Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Balut Incident: an Interview with Jeremy Esterly

from the interview desk

In my last post I mused about culinary preferences and sensibilities. There are items which might make western stomachs reel and the gag reflex give us the quick kick and heave. Seaweed ice cream, I have made perfectly clear (I hope) is not one of these. What about duck embryo? Think you could chow down on a seventeen day embryo with a little salt and pepper or a dash of lime juice? Not me. Not yet anyway. It’s not that I am afraid. It’s that my socially constructed preferences make it seem very unappealing. I’m just not ready to make a leap so far. This isn’t the case with Jeremy Esterly, Executive Sous Chef at Fire Food & Drink. We all know that it’s the chefs de cuisine and sous chefs that are often the backbone and driving force of day-to-day success, productivity and creativity of professional kitchens. Jeremy and Fire seem a good mix: the uncomplicated, big tasting food done exceptionally well weds with Jeremy’s love of charcuterie, his dedication to meat and his passion for all things food. His hunger for knowledge and food experiences seems to surpass my own. This was highlighted recently when a kitchen practical joke turned foray into a novel taste and texture incident. I write “incident” because even he had a little difficulty downing the balut. (Click here, if you don’t yet get what a balut is.) I’ve got to hand it to you, Jeremy. To put it kitchen vernacular: you’ve got balls! And so, we’ve opened the Petit Soleil Interview Room and invited Jeremy for a little chat.

Petite Soleil (PS): Jeremy, can you tell us, briefly please, where does your culinary passion come from?

Jeremy Esterly (JE): My passion comes from the fact that neither of my parents were accomplished cooks. I always wanted to provide better meals for my family. A lot my passion come from being able to do what I want with my job. We always strive to do as many interesting things daily as possible. A job in the culinary field is super rewarding. You learn something every day, literally. I am also extremely inspired by Martin Picard in Montreal. His food is so playful and over the top. I don't think it gets much better than him.

PS: We heard you were going to be interviewed by a culinary magazine (of much less stature than this blog, I'm sure) about your pig tattoo. Is it also true what they say, that you can't remember the basic parts of the pig so you had them tattooed on your forearm?

JE: The magazine in question is Meatpaper. Everyone should check it out. The pig tattoo will be featured in their March issue. Getting the tattoo sure didn't help me remember the pork primals, since the diagram on my arm is from a 17th century woodcut illustration. Too late to cover it up now. Maybe I'll update the cuts one of these days (feature 21st century retail cuts perhaps)

PS: You and one of the other guys at Fire do a lot of charcuterie in house. How do you manage to pull it off for the volume, when the kitchen is not really set up for charcuterie?

JE: The charcuterie project has been put on hold for awhile, aside from our small scale bacon factory that we have running right now. It is very hard to produce charcuterie in a kitchen that isn't set up to do what we have done. Dave Treaster (one of the guys) rigged a deep hotel pan so that we can smoke 5 slabs of bacon in our tandoor. Before that, it would have been a slow process, smoking one slab at a time. We are getting ready to introduce “private label” bacon in the coming months that should be awesome.

PS: We're vexed trying to balance a feeling of immense respect for you with nauseous revulsion. So we'll get right to point. What possessed you to eat the duck embryo? And for the millions of readers of this blog, please describe the experience.

JE: It all stemmed from a trip to Asiatown looking for some tamarind paste. One of the cooks and I decided that it would be funny to buy "balut" and trick one of the other cooks. At Fire, we offer sieved egg as an accompaniment to our Caesar salad. We placed one of the eggs in the pot with his other eggs. When he peeled the balut, he got a disgusting little surprise. After this, I decided that I had to eat one. Gagging this down was pretty hard. Part of the embryo felt like it was calcified, and I couldn't seem to chew it no matter what I did. After a couple of minutes, it finally went down and I was victorious over the lil' embryonic treat.

PS: Our researchers have discovered there exists a video of your experience (I've even seen it). Any chance of a YouTube appearance?

JE: We are thinking of doing a Cool Hand Luke style balut eating contest. So far, no one has signed up. If we get around to it, we will definitely put it up on YouTube.

PS: Are you planning to add duck embryo to the menu at Fire?

JE: We'll try to run it as a special with duck testicles. Coming soon to a plate near you.

PS: What's your favorite knife?

JE: Shun 8" Chef's Knife with a granton edge

PS: What was your single most memorable culinary experience (aside from this recent experiment)?

JE: So far, I would have to say being photographed for Meatpaper and getting promoted to Executive Sous Chef. I feel like I have come a long way in a short time. I went to New England Culinary Institute 3 years ago without any experience in the field, and am loving every minute of it.

PS: Wow, didn’t realize you were still such a babe in the woods. You're doing very well at Fire and may be there for some time, but we assume it's not your final destination. What's the next move?

JE: I hope to open up my dream restaurant.....The Little Pig. The restaurant will be pork-centric and feature quality ingredients from some of our finest local farmers. I also want to open up a soul food restaurant called Greens. We'll see. I'll keep you posted.

PS: Thanks for stopping by our studios. By the way, it's customary to bring some food with you. Next time how about some of that delicious bacon you cure and smoke in house?

JE: For you Mr. Fambrough, I'll bring a whole slab!!!!