In this segment of the Evolution of a Dish series, we caught up with Chef Barry Tonkinson, director of culinary research and development at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
A great dish in Chef Barry's position meets unique goals: teaching culinary students about specific techniques, balanced components and plating, in addition to educating on flavor and science.
Chef Barry explains his process and the story behind this award-winning dish that's evolved over the years.
What's something about you or your background that many people wouldn't know that impacts your cooking?
I spent a lot of time in my youth in the Normandy countryside with my family for vacation. That time really sparked the appreciation I have for fresh food, fresh patisserie boulangerie, going to the charcutier to get sausages, going to the markets to get fresh vegetables, etc. I got more tangible experiences with products out there.
I spent a lot of time working with a chef named Paul Gayler MBE, one of the godfathers of gourmet vegetarian cuisine in the UK. He was one of the first people to set up a vegetarian tasting menu alongside a regular one. I worked alongside him from when I was a commis and helped him out with recipe testing for his books and hosting events and private dinners. So I absorbed a lot of information from him, and in particular, how to treat vegetables and how to get flavor from plant-based products to elevate them and let them speak. Although I'm not a vegetarian chef, I cook with meat and fish, I've taken that base knowledge into my R&D world exploring things like fermentation and take that a step further.
What's your favorite thing about professional cooking?
If you're in service and you're you're stressed out, rather than enjoying it, then you just haven't done enough mise en place.
For me, the mise part of it, doing all the prep, is the most fun because that's really when you're cooking, right? And you're seeing things transform. Even just setting up my station and cutting all my tape, making sure everything's perfect. At the end of it, seeing all my mise en place together, everything packed away, labeled, vacuum packed, all together, I'm just checking off my list: boom, boom, boom, all done. I think the interesting thing about the service is that's the time when you get to appreciate all of the work you've done during that eight hours of mise en place. If it goes well, you know that you did a great job. It's the judgment call on how well your day went.
Where did the idea for this dish come from?
The dish was originally built for a competition called the Vegetarian Chef of the Future. The premise was to create a three-course veg menu; this was the main course for that. It was summer, so I wanted something light and bright that fit well with the other two dishes. I started very simple with zucchini flower, goat cheese, cured zucchini caponata and mint.
In general, is there a message you're trying to convey in your food?
My food is built on life experiences. Whether that be travel or vacations or something I ate on a special occasion that meant something to me or brings back memories. I try to ensure my food means something to me first and foremost because then I feel that the effort I put in will translate to meaning something to the customer.
I try and put a lot of effort into making it simple. So if you look at my recipes on paper, they look incredibly complex. But when you eat, it shouldn't be an academic exercise of what's this?, what's that? Every flavor should be identifiable, and I try and create as many clean, strong flavors as possible using technique.
How do you capture ideas?
It's completely random actually. Ideas come at completely bizarre times. I might see something in a movie that reminds me of something, or I might be flicking through a magazine, or it may be inspiration from other chefs. Quite often I will just eat something and think, Oh, this is delicious. How can I take this and tell my story through it and put my spin on it? It's built on experiences so quite often it's what I experience when I'm traveling or certain dishes that really stood out to me in Europe, Eastern Europe, Portugal, and of course, the United States. For example, when I first came to the U.S., I was just blown away by how good buffalo chicken was, so I started playing with dishes that revolved around that combination of flavors that we don't have in England.
The Dish: Zucchini Flower "Fritti," Goat Cheese, Carpaccio, Caponata and Mint
Tell us about your creative process.What factors (internal and external) do you consider when developing a new dish?
Seasonality, obviously, and then I start to think about the focal point, what the main attraction of the dish is and how I can best complement that by using technique or accompanying flavors to elevate that main product. Texture and aesthetics are also very important, making sure that the dish is visually attractive so the customer is already salivating and getting juices flowing when the dish is put in front of them.
Also, I try and learn with every dish I create. For every new dish, I have to have completed some sort of personal triumph in terms of research and development. If I'm doing a monkfish dish that I'm going to glaze with miso, I'll make my own miso. It might take me nine months to get there, but then I'll know how to make miso. For the next dish, I'll make my own shoyu, and then I'm continually learning.
How do you teach?
I explain the origins of the dish, where it comes from, what it means, why we're doing it, and what sort of flavors go together and why it's that texture. So they understand the elements of the dish and how it's supposed to come together and make sense. I explain the techniques involved.
For example, I marinate the zucchini with lemon and olive oil, which is very simple, but I can compress that in a vacuum chamber and explain what happens to that zucchini, it soaks up all that lemon juice and gets coated in oil. You know, explaining how we make an oil and then clarify that oil, and then it's just a case of demonstrating. I have everyone taste everything so they understand all the elements separately and then build the dish together, so they can taste everything together. There might be six elements to the dish: If they get each element perfectly to get their mise en place together, then the execution at the end should be fairly simple. Putting it together should always be like the least stressful part, I believe, of cooking, right? If we do the mise en place first.
If you're in service and you're stressed out, rather than enjoying it, then you just haven't done enough mise en place.
How do you measure that the dish is successful or when are you happy with it? What's your process for iterating on it?
At the time, it was the best I could do with it. I didn't have the knowledge I do today, for example adding some hydrocolloids to the tempura batter to make it crispier. That's the journey of the dish. I hadn't learned those things yet.
For me, the dish is never good enough but that room for improvement might not be visible at the time.
For example, with this dish I did in 2006, it was very simple: caponata in the middle, some zucchini coated in lemon and olive oil, and a tempura-fried zucchini flower. At that time, that was the best I could do with it. It was delicious, it tasted fantastic, but at that time I didn't have the knowledge of adding some hydrocolloids to the tempura batter to make it a little bit crisper, or clarifying the mint oil that I used to make with it, or compressing the zucchini in the lemon and olive oil so that it absorbs that juice better, or in the caponata, compressing the raisins in some lemon juice to plump them up and fill them with acidity. That's the journey of the dish. I hadn't learned those things yet.
It's the same in many industries. The Ford Model T was the best of the best at its time. Now your average Kia is a million times better than that car. But it's not comparable, they didn't know at that time what could be done. We're constantly evolving.
As I learn, I'm not necessarily trying to change that dish but I might clarify a curry oil and get a really nice color and think, what dishes do I have that use oil? Oh, that zucchini dish I did in 2006 uses mint oil, and I can update that oil now. I learned how to make a better tempura batter using a bit of xanthan or a bit of Ultratex, and then I apply that to my recipe. I'm constantly going back into old recipes looking at where I use tempura batter and changing them so they all use this new tempura batter.
You can find out more about Chef Barry Tonkinson here: