It can be a challenge to keep dinner interesting when you're cooking for the same people every day.
William Meyers, executive chef at the Stone Harbor Golf Club, understands this issue all too well. At 27, he's worked at the membership club in some capacity since he graduated The Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing six years ago. He says the atmosphere is casual and friendly, and he knows his guests inside out.
"With the golfers, it's almost a first name basis; with some of them I don't even have to wait for the (order) ticket to come in, they always order the same thing," he says. "So I always try to change it up with my own flair, if and when I can."
Meyers uses seasonal specials on the menu to keep members' interest. But he doesn't stop there. He lets loose his creative side with special touches - colored "pearls" of vinegar artfully arranged in an oyster on the half shell, olive oil turned to powder and sprinkled like snow on a salad - that are relatively easy to execute, if you break them down right.
Moms often use molecular gastronomy in everyday baking, Meyers says, they just don't realize it.
"Everyone uses hydrocolloids every day because corn starch is one, you just don't know it by that name. When you thicken a sauce, you're using molecular gastronomy, you just don't know it," he says. "Tapioca maltodextrin turns liquid fat into powder, so you can take extra virgin olive oil and put it in a food processor and drizzle it into the olive oil and it turns to powder."
Meyers is constantly thinking up new ideas, from sprinkling the olive oil over a smoked arugula - as in, the arugula is smoked - salad to melting down white chocolate and drizzling it into sweet snow for a dessert.
While hot food recipes often bear the term "to taste" as a measurement, baking is more scientific, using more molecular gastronomy and "formulas" instead of "recipes," Meyers says. But it can show up in something as simple as bacon-wrapped scallops, which employs transglutaminase, also known as "meat glue" to bind the proteins in the fish and pork seamlessly together when heat is applied. Likewise if you marinate fish in some herbs and white wine, then vacuum seal the bag, the lack of oxygen deepens the flavors in the fish after it's slow-cooked on low heat.
One of his favorite ingredients to play with is agar agar, a gelatin derived from red algae that creates fun effects in conjunction with quick temperature changes. Meyers adds it to vinegars of varying flavors and colors, boils it to 185 degrees, then suctions it into a syringe. When it's drizzled over a bowl of icy-cold olive oil, the droplets separate into 'pearls' of vinegar in the oil.
The pearls are sturdy enough to be scooped out of the olive oil with a slotted spoon, rinsed in a separate container of water and will hold up to two weeks. "And that's all natural," Meyers says. "People put worse things in their bodies just by (using) the wrong vitamin supplements and stuff."
Learning new factoids such as that are part of Meyers' master plan to be the best at what he does.
"Ever since I started watching 'Top Chef,' way back when I still lived with my parents, I would write in a notebook what they were making and try to figure out how to make it," he recalls. "I'm really competitive and always played sports growing up. I still play basketball, and I think if I'm not looking up something to do with food and getting better, someone else is. And I don't want to lose."
While magical bacon glue can be fun, it's not special enough to be the dish the competitive Meyers presents during Chefs at the Shore on June 20. The fundraiser is billed as "An evening featuring live cooking demonstrations, tastings of chef-crafted recipes, and musical entertainment set against the backdrop of the picturesque bayside park known as Historic Gardner's Basin," and benefits the Atlantic City Aquarium and Professional Chef's Association of South Jersey.
For that, he wanted to go really over the top.
So he's planning a baby heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad garnished with smoked arugula and balsamic vinegar pearls. For the main course, he's swapping the "obvious" bacon-wrapped scallops for a Jersey scallop simply topped with Benton's bacon, scallions and sherry-vinegar pearls. And since he's used to offering the complete dining experience, there's a caramel popcorn-flavored dessert frozen with liquid nitrogen.
For his wedding reception, held at the Stone Harbor Golf Club, Meyers wanted to show off his chef skills in front of his new family. So he made batches and batches of popcorn in advance, boiled them in heavy cream and then strained the popcorn out so he was left with popcorn-flavored cream. Then he whipped the cream and at the reception instantly froze it into little puffs with the liquid nitrogen machine.
"It feels like popcorn and smells and tastes like popcorn, but steam is coming out of their noses and mouths," Meyers said by way of description. For Chefs at the Shore, he's kicking it up a notch with caramel flavoring.
If you're not working with a commercial-grade kitchen, you still can find cool gadgets such as a liquid nitrogen machine online through Amazon, just as Meyers did in his early mad-scientist phase. Sure, there are risks when you're working with a machine that instantly reduces temperature to -365 degrees, but common sense should prevail at all times, Meyers says.
"You can't stick your hand in it, but you wouldn't put your hand in a fryer, either," he points out. Plus, it keeps things like dinner salads and homemade dessert interesting and fun.
Contact Felicia Compian:
•1 tablespoon olive oil
•Salt and pepper, to taste
•1 slice of crispy pork belly, cut in half
•1 teaspoon of vinegar pearls (see recipe)
Season scallop with salt and pepper, then saute over high heat 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until caramelized. Top with bacon and scallions, garnish with vinegar pearls and serve with salad, below.
•3 to 5 leaves baby arugula, smoked using smoking machine
•1 ball of mozzarella,
•2 baby heirloom tomatoes, halved
•1 teaspoon balsamic
•Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Toss salad ingredients with dressing, drizzle olive oil and garnish with arugula leaves.
Balsamic Vinegar Pearls
•2 grams of agar agar
•1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
•Bowl of olive oil
Put olive oil in freezer for
In a pan, mix the vinegar and agar agar. Bring to a boil.
Pour the vinegar into a bowl and fill a pipette or cooking syringe. Dribble vinegar into cold oil.
Using a slotted spoon, collect the pearls and put them into a bowl of water to rinse.
Serve on desired dish.
•1 can of sweetened
•16 ounces of key lime juice
•2 tablespoons rum
•1 teaspoon crystalized mint
•1 teaspoon Pop Rocks candy
Mix liquid ingredients and top with mint and Pop Rocks. Serve in a chilled glass.