Restaurants

Power to… The People’s Kitchen

Chef's at the People's Kitchen
Chef's at the People's Kitchen

By Domenic Mercurio

Where can you go to sample menus that include barbecued calf’s tongue or house-dried beef cheek sausage? What about getting a first-hand viewing of your meal being made? And then having a Q&A with the chef?
Only at The People’s Kitchen.

Located at The Citizen in Worcester, TPK is the ultimate foodie playground; eat, inquire and learn. Food aficionados can head into the kitchen and grill the chef on his methods; they can sample haute cuisine, keep it simple with some good old-fashioned comfort food or even try something a bit more exotic. Whatever the craving, TPK can satisfy just about any insatiable appetite.

Guests are welcomed to sit, eat, drink, be merry, and interact with Executive Chef Bill Nemeroff. Whether you have questions about sourcing meat or seasoning, inquiring minds are always encouraged.

Chef salting the steaks
Chef salting the steaks

In keeping with TPK’s honest and open policy, Foodies interviewed Bill as well as Chef Steve Champagne, all in the name of good, honest food.

Foodies: What’s the concept behind the name The People’s Kitchen’?

Bill Nemeroff: The idea for the restaurant was born out of the want to combine the culinary styles of Block 5 and Cedar Street Restaurant. We offer our guests menu honesty, a concept that many restaurants don’t adhere to. Simply speaking, The People’s Kitchen is a restaurant for the people.

Steve Champagne: The name also reflects a certain honesty in our product. We offer a tremendous value in high-quality food. Our steak prices are better than most steak houses or fine dining establishments, and the quality is superb. Our guests truly get an honest meal for an honest dollar.

BN: We allow our guests to come into the kitchen and ask questions and see the quality we present at the table. It’s their kitchen. Of course, at 7:30 on a Saturday night, it’s not the wisest idea to have a group of guests walking through the kitchen, but if they want a tour and are interested in seeing our 21-day dry aging process, we’d love to have them.

Foodies: How did you decide that 21 is the magic number?

BN: In order to properly dry age beef, the product has to be stored in a cooler at a particular temperature for an extended time. We tested different time periods: 7 days, 14 days and 21 days. By the end of our experiment, we determined that 21 days resulted in more tender meat; the enzymes break down the tissue in the meat, thereby naturally tenderizing it without the need for pounding, which can sometimes bruise the meat.

Chef inspecting the meat
Chef inspecting the meat

Foodies: Do you locally source your ingredients?

BN: We actually use a farm-to-table approach; we buy our meat from local farms that we’re familiar with. It’s important for a dining establishment to be able to source the best, freshest meat available from reliable and like-minded farmers.

SC: Buying directly from local farmers also allows us to see what’s available and in season. That way, we’re able to rotate our menu every day, offering diners what’s timely and fresh, something new and different each time they visit us. By buying local and buying fresh, we’re really able to take the handcuffs off so that we can experiment with new items that we, as chefs, want to try. (Steak Portuguese: New York Strip topped with pickled peppers, garlic butter and a fried egg). Offering our guests something new and different is what we love doing. After all, it is their Kitchen.

Foodies: Is everything local?

SC: At TPK, we source some great international cheeses. We’ve procured some delicious Cacciocavallo, a semi-hard cheese from Italy, and Red Dragon, a grain mustard-laced cow cheese from Great Britain. And there are always local favorites like the Smith Gouda from Semi Farm in Massachusetts and the Grafton Aged Cheddar from Vermont.

Foodies: Do you ever put your own spin on an international favorite?

SC: We create a sweet sopressata, in true Italian fashion with our own dry aged pork, and an offal sausage that is very unique and tasty. The charcuterie is really where the distinction lies for us. It’s such an investment; creating quality in this respect requires so much time.

BN: It really is; watching the meat cure, ensuring it ages properly, constantly checking the curing temperature and observing how the meat responds to the process. It’s completely worth it for me, though.

Foodies: Bill, what’s your favorite TPK creation to date?

BN: Our fried chicken. I’m a southern boy, and our recipe is the same recipe my grandmother used when she made it for me as a young boy. We use braised mustard greens, red eye gravy, and chicken that has soaked in buttermilk for three days.

Foodies: Three days?

BN: Oh, yes. It’s critical for the meat to absorb as much richness from the buttermilk as possible and it really increases the chicken’s ability to hold the batter, creating an intensely rewarding flavor.

 

Recipe
Recipe

Foodies: It’s clear that craft is important to you.

BN: The emphasis is really on simplicity and quality. TPK is a craft restaurant, from top to bottom and right down to our beverages we don’t carry big brands like Absolute vodka. We use small-batch, craft vodkas instead.

SC: One evening, I remember a guest asked for Southern Comfort. Obviously, we don’t carry it, but the guest was thrilled with what we did have an artisanal, craft beverage from a distinctive, unique brand. Because of that, our servers undergo extensive training and education, so they’re well versed in everything we offer, which inspires confidence in our guests.

Foodies: Do your guests ever get too confident? Have you ever had to compromise your philosophy, recipes or preparation methods at their request?

BN: We do our best in the kitchen to not say no. Sometimes, our ideals are confronted and we have to decide what we’re comfortable doing. We invest so much time and effort into everything we create, even in the sauce. So, the last thing we want is to see our creation getting covered in ketchup. In short, we do our best to select sauces and flavors that are intended to perfectly complement each other. We’re confident that our guests will agree when they taste it.

SC: But we do take requests and change our ingredients. After all, we are The People’s Kitchen!

BN: Absolutely. In fact, it’s quite common. We have guests who are vegan and request vegetarian versions of our intensely flavored meat dishes. By principle, we’ve created a protein-driven menu, but vegetarians are people, too. We accommodate them without any difficulty.

SC: But we are fairly eccentric in our approach to these dishes. Our chickpea, gluten-free burger is quite good and resembles the texture and tangy flavor of a traditional burger. It has a pasty, meaty quality that imitates beef, and it’s pureed for a tight consistency.

Foodies: What’s your culinary philosophy?

BN: Cook what you know. Don’t get influenced by trends and keep your integrity about what you’re cooking. Technically, know how to cook things. If you’re going to make steak, use salt and pepper, then add from there. With that said, I do like big and bold dishes and experimenting with world flavors. In that way, I’m kind of a sauce guy.

Foodies: Bill, last year you competed at the Worcester’s Best Chef and made it to the live, Iron Chef round. What dish got you there?

BN: I prepared a dessert in the image of a traditional savory, comfort-food favorite, a hamburger. In this case, it was a chocolate hamburger. For the hamburger patty, I used dense chocolate mousse; the buns were made of cream puffs; and the cheese was mango gel. I presented and plated the hamburger with a vanilla milkshake (insert photo here). that was comprised of almond milk.

Worcesters Best Chef 2010
Worcesters Best Chef 2010

Foodies: What was it like competing live, on stage in the final competition of Iron Chef?

BN: It was fun. I liked playing around with the crowd, but had to ask myself, Am I trying to win, or am I trying to do my best to represent the restaurant Cedar Street? In a competition like that, those are two very different things. It’s exciting and stressful; you open your mystery basket, look at the ingredients and wonder to yourself live in front of a thousand people. What in the world am I going to make with quail eggs and coco puffs? So, I just started to chop my ingredients, boil the water and halfway through, I knew what I was going to do. Sometimes it comes to you as you’re getting started.

Foodies: What are some of the differences between Cedar Street Restaurant, which you formerly owned and operated, and TPK?
BN: Cedar Street was a place where you’d dine once in awhile. TPK is a place where you can sit at the bar and have a croque madame about as often as you’d like.

Foodies: What’s next for TPK?

SC: I think we’ll be busy promoting some of the events we’re working on: Farmers’ Dinners, with tables of produce to educate the community, a pig roast with Bill’s southern recipes like frog stew, chicken soup, savage corn boiled outdoors. We’ll also have more wine dinners, whisky and game dinners and maybe a cooking series on the patio. We don’t want to move too fast. After all, we’re part of the Slow Food Movement, which is about eating with your friends and family, sitting down, re-connecting, and living again.

BN: There’s a reason why it’s called comfort food. Everyone can relate to it, regardless of economic or ethic persuasion. We believe in the concept of Vive La Food. This is how a restaurant should be, and how the food should be prepared for real people, by real people.

The People’s Kitchen at The Citizen Wine Bar is located at 1 Exchange Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. More information is available online at www.thecitizenwinebar.com/the-peoples-kitchen.php or by calling 508-459-9090.

Chicken Parmigiano: The Italian Barometer

Some epicures regard chicken parmigiano as an overly simplistic dish, while others argue you can’t even find it on menus at restaurants in Italy. Ordering such a dish might appear as a cop-out, particularly when there are so many less than pedestrian plates. So, why waste time on such a seemingly basic entree?

The answer is simple; one bite can instantly reveal the quality and innovation of the chef.

Chef Eddie Esper
Chef Eddie Esper

Chicken parmigiano has an intrinsic nature that echoes that of all Italian cuisine: simplicity. Comprised of what most Italian food fans adore about the boot, it can instantly reveal the quality and innovation of the chef.

Depending on how well the elements of the dish work together, any guest can gauge the level of quality expected with more complex dishes. You just need to understand three basic elements: gravy, cheese and chicken.

Pass the Gravy

Gravy is Italian-American for sauce. In this case, it’s marinara and it’s meant to run red and thin.

The redder this simple tomato sauce is, the fresher it is. Darker marinara, almost brown in color, tends to indicate that it has passed its prime. A catchy rule of thumb: if it’s brown, leave town; if it’s red, pick up the bread.

At its thickest, marinara should have a consistency similar to that of a pure. However, the sauce becomes more acidic as it gets thicker, which leaves many Italian foodies suffering from acida (pronounced ah-chi-dah). Luckily, ingredient number two helps to prevent this burning feeling in the chest.

Say Formaggio

The dish may be called chicken parmigiano, but the cheese isn’t actually parmigiano. It’s mozzarella and it should be melted, soft and plentiful.

Remember, there’s no such thing as melting the cheese too much. You’ll find that once it hits the hot cutlet, it melts and sure enough, when the sauce trickles over the chicken, it melts even more .

Overly spicy sauces and spice-laden breading can easily trump the mozzarella with their intensity. One trick to thwart this: put cheese on the cutlet, add sauce and then top it off with a little more cheese. This achieves a dense texture and prevents the mozzarella from being overshadowed.

Chicken Reigns Supreme

The chicken cutlet, or cottaletta in Italian, is arguably the most important part of the dish. Differing from a fillet, a cutlet should be rather thin and very tender.

Chicken Parmigiano at Chioda's
Chicken Parmigiano at Chioda's

Tenderness is key. Overcooking or drying-out a cutlet can be very easy. It should be pounded somewhat thin, but not so much that you can read a newspaper through it. Personal preference may vary, but you’re looking for something about half the thickness of a New York sirloin.

Telltale signs a chicken might be overdone: crunchy breading, hard breading, and burnt edges. Slow cooking is one way to prevent dry chicken, a tried and true method used by Chioda’s Trattoria.

When these elements come together ”the freshest sauce spiced slightly with oregano, a little extra mozzarella and a perfectly pounded, tender, breaded cutlet lightly spiced and fried only in pure, extra virgin olive” the result is a mouth-watering gastronomic symphony known as chicken parmigiano.

If you think you’re ready to try testing this infamous dish, a great place to start is Chioda’s Trattoria in Worcester, MA. Executive Chef Eddie Esper has proved to be a genius when it comes to chicken parmigiano. With the help of Steve Chioda, Jr., they have perfected a simple yet delicious sauce that’s light on spice and full of fresh flavor and mastered slow cooking. Buon appetito!

Written by Domenic Mercurio

A Real Food Revolution at Armsby Abbey

In a world filled with national restaurant chains, wholesale retailers and flavors that are concocted in chemical factories, what does it mean to produce real food? Considering the grand illusion that food should already be real, this is something that calls for a little deliberation. If food is suddenly real, what was it before? Was it the opposite of real–fake, false, feigned, artificial, untrue?

In all actuality, we’re guessing that its just a marketing ploy. But isn’t it a scoche scary that what should be a norm is now a novelty?

Armsby Abbey
Armsby Abbey

We can only be left to speculate. But amidst this trend in labeling food as real, there are craftsmen, the artisans who continue to feed the world with fresh, honest and natural products. One such artisanal establishment is the localvore haven Armsby Abbey, which its passion for all things purely pabulum.

“You see these commercials advertising real food–what does that even mean?” ponders Alec Lopez, owner of Armsby Abbey. Located at 144 Main Street in Worcester, the Abbey is more than just a local brewpub. It’s a godsend for local and regional food producers and farmers.

“Our mission is simple: to do the best we can. For us that means only using handcrafted items,” explains Alec. “We make everything from scratch here and use local products in the process.” And, while the beer may be anything but local–rare brews reign supreme–those lucky enough to be featured are always handcrafted and Alec handpicks them himself.

Apparently, beer isn’t the only thing handpicked by Alec. “My day starts at the farm. The greatest part of my day is picking,” confesses Alec. “There’s a zen in that. There’s a huge connection to everything, being at one with your inventory.” With all this integrity abuzz, it’s no wonder the Abbey is a special place to eat and work.

The Abbey roster includes nine chefs, two pastry chefs and 32 other employees, all of whom undergo–at minimum–a two-month training regimen. It’s no wonder there’s a sense of pride carried throughout entire establishment. “When we forge for nettles at the first break of spring, it’s like a fever runs through the whole building,” describes Alec. And once those nettles appear on the menu, the fulfillment settles in. “You know the person that raised [the crop]. Not only do we have a sense of pride in what we do, but it gives patrons a sense of pride in where they’re money is going.”

Working closely with family-owned Berberian Farm in Northborough, Alec has found ample ways to feed the community, both literally and figuratively. “It’s about community involvement. We’re constantly exploring the farms around us, creating networks,” says Alec. “It’s amazing how many great farms there are with great food and great products, just no marketing teams.”

Slate at the Armsby Abby
Slate at the Armsby Abbey

In 2008, when Armsby Abbey was born, farm stands weren’t exactly a hot commodity. Now, with homesteading appearing as a popular trend, Alec is trying to educate. And he’s succeeding. After a formal submission to begin the central Massachusetts chapter of Slow Food International, Alec and his wife are taking Slow Food’s eco-gastronomic approach and applying it not only to at the Abbey, but in our very own community by attempting to create farmer’s markets and instruct others on home and urban gardening. “There has been this great push in the general consciousness toward [eating local],” Alec observes. “We thought we would have a narrow passage of people like us, but the whole world came through our door. Everyone from our favorite farms to old women to people who enjoy great beer.”

It’s this overall enjoyment of food and beverage that encapsulates Alec’s drive in the industry. “I’m from Argentina. I grew up with the baker’s son riding his bike down the street selling baguettes every day. I was raised on good wine and fresh food.” Moving to the U.S. in his later years, Alec quickly realized that the American way of consumption–cheap and colossal–wasn’t his style. “I remember my friends drinking cheap beer, but it never tasted good to me.”

Eventually, Alec opened with specialized beer at The Dive Bar. From there, he went on to open the Abbey. Similar to The Dive in brew selection, but also offering up gourmet pub grub; food was there just to compliment the offerings at the bar. “We were pounded by the demand for food, but we only have this tiny kitchen,” says Alec. “The demand just kept groaning and we were faced with this dilemma: people were waiting an hour for a table. But, they were happy about it.”

This astonishing turn of gastronomic delight has urged Alec to expand the Abbey. Acquiring the property next door, the kitchen will soon be across the hall, enabling an addition of 30-35 seats, and hopefully cutting down the waiting list.

So what’s next for Alec? It still involves yeast. Crust, his bakery, is set to open its doors in mid-August. “Everything I do is out of selfishness,” he explains. “The Dive was created because I didn’t want to drive an hour for craft beer. We created the Abbey out of my desire to become a chef, as well as to expand our beer reach. Making the bread there just made sense.” But the irony, the wonder, lies in the bread. After all, he just wanted to provide the Abbey with its own supply and break even. Virtually no risk. “The funny thing is, we’re already getting restaurants that are interested in buying our bread.”

Still skeptical? The first words to greet you on the homepage of the Abbey’s website: artisan and craftsman, along with definitions. Artisan: A worker who practices a trade or handicraft; Someone that produces items, such as cheese or beer, in limited quantities using traditional methods. Craftsman: One who creates or performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts. Even in line with the Miram Webster Dictionary, Armsby Abbey just can’t get any more real.

Written by Julie Grady

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