Burning Question: Do Chefs "Do" Sloppy Seconds?

60e61638-0a3e-4fb0-9399-e52c2b91db9e_thumbnail.jpgSean Avery's not the only one who has a problem with leftovers.

"I hated them as a kid," admits James Neel, chef at Tramontana. "I didn't want the same thing two days in a row."

Wait...are we talking about the same thing? Maybe not. Fortunately, cooks in the city treat sloppy seconds with a little more respect than certain hockey stars. Every day of the year, just about, kitchen staffers save the random ounce of meat trimmed from a steak, the misshapen end of a carrot--that sort of thing--and toss them back into walk-in.

"Margins are thinner than ever before," explains Brian Luscher, chef and owner of The Grape. Small operations often waver in the five percent profit range, so tossing out leftover ingredients is like, plunking all your 401k into brokerage stocks or starting up a print-only newspaper. With a few onion halves, some of those carrot bits and a little scrap meat, he adds, "I can make a soup of the day."

Simply put, says Neel, "We don't waste anything."

Now, it's not like they're scraping plates clean as they come back from the dining room. These are fresh pieces of prime beef, locally grown vegetables and other worthy items. But when the recipe demands, say, six ounces of filleted trout and the purveyor brings an eight ounce catch, the extra becomes part of an experimental dish.

"Anybody can take a nice piece of foie gras and serve it," Luscher points out. "But a knuckle of prosciutto bone and some lettuce--show me what you can do with that." David Uygur at Lola holds onto the rind and fat from butchered pigs and makes his own cracklings, one of the very few upscale restaurants to serve such a down-home favorite.

"It is an art in itself, to save something and execute it perfectly," explains Russell Hodges, chef and instructer at the Aims Academy.

Besides, many old school classics are based on the leftover "progression." Spices and sauces extended the life of meat in the days before refrigeration, leading to some popular French recipes, as well as heavily seasoned Southwestern fare. Duck confit emerged from an an attempt to preserve the flesh after cooking. Fresh bread stales into a state perfect for croutons. Old croutons can be crumbled into a topping for au gratin.

"There's no sense in wasting bread," Uygur says. In the old days, poverty, hunger and the difficulty in preserving foods instilled a 'use everything' ethic. And if chefs were to abandon that today--well, the Lola chef adds, "my grandparents would be rolling over."

So do chefs do sloppy seconds? Yes--every single day, as soups, pates, lunch specials, hand made sausages, and any number of other features. "We give things two shots," Neel says.

After that, "there's always the employee meal."
--Dave Faries

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