Israeli-born chef Michael Caspi, 30, who held several top spots at major New York eateries, often runs under the radar here in Philadelphia. Maybe it's because he spends his days inside the walls of the historic Morris House Hotel as the executive chef of M Restaurant, on S. Eighth Street near Jeweler's Row. The hotel was built in 1787 and retains the colonial architecture of the Revolutionary era. In 1914, the Morris family, which occupied the building for several generations, tore down an adjoining house and created the outdoor garden, which now remains as an iron-gated courtyard and distinguishes the property from its urban setting. It was in the garden that the chef sat down for an interview with the Exponent.
What kind of food experience did you have growing up in Israel?
My father is a chef so I was surrounded by food from an early age. This is an experience that young cooks don't always have. My dad would make dishes and ask me, "What's inside this? What flavors are there?" He let me figure it out on my own and always made me taste different foods. I know it's not very humble to say but, yes, I had a more extensive palate than other kids.
What brought you here?
That's a tough question — my ex-girlfriend. I followed her here. Eventually, I found that there was an opening for an executive chef [at the Morris House Hotel] so I took it. I fell in love with the hotel. It's so beautiful; there's nothing like it in the whole city.
Who or what influences your cooking style these days?
I am influenced by Thomas Keller, [American chef and restaurateur]. He's the best chef in North America and one of the best chefs in the world. He managed to change many chefs' whole perspectives about food and the restaurant experience. Everything he chooses to do in life is the closest to perfection that a person can achieve. He is different because his food is very clean, basic, but he manipulates it however he wants. His philosophy is that if he is going to make pea soup, for example, it's going to be more than just peas. It's going to have all different kinds of flavors and colors.
What's your general philosophy or vision of cooking?
I believe in using the best ingredients. There are many restaurants in the city that say they're local and organic. It's very pretentious. At M Restaurant, we are using those types of ingredients but we don't advertise it as much. We give people the best that's available, even if it's coming from Ohio or Alaska or California. We don't think local is necessarily best. We use a lot of local farms, but actually most of our vegetables come from Ohio because we believe they have great organic farms there.
What's your ultimate favorite food?
Very simple. I like carrots cooked with nothing on them, for example. I also like pasta, vegetables, grains and beans. I try not to mess up the flavor of vegetables with too many other kinds of ingredients.
What about to cook?
I like to make things that are a little more complex, like my pasta dishes. For example, at the restaurant we have cavatelli pasta made from the best flour available. We use parsley juice to make an amazing green-colored pasta that retains the flavor and color of the parsley. That takes hours of preparation because we have to wash the parsley leaves, blanch them, juice the parsley and then prepare the pasta dough. And then after that I need to prepare the condiments — peeling, dicing, cooking things down. It takes eight hours just to make a pasta dish with the cheese grating and baking it in the oven. And then maybe I will make a garnish of mushrooms cooked for six hours in the oven and then cut them in half and sauté them. And that's not even everything I do for the dish. And everything in the restaurant is made from scratch.
Do you have any parting advice for at-home cooks or beginning chefs?
Don't spend money and time on schools. Go explore the world or the chefs you are inspired by. Buy books, research, put your life into it.
Extra Juicy and Crispy Chicken
1 whole chicken, brined 24 hours
1/2 lb. fingerling potato halves (or other small variety of potato)
1/2 bunch of parsley
1 head garlic
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbsps. of canola oil
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. sherry or champagne vinegar
Brining the Chicken: Bring all ingredients to a simmer for 10 minutes.
Submerge chicken in brine for 24 hours.
Cooking the Chicken: Pat the chicken skin completely dry. Remove the thighs. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
Brown the chicken breast until it turns golden brown. Rotate the chicken carefully, so as not to break the skin, until the entire bird is evenly colored. Let the chicken rest at room temperature. In the same pan with the chicken fat drippings, sear the chicken thighs on all sides.
Set aside the chicken breast, body and thighs. In the same pan, in the chicken drippings, sauté garlic. After a few minutes, place chicken thighs on top of the potato mixture, and roast in a 325° oven for 40 minutes. Roast the chicken breasts in separate pan for 15 to 18 minutes.
After it is roasted, remove chicken from the pan. Let it rest for 15 minutes. Carve the bird. Return the roasting pan to the stove. Add 1/3 cup water to the potato mixture, and bring to a simmer. Finish with canola oil, mustard, vinegar and parsley. Season with salt, ground pepper and fresh lemon juice, and pour over roast chicken.
This recipe requires three steps — you trim a cauliflower, make a stock from the trimmings, a puree from the roasted florets and a meringue from the stock. The meringue is folded into the puree and then set in the refrigerator. It will require a blender, a food processor, a stand mixer and 100 ml molds. Versawhip (a soy protein), kosher gelatin, agar (a gelling agent from seaweed), and egg white powder are available on the Internet or some specialty stores. The result is a creamy custard, rich in cauliflower flavor, but using basically no fat.
trimmings from one cauliflower, leaves and roots, and a few florets
1 cup pinot grigio
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 cups water
Reduce wine with herbs and sugar until it is the consistency of a gastrique.
Mix ingredients in the food processor, adding water enough to get a wet mixture.
Combine cauliflower and gastrique, bring to a simmer and strain through a chinois, pushing to release as much liquid as possible from the mixture. You should yield around one pint.
For the Meringue:
Take a simple syrup from sugar and water; when they are combined, add gelatin and dissolve.
Shear versawhip and egg white powder into mixture using a blender. Transfer to a stand mixer with a whip attachment and start to whip, add syrup and whip until stiff peaks form, approximately 10 minutes.
Roast cauliflower florets quickly in a very hot pot with a thin layer of oil, shaking to avoid too much browning, puree in a blender adding creamer as needed to make a smooth puree, and the salt to taste. Pass through a fine mesh tamis, quickly adding the gelatin and agar with a whisk. Fold the meringue into the mixture and quickly pour into molds. Refrigerate to set.
Garnish with a salad, shaved cauliflower, pickled cauliflower, etc. The leftover stock can be used to make a foamy sauce. The flans can be eaten cold or topped with sugar and parmesan and browned in a broiler.