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.
With 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.
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.