On Cooking Trends
Blohme: What I love about this group, whether it was by hook or crook, is we’re not here talking about whatever the newest food fad is. There are classics. There are foundations. It’s just solid, good cooking.
Sichel: George said that earlier to me! He said, “One thing I love about working in Mobile is that we’re not made out of chefs, we’re made out of cooks.”
Panayiotou: Let me ask you this, though. When your young self first walked in at Galatoire’s, you had all these old-time cooks. Did they have contempt for you until you proved that you really had some ability to lead?
Sichel: The first day I took the job I was scared out of my mind. The second day I walked in, I went in with the attitude that I own this place. And from that point on, I never looked back, and it all fell into place.
Panayiotou: That’s a good attitude.
Blohme: What are you guys finding out about the way people are eating now? How are their tastes changing over the last few years?
Rainosek: Portion sizes are going down. I think people are looking to be a little less starch-heavy. I think people really have an eye out for local stuff and things like that. We sell tons of steaks – that’s kind of been one of our things at The Wash House – but we’re getting away from the big, heavy beef dishes.
Sichel: Fish is a killer right now; everyone’s thinking fish. I love meat, but fish is killer. And yeah, 7 to 9 ounces is a really good center point.
Panayiotou: Fish, shrimp, oysters. Ruth’s Chris nationally does 11 or 12 percent seafood sales. Here, where we get a choice of local, fresh seafood, it represents 30 percent of our sales. That’s at a steakhouse. Thirty percent is made up of grouper, snapper, cobia.
Sichel: I’ve had the Chilean sea bass there before. That blew my mind.
Panayiotou: That was one of the corporate fish. We ran into a problem down here, when you offer a non-local, regional species. We had salmon on the menu, and still do occasionally, but locals says, “What about snapper? What about grouper?”
Rainosek: Name recognition is big. They want to know that they can get something that’s in the Gulf.
Sichel: You nailed it. That’s really the point: stick local. Just go with our Gulf fish. It’s amazing the textures and flavors that come out of our waters.
On Fall Ingredients
Blohme: I use a lot of pumpkin in the fall. Maybe roasted pumpkin and sausage soup; I do pumpkin crème brûlées, cheesecakes and bread puddings. That, more than anything, sneaks in for me.
Sichel: I’ll be honest, I think oysters, man. Gulf oysters. They’re beautiful; they’re cold, crisp and fat. I love ’em. You can do anything with oysters. We can do so many tweaks on things, but a good oyster in the fall? Nothing beats that for me.
Panayiotou: Yup, it’s two things: oysters and fish. There’s just so many things you can do. Once we started those grilled oysters and people found out about them – now we sell 20, 000 – 30, 000 a month. Sometimes three shuckers all day.
Blohme: OK, I’m going to have to do roasted oysters this fall.
Sichel: Yeah, yeah, yeah, with pumpkin on top! A little sage, you’re gold. Chris, you change your menu so often, you’ve got to keep it seasonal.
Rainosek: Absolutely. I like things a little bit unique to here. The satsumas or Meyer lemons will start to come in late fall, early winter, along with the leafy greens. Collards, turnips, the heartier vegetables. The Gulf, all that stuff’s a given, but I love our local produce. Satsuma vinaigrettes, desserts. The Meyer lemons I’ve just discovered in the last two years, and they’re everywhere down here.
Panayiotou: Another thing people are crazy for: the Silver King and Silver Queen corn. Sauté it in a little bit of butter, about two minutes. Three minutes, you’ve overcooked it.
Blohme: I love that stuff.
Sichel: I haven’t had that. I’m gonna have to try it.
On Our Natural Resources
Sichel: I love fishing. Who doesn’t here? We live in the fishing capital of the world. I really do think so. I remember I had a great experience once fishing in a pond behind my house, and I caught a bass. I basically gutted it right there, filleted it while it was wiggling in my hand, put it in a pan and the thing popped into the air about three feet. Everything was so alive, I was like, “Whoa, that’s fresh!” Just amazing.
Blohme: We went out for snapper season this year and just had a blast. Came back with a bucket full. I just did a light dust, light seasoning, paneed it – man, with some squash, some roasted potatoes. It was all good.
Rainosek: Olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper are all you need.
Blohme: Yup. Something that fresh, don’t do a lot to it.
Panayiotou: Especially fresh specks. Just flash them in the pan. You don’t need to do a lot to hide the fish flavor. During pompano season, that fish is to die for. Cobia season? I just set that on the grill, a little salt and pepper, maybe make a little meuniére butter for my wife.
Sichel: I’m such a fan of cobia. Cook it like that on medium, it’s amazing.
Panayiotou: But it’ll get away from you. It doesn’t lend itself to being overcooked. It’s just so simple. A couple minutes on each side.
Sichel: How about the cobia balls off the back? You guys heard about that technique? Pull the balls right off their back area and deep fry them.
Panayiotou: Fresh fish is kind of like kids and pizza. There’s no bad kids, and there’s no bad pizza.
On Planning A Menu
Blohme: For me, I look at what I enjoy. I like to eat simply. I don’t like pretentious food, or to have to get a meat, a starch and a veg. I like to graze, to use my hands. I like extreme comfort, with food that’s just lethal. Stealthy. Sneaky. I think about the heart of the house. I’m looking at the facility, saying, “Here’s my vision. Now, what fits here?” My newest challenge is a sailboat marina, so it needs to be casual. I need to sing to this, play to the audience, create a niche.
Sichel: Check out this endeavor. So Galatoire’s has been open 107 years. Twenty-four months ago, we opened up a new restaurant called Galatoire’s 33. This is a tough one, guys, so tell me what you would do. We opened up Galatoire’s 33 basically under the same roof, we just popped it up and expanded. We knew Galatoire’s would be there in 200 years, so I wanted to open this new restaurant that’s going to be there with Galatoire’s 200 years from now. I had to create something timeless, not about me. I may be the first chef of it all, but I won’t be the last chef. So I had to go back to traditions, back to the root of what Galatoire’s is. It was fun recreating the classics. I brought in lobster thermidor, for example. Things people aren’t doing anymore.
Panayiotou: Wow. We were doing that in the ’30s. When Mr. David Cooper said he wanted to do some type of lobster dish, I went back to the old thermidor. Sherry – who cooks with sherry anymore? And I made a thermidor-type dish. And the sherry threw all our young cooks off, because people had never seen anything like this.
Blohme: They probably thought it was some sort of revolutionary new dish.
Panayiotou: Exactly. I’ve developed a lot of restaurant dishes in my house. Most of the time I make versions at home. I’ll tweak it, think about what flavors are missing, then I invite the neighbors over.
Sichel: That’s funny you say that, George. Some of the best things we create are usually made on the fly. All of a sudden you’re like, “Wow. I love that. I need to write that down!” And it’s usually at the home.
Rainosek: My operation is different than any of y’all’s in that I have a paper menu that I print in-house, five minutes before service, because I change it pretty much daily. I get emails from my farm broker about what’s fresh, what he’s got this week. I’ve changed it three times this week.
Panayiotou: I do it once a week. I guess I’m lazy.
Sichel: At Galatoire’s, we don’t really change – ever.
Blohme: My core menu hasn’t changed in seven and a half years. But I run specials every day, and that’s where customers get the variety they expect.
Rainosek: For me, at The Wash House, I have to walk that line between what they expect when they come in and keeping things interesting.
Sichel: People that know me will say, “Chef, just cook for me.” Even at Galatoire’s, a place where people have come for years and know exactly what they want, they relate to you and want something personal. I just go in the back and work with the ingredients I have to create something out of the box. I always keep it within the framework of traditional cuisine, but it comes out as something really cool.
Rainosek: It’s a heck of a lot cooler to do our job now than it was 20 years ago, I know that.
Blohme: Early on, when I opened, it was like, “Man, are people going to buy a sandwich with goat cheese boursin on it?” There were a lot of people who just wanted roast beef and lettuce. They wanted Subway. So I had to say, “No, this is the dish. These ingredients are put together to create a flavor profile.” We had to wean them, starting from the fresh-cut fries, chips and fruit, to couscous, quinoa, orzo, udon noodles, adzuki beans and scarlet runner beans for side dishes. I had to get them to trust me first.
On Their Culinary Roots
Rainosek: I have an Italian maternal grandmother, and the other side of my family is all Czechoslovakian. And my whole family, from both sides, is from Texas. So I’ve cooked lots of Mexican food, and it’s still probably the thing I cook the best. I remember my Czechoslovakian grandmother rolling out the dough for strudel or making kolaches, things like that. But on both sides, my grandparents had gardens and farms and cattle around, that sort of thing.
Sichel: I’m similar. My mother is from Italy. My grandmother and whole family on that side didn’t even speak English. They lived here in the States but didn’t speak a lick of English. We would do elaborate, 20-course meals on holidays. Huge fish meals on Christmas Eve. That’s where I learned all my Italian techniques, rolling gnocchi as a child. Then, my father is the opposite. He’s just an American mutt. He grew up during the Depression Era, so it was like milk and eggs for breakfast. He was a good cook, but his mother had to learn to cook with nothing. You don’t have to have an elaborate display to make tasty food.
Rainosek: So many of the best things are peasant foods, especially here in the South. Collards and oxtails, they’re all cheap parts.
Sichel: That’s why I love the South. It is what it is: simply good.
Panayiotou: I got the passion from being raised in my father’s restaurant. He started a restaurant in ’34 and had a wonderful passion for it. So I grew up in the back of the restaurant surrounded by good food. In the early days, Mobile was defined in the restaurant industry by two things: Greeks and oysters.
Blohme: Boy, you guys are all at a different level. I did have an Italian grandmother that made amazing food. I was born in Chicago, and we moved to Florida when I was young. It was very different. I started in the restaurant business when I was 14, so that was my escape, but my foundation at home was very rooted in just – SPAM, meat on bread, very humble stuff. What I learned from my mom’s cooking was just to be fearless. When I came home from my externship, I saw her kitchen and was almost in tears. She had this little electric oven, two burners busted, two that really didn’t work either. How did she ever feed us?
Sichel: She was fearless in the kitchen.
Blohme: We ate good. I never starved. It wasn’t always steak. We had breakfast for dinner a lot. But she was fearless, and I had so much respect for her.
Rainosek: My mom made a deal with me when I was a kid. “If you want to cook, I’ll clean. You can either cook or clean.” So she suffered through a 10-year-old trying his best. I think there are rumors in there somewhere of a peanut butter-slathered chicken.
text by ellis metz • photos by matthew coughlin