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Food Proves to be “Common Ground” for Everyone at Chefs Extraordinaire

Although I am around food every day, its amazing power never ceases to amaze me. In my own experience, food has opened doors, narrated stories, and bonded relationships. After being part of a recent benefit hosted by Common Ground Grief Center in Manasquan, I now realize food has the power to heal.

For a chef, there is no better feeling than watching someone enjoy the food you create. Put a story behind that dish and it’s clear that you chose the right path in life. It was exactly that sentiment at last week’s “Chef Extraordinaire” held at the Spring Lake Manor. The participating chefs opened up their kitchens to kids and teens from the center and created a special dish in honor of their loved ones. By the look on everyone’s face, the end result was pure magic.  Every bite captured a memory and filled the room with hope, gratitude, and love.

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I couldn’t have done it without the help of my fantastic co-chef, Katie, who created the one-of-a-kind meatloaf mac n’ cheese bite in memory of her dear brother. It was so delicious I think it should be a new staple on the Blend menu!

For more information on Common Ground Grief Center, go to: http://www.commongroundgriefcenter.org/

~Chef Lou

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Cooking for a Crowd: The 5 P’s You Need to Invite

Every coach needs a team to set the bar. Every chief needs a tribe to spread the word. And every chef needs a crew to keep those bellies full. I wouldn’t be anywhere without my people. They keep this ship afloat, and believe me, the waters get pretty rough. We laugh. We yell. (Actually, I’m told I yell the loudest.) And we sweat (winner again).  But we love it, or else we wouldn’t stand so close to the fire.

No matter what day of the week it is, I always open the doors to Blend with the same intention: Cook to Make People Happy.

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I’ve been doing that since I was a kid, but the stakes are a little higher when you have 1,000 hungry people to feed vs. a table full of your Italian relatives who will love you no matter what. Unlike the old days, I now have an awesome crew to help me out. Not only do they have my back, but they love food as much as I do. And it shows. It has to. But having a great team isn’t the only reason behind a successful kitchen. Why does anyone always go back to the same place? Consistency. They want to know they’re going to get what they came for every single time. If they don’t, it gets crossed off the list of “Favorites.” Anyone who works with me knows that consistency is everything. My kitchen needs to put out amazing food, not just sometimes but ALL the time. How do you ask? You create a plan. And then get everyone to follow 🙂

So, what’s the plan? I call mine the 5 P’s:

Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. 

Don’t laugh. This simple phrase has saved me over the years. Someone recently asked me to describe how I plan for a major holiday or big event. How do I know how much food to order? How do I prevent unnecessary waste? When do I start getting ready? How can I make sure everyone is happy? These may seem like variables, but when you combine basic math with instinct, it becomes a simple equation known as the 5 P’s. I break it down into 3 simple parts.

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Part 1: Create. Spread. Fill. 

Despite the above instructions, I’m actually not referring to one of our signature desserts. I’m talking about how to create the menu for a holiday or special event. Many things are considered here, such as time of year, available inventory, equipment, and prep/finish time for each item. With all the pre-prepared ingredients in place, or what’s called the Mise en place, each course shouldn’t take more than six minutes to fire. Anything that takes longer than that doesn’t make the cut.

Once you know WHAT you’re cooking, determine WHO you’re cooking for. Spread the word far and wide. Then fill those chairs. Chefs love reservations. They love advance orders even more. This enables them to predict the order volume without having to use their crystal ball, prepare the Mise en place without much fuss, and devote their efforts to cooking the dishes to perfection.

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Part 2: It Doesn’t Matter If You Dice It, Chop It, or Peel It, Just PREP It.

Typically, I won’t start prepping until the week of the event. By this time, all food is ordered, seats are booked, staff is scheduled , and we have a good idea which way the current will flow. I can breathe, sort of. The last job on the kitchen staff’s list is to cut, dice, slice, peel, arrange, organize, defrost, and tenderize as much as they can.

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Part 3: Showtime

Finally, the grand finale, the moment we have all been working toward and waiting for. I think most chefs would agree that this is the best part. Yes, it takes a lot of work and endless sacrifice, but knowing your food makes people happy is amazing. My only regret is that I don’t get enough time out of the kitchen to enjoy meeting my guests and hearing what they liked about their meals.

But then again, with a plan like this and a crew like mine, what else does this chef need?

~Chef Lou

Make a reservation to come dine with us or call today to book your next party!

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From Backyard to Blend: 7 Simple Secrets

“Jersey Strong” not only resonates with me personally but also as a chef. I’ve lived at the Jersey Shore my entire life and can’t imagine being anywhere else. I love the beaches, the change of seasons, the history, the culture, and mostly, the people.   My homegrown Jersey roots are exactly what inspires me when I’m creating the menu for Blend. I like to cook in tune with the seasons and use ingredients that are readily available to me. Staying close to home allows me to support the local food movement, maintain freshness, and enjoy a wider variety of foods. And with such a vast landscape right outside my door, I don’t have to look very far. This is, after all, the Garden State.  

Aside from buying local ingredients (note: this is Secret #1), I have some other core principles that I always stick to. 

Meet the Staples at Every Table 

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There Are No Eggscuses: Fresh is Best 

I wasn’t kidding when I said I like to stay close to home. My backyard is literally the first stop of the day. This is where I grab the freshest eggs from the healthiest chickens. I should know. I feed them myself.

 

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One Fish, Two Fish: I Say Buy the Whole Fish  

I prefer to buy the whole fish for two reasons: One, the quality remains intact; second, there is no waste. While many restaurants buy their beef or vegetable stock to save on cost, I use the excess from the fish to create the rich, savory stock that goes into many of our signature dishes. The taste is unparalleled.

 

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Why Settle for Anything Less than Smokin’ Hot?… Bacon, That Is

By mid-morning at Blend, the home-cured bacon has been smoking outside for over two hours. The unmistakable aroma is well-known throughout Blend’s tight-knit community, but I have a feeling that word, as well as smell, will travel over the next few months.

 

rampsSeasons Come & Go; So Do Veggies

As I mentioned, my menu is heavily influenced by the change of seasons. Right now, I am all over ramps (aka the wild leek, aka ramson). This tangy cross between an onion and garlic marks the onset of spring and is eagerly anticipated by foodies everywhere. After a long, bare winter, I have been on the edge of my seat waiting for these hearty beauties to make their debut. Fingers crossed, they will arrive by the 2nd week of April, so come in soon to see what the buzz is all about.

 

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Welcome to the Club: Password is “Prime” 

Less than two percent of all beef produced in the United States will earn the prime rating. But you won’t find true prime meat for sale at the grocery store; rather, it tends to be purchased by chefs like myself. I guess it’s who you know on this one, which is good ‘cuz we’re all family here at Blend.

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Say Cheese!

I love cheese. I’m Italian, and I’m a chef, so it kind of goes with the territory. Like fine wine, cheese just gets better with age and adds so much richness to a plate. Mozzarella and ricotta are made in-house, but we always have a variety of intriguing cheeses here at Blend.

All chefs have their own trade secrets.

I just shared 7 of my best ones with you. Come in anytime to find out the others.

~Chef Lou

Make a reservation to come dine with us.

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Chef Lou Looks Ahead for 2016

clside2March 1st marks a major milestone for Blend as we embark on our third year in Manasquan. We couldn’t be happier with the positive feedback from our customers and the continued growth of our brand. All of us here at Blend thank you for your ongoing support and are pleased to announce some exciting plans for 2016. As sole owner and Executive Chef, I look forward to hearing your comments, serving up your favorites, and always creating new ways to make your next meal at Blend your best meal!

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner: Blend-Style 

2015 was a busy and exciting year for us. We expanded beyond the dining room and launched our new breakfast/lunch menu at the Peach Pit Cafe.  (No, we don’t mean the set of Beverly Hills 90210, although that was pretty epic!) We’ve been having a great time watching our customers soak up the morning sun while enjoying a casual meal and great cup of coffee. Also coming soon to the Peach Pit  are “Build A Burger” nights, so be on the lookout.

From Our Kitchen to Yours, Blend Delivers Quality Food For Your Convenience

In addition to the Peach Pit, I am also expanding our services, including bringing Blend on the road and into your kitchen. As a father of three girls and business owner, I know how hard it is to plan and prepare healthy meals. Good nutrition and all of its benefits often go out the window when you’re frantically trying to figure out what to cook for dinner. With our help, you can have delicious meals made with fresh ingredients without sacrificing time. We also offer several gluten-free options, which definitely don’t lack in the taste department. Whether it’s takeout or full-meal option, we are committed to bringing you quality food. Here’s a sneak peak at some of Blend’s upcoming services:

Enhanced Online/Mobile Experience – instant access to daily specials, menus, reservations, gift cards, online ordering, and expanded social media integration.

New Dining Options 

  • Chef Lou’s Express Meals – Pick up a fully prepared meal for you or your entire family.
    • Select Your Meal > Order Online > Pick it Up > Eat it Up
  • Chef Lou@Home  – Enjoy a personalized menu cooked to order in your home by one of our head chefs.
    • Consult > Plan Your Menu > In-Home Preparation > Clean Up
  • Recipe Ready with Chef Lou – We give you a box full of goodies, including our secret recipes and finest ingredients.
    • Select a Recipe > Order Online > Cook it Up > Eat it Up

As we get ready to launch these new endeavors, I’m just as excited today as I was when we first opened our doors.  No matter what time of day or what you’re in the mood for, we always have the perfect “blend!”

~ Chef Lou

Make a reservation to come dine with us.

 

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Say What?? Sous-Vide: 3 Reasons Why Cooking in a Bag Works

How did Leonardo da Vinci know when the Mona Lisa was finished? How did Shakespeare know when to end a chapter? How do chefs know when their dishes have been cooked to perfection? With a lot of skill and a little bit of science. Allow me to introduce sous-vide, which is French for “under vacuum.” It is a method of cooking in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags, then placed in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times—96 hours or more, in some cases—at a regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking. Simple translation: cooking the inside just right without overcooking the outside.

Ok, that may sound a little complicated, but it’s actually not. Plus, once you see and taste the difference, you’ll get it. Here’s why:

#1: Temperature Control

As somewhat of a perfectionist myself, I have been a fan of sous-vide for years. While creativity and thinking outside of the box are welcome in my kitchen, wasted time is not. This can be a struggle when your job is to make art, but years of experience, along with trial and error, have provided me with the tools to maximize time while maintaining creative ownership. Imagine taking a high-grade protein, exotic fruit, or farm-fresh vegetable and cooking them in a controlled environment, never going over or under, not even 1 degree.  With sous-vide, you always know the outcome. This brilliant technique takes the guessing (and time-wasting factor) out of cooking, which is especially useful for reaching that “just right” temperature, sweet, juicy center, or crisp texture of any food. It’s a win-win for all. The chefs are able to work at full potential and the guests leave satisfied and happy. That’s a perfect night in my book.

#2: Flavor Overload

Aside from temperature control, cooking sous-vide style has many other benefits, including flavor retention. As mentioned, sous-vide works by cooking your ingredients at low temps for long periods of time. Because the food is locked within a plastic bag, a barrier is created from the water. This factor, combined with the low temps, brings out the ingredients’ most powerful flavors by reducing the loss of flavor ketones. By not losing any moisture, the food literally cooks and bathes within it own juices. It really is the epitome of releasing the true essence of the food with as little interference as possible. This is a concept I love and often adhere to.

#3: Because Once Is Never Enough

Consistency is another reason I love sous-vide. Like I said earlier, reducing the amount of variables in cooking is one of its best features. There’s no need to stress about how much heat to have or not have on your stove. All that matters is the temp of the water, the amount of time that the food stays inside, and the quality of the ingredients. If you get an 8 oz. steak and cook it for 90 minutes at 129ºF, you will always get it perfectly rare. If you put AA-grade fresh eggs into your sous-vide machine for 60 minutes at 150ºF, you will always get a perfect sous-vide egg. Being able to reproduce perfection is a chef’s dream.

Whether you want to improve consistency, reduce time spent standing over your stove, or just experiment with a new style of cooking, sous-vide’s “just right” approach is never wrong. (Trust us, we know!) There are a lot of different applications, but if you want to sample the best of them, come into Blend. We got this one in the bag! 

~ Chef Lou

Make a reservation to come dine with us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Own Blend of Culinary Perfection

Blend on Main isn’t just a restaurant. For me, it’s home; a meeting place for the nostalgic flavors and aromas of my childhood. Growing up in an Italian-American household, I understood at a young age the kind of influence food has on people. Meals cooked with love have the power to bring families together and create stories that get passed down through each generation. Some of my fondest childhood memories are the old-school Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house. I didn’t mind the two hour car ride or that it was standing room only with 35 people who were somehow related to me. Sunday dinner was the highlight of everyone’s week, especially mine.

famI quickly figured out that the only way to avoid the “waiting room” was to make myself useful in the kitchen. I watched. I listened. And I hustled. Cooking Sunday dinner for a room full of Italians was no joke! I had been gifted a coveted spot and believe me, my gratitude showed in every dish I brought to the table. As the self-appointed head chef of “Grandma’s Kitchen,” I began to experiment with other ingredients and flavors.  Soon, my Sunday dinners became the topic of conversation throughout the family. My grandmother’s kitchen may have been my informal training ground, but it was also the first place I truly realized the amazing power of food. I was hooked.

Shortly thereafter, I began working in local restaurants so I could absorb the nuances of restaurant life: the frenzied yet strangely addictive pace of a successful kitchen. The energy was pure magic and I ate it up, no pun intended. While most of my friends were out having fun, I was learning the ropes, from bussing tables to serving and eventually crafting my own unique style. Although I was grateful for the time spent in other kitchens, I knew it was time to build my own. Although I knew the work ahead would undoubtedly be grueling, I approached it in the same way as I did cooking: with love.
Before opening Blend, I had my hand in at least 10 other spots spanning Ocean and Monmouth counties. Statistics said I didn’t have a chance at attaining long-term success. I not only proved them wrong, but also built a loyal following along the way. I adopted the philosophy I had as a kid and poured my whole heart into the food, branding a lasting reputation. Combining the garlic and basil-infused aromas of my childhood with components of French, Asian and American cuisine, I created a mirage of smells, tastes and textures that would become my signature blend.

setBlend on Main is the culmination of nostalgic Sunday dinners, strong family traditions, and a deep culinary affection. It’s visible in every nook and cranny, including a wall inscribed with these wise words:

People who love to eat are always the best people ~ Julia Childs

Like my close-knit, Italian family, they are exactly the people who inspired me to become the chef I am today.

They are the people I cook for day in and day out.

They are my favorite people.

~Chef Lou

Make a reservation to come dine with us.