Local chef shows how to make memorable meals
A few weeks ago I received a note asking if I’d be interested in speaking with Chef Jay Caputo about his approach to creating memorable meals. We’d recently enjoyed a terrific dinner at his signature restaurant, Espuma, so my answer was a definite yes. I was hoping to gain some insight into his techniques and maybe learn a few tricks I could share with readers of this column.
We met at his upscale British pub in the Hotel Rodney, a new incarnation of the Lewes landmark Rose and Crown. The gleaming wooden features of the warm interior were especially inviting on the bitter cold afternoon. Jay’s welcome was equally warm as he spoke about his early years as a less-than-discerning diner who disliked raw tomatoes and preferred basic pasta dishes, stuffed shells and his mother’s meatballs.
Originally working with a generous chef who took Jay under his wing, followed by stints in other renowned kitchens, Caputo ultimately developed a passion for creating great food. He acknowledged the importance of mastering the basics before attempting the exotic or unusual, just as any artists need to learn the fundamentals of their craft.
When asked about recipes (hoping he had one for me in his pocket) he said he preferred to hire smart, talented staff who could deliver his vision to the table. Jay explained that he builds a dish in his mind, combining flavors and textures in his imagination. He then describes his vision for the dish, working with his team to translate this into the finished product.
His objective at all three of his local restaurants (the third is Cabo, where you’ll find farm-fresh Mexican cuisine and an impressive array of tequila) is to create a chef-crafted menu through a combination of precise techniques and the finest ingredients. His basic philosophy is: Source local ingredients, manipulate them minimally and deliver familiar flavors in an unfamiliar way.
By way of example, Jay shared his formula for the Rose and Crown’s bacon burger. Instead of topping the grilled beef patty with slices of bacon, he grinds the bacon along with the beef. This way, the bacon is completely incorporated into the ground beef; every bite of the burger delivers flavors of rich, juicy beef and smoky bacon in the same mouthful.
Since we’d tried the butternut squash soup at Espuma, I asked how that was made, noting his version was far silkier in texture than mine. It was because of the difference in the tools found in the professional kitchen compared to what’s available to the home chef. While I used a stick blender for a chunky puree, he relied on a commercial Vitamix to create an impossibly smooth puree.
Another dish almost out of the reach of the home cook is something he calls 3-day pork (also seen on the menu as 72-hour pork). Jay starts with a pork shoulder that he cures for 24 hours in a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, thyme and rosemary. After the flavors have had a chance to penetrate the meat, it’s cooked using a technique known as sous vide (French for “under vacuum”).
In the sous vide process, ingredients are sealed in an airtight plastic bag and cooked at precisely controlled low temperatures in a circulating water bath, typically for a much longer time. The result is food that’s tender, moist and unlike anything created in a conventional oven, because the lower temperatures help the ingredients retain their flavor and succulence.
Without a sous vide machine, I attempted this dish with surprisingly good results. I added savory leaves to the seasoning mixture for the day of curing and then roasted the pork in a very slow oven for next 24 hours. My 2-day pork was not as juicy as Espuma’s version, but still very delicious. I’ve included my recipe for the pork in the photo; it takes a bit of elapsed time, but the steps are quite simple. For Jay Caputo’s 3-day pork, go to Espuma and discover what a difference a day makes.
2-Day Pork Roast
3 to 4 lb pork shoulder
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1/2 t garlic powder
1/2 t dried thyme
1/2 t dried rosemary
1/2 t dried savory
2 stalks celery
1 C dry wine
1 C vegetable broth
Begin curing the pork at least two days before serving. Combine the salt, pepper, garlic, thyme, rosemary and savory in a mortar. Grind with pestle until spices are uniform in size. Pat dry the pork with paper towel and coat all sides with the spice mixture. Wrap tightly in wax paper and place in a zip-top bag. Remove air and seal the bag; refrigerate for at least 24 hours (or up to 3 days).
Begin roasting step at least 26 hours before serving. Remove the meat from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 180 F. Clean and roughly chop the carrot and celery; cut the onion into eighths. Scatter the vegetables across the bottom of a Dutch oven; set aside. Unwrap pork and score the fat cap into diamond shapes with a sharp knife. Place the meat on top of the vegetables, fat side up, and pour wine into pan. Cover and cook for 20 hours. Remove cover and cook an additional 4 hours. Remove meat to a cutting board and loosely tent with foil. Place Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add broth, stirring vigorously to loosen any browned bits from the bottom. Strain liquid into a small saucepan and discard vegetables. Simmer pan drippings over medium low until reduced and slightly thickened. Carve the meat and serve with pan gravy.