The art of cooking is a scientific one. The way heat penetrates food, acids of certain ingredients brighten others and textures change through the process, for instance, prove it is practically an engineering feat. And one local food engineer who understands this study is PB Catch’s chef de cuisine Aaron Black (below).
The seafood-centric restaurant tucked along Sunrise Avenue in Palm Beach is known for its expansive raw bar, a menu of sharing plates that changes daily and inventive combination of ingredients, textures and cooking techniques. Paired with a sleek, chic, modern ambiance, this is more a dining experience than a simple meal out.
“We like to have the right-sized plates so people can come in, share food, have multiple courses and steer away from the traditional appetizer, entrée, dessert,” Black says. “We have that, but we also have the option to have a lot of flavors on the table at once.”
Black cooks with an analytical mind, which hints at his past career in engineering. In college, “I followed in my father’s footsteps and studied engineering,” he says. He went on to work as a mechanical engineer before signing on with Florida Culinary Institute to follow his passion in the kitchen at age 30—“a late start,” he says, but one influenced by his mother.
“My mother was a great cook," he says. "She would always let me help her, and that inspired me. I just always loved it, the whole dining experience.”
Black's background in engineering and his deeper understanding of chemistry and thermodynamics has led to unique results such as the Seacuterie, a plate of seafood prepared in the same vein as charcuterie. But behind it all, there is a push to help create a more sustainable and localized industry in terms of sourcing seafood and training diners to experiment with different fish species. From sourcing toothfish (Chilean seabass) from Marine Stewardship Council certified fisheries to introducing bycatch fish species to the menu, PB Catch is helping change the way people eat, easing the burden on already-stressed fisheries.
We caught up with Black to discuss the restaurant’s cooking philosophy and the science behind cooking.
White Tuna Tartare
Can you tell us a little about your cooking style?
I try to have really clean flavors. I want it to be aromatic—not something with 20 ingredients but rather three that go together. We are always trying to build composed dishes that make sense.
Every dish has the start, the middle and the finish, and we try to fill those in. If we are missing one of those, then the dish is flat. If you have too much in there, than you can’t tell the segments from one another. We try to keep it simple, clean.
The crab gratin is a good example, with crabmeat, speck, white cheddar and roasted cauliflower. Those four flavors are in a light ratio that you can still taste the sweetness of the crab. That kind of describes my style; I want the crab to be the star.
How are you trying to make seafood more sustainable?
Bycatch is really the solution to our local sustainability problems. People want to eat black grouper, genuine American red snapper—these noble fish. We’re trying to show them that all these other fish we’re catching taste good: porgies, wreck fish, triggerfish, things you have probably heard of but don’t see on menus that often. The more people get used to that, the more pressure will be taken off of these other populations, spreading it out.
How have diners responded to these alternative fish species?
We have had a great response to changing these things up, but we were conservative when we first started. When we get a fish that’s out of the ordinary, we’ll try to bring out what’s good about it. All these fish are different—[in terms of] texturally, oil factors—so we try to be conservative so people will have some confidence in our dishes. I think that’s worked. Now, whenever we get in triggerfish, we sell out.
|PB Catch's Seacuterie, from left: smoked mussel piperade, octopus torchon, salmon pastrami. Want to try your hand at chef? Get the salmon pastrami and smoked mussel piperade recipes.|
Tell us about the Seacuterie.
I have always been a charcuterie guy, so I wanted to apply it to seafood when we started this restaurant. Once I got the go on it, I started experimenting. For the mussel piperade, we smoked mussels every possible way we could: by the shell, blanched out of the shell, blanched in the shell—every way—and we worked it out. We’re always changing things up with it. It’s constantly evolving, getting better and better.
For a lesson in cooking thermodynamics, head to page two.