I chatted by email with Zach Bell, chef de cuisine at Café Boulud in Palm Beach. He's just been nominated -- for the second time -- as Best Chef of the South in the James Beard Foundation Awards.
A little backstory on Bell: He's a Florida native who waterskiied on the lakes and picked backyard oranges around his Clermont home. Originally, he planned to become a physical therapist, then decided to take his years as a kitchen worker to a higher level and went to Johnson & Wales for a culinary degree. He's paid his dues in numerous kitchens here and abroad and now oversees Boulud's southernmost outpost.
New Times: How long have you been behind a
Bell: Twenty years.
Obviously, you have a top toque to answer to. Do you and Daniel ever have any differences of opinion about how a dish should be prepared/presented? Do you ever win?
I am pretty well-versed in classic technique, but Daniel has an ever-upward-ticking level of refinement that no other chef has. We are always tinkering with a dish to try to make it better on a daily basis -- never satisfied until we feel it is telling a complete story. So rather than saying right or wrong, I think I find myself trying to beat him to the punch with refining a dish; but then, of course, he will say, 'Yeah, that's nice, but what if we...?' That's why I have worked for him for over a decade!
Do you have any plans/dreams to own your own restaurant some day? If so, describe it and tell me what might be a signature dish?
Plans, no. Dreams -- of course. The kind of cook that succeeds at our level has to dream of ownership. If you don't have that kind of aspiration, what drives you? At my level, working for the best chef in the country, it is my job to run Café Boulud as if it was my money on the line but at the same time remembering that I am representing (and defending) the Daniel Boulud name.
What's your vice of choice for unwinding?
The electric thingy I have that you stick your feet in and it massages them.
If you could change one food that Americans eat or don't eat, what would it be, and why?
Simple: Fresh vegetables! Wouldn't it be amazing if one day we had as many varieties of potatoes or apples to choose from as we do boxed macaroni dinner flavors or disgusting lunch-meatable selections?
Are you a fan of offal -- very prominent in French kitchens -- and were you before you began with Boulud?
I love or can appreciate everything. I'm not going to choose a grilled beef heart over a nice ribeye steak, but I was in French kitchens prior to Daniel -- so yes.
Best kitchen tip from a pro that anyone can do?
SET UP YOUR STATION! Really, whittle down that tool jar next to your stove to the five or six tools you actually use. Then rest put in a drawer. Have a salt cellar and a couple peppermills ready to go at all times -- white and black. Have a list of essential pantry items that you keep stocked like a store. Take inventory once a week, and keep them at the proper level. Then daily, or two or three times a week -- you buy proteins from a reputable source. And a couple/three times a week, you buy produce from one of the myriad produce stands that are much cheaper than the supermarkets. Shop like a European or New Yorker! Don't you hate it when you buy pork chops on Monday for Thursday -- but then Thursday comes around and you're not in the mood for pork?
What's your favorite:
Crisp white Bordeaux.
Just in general I love all vegetables and look forward to the changing seasons -- like I would say Brussels sprouts -- but I am so burnt out on them now, I just can't. Likewise with cabbage -- although I truly love it, I can't look at it anymore as I write this. Leeks and artichokes have my heart right now, and beautiful beets from Satur Farms in Belle Glade, and tiny thin haricot vert from Kim at Erickson Farms in Canal Point.
Depends on what mood I want to be in -- Tool, Lil Wayne, Dave Matthews, Lady Gaga, Whatever.
* Participatory sport or activity?
Can I say cooking?
Favorite way to prepare an egg?
Fry it in brown butter over medium -- then sprinkle it with sliced jalapeños, red onion, whatever cheese is in the fridge, and hot sauce. Slap it on some multigrain with good bacon. Yum! By the way, you won't find that in Larousse Gastronomique!