Creative chefs are blessed with pitch-perfect cooking instincts, and few contemporary chefs are as instinctive and creative as Michael Psilakis. Not only did his career arc see him go from waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's to being the holder of a Michelin star in rapid-fire fashion; this Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star (June 2006) did it despite being a self-taught cook in the purest sense of that term.
There was no on-the-job training in a series of great kitchens for Psilakis. It was total immersion instead. When the chef at the Long Island, NY, restaurant a young Psilakis owned quit, he took over the back of the house. He relied solely on the cooking lessons he had learned as a boy from his Greek immigrant mother and from cookbooks he pored over while he taught himself his trade.
Within a year, that restaurant, Ecco, earned a two-star review from the New York Times, and Psilakis was on his way. Since then he's received a boatload of national honors and now has three restaurants in New York City — Kefi, Gus & Gabriel and Anthos — plus Eos at the Viceroy Hotel in Miami.
All of which makes his first cookbook (How To Roast A Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking; Little, Brown, $35) especially valuable. The 116 recipes aren't slightly tweaked versions of standard dishes the author adapted from others on his way to the top. They are originals.
Some recipes are drawn from his family's admirable culinary vault and reflect his menu at Kefi. It's the kind of food Psilakis grew up eating and he translates it flawlessly to the restaurant world. A few others give readers a taste of the gastropub fare he serves at Gus & Gabriel and the small plate dishes that work so well at Eos. But the real standouts are the signature items from Anthos, one of only two Greek restaurants in the world to have been awarded a Michelin star.
Taken together, it's an admirable mix that gives readers the full spectrum of contemporary Greek cooking. Even if you don't currently menu any Greek items at your restaurant, his book is worth a look.
Why? Greek food, at least in Psilakis's hands, is fresh, light and inherently healthful — three qualities that go a long way at full-service restaurants right now. This book gives you a way to reproduce it at your restaurant even if you lack his background and instincts. If you're looking for a way to add some excitement to your menu this year, start here.
Cooking The Cowboy Way
By Grady Spears
Andrews McMeel Publishing, $29.99
Its subtitle is so evocative — Recipes Inspired by Campfires, Chuck Wagons and Ranch Kitchens — that you can almost taste the food before you open this 224-page book. But go ahead and give its 100-plus recipes a try, because most of them yield delicious, restaurant-quality dishes even while relying primarily on a relative handful of down-home ingredients. Some of the recipes come straight from Spears, whose namesake restaurant in Fort Worth prospers by specializing in this style of food. Others he collected from cowboy cooks and working ranchers scattered across America. One, two or several of them would add pep to almost any full-service operation.
Damn Good Food!
By Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer
Borealis Books, $27.95
Restaurant owner Omer (Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis and Duluth, MN) and food writer Bauer's book gives us a ride as wild as the life Omer has led. It's a great story that has special appeal to restaurateurs, because they can easily adapt many of the book's 157 highly original recipes for their own use. Omer admits he's a wacked-out case — he straightened out later in life — yet some of his idiosyncracies helped make him a short-order savant with a thriving business. Especially recommended for Omer's creative and distinctive breakfast recipes.