station serving three dishes: Duck, Salmon and Halibut. Despite the station having “only” three dishes, the prep-time during the day was laborious and dinner service was intense.
Luckily there were amazing humans working that station teaching me the ropes. Special shout out to Chef Michael Mann for spending a week of his life helping me out :)
The dinner menu above shows that each dish has multiple ingredients. What wasn’t obvious to me initially was how much work went into making each of those components. The “duck sausage” meat is combined with pork fat, mixed with a spice kit overnight, ground up, cased into sausage and to-order sautéed in duck fat. The “Red Flame & Thompson Grapes” are picked daily, halved, placed in a white vinegar pickling liquid, mixed with pickled mustard seeds and spooned onto the plate in a half crescent shape. And so on. Each component for each dish is made to spec and the restaurant sometimes has to handle 200 overall covers each night.
This Duck Breast might be the best duck I’ve ever had. There are two important things done to achieve excellent texture when cooking the duck breast:
- Don’t baste: Cook until medium-rare on a plancha/pan so it’s still cold in the center. Then place in a 250°f duck-fat bath (6" half-hotel pan). Placing the duck breast in the duck fat bath for a few minutes finishes cooking it and gives a similar effect to basting without actually spending the time to baste.
- Cut in half and trim off edges: each duck breast is cut in half and the exterior edge are trimmed. Removing that edge removes some of the well-cooked meat on the outside and brings to the forefront a more pleasant texture.
Plating one duck breast is easy: start by adding onion-pepper sauce, add 2 duck sausages, 3 deep fried peeled baby potatoes, 1+2 deep fried peppers, pan cooked peppers, 2 roasted onion wedges, 1 pickled pepper, the duck breast, duck jus around and pepper sauce in dots. Simple, right?
Plating six duck breasts for one ticket at the same time is totally different. Each step happens for all the plates at the same time. All the plates get onion-pepper sauce at the same time first. Then at the same time all the plates get each ingredient on the left. Then all the plates get duck breasts together. And so on. And I can’t just take 6x time to plate six plates, it all has to happen super fast. By the time we were done plating those six duck dishes my heart was pumping.
Each dish in the restaurant teaches me new culinary techniques, ideas and ingredients. Here’s what I learned from the Salmon dish:
- Vegetable Ash: Those white Cotija cheese balls are covered in Vegetable Ash. Whenever there’s vegetable waste in the restaurant (onion peels, white celery stems, etc) we keep those, put them in the oven on a rack until they‘re burnt and fine grind those. The vegetable ash is then used to coat homemade cotija. There’s lots of practical and aesthetic reasons why cheese is often coated with ash.
- Corn pudding: There’s a mixture of corn pudding, grits and corn kernels on the bottom of this dish. Making corn pudding is insanely simple but also brilliant. Make corn juice (cut corn kernels and run through juicer) and reduce by 25% scraping the bottom until pudding consistency. That’s it. The reason that works is that corn juice ranges from 6–24 brix. Just concentrating that much sugar is enough to bring out strong corn flavours and sweetness.
- Popped Sorghum: Those itty-bitty popcorns are actually popped sorghum. It comes as 1–2mm white balls and they get popped in 400°F canola oil stovetop and then tossed with salt, espelette and nutritional yeast. I literally had no idea what sorghum was besides a high-protein gluten-free flour before this.
That deep fried component on bottom right of the halibut plate is Squash Blossom Brandade. Let’s examine how much works goes into making that one component in the dish:
- Cure Halibut Fillets: make a halibut cure by combining in a food processor 1kg salt, a tiny-bit chili flake, parsley, thyme, lemon zest, black pepper and bay leafs. In a 2" hotel pan cover halibut fillets in cure overnight. Ratio is 1:15 cure:halibut by weight.
- The next day infuse milk with Thyme and Bay leaf. Pour milk on cured halibut and let poach halibut for 5–7m.
- Drain and put halibut fillets in hot smoker for 45m.
- Make brandade: In large bowl take mash tender yukon potatoes, sweated leeks, poaching milk and EVOO. Flake smoked halibut into bowl by folding gently.
- Fill squash blossom with brandade.
- Make tempura batter: blend and put in siphon rice flour, sparkling water, vodka and xantham.
- To order discharge tempura batter from siphon, put brandade squash blossoms in batter and deep fry brandade squash blossoms.
All of that for one component on one dish.
Plot twist! You know how I said my station only handled three dishes? Duck, Halibut and Salmon? Well, the Halibut and Salmon got a completely new set the week I was working that station. The proteins stayed the same but everything else on the plate changed. Seeing that recipe development was a treat.
There’s a concept I call “flavour resonance” (no one else calls it that). It’s when multiple components of a dish echo each other by using the same ingredients. This Halibut dish has a lot of that interplay going on:
- The wilted Amaranth acting as a bed for the Halibut is echoed by the Red Amaranth garnish.
- The Cauliflower puree on on the bottom echoes with the sauteed cauliflower florets and shaved raw cauliflower.
- The pickled mustard seeds echo with the dijon mustard in the Vadouvan Puree.
- The red verjus reduction contains halibut fumet/stock which echos off the halibut fillet.
- The pickled grapes and sauteed grapes also echo of each other.
Using the same ingredients in multiple ways in the same dish creates this truly delicious flavour resonance.
Chef Richard Broering is a total badass at original plating and he imparted a great insight on continuous improvement. Originally when we started plating the new Salmon set I would stack each Pan-Roasted Summer Squash under an Oven-Roasted Tomato and alternate x 3. See photo above. That was great and consistent.
Chef Rich said something I loved: “Don’t make it boring. Change things up”. He then took a baby squash, and put it next to a roasted tomato still under a roasted squash. My engineer brain loves consistency and I flipped. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but making these continuous changes to the plate trying to always make it nicer is a big part of cooking.
Read more about my culinary adventures by reading about my second week working at Prospect: