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.
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.
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.
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.
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.