CINCINNATI - Do you have to make it big in the Big Apple to cook up a successful career as a chef?
Derek dos Anjos, The Anchor
"You don't have any New York experience." It was a dig that Derek dos Anjos got tired of hearing.
No one ever said the restaurant business was easy in New York. For dos Anjos, the chef and owner of The Anchor in Over-the-Rhine (pictured below), he found out first-hand how tough it was for a Cincinnati cook to break into that scene.
"They said I didn't have any New York experience, and they weren't going to hire me," dos Anjos recalled.
Born in Wilmington, Ohio, dos Anjos lived in Brazil in his early years.
"My father is from Brazil, and I lived there for the first seven years of my life," dos Anjos recalled. He then moved to Wilmington, where his mother is from, to a dairy farm. Dos Anjos grew up with fresh ingredients for food, something that would influence his adult years.
His entry into the culinary world did not happen until after he had earned a liberal arts degree at Earlham College in Indiana.
"When I graduated, I needed to get a job," dos Anjos said.
He found work at various restaurants in Cincinnati, like The Phoenix and Plaza 600.
"I knew it was something I wanted to do," dos Anjos said. He moved to New York, where his attempt to work in restaurants was repeatedly met with rejection, because of his lack of "New York experience."
When dos Anjos met Mary Redding, he got his big break. She was opening a new restaurant, Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village, and was willing to take a chance on him. Dos Anjos found his culinary style there, and quickly worked his way up to the rank of sous chef.
After he worked at other restaurants in New York and Chicago, dos Anjos again joined forces with Mary Redding. They opened a couple of other restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn, earning critical acclaim along the way.
After 17 good years in the Big Apple, dos Anjos and his wife returned to Cincinnati in 2012 to raise their children. Over-the-Rhine reminds him of Brooklyn.
"I absolutely love it," he said.
Food and cooking philosophy
"Food has to be super fresh; it has to be the best quality I can find. From there, you build the flavor profile based on seasonality. If tomatoes are not in season, then let's look at other ingredients like beets or artichokes. Then I ask myself if I enjoy eating it? If I do, chances are, other people will too."
Creative and assiduous about flavor profiles, dos Anjos applies his talents even to rudimentary raw oysters on the half shell.
"We serve them with freshly grated horseradish, as well as the classic rosé mignonette and cocktail sauces. We've also started serving flavored ices with them, like pickled red onion and horseradish, pink peppercorn and pear, and ginger and Thai basil," he added.
The flavored ices, also called granité, go on top of the oysters giving them a pop of refreshing flavor.
"The food we put out has to have a lot of integrity. We don't take shortcuts," dos Anjos said. He attributes his work ethic to his grandfather, who was a dairy farmer in Wilmington. "We treat ingredients with a lot of respect. It takes a lot of love."
And it doesn't end with food.
"We make our own simple syrups and bitters for the bar. Right now, we're aging rum in a cask with garam masala spices. We're constantly pushing the envelope with everything we make here."
Essential ingredients & tools
Must-haves in a dos Anjos kitchen include:
- A well-stocked pantry. He values interesting salts, seasonings and vinegar. His go-to salt is Maldon sea salt, although his current favorite is apple wood smoked salt. Also: rice wine vinegar and champagne vinegar.
- Temperature-controlled water bath -- for perfectly poached eggs.
- Knives: 9-inch Wüsthof chef knife , and a set of Global knives . This chef appreciates the lighter weight of the Global knives, compared to the traditional German knives.
- Different microplane zesters and graters (see picture above), for handling different ingredients from parmesan cheese to lemons.
- Victorinox oyster knives --for opening the roughly one thousand oysters every week.
- Dehydrator--for making flavored powders, like powdered beet and persimmon. These powder sprinkles normally accompany their raw preparation of fish.
The distant but visceral memory of Brazil is never far from dos Anjos's culinary psyche. Not only did he enjoy a multitude of great seafood at an early age, the very sense of Brazil has inspired him to be who he is today.
And if he runs short on inspiration, dos Anjos simply goes out.
"You have to go out to eat, and see what other people are doing," he said.
When he was in New York, he had access to world class restaurants like Babbo and Per Se--goldmines of inspiration.
"I was very fortunate to work for people like Mary Redding who gave us a $300 monthly allowance to spend on eating out, or books or equipment," dos Anjos said.
His favorite cookbook is Judy Rodgers's The Zuni Cafe Cookbook . He appreciates
how Rodgers breaks things down and explains processes in ways the reader can easily understand.
"I ate at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco about six or seven years ago. That was an eye-opening experience," dos Anjos said.
Chris Christman, the former chef-de-cuisine at Chanterelle restaurant in New York, also gets a nod from dos Anjos--for showing him advanced cooking techniques.
Favorite meal to cook at home: Prince Edward Island mussels with shallots, fresh thyme & burnt orange
While his wife is the main cook at home, dos Anjos enjoys cooking mussels, which his kids love.
"It's fun to make the burnt orange. You could use it as a salad dressing, or an accompaniment to other dishes," he said.
- 2 lbs. fresh PEI mussels, washed well
- 3 whole shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 clove garlic, thinly sliced
- 3 oranges, peeled carefully (no pith)
- 1 cup canola or grape seed oil
- 3 tablespoon burnt orange oil (see below)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup white whine
- pinch of cracked chili peppers
- chopped parsley
- sprigs of fresh thyme
- salt and pepper to taste
- Peel the orange skins, making sure to avoid the white pith.
- Place orange peels in pan, cover them with either canola or grape seed oil and place on very low heat.
- Simmer in the oil, over very gentle heat, until they turn a dark orange color. Avoid browning as they will be too bitter if they reach this point.
- Remove orange peels from heat and allow to cool.
- When cooled, blend the oil and the peels well in a blender. The burnt orange oil will keep well in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, and can also be used to flavor pastas, vinaigrettes, etc.
- Melt the butter on medium heat until it foams, then add the sliced shallots and garlic, and toss them around until they are a bit soft.
- Then add the orange oil, a pinch of the chili pepper, salt and pepper, and mussels.
- Toss the mussels around, add the thyme sprigs and wine, and cover. Raise the heat to high. Check the mussels after about five minutes .
- Once all the mussels have opened, uncover, sprinkle them with the chopped parsley, and portion them into four soup bowls, and spoon over the liquid. Discard any unopened mussels.
Makes 4 servings. Preparation time: 30 minutes. Cooking time: 5 minutes
(All photos by G. Yek)
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .