I love cookbooks. Mainly because I love trying out new recipes, cooking foods in a variety of ways or learning how to prepare a food I have never tasted. I was thrilled when I had a chance to chat with Noam Kostucki, a very likable, enthusiastic and creative person who turned himself into a renowned chef. His new book Accessible Fine Dining is a creative cookbook without recipes but meant to inspire new and seasoned cooks to experiment creatively with food. Noam's honest account and anecdotes of his experience makes this cookbook partly a memoir/artistic read. Scroll down to read my interview with him. He is also generously offering copies of his book and a free dining experience in the giveaway!
Category: Adult Non-fiction , 128 pages
Genre: Creative Cookbook / Fine Dining
Release date: Dec 10, 2018
Tour dates: Jan 7 to 31, 2019
Content Rating: G
Six months after opening my first restaurant, one of my dishes was selected as "25 dishes to travel around the world", featuring me next to culinary legend Heston Blumenthal.
Exciting and healthy food doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Over the years, I have seen some of the most exciting dishes come from the simplest kitchens and the most modest ingredients. The purpose of this book is to focus our attention away from the distractions of fancy kitchen equipment and luxury produce and instead focus our attention towards ingenuity in the kitchen and culinary innovation.
For some strange reason, cooking is taught in books as a series of mechanical steps to follow and repeat with precision. I see cooking as a creative art like painting or playing music: it is the freedom of expression that is most interesting to me. When we create from an artistic perspective, we give birth to something new and potentially magical.
The purpose of this book is not to teach you specific recipes, because the ingredients you will find in your local organic food market will likely not be the same as the ones we see here. Nor is the purpose to show you how to imitate us. The purpose of this book is to guide you into thinking about your dishes in a way that elevates them to a fine dining level, from ingredients which are easily accessible to you. Naturally, you will find a few recipes, but most importantly you will find a new way to look at food.
We will share how we think about food shopping, searching for unusual ingredients, the combinations of flavors, techniques, textures, nutritional value, and of course, plating. The purpose of this book is to guide you to become a more exciting, creative and adventurous version of yourself in the kitchen. What separates a craft from an art form is the story behind it; cooking is a craft, while fine dining is an art form.
If you want to create fine dining dishes, start to focus your attention on the different stories a dish can tell. Some stories can be told through your cooking, and others are told through words. Taking the time to present your dishes before people eat is crucial to creating anticipation for the food they will eat.
NK: I am a believer that it is a gift to share what we learn with others. My background is in corporate training and business coaching because I love teaching. When I started my fine dining restaurant, it was just a temporary project and it grew far beyond my expectations. I learned a lot more in the last two years than I had imagined and cooking for me has become more fun than ever before. Clients in our restaurant always ask us questions about how we started the restaurant, how we cook dishes and how we come up with new ideas. Our guests regularly tell us what we’ve created ought to have an episode of Chef’s Table or Vice, which has inspired me to want to share our stories and what we’ve learned. I’ve published a few books before so I figured a book would be a nice first step to sharing with the world what I’ve learned in two years of jumping from a regular home cook to fine dining chef.
LCR: I am always fascinated by where a person has come from to get where he/she is today. What’s your personal background?
NK: I was born in Belgium from a Polish Jewish family. I changed school five times in twelve years. At first because I was a good student but didn’t have a good social life, and then because I was a bad student with a good social life. I studied civil engineering in the UK and dropped out of university to start a training and coaching company. For the past 15 years, my main work has been corporate training, consulting, coaching and helping charities raise money. For sports, my favorite has always been judo and for arts, drawing and painting. I’ve also enjoyed acting and different sports like rock climbing, volleyball, and badminton.
I’ve traveled over 40 countries and love exploring the world. I love discovering new things about others and about myself. I’m always looking for something new. Right now, I love living in the jungle in Costa Rica. It feels like the problems we face here are very real. We deal with the elements, nature and animals. It’s a lot of fun. Also very stressful at times! Living here can definitely be a test of one’s patience, resourcefulness and spirituality.
I met Nadia in New York four years ago and she moved to Costa Rica a year ago. We now live and work together. It’s amazing. She brings a lot of happiness to my life and makes the dining experience better than it used to be. I won’t hide that it can be a tough at times to be together 24/7, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and brings us very close together. Seeing what we’re creating together everyday is an amazing feeling. Going for walks to watch the sunset or eating together a dinner cooked with love are part of the many magical moments we get to have here. I’m excited about seeing how we grow with our relationship and the business.
LCR: What are the three most important lessons you’ve learned about cooking in the past two years?
NK: The first one has to be that less is easier to make beautiful. The less of each element you have on a plate, the easier it is to plate it with elegance, refinement and balance. Making small plates means you can make a lot of different plates. Have lots of small elements means that even if your plate is fairly full, you can create lightness and harmony. Not being afraid of empty space goes with this: use the full plate as your canvas. The empty parts of the plate are used to contrast what’s on the plate.
The second less is to plan for the future. Making things in larger quantities than needed and stored for later is the best way to improve the depth of your cooking. When you make a tomato sauce, triple the quantity and the two extra portions, you can divide them into 4 bags that can be stored in the fridge or freezer. This ready made complex sauce can become part of a future dish / sauce, which will help it more depth of flavor. You can do this for a lot of leftovers and unused parts of ingredients. You can use the leafs from a cauliflower to make a pesto, or blend the stems of broccoli to make a creamy sauce. Both can be stored in the fridge or freezer for a long time without losing flavor. Seeds from papaya, squashes, and pumpkin can be roasted and stored for later use. The best think you can practice in my opinion is to create complex parts that you can store and use when you’re cooking your meals.
The third lesson is that the environment you create is at least as important as the food you serve. If the atmosphere is bad, people won’t be able to enjoy and appreciate your food. The environment has to be an extension of you. Everything has to work together, from the aesthetics of the place to the way you interact with guests, plate dishes, introduce dishes, and conceptualize your menu. The stories you share help guests focus their attention on what is most important and remember what matters. Listening to your guests is also important to learn from who they are, what they like and dislike. By creating an open and trusting atmosphere, people are more likely to be honest with you, and that helps you grow.
LCR: I love these three lessons! Now, what about three biggest mistakes to avoid?
NK: The first one has to be that everything takes longer than you think. It’s unbelievable of things that seem like they’ll be done in 5 minutes end up taking 15. Hours can go by and it seems like nothing has moved forward. I’ve learned that I can never be prepared enough. I have learned to start as early as possible and get myself organized to do what takes the longest first. I get everything ready as early as possible. If I do finish before the guests arrive, then I rest and often take a nap. You want to get as much as possible ready before guests arrive so that you literally just have to heat things up, flash fry and plate. If it can be done before guests arrive, do it before they arrive. It’ll mean you have more time to chat with people and relax with them.
The second biggest mistake is getting the quantities wrong. Too much makes people feel bad for not finishing, too little makes people feel unsatisfied. There is both a science and an art to quantities. I know people who measure and calculate the amount of everything to make sure a dinner is the right amount based on a normal person’s daily needs. My approach is less scientific. I learned from experience. As I don’t have waiters, I collect all the plates so I know exactly who eats what and what’s left over. I also talk to clients and at first they always used to say they’re too full and can’t finish the last two - three plates. I learned to make my dishes smaller and eventually got a sense of the right amount based on what I cook. I don’t have a scientific recipe to give you except that the more plates you serve, the smaller each dish needs to be. When I have friends over, what I will often do is serve a small plate of each thing, beautifully designed and if they want more, I’ve got refills ready for them to help themselves to. That way you also get to see how much each person eats. The more you do this, the better will be your judgement of how much to serve.
The third biggest mistake is thinking that every dinner has to be your best dinner. I was so happy when I heard a Michelin star chef who won the best US restaurant of the year say “Will we serve our best dishes ever tonight? Probably not. But tonight, we will serve dishes that push ourselves and that challenges us and people who come here. And they may not all be the best dishes we’ve served but we will create something new and exciting. That’s why people come back.”. When I heard this, it confirmed the feeling I had inside: especially when you serve people multiple dishes, they don’t all have to be the best dish they’ve ever had, as long as they are coherent with your story and push you outside of your comfort zone. By allowing yourself to make mistakes, you’ll allow yourself to learn and grow. That’s what I love about not having a set menu: we get to play with our mistakes and often they end up creating some of our best dishes.
LCR: Who else has cooked with you at HiR Fine Dining?
NK: The first guest chef was Quentin Villers, a Belgian chef who received a Michelin star for the restaurant he was running with his brother in Belgium. He moved to Costa Rica a year after me and we randomly met at the embassy. A year later when I decided to start HiR Fine Dining, Quentin became my mentor and cooked as a guest chef at HiR Fine Dining. It’s been the most amazing experience being his sous chef and seeing how he creates dishes from nothing. He has definitely influenced a lot my cooking and the dishes I cook today.
The second guest chef was Magdalena de la Torre, a vegan chef from Argentina. She tried to convince me to do vegan fine dining and I wasn’t buying it. She insisted and offered to come to my place and cook for me. When I tasted her food, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it was vegan because of how flavorful it was. Her plating was terrible and it was nothing like fine dining, but I knew that together we could create something magical. We did a few vegan dinners and they were all amazing successes. We had over 50% of non vegetarians and they all said they forgot it was vegan because of how flavorful it was. They didn’t feel it was missing a protein because every dish was complete.
The third guest chef was Rob Nessel, a vegan home cook from Canada. After Magdalena left the country, I was asked to do another vegan dinner and I was still not too confident about my skill so I invited Rob, a friend who sold out of vegan pierogies every Saturday at the local market. Combining his many years of cooking only vegan food for his family with my fine dining, we created another vegan dinner that was an awesome success. These two people convinced me that vegan fine dining can totally compete with seafood or meat fine dining.
The fourth chef to join me at HiR Fine Dining was Penny Melville-Brown, a blind baker from the UK. She reached out to me through a past client of mine and told me that she was applying for a grant to travel around the world and cook with chefs to show blind people can do anything. I loved the idea and invited her to join me at HiR Fine Dining. About six month later, she showed up and I gave her the challenge to cook a 7 course seafood menu with local ingredients she had never used before. Together, in 24h we create a 7 course dinner that we served over two nights. It was an incredible experience. Penny is a force of nature. Her work is extraordinary.
The fifth person to join me at HiR Fine Dining had basically no cooking experience. Nadia loves food and worked in luxury retail before joining me in Costa Rica. She had never really cooked before and learned everything from scratch. She quickly picked amazing skills and her ideas have helped improved the dishes we serve. She is a perfectionist and having her help means we can create more complex dishes on a consistent basis. Working together over a year has been a wonderful experience.