Kitchen confidentialPublished on July 31, 2008

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A peek inside some of Ottawa's finest restaurant kitchens turns up an impressive list of secrets or tricks of the trade that will enhance any cooking experience.

There's always something to learn in the kitchen and we've gathered 20 tips, tools and secret ingredients from some of the city's best chefs, sure to help you make the most of your own culinary endeavours.

Chef Derek Benitz of Benitz Bistro recommends stocking your kitchen with excellent knives; MAC brand is his current favourite. He also relies on cast-iron pans and a thick wood block; both are essential for great cooking. Among his other staples are fantastic and varied top-quality cooking oils, such as extra virgin olive oils, walnut oil and pumpkin seed oil.

The Pelican Grill's Jim Foster's tip is to always use wild shrimp. Wild shrimp are a little more work because they don't come peeled and de-veined like the less expensive farmed shrimp, but they have more fat so they stay tender and taste more like shrimp should.

Jennifer and Matthew Brearley preserve lots of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables at Castlegarth, their White Lake restaurant. They crush an unflavoured Vitamin C tablet into each jar to retain the colour of the food, especially tomatoes or anything green.

Ron Falsetti, executive chef at Mamma Teresa's Ristorante, believes there is no secret knife or magic herb to make someone a better cook. He says it's more about opening your mind to the possibilities. You'll be successful if you first consider the ingredients you have on hand, or go out and gather whatever looks appealing and fresh, and then focus on the creative side of cooking. With food, the possibilities are truly endless.

Executive chef Hector Diaz of the Hilton Lac Leamy advises keeping your knives very sharp as you will cut yourself far more easily with a dull knife than a sharp one. Use an inexpensive stone to sharpen your knives, rather than a steel sharpener. Also, never throw away vegetable peels. Wash your vegetables well before peeling, then put carrot, onion and other peelings into your stock pot for a much more flavourful and richly coloured stock.

domus café chef/owner John Taylor says to keep tender greens crisp until you are ready to use them, buy local so you can ensure their freshness. Wash them very gently then place in salad spinner to dry. Store them in the fridge right in the salad spinner for a few hours or overnight.

Chef/owners Jennifer Warren-Part and Charles Part enjoy using edible flowers throughout the summer at Les Fougères. The ones they use most are bachelor's buttons, calendula, Johnny-jump-ups and nasturtiums. The bachelors buttons and calendula in particular produce blooms, which are full of tiny, brilliantly coloured petals that they pull out and sprinkle on plates, adding unique summer colour and a twist to many of their savoury and dessert dishes.

Chef Mike Moffatt of Beckta Dining & Wine advises that you can make almost any starch product ahead of time and reheat it very successfully. With mashed potatoes, simply add a little more milk or cream and butter, then stir over low heat. With rice or risotto, cook it three-quarters of the way, then remove from heat. When ready to finish, add a little more stock, cream or water and finish cooking. However, don't add any cheese products ahead of time to starches to be reheated, or they may take on a gluey texture.

At The Whalesbone's, chef Steve Wall says his most indispensible tools are Moribashi, long pointed steel chopsticks with wooden handles. He prefers them to tongs for handling meat, fish, etc. during cooking as they provide a more delicate touch. One of the ingredients he uses the most is bottled yuzu juice, extracted from a sour Japanese fruit; it offers a very intense citrus taste that is amazing in any recipe calling for lemon.

One of chef Michael Blackie's many kitchen secrets at Brookstreet's Perspectives Restaurant involves plastic wrap. To transform a square piece of meat into a nice round medallion, roll it up in plastic wrap into a log shape and put in fridge for four hours. With the wrap still on, slice the meat into medallions and sear on both sides; the plastic wrap (or, as he affectionately calls it, the protein girdle) will contract and shrink without affecting the meat; you can simply remove it after and your meat will stay in a perfect round shape.

Executive chef Scott Lucas of the Novotel's Trio Restaurant advises home cooks to always season sauces ahead of time, and be sure to taste them. Don't wait until you are just about to plate food or you will be far too rushed and likely to over- or under-season a sauce.

Chef Norm Aitken, co-owner of Juniper Kitchen & Wine Bar, loves to create dishes with a robustness that comes from a melding together of many flavours. Most of Juniper's plates contain an interesting element, such as chutney, relish or other condiment, designed to offer a counterpoint of taste and texture to the other ingredients

Executive chef Kenton Leier of the Delta Ottawa's Capital Dining Room says his team always keeps several days' supply of things like carrots, onions, garlic and ginger washed, peeled and ready to go in the refrigerator in Ziploc bags or air-tight containers. Also with things like demi-glace or stocks, they freeze them in small amounts that can easily be taken out and thawed quickly for immediate use.

Big Cheese Ion Aimers of The WORKS offers up the secret to uniformly shaped hamburger patties that won't fall apart on the grill. Take lean ground beef and shape it into eight-ounce balls. You can replicate the gadget they use to press the balls into perfect patties by cutting a 5/8-inch-thick cross-section of six-inch-PVC pipe (sand edges and wash well before using). Place the ball of meat into the PVC ring and press down firmly on the meat with a flat object to form the hamburger patty. It's best to refrigerate the patties for a few hours before grilling.

Mambo Nuevo Latino's chef Zab Vanderhyden divulges that one of his favourite secret ingredients is dried mango powder, available at specialty food shops. It tastes just like fresh mango and adds a delicious element to salads, meats, fish and dessert.

Executive chef Yannick Anton of Signatures Restaurant at Le Cordon Bleu advises quickly blanching green fine herbs in water with Vitamin C added to it. After straining the herbs, mix with any type of oil to get a vivid green oil with plenty of flavour. Examples include basil olive oil, dill grape seed oil or mint olive oil, which is featured in one of Signatures' famous dishes: the deconstructed Andalusian gazpacho with lobster medallions and fresh mint oil.

Executive chef Neil Mather of the Holiday Inn Select says his team at Graffiti's uses lots of infused oils for flavour. They make their own chive, basil, garlic and lemon oils for various dishes and they also save the oil from pickled eggplant and sundried tomatoes to flavour breads and sauces.

Chef Michael Hay suggests trying The Courtyard's preferred sous-vide, or "in a vacuum," cooking method. Using an inexpensive food saver device, you can vacuum-seal food in a bag, then boil it in a water bath. The method is effective for many different types of food, including meat, which can be cooked in the sealed bag then finished by searing quickly in a smoking hot pan. The meat will be extremely tender and flavourful.

Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro's chef/owner Warren Sutherland recommends that for everyday cooking we should only use diamond-crystal kosher salt. Because of its larger surface area, it coats food more evenly and absorbs better into food; it also has no additives which can affect the flavour of your dish.

Kurt Waldele, executive chef and director of the National Arts Centre Restaurants and Catering says that a real kitchen has no secrets but if there were one, he would say it's to use only the finest seasonal ingredients, have a sound knowledge of cooking, put in a little bit of hard work and above all, add a very healthy portion of enthusiasm for eating. Written by Paula Roy




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