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The Science Behind the Chef: Aaron Black of PB Catch

Stephen Brown

Raw Bar at PB Catch - menu changes dailyWith a menu that changes daily, what drives the items?

We react to the market—what’s in season and tastes great. We want to use fish, vegetables ... when it’s in season—that’s when it is the cheapest and tastes the best. Our ability to adapt to that is awesome. We change the menu daily, print out a new menu every day. I would recommend it to [every restaurant].

 

What made you give up engineering?

I just wanted to cook. It probably wasn’t a super rational idea, but I am happy.

 

What will be cooking this spring?

In April and May, I’m thinking ramps and morels; those are my favorite springtime vegetables. I’m from Ohio, where they grow wild, so when you go out looking for morels, the worst thing that will happen is you’ll come back with a backpack full of ramps. It’s not a bad deal.

   A ramp is one of the few things that has umami, like yuzu—that kind of "lost" flavor. I like to char the ramps and add a little bit of acid to make a vinaigrette. It’s an amazing flavor, just awesome.

ramps

Tell us about the thermodynamics of cooking.

[If] I have scallop, I am going to want to get the pan white hot with just a little bit of oil. That will sear the scallop really hard and make the juices come out, steam and stick back to the scallop to get this amazingly delicious crust. If the pan is a little bit too light or not quite hot enough, the scallop sticks, will get no crust and you’ll shred it when you go to take it off.

   It also boils down to the size pan you use. If you’re roasting something, pay attention to the height of the edges on the pan. You want to let the air circulate when cooking. With a low edge, you’ll get a nice even caramelization across whatever you are roasting. With a high pan, the flow of air will be at the top while the bottom will steam. Say you’re doing a chicken—with a high-edged pan, everything on top will be overcooked, while the bottom won’t be crispy.

   For sauces, the size of the pan will determine how fast evaporation will happen. Everything has sugar in it, so if it evaporates too quickly, you’re going to lose a lot of flavor. If you rip a pan and reduce two gallons of sauce to two quarts—say a brown chicken stock—it will taste like caramel with chicken flavor. However, if you do it slowly at 180 degrees, you’ll intensify the flavor, giving you the essence of chicken. It’s a mistake I see in a lot of places.

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