By Timothy Cooper

This interview originally appeared in ICE’s Main Course newsletter. 

Padma Lakshmi is perhaps best known as host and executive producer of Bravo’s Emmy Award–winning “Top Chef,” currently in its 14th season. But prior to that position, she was also an actress, food expert, model, and award-winning author.

Padma Lakshmi

Photo Credit: Inez & Vinoodh

Born in India, she grew up in America, graduated from Clark University with degrees in theater arts and American literature, and worked as a fashion model in Europe and the United States. Early on, she hosted two cooking shows on Food Network: “Padma’s Passport,” where she cooked dishes from around the world, and the documentary series “Planet Food.” She also wrote the best-selling cookbook “Easy Exotic,” and a second cookbook, “Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet.” In 2016, she published her memoir, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” as well as her new culinary compendium, “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.”

For her hosting and judging role on “Top Chef,” she was nominated for an Emmy. Her line of culinary products, called Padma’s Easy Exotic, includes frozen organic foods, spice blends, teas, and more.

In 2009, she cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to bring attention to the disease she’d suffered from for years. In addition to helping launch a research facility for the disease, she helped get a bill passed in the New York State Senate to expand teen health initiatives throughout the state.

You’ve already had such a varied career, in areas including acting, modeling, authoring, TV hosting, and more. How did that develop into a focus on food?

Padma Lakshmi: My earliest memories are all about food, actually. They occurred mostly when I was a toddler in India. I still remember being on my grandmother’s cool marble floor in her kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to really cook back then, but I could still shell peas out of their pods or break the ends off of beans. From very early on, I associated cooking with womanhood. All the fun stuff was always happening in the kitchen.

Now you can get everything everywhere, but when I was a child there were certain delicacies that you couldn’t get in the south [of India] that we would have relatives bring us from the north. So just being covetous of different ingredients from different places started very young for me. I have been hunting and gathering ever since. My new spice book is definitely an offshoot of that lifelong passion.

Those ingredients you coveted—were a lot of them spices and herbs, or did they span the gamut?

In the case of coming from north India to south India, I remember my uncle used to always bring us something called aam papad, which is like a slightly thicker version of fruit leather. There’s sour mango, and there’s also sweet. I always liked the spicy, sour kind. So they weren’t necessarily all spices. But a lot of times, we were transporting things from different ends of the country, like dry lotus root from Kerala that was dehydrated and refried to accompany some rice dishes.

The spices that my mother uses—luckily they were all available at Kalustyan’s [in NYC’s Murray Hill neighborhood], but that’s because we lived in a major city. I think a lot of people experienced a sort of culinary homesickness. So what I’m describing is not that uncommon.

It sounds like Kalustyan’s was a major access point for the ingredients you longed for.

Yes, definitely. For several generations of immigrants in New York, Kalustyan’s was a real godsend. When I was growing up, there was only Kalustyan’s; and certainly when my uncle and my mother first came to this country, they didn’t have much else. Kalustyan’s started out as an Armenian shop. It wasn’t even Indian. Then over the years, as the neighborhood changed, the store changed along with it. And because they sold a lot of Eastern ingredients, meaning Armenian or Turkish, a lot of Indian people started going there to buy some overlapping spices. Now it’s become this gourmet ethnic food store that just covers the whole world. Every student should make a trip to Kalustyan’s. It’s very inspiring.

How did the concept develop for your latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World” (HarperCollins)?

It’s actually an encyclopedia. It is an A-to-Z compendium. It’s a reference book. There are some recipes to make teas or tisanes [herbal infusions] or oils. There’s a section on how to roast spices, how to keep them fresh and store them. It’s cataloging every single spice on earth and telling you where it comes from, how it’s traditionally used, what cultures use it, if it has any historical significance, how to use it, what flavor notes are in it, how to store it, how much of it to use—all of that. It’s meant to be a guide that a cook, whether novice or professional, will reach for every day.

I was always curious about spices from other countries and how to change up my cooking and learn about other cultures through how they eat. I wanted one place I could go to. Of course you can go and Google anything these days, but it’s wonderful to have a tactile book in your hand—that pleasure of leafing through the pages, seeing a beautiful, vibrant picture. I was also itching to do something scholarly—something very empirically, scientifically accurate that wasn’t subject to taste or anything else. This book seeks to be that.

At what point did food media, food hosting, and culinary publishing start becoming a career for you?

I always loved to cook. I did a movie that I had to gain weight for, but aside from that, I had never tried to lose weight in my life. I was still in my 20s. So I really discovered how to trim the fat out of the food I ate and make it more healthy, and a book naturally came out of that. Nobody thought the book was going to do very well, but it did do well; it won a prize in Versailles. So I think people were surprised by that. I really fell into it by accident. I went on Food Network as a part of my book tour to publicize the book. After I was on there twice, they asked me again, then they offered me a development deal, which is how I started.

But before we get into food media or food hosting: Everybody wants to be a star these days by the time they’re 25. Sure, that happens to a lot of people, but you have to educate yourself. Whether it’s culinary school or working under a great chef that you admire or traveling with your backpack, going and literally tasting the world—or all of those things, hopefully—that will start to establish in you a point of view that is unique. Ask yourself, “Well, why do I want a career in this?” It’s not good enough to say, “I’m interested in food.” I’m interested in dance, but that doesn’t mean I should be a dancer.

What you want to think about is, what can you add to the food culture that already exists that is different? There are so many cookbooks. There are so many young people out there that say, “Oh, I want to be a chef, or I want a food show.” Well, why? Cooking is actually manual labor. It’s hard work. The hours are horrible. Just ask any chef! But if this is your passion, then I strongly suggest you live a little. Go and eat at great restaurants. Educate yourself. Buy books to gain knowledge. You just have to be hungry for information and experience.

I was recently working with a young person who was assisting me. They were testing a recipe with me, and they made the recipe to see if it worked. Then they said, “Well, I don’t know what this is supposed to taste like.” Of course they don’t—in this case, it was a spice blend, baharat. So they’ve led a particular life, and they haven’t had the chance to go to Turkey. But I think you owe it to yourself to go to a Turkish restaurant, if you can’t fly to Turkey. It’s a wonderful time to be young these days, because you have the Internet. You have mail order. The good news is, of course a rack of lamb is going to cost you a lot of money, but spices, for the most part, are relatively inexpensive and require little effort. It’s a great way to open your horizons.

When I was a kid, there was a guy on TV named Jeff Smith. They had a show on PBS called “The Frugal Gourmet.” Jeff would pick a country every show, and he would make all the dishes from that country. Through those recipes and talking about the ingredients, he would tell you about the history of that country, what grows there, the climate—all this information. You really got to immerse yourself, just within that half-hour, in the culture through the food.

It’s what I tried to do with “Planet Food,” these hour-long documentaries I did over a decade ago. Tell me what somebody eats, and I will tell you who they are.

So I think those young people who want a career in this business—it’s important to set yourself apart. It’s important to develop skills and tastes, and develop a palate, and really challenge yourself; really think about what your unique point of view is. If you were to open a restaurant, why should somebody invest in you? It costs a lot of money to open a restaurant and to keep it going. Most restaurants in New York fold within the first year.

Even if you don’t want to be a chef, if you want to be a writer, now everyone’s blogging about every other thing. You have to sharpen your literary skills, your writing skills, and your food skills, because every person with a computer is your competition now.

Through hosting “Top Chef,” I imagine you’ve seen many examples of people with a distinct culinary point of view. How can chefs start to recognize and develop their own voice?

I think a lot of people who have succeeded have a particular voice and a point of view that is instructive. I think Ina Garten is great because she’s very straightforward and in command of what she’s doing. She believes in common sense. That shows through. It’s simple recipes; but they work, and they’re very crowd-pleasing. They’re very elegant but still approachable. So that is her particular métier.

Somebody like Diana Kennedy, who’s English—she’s not even Mexican—has devoted her life to researching Mexican food, its heritage, its nuances, its regional differences; where things grow, why things grow. So she’s coming at it from a particular point of view. She’s so committed that she moved to Mexico years ago.

Even with Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook “Plenty”: I think the reason that “Plenty” did so well is because there were a lot of people who were eating like that, and there weren’t a lot of vegetarian cookbooks or recipes that were colorful and interesting and that didn’t feel like substitutes for meat and were full of flavor. Where Yotam comes from—I used to live right around the corner from his little gastropub in Notting Hill. So I know how he prepares his food. I’m a big fan of it. It’s got a beautiful point of view. It’s always very herbaceous, always very fresh, always has a lot of pomegranate and za’atar, these beautiful ingredients from the Middle East, but it’s not traditionally Middle Eastern. It’s much more contemporary and cosmopolitan than that, because he’s from London.

So you have to know what audience you’re talking to. For me, my audience is always me. Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or a recipe, I’m creating that for me or my friends. I don’t want to create or make anything that I wouldn’t feel really enthusiastic and proud to either use myself or give to someone else. So you can’t phone it in. You have to think about pockets of the culinary landscape that maybe haven’t been explored as much. When I first started, people were saying, “Wow, people aren’t really into global cuisine. Sure, you’ve traveled, but not everybody’s interested in using all those strange spices or whatever.”

But I think now the world has caught up to me. I probably seemed exotic in 1999, but I think everybody eats like me now.

Can you talk a bit more about how what were once considered niche cuisines are now going mainstream, or becoming targets of fusion with American or other cuisines?

The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time. The possibilities and opportunities to taste different kinds of foods are much more prevalent today than even 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, because people are traveling, in spite of certain parts of the world that are dangerous, you do get to try more things. With the Internet and Instagram, you get to know about all these funky dishes.

If you have an interest, there is a portal for you to see that interest now where there wasn’t necessarily any before. For somebody like me, social media has been a huge boon, even though it is kind of tiring to always keep it up. But it’s important to remember that there are people out there who share your likes and passions. If you can tap into those people, then you’ve got something. My thing is, I always like to take classic dishes like macaroni and cheese, or chicken pot pie—very classic American comfort food—and then turn them on their heads; make them a little more modern, maybe slightly healthier.

In my last cookbook, there’s a recipe for Mexican macaroni and cheese. Just by adding two or three ingredients, like Mexican oregano, shallots, and pickled jalapenos, it does change the character of a dish. Subtle changes like that are also easier for people to explore certain new flavors with.

What do you personally like to make at home?

Well, I think one thing to do is just pick a handful of spices that are probably already in the spice rack. They kind of came with the kit, so to speak, and there they are, still sitting there. Herbes de provence is a good one, because you can use it in everything from pasta sauce to ratatouille to poultry and fish and roasted potatoes or sautéed vegetables. Curry powder is another—it doesn’t have to be spicy if you don’t want it to be.

I think a nice way to use these spices—and these are just two—is that I would make a compound butter. You just basically let the butter come to room temperature, and you just smash in some salt, some pepper, some curry powder or herbes de provence, and a little bit of pureed garlic or ginger, then just whisk that together and let it set in a ramekin. You can get fancy and make a log to slice.

Once you’ve done those two compound butters, you can take a nice, healthy pat of it, melt it in a frying pan, and toss some shrimp in it or sear off a chicken breast or a duck breast, or do some fish. Something like that you can use as an all- purpose weapon to flavor your food.

Another spice blend is ras el hanout, which is a Moroccan or North African blend that has a lot of different spices in it. And keeping a jar of preserved lemon is great; you can just remove the seeds and cut half a lemon up into small chunks. All you have to do is sauté that with some shallots and some parsley, and you can sauté any vegetable you want, from green beans to zucchini to parsnips and carrots and potatoes. You can do any kind of protein, like veal scaloppini.

I think people get intimidated by spices because they don’t understand them. They don’t want to measure. They don’t know how to mix it or what to use it with. So just pick one spice. Start small so you’re not overwhelmed.

You mentioned traveling and expanding your horizons, especially for young people. Do you have particular recommendations of destinations that changed the course of your life or your palate?

I think we really don’t have any clue about Mexican food. What we get is guacamole, but Mexican food is so layered and so elaborate. The spices are really beautiful. The more you go into the Yucatan and to Oaxaca, you can see how complex the cooking is. It’s quite sophisticated, and there are just so many flavors that never trickle up to us in the north. But you have to get out of the resort towns and go to Merida, places like that.

The regional food of Spain is also quite fascinating. And Turkey—while they’ve had some political unrest, I think Turkish food is really beautiful and delicious. I think it’s going to have its moment soon, because there are a lot of vegetarian dishes that are full of flavor and are not step-downs from meat dishes. They’re just holistically and proudly vegetarian dishes. Also, lentils and pulses and beans—all that kind of peasant food around the world that we haven’t really paid much credence to—deserve a deeper look.

What’s some advice you’d like to leave people with, especially those who are working on expanding their culinary horizons or even exploring a career in hospitality?

When you go to sleep at night, you should know something you didn’t know that morning—whether it’s going on the Internet for 10 minutes, picking up an old cookbook, going to an ethnic market, trying a different culture’s food, or watching a different show than you would normally watch. Whatever it is, you should try to always educate yourself.

My grandfather was hired as a civil engineer when he was 16, but after he retired, he went to law school. I think that thirst for information, that thirst for skill, should never cease. You should always be a lifelong student, because those are the people that not only have interesting lives, but continue to evolve and have stage two and stage three and stage four of their careers.

Ready to follow in Padma’s footsteps and launch your own exciting culinary career? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs. 

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By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

“If you cook, you are going to get hurt.” The crowd that gathered for a panel discussion on modernist cooking erupted into laughter, but Wylie Dufresne’s observation was gravely accurate. Extreme heat (and cold — working with liquid nitrogen was the object of Wylie’s remark), sharp knives and heavy equipment are some of the perils that cooks must navigate in their daily workplace environment. Add to the mix a dash of occasional chaos and the pressure to produce at breakneck speed, and it’s a wonder more chefs don’t bear hideous deformities.

Chef Sharpening Knives

Young cooks are instantly identified by the rows of scars running up their forearms: the reminders of brief skin-singeing encounters with blazing hot oven racks and pan handles. A cook’s relative experience is easily judged by his or her fingertip’s tolerance to heat (a seemingly heat-proof layer of skin inevitably forms with time). Another telltale sign of a chef is the tough, raised callous at the base of the index finger: the contact point of skin and the carbon steel blade of a chef’s knife. This callous never fully returns to soft, supple flesh, even after years of retirement from daily slicing and chopping. It’s a calling card of sorts, a silent testament to one’s lifelong métier.

While kitchen scars may fade with time, they rarely disappear completely. My first ghastly kitchen injury dates back to my days as a baker. The shop where I worked focused primarily on bread and cakes, but we also did some light takeout fare and off-site catering. During the mid-December holiday season, we were catering one or two small parties every night. One of those afternoons, the chef/owner executed one event while I simultaneously staged a second party at another location. I could easily handle the responsibility of the arrangement, but I was probably still too green of a cook to entrust with the logistical feats these parties presented.

Hot Kitchen Boiling Over Flames

I was wrapping up my prep list with that menu’s protein: a Cajun-spiced, blackened chicken affair (this was the early 90s). Proper blackening technique — as I knew it, anyway — would dictate exposing the oiled, spice-rubbed meat to a fierce high heat and only a little added cooking fat. In my haste to get everything finished, I ignored the gradual buildup of oil in my smoking cast iron pan. Worse yet, I violated the cardinal rule of adding food to any pan: always place the item so that it falls away from you. This precaution ensures that, in the event any hot cooking oil splashes, it does so away from you.

As I tossed the last chicken breast onto the fire, my face and eyes were stung with a spray of hot and spicy oil. I dropped back from the stove and somehow managed to feel my way to the three-compartment sink for some temporary relief. I splashed my face with cold water, wiped myself off and glanced at the clock. I was running late and I didn’t have time to assess the situation properly.

I managed to arrive at the catering gig fully prepped and on time, but as I worked my chafing dishes I was filled with self-conscious dread. I thought I’d scarred myself for life, that I’d need a shroud to hide my culinary deformity like some modern-day elephant man — all because of one impatiently flung piece of chicken. As it turns out, the burn on my face was minor and fully healed within a couple of weeks. But it could have been far worse. The lesson learned? Always respect the fire. That scar may have faded, but others have been permanent.

Chopping Onions

Another early mishap of mine persists in the form of a long-term, conspicuous reminder. A year or so after the blackened chicken incident, I was working my way through a very large pile of onions. It was a straightforward task: hack the polar ends off of each one, score through the skin, peel that off, then halve the onion lengthwise and perform a simple, uniform julienne. At ICE, our fledgling cooks are taught to tuck the thumb back and under, using the broad surface of the resulting fist to both secure the food and guide the knife while chopping. Of course I knew that then, too. But in my urgency to finish all those onions in time, I either looked up or the heavy chef’s knife slipped…and into the mountain of sliced onions went the tip of my left thumb.

My reaction was swift. I didn’t want to look closely at the damage, nor did I have much time to fret over it. I rinsed my hand in the nearby sink, slapped on two or three Band-Aids, wrapped it with a length of gauze and secured it all with what must have been a foot or two of electrical tape. And then I went on with my prep.

I certainly didn’t forget about it over the course of the night’s work. I was in a sense of denial. I was uninsured and living check-to-check on my cook’s wage. I didn’t want to bother with any workers’ comp benefit I may have been entitled to, so there was no professional medical attention given to the mangled digit. After a day or so, when I realized I might have made an error in judgment, I still didn’t seek help. I feared getting yelled at by some nurse or intern for not going directly to the emergency room. Instead, I kept it clean and wrapped, and it eventually healed. The contour of my left thumb is no longer rounded, but now sloped off at a sharp angle.

Butchery Fish Butchering

I’ve heard many stories over the years—likely mythical legends by the time they got to me. The fish bone that went in one side of someone’s finger and emerged months later on the other side. The arm broken in multiple places by an industrial mixer. The fingers severed on deli slicers. I’ve had close calls throughout my twenty years battling in the kitchen, but in comparison to many colleagues, I’ve survived mostly unscathed. My worst injuries were the result of total rookie moves.

A young cook might boast over a particularly gnarly burn or gash, eager to display it as a badge of honor. It’s part of the bravado, the mandated sense of fearlessness that pervades the kitchen. As I grow older, I’m not proud of my mistakes. With time, one increasingly feels stupid over the tiniest nicks and scratches, embarrassed for even a split second’s lack of control. So a word of advice to those starting out in the industry: the second you sense you’re playing too close to the edge, slow down. You won’t work faster with a half of a finger, a burnt face or a broken arm.

Want to study with Chef Michael? Click here for more information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

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By Caitlin Raux
 

It’s not easy to remove the intimidation factor from wine. Save for sommeliers and connoisseurs, most people get a little squirmy when it comes to talking about wine — a fact that makes wine buying a challenge. Dustin Wilson, master sommelier and co-founder of Verve Wine, wants to make wine more accessible to everyone. With both an online and brick and mortar presence, Verve Wine aims to educate customers and help them buy, order and enjoy wine with confidence. ICE is excited to welcome Dustin as one of the featured participants in the next First Fridays at ICE on April 7. In anticipation, we chatted with Dustin about his path to Verve and picked his brain for some seasonal wine recs.

Dustin Wilson MS

When did wine shift from a hobby to a career path for you?

I would say it first became a hobby when I was living in Maryland. I was working at a steak house and I got really interested in wine from being around it on a regular basis. So I started reading and studying it and tasting more often. But it wasn’t until I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 2005 and started working with Bobby Stuckey at Frasca’s Food and Wine that I realized that there was potential to work as a sommelier and have wine as a career path. Bobby is a master sommelier and he was my first mentor.

You’re a master sommelier also, right?

Correct. I passed the exam in 2011.

I’ve heard it’s a pretty intense test, to say the least.

It is indeed.

Tell me about preparing for that. What was the training like?

The majority of it is self-taught, so you don’t go to class for it. In order to get good, you need to have a great support system of wine people around you who are also pursuing it. It would be incredibly difficult to prepare for it on your own, without guidance. It took me basically from the time I started pursuing it until I actually passed, so a five year process.

Five years!?

Yes. It’s a lot of studying. You know, leading up to the time when I passed, I was putting in a solid 3-4 hours of study time on days that I was working. Then on days off it would be another 8-12 hours of study time. Tasting all the time, studying all the time with my group. It was definitely all-encompassing. I didn’t have a lot of free time.

After working as a sommelier for some time, you started Verve Wine. Can you share a little more about Verve?

Verve is a place to learn about, discover and buy wine online. We also have a physical store in Tribeca. We focus on small, artisanal producers from all over the globe, but we’re very particular about the producers that we carry. We like family owned estates that very much respect their land and make wines that are true to their sense of place. So it’s a process of curation — finding great wines from all over the world at different prices, everything from ten-dollar picks to those that cost thousands of dollars. We really wanted to create a place that makes finding and learning about wine accessible for a lot of people. That’s our main focus — making wine accessible and making it fun without dumbing it down. Also we make sure we provide top quality wines.

I was checking out your website and, like you said, it does seem very accessible. I work in food so I found the tool where you can search wines by food pairings very useful.

Exactly. We realized that people like to shop for wine in various ways. Some people go in and know exactly what they’re looking for. Some people are looking for a particular grape or region. Other people look for wine to go with a certain type of food. There’s also an “occasions” feature, so if you’re looking for wine for brunch versus Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving, we put together curated lists of wines that fit each occasion.

And that’s just the website! Do you also do in-house wine education?

Yes. We host tastings pretty often and they cover a wide range of topics. Sometimes we do a casual tasting — like on Thursdays, we open up a couple of bottles from a region and people can come, taste and we talk with them about the wines. Other times, we’ll invite winemakers or sommeliers and host on a seminar where we taste through their wines or a specific region and talk more in-depth about it. This Friday we have Richard Betts, another master sommelier coming in to do a tasting of a wine he makes plus some other wines that are similar to his. We want people to come to the store to learn and taste, not just buy.

It seems like all the master sommeliers know each other. Do you guys and girls all hang out and open magnums together? 

Sometimes. It’s definitely a small community of people. At this point I think there’s only around 230 worldwide. We tend to all know each other. I am buddies with some of them and we get together on a regular basis. We’re always supportive of each other in our respective endeavors. A lot of us got to know each other through the process of studying for the exam. Some of my best friends are guys I took the master sommelier exam with.

That makes sense. Circling back to the First Fridays event you’re taking part in at ICE — The Craft of Food, Wine & Chocolate — do you have any pairing suggestions for wine and chocolate?

It depends on the type of chocolate. If you’re having a bitter, dark chocolate on its own, I like something called Banyuls. It’s actually the name of a place in southern France that makes a really delicious fortified wine — kind of similar to port but a slightly different flavor and texture to it that I think works really well with bitter chocolate. Let’s say you’re having a chocolate truffle or something with caramel or fruit inside — I’d recommend this interesting wine from Austria that’s a sweet wine, late harvest made from a grape called Zweigelt. You definitely want something that will match up with the sweetness of the chocolate. The pairing would change depending on the other flavors with the chocolate, if any. If you’re having a chocolate with peanuts or almonds, you might want a vin santo from Italy.

That seems counterintuitive to me. I would think you’d want a contrast in flavors — like if you have a creamy chocolate, you’d want an acidic wine. 

All of these wines actually have a lot of acidity. Because they’re sweet, they need to have a lot of acidity; otherwise the wines would feel cloying and overly rich. But if you were to pair a dry red wine with chocolate, it would be a clash because the chocolate, which is so sweet, would make the wine taste even drier. You don’t want a wine that’s sweeter, you just want to match the sweetness.

Since it’s Spring, can you give us a pairing for a seasonal meal, such as roasted chicken with spring vegetables?

Chardonnay from Burgundy handles itself really well. It tends to be lighter, brighter and fresher than a California Chardonnay, for instance. That would be great with roasted chicken. For spring dishes, especially at this time of year when the sun is starting to come out and things are warming up, I’d recommend crisp, bright, more mineral-driven whites. Things like Gruner Veltliner, Albariño, etc. Sancerre can definitely be a great spring wine, especially with something like roasted asparagus. That goes really well Sauvignon Blanc.

Thank you, Dustin. We’re looking forward to seeing you at ICE soon!

Learn more about First Fridays at ICE.

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By Ethan Fixell

Ethan Fixell is a beer, wine and spirits writer and educator from New York City. He contributes to over a dozen different publications, though he most frequently writes for Food & Wine, Men’s Journal and Quartz.

I drink a lot. As a beverage writer and educator, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable when it comes to cocktails. And yet, after recently sitting in on ICE’s “Cocktail Recipe Development” class, I’m almost embarrassed to admit just how much I actually learned.

The class was the final session of ICE’s new six-week Professional Mixology program, which, led by the school’s Director of Beverage Studies Anthony Caporale, explores topics ranging from mixology history and technique, to cocktail construction, to practical bar management. In this ultimate session, students — who range from curious foodies to prospective bar owners — were given the chance to flex their newfound cocktail knowledge by assembling a custom bar menu and preparing the prospective drinks for their colleagues.
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I, for one, was thrilled to participate as a mock bar-goer: Over the course of two hours, each student stood up to describe his or her bar concept to the class, read a menu of up to five cocktails (priced according to a standardized formula) and concocted beverages for thirsty classmates. Below are my notes on some of the most intriguing presentations I witnessed (and drank!) in this incredibly unique class:

LORI

First up was Lori, who pitched a bar focusing on female clientele, with “drinks that cater to a woman’s palate, but aren’t girly.” Her cocktails — such as the Calm Collins: gin blended with a relaxing mix of lavender, lemon and rosemary – sounded delicious, but incredibly expensive considering the suggested 22% pour cost. At $25 per drink, she’ll likely only cater to millionaire patrons. Anthony let Lori know that he loved the theme of the bar and the drink names, but pressed her on her pricing.

Her cocktail recipes, however, were right on the money. The Ginger Chamomile Flip (rum, ginger, chamomile and spice made creamy with an egg white foam) was a particular hit with the entire class.

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ERIC

Eric’s goal was to open a bar in Crown Heights with Emily, a friend and fellow student in the class. He managed to keep prices around $12, with takes on three different classics: an Old Fashioned, a Rob Roy and a Negroni. Modeled after an Old Fashioned, his Short Stack — made with rye, maple syrup, Blackstrap molasses, aged bitters and garnished with an orange peel — tasted like a syrupy stack of pancakes.

I ordered a Short Stack and Eric asked if I preferred the bitters on top or mixed in. Emily, in a hushed whisper, suggested that I take them on top for increased aromatics.

I took Emily’s recommendation and good thing I did: the nose on the beverage was amazing. Perhaps it was a touch too sweet on the palate but that can easily be adjusted. Considering this was Eric’s first time preparing the cocktail in public, I was quite impressed.

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NESHANN

Who needs food when you’ve got drinks? Neshann really shook things up and did away with a traditional restaurant menu for a “5-course cocktail meal.” The journey began with an appetizer in the form of a Scotch-based Cranberry Blood and Sand, and concluded with dessert: Meant To Be, a play on the Grasshopper that incorporates Branca Menta, crème de cacao, Cognac, orange juice and a whole egg.

“This is a great example of building off of an original template,” Anthony declared, who seemed to be quite happy with the students’ jobs of taking the classics and reconstructing them with their own updated spins. Apparently, Anthony explained, this is the approach taken by many great cocktail bars.

Neshann’s best cocktail was an ode to the Sidecar called Broken Axle, made with Cognac, Cointreau, maple and just the right balance of ginger. He explained how he had to be careful with the ginger: A touch too much would “blow it out,” he said, underlining the importance of proper ingredient ratios.

Anthony was delighted by the sweet, sour and spicy cocktails from the students. “When I judge competitions,” he said, “around 60% of drinks are out of balance. I haven’t had an out-of-balance drink all night!”

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DENNIS

The Ethan Fixell Creativity Award goes to Dennis, a doctor who created an incredibly ambitious “Asian-themed menu” spanning cultures from three different countries.

His Korean-themed cocktail was a soju-based kimchi martini. Dennis found that adding fresh fermented cabbage to the glass didn’t impart enough to the beverage, so he infused it into the liquor in advance instead, locking in that pickled flavor.

Dennis’ Thai homage was a Lemongrass Martini made with the option of lemongrass-infused vodka or gin (“I come prepared,” he wryly affirmed) and a kiss of dry vermouth. As a traditionalist (as much as one can be, ordering a lemongrass-infused martini), I opted for the gin version and was far from disappointed.

ICE Pro Mixology

Dennis’s pièce de résistance, however, was his Chinese-inspired drink: a Peking Duck Old Fashioned inspired by some bacon-infused bourbon tasted in a previous class. In fact, the concoction — made with duck-juice-infused bourbon topped with angostura bitters — might have been the winner of the entire night. “That’s what happens when doctors make drinks,” Anthony proclaimed.

But perhaps it’s also what happens when students learn from an excellent teacher at a top-notch culinary school.

Ready to craft your own cocktail and learn pro mixology? Click here to check out ICE’s mixology and beverage courses.

Need to brush up on your wine, beer and spirits knowledge? Register today for Ethan’s upcoming class, Drinking 101. 

All photos by Ethan Fixell © 2017.

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By Caitlin Raux

What’s the number one rule of drinking wine? There are no rules. That’s the ethos of ICE’s Director of Wine and Beverage Studies, Richard Vayda. The experienced sommelier and former chef (who was also an opera singer once upon a time) appreciates wine in all of its varieties and for all occasions. Just as there’s a time and place for a grand cru from Bordeaux, there’s also a moment to enjoy a crisp white zinfandel (preferably with potato chips, on the beach). As he teaches students at ICE, the important thing is to keep an open mind and worry less — after all, wine is about enjoyment.

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We caught up with Richard before one of his popular Introduction to Wine courses to chat with us for an ICE blog interview.

How did you become interested in wine?

I’m from the Midwest – Chicago, originally – and my grandparents owned a beer and wine warehouse. Alcohol was always around us. When I turned 15, I got really interested in food and wine, so I started making wine in my bedroom. There was no internet then so I had to do everything by books and magazines. I would buy grape concentrate from California – chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon — and I made wine in vats in my bedroom. I didn’t tell my parents right away, but they of course figured out from the smell. Eventually I got to the point where I made sparkling wine.

In your bedroom!?

In my bedroom and the basement — you have to use this process where you almost freeze the wine. I would do a second fermentation in the bottle. Today, I probably would not think that sparkling wine was very good, but at that particular time I thought Wow, it’s cool that you can do this.

I was really interested in wine and food and then I got into the music industry – I was an opera singer for a while. Still, I was always interested in food so eventually I went back to it. I finished my master’s at NYU — I studied food management and did a lot of nutrition work as part of my program. Then I decided to open a restaurant in the Catskills — Mountain Brook Dining and Spirits. It was a beautiful setting, with soaring mountains and the Schoharie Creek next door. When I moved back to New York City, I ran a small Provençal restaurant. I was very involved with the wine program. Eventually I opened a coffee and chocolate lounge, Caffeine, in South Norwalk, Connecticut. My partners and I owned that for about six years.

To be a wine expert, is it necessary to have special tasting abilities?

I think most people can develop their sense of smell and sense of taste quite a bit. It’s mostly about the sense of smell. Most people can identify a thousand-plus smells. The problem is trying to verbalize what they’re smelling. With practice, you can become more precise. There are people who are naturally better tasters or smellers — the “super tasters” — but I think anyone can develop those skills.

Tonight I’m teaching the second session of an intro class, and I already saw on the first day how happy some of them were when they picked up things they didn’t know they could. Students start picking up on the nuances in wine pretty quickly.

Is that one of the fun parts of teaching — when you get to give people the tools to taste wine? 

Absolutely. It’s a two-way process, too. Sometimes they give me the words. All of us have physiological differences in the way we taste things or smell things. You might be more sensitive to something that I don’t pick up on strongly, so the student’s words help me, too. I often find that the students come up with the word before I do — it may be the wackiest word, but it may be perfect.

Wine Essentials with Richard Vayda

You also studied in Paris – were you studying food or wine?

 I spent one year at the Sorbonne, studying linguistics.

And living in Paris!

Yes, and living in Paris, eating and drinking great food and wine. I couldn’t afford expensive wines then. I remember going with my classmates to the supermarché, and we’d bring our own bottle and fill it up with wine for one euro. We had some lovely meals though.

Did you get a sense of French wine culture, and is it different from wine culture in the United States?

I think the French approach, when I was living there, was similar to the American approach today. Ten years ago in the U.S., people approached wine in a pretentious way and I’m all about getting rid of that. Wine should be fun. French people were already like that — because it’s an everyday drink for the French. Now it’s becoming an everyday drink here, something that people don’t have to get too stressed out about. But still, in my classes, I often get people who say I want to be able to order wine at a restaurant and feel confident, not so self-conscious. I tell them, don’t worry about it!

I think some Americans still feel silly if they are taking wine seriously. For example, if they have to swill a glass after ordering a bottle of wine.

Or they think, is this what I’m supposed to do? I say, do whatever you like. Just enjoy.

How has wine culture in the United States changed in the past decade?

People are becoming less pretentious about wine and are embracing wine as an everyday beverage. It’s changed a bit by removing stereotypes around wine, but some stereotypes still linger. I still get people who won’t drink rosé — a lot of them associate it with white zinfandel. In the Introduction to Wine course, I purposely put a French Provençal rosé next to an American white zinfandel, just to see what people will say about it and almost every class thinks that the white zinfandel matches better with a brie cheese than the French rosé.

Does white zinfandel deserve its bad reputation? Are there good ones?

Yes, there are. I selected one for my class that’s on the drier side and also very rich in flavor. There are still some thin, sweet, thin white zinfandels that are the wine equivalent of soda. But even those wines with some potato chips on the beach are not the worst thing (laughs). It’s low in alcohol and that sweet offsets the saltiness.

If you wanted to impress someone with a gift of a bottle of wine, what would you recommend?

It should be a gift from you that says something about you, but you also want them to appreciate it. I have a British friend and he thinks all American wines are awful – he calls them “too sweet.” When I buy him a gift, I sometimes buy an American wine, but I purposefully look for something that he likes — full body, but with finesse, not overly ripe fruit. Probably not a California wine, but maybe something interesting from Washington – like a Bordeaux blend. Otherwise, sparkling wines, especially “surprise” sparkling wines are always good. I’ve been gifting people sparkling wines from New Mexico and it is kind of fun. People say New Mexico? This is pretty good! I also have friends who like big, fruity wines, so I’ll give them something big and fruity, but not clumsy — like a nice shiraz from Australia. I recommend matching the wine with the person, but including an element of surprise. That’s what I like to do with my classes at ICE. I present the typical example of a wine, then I present something atypical. When I do the American wines in our Wine Essentials course, I’ll show them the American wines that are well made and representative and then I’ll throw in a fruit bomb.

Ready to discover the world of wine with Richard? Click here to check out the upcoming wine courses at ICE.

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