Unless you’re in the mood for a mean grilled cheese, I’m not much of a cook. But working in restaurants has, fortunately, allowed me to meet some very talented ones. Recently, I experienced a six-course, dim sum-inspired feast in the home kitchen of Lot 2’s Scott Zrust. It was over this sensational dinner that I started compiling a list of guidelines to create restaurant-caliber meals at home. As it turns out, a little know-how, planning, and creativity will get you far. I asked three area professionals, who specialize in a range of cuisines, for ideas.
Zrust insists he’s “never been a huge fan of cookbooks.” While they can be useful for reference, the most rewarding aspect of cooking is the freedom to create, and keep things original. David Burr, co-owner of Localmotive Food Truck and Lorri’s Lunch Box, agrees that he “rarely makes the same thing twice.” Finding inspiration in the food you eat and experience is a good place to start. So go ahead. Whip that iPhone out at dinner.
Work with multiple courses.
When developing your menu, including a palate cleanser between two dishes can go a long way. The function here is to give the diner a chance to prepare their taste buds before they indulge in the next course, and it can also to buy you some time in the kitchen. The palate cleanser could be as simple as a few bites of salad. Zrust often uses a handcrafted citrus shooter containing vodka he had previously infused.
Get the right tools.
Perhaps the most acute observation comes from Zrust, who states, “Things I enjoy having in my kitchen are the following: a bigger kitchen.” I think we can all agree. Still, you’ll be better prepared with some essential tools: a proper chef’s knife, a stainless steel sauté pan (avoid buying large sets of pans, most of which you’ll probably never use), a granite mortar and pestle, and an enameled cast iron Dutch oven. Invest in higher-end tools for years of use.
Make it from scratch.
Roasting a whole chicken at home provides several dinners, but also versatile stock you can then utilize in flavorful soups and sauces. Bryce Coulton of The French Bulldog recommends Plum Creek Farms chicken, available at Wohlner’s Grocery. Include carrots, celery, onions, seasonings, and the chicken bones. Cover with water, bring to a boil, simmer for about three hours, divide the stock into portioned containers, and freeze for future use. Control the sweetness and flavor by substituting shallots or leeks for the onions. Your homemade stock will have a noticeable impact on your dishes.
According to Coulton, whose restaurant is known for its range of house-cured charcuterie, even bacon is surprisingly easy to make from scratch at home. Start with three pounds of uncured pork belly (check Stoysich House of Sausage for this). After trimming, rub with a mixture of spices to your taste, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge for about ten days. Without smoking it beforehand, the final product is technically pancetta; it’s also a wonderful home-cured meat that will impress your guests.
Pair your dishes.
Pairing beer and wine should be an automatic when presenting a home-cooked meal to guests. Instead of a different drink with each course, Burr recommends one red wine for a couple courses and one white for the next couple to cover your whole meal, or perhaps a beer with the majority of the meal and a sweeter, more dessert-type of beer for the end. This approach should eliminate too much complexity with your planning, but still allow your dishes to reach their full potential.
You might find the biggest challenge of entertaining at home is not having enough time to spend with your guests. As Coulton explains, “You’re not supposed to be cooking for them, but enjoying it with them.” Having a plan of action is of utmost importance. Prepare certain foods in advance. Imagine realistically the timing and execution of the entire meal. If a dish proves too complex for the allotted time, perhaps it’s time to rethink it. “You want to make it as easy as possible so you can get out front and hang out.”
Omaha chefs recommend:
Ruhlman.com, a blog by Michael Ruhlman
Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, Jane Grigson (Grub Street Cookery)
The French Laundry Cookbook and Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller (Artisan)
New Asian Supermarket, 4615 S. 26th St.
Asian Market, 321 N. 76th St.
Stoysich House of Sausage, 2532 S. 24 St., 2502 S. 130th Ave.
For plates and display dishes, among other things:
Hockenbergs, 7002 F St.
Fisher Fixture Company, 8603 G St.
Wusthof Classic Chef's Knife, 8-inch, $99.95 on Amazon.com
KitchenAid Professional 600 Series 6-Quart Stand Mixer, $444 on Amazon.com
Tupperware containers of stock in your freezer
Special thanks to Bryce Coulton, Head Chef and Co-owner at The French Bulldog, 5003 Underwood Avenue; David Burr who is Co-owner of Localmotive Food Truck, found many nights in the Old Market at 12th and Jackson Streets; Scott Zrust of Lot 2, 6207 Maple Street.