In the kitchen with Andrew Mersmann: Armed with a Sharpie, La Poste chef cooks up art on a plate

CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.  

Andrew Mersmann

"I like to start with the ingredients, and let them dictate where to take the dish. Sometimes I’ll look through the Food Lover's Companion to find something, or look inside a walk-in refrigerator until something jumps out."

It's been more than twelve years since Andrew Mersmann flew onto the restaurant scene as a "ninja." He was 17, and had taken the job of bus boy at, what was then Jean-Robert's premier restaurant, Pigall's. 

"As a bus boy, you're the ninja of the dining room. You get the job done but you're not supposed to be seen or heard," Mersmann said.

That was Mersmann's first foray into the restaurant industry. It didn't take long for the Cincinnati native to to work his way into the kitchen. It was at Pho Paris when a tuna tartare dish handed him a revelation.

"Stephen Williams and I teamed up to make this tuna tartare dish. We built the dish with tuna, carrot, bibb lettuce, cucumber, and lime cilantro vinaigrette, and even made bacon twills to top it off," he said.

When Mersmann saw and tasted what amounted to art on a plate, he was hooked.

"I've always had a passion for the arts, and seeing the combination of art and food come together, I realized this is what I love doing," Mersmann said. "It just made sense at a time in my life when not a lot made sense."

Mersmann worked in a few other restaurants like Greenup Cafe, Otto's and Jean-Robert's Table, before joining La Poste in 2011. 

His rise at La Poste, and the sister restaurant, Django Western Taco, has been fast. Today, Mersmann is the executive director of operations, and executive chef for both La Poste and Django Western Taco .

Mersmann's style of food at La Poste is fresh and effortless. He freely pulls from the mosaic of culinary influences that form New American cuisine.

"It's rewarding," Mersmann said, referring to the restaurant industry. As stressful as it is sometimes, there's no feeling like the feeling of relief and pride, knowing that everything you planned and obsessed about went smoothly." (Pictured below: The dining room at La Poste)

Food and cooking philosophy

"Try to find ingredients you and the cooks are passionate about, and have fun from there," Mersmann said.  "Having a good team is important. You want people who are as excited about cooking as you are. That way, you can pull from different ideas and allow things to evolve."

Mersmann subscribes to the "blue duck theory," a reference he makes to the movie, "Billy Madison." If something sounds good, he's all for giving it a try, just to see how it turns out.

"When you find the flavor profile you want, you'd want to balance it with texture," Mersmann said. "For example, if you want parsnip flavor, you have to decide if you want to fry, roast or make a puree with it. You'd also want to decide how to cut it: round, oblique, batonnet, or small dice. It all depends on the rest of the ingredients in the dish."

Mersmann thinks you have to be "a special kind of crazy" to be a restaurant professional. It has to be something that matters so much that, "you wake up thinking about it."

Essential ingredients & tools

Mersmann’s kitchen must-haves include:

  1. A retractable Sharpie. Mersmann calls it a "clicky" Sharpie. He uses it to mark on the tickets when he expedites food.  
  2. Sweatband. Mersmann uses his sweatband to hold his Sharpie for quick access. 
  3. Good pair of tongs
  4. A spoon hook. Mersmann fashions this hook by bending a spoon in two places (see photo above). One end of the hook tucks into the apron at the waist, and the other end holds the tongs. Mersmann credits another chef, Bhumin Desai , for introducing him to this tool. 
  5. Heavy thick gauge sauté pans.
  6. Oil (Canola or grape seed, because of the high smoke points)
  7. Salt and pepper
  8. Shallots
  9. Garlic
  10. Parsley
  11. Mirepoix
  12. A good stock. Mersmann deems this imperative for building flavors.
  13. Duck fat. While not exactly essential, Mersmann professes his love for this ingredient.

Inspirations

Mersmann’s early memories of food are of the simple things: Grandma’s macaroni and cheese, and grandpa’s biscuits and gravy. 

“She made me a teenage mutant ninja turtle cake every birthday, and decorated it herself,” he said. These foods shaped Mersmann's feelings about food--feelings that continue to inspire him today. 

“I remember feeling happy, comfortable and at ease."

Mersmann is inspired by anyone who he’s ever worked with, in particular, Jean-Robert de Cavel. 

He remembers how Jean-Robert de Cavel, at one time, went down the cooking line, and swept up the ingredients

the line cooks used. He transformed the rudimentary ingredients into an out-of-this-world dish. 

"That was really cool and inspiring," Mersmann said.

There's another thing about Jean-Robert that inspires Mersmann: His presence. 

"When he walks in the room, it's like he belongs there," Mersmann said. "It isn’t easy to do."

Grant Achatz, a world renowned chef, also inspires Mersmann. After being diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer, Achatz turned down surgery; instead, he chose an unconventional treatment to keep his tongue for the chance to be able to taste again. 

"The amount of courage and integrity that must have taken to say no, and being okay with whatever comes, is inspiring," Mersmann said.

Favorite meal to cook for family: Eggs a la Golden Rod

This recipe is a family favorite, that comes from Mersmann's grandmother. He serves this dish over biscuits, and any leftovers over buttered toast.

"(She) made this for my mom, and I would practically beg my mom to make it every Sunday," Mersmann said.  

Ingredients

  • 4 hard-cooked eggs
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup milk

Directions

  1. Peel eggs; separate whites from yolks.
  2. Chop whites into bite-sized pieces.
  3. In small bowl, mash yolks with fork or press through fine strainer. Set aside.
  4. In 1-quart heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. With whisk, beat in flour, salt and pepper.
  5. Cook over low heat, stirring until mixture is smooth and bubbly. Remove sauce from heat. Stir in milk.
  6. Return sauce to heat; heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute or until sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat.
  7. Fold chopped egg whites into white sauce.

To serve, arrange biscuits (homemade or store-bought) or buttered toast pieces onto serving plates. Pour creamed eggs over buttered toast pieces; sprinkle with yolks.

(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 .

 
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