January 26, 2010

A Top Chef’s Top Five

A professional kitchen is usually quite hot.  And a good restaurant?  Most likely bustling and busy.  The words frantic, sweaty, and generally overwhelmed all come to mind when I ponder the life of a talented chef, at a popular restaurant, during its busiest hours.  So have you ever wondered what said chef might be thinking when you, the one who loves food but can’t eat salt, waltzes in and unveils a laundry list of dietary restrictions?  I did.  So last week, I decided to ask.

Today I unveil a new feature on Sodium Girl – investigative journalism at its best – in which we sit down with some culinary heavy weights to discuss the challenges of and solutions to low sodium cooking.  I figured these folks, with years of training and experience under their belts, may hold the holy grail of low sodium advice.  Plus, it seemed like a really great excuse to eat delicious food and talk to cool people.

First up, Top Chef Season Five contestant Jamie Lauren, the itty, bitty powerhouse, Executive Chef at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar.  Having never cooked for me before, Jamie was kind enough to take on the challenge and conquer my low sodium cooking needs with ease and creativity.

I called earlier in the day to give them my spiel on what I cannot eat – including nuts, salmon, and mango, because why not make it more difficult – and then left the rest to her whimsy.  Without breaking a sweat, Jamie served up a killer, three-course menu that was all low sodium but full of flavor:

Freshly cut and fried potatoes (and yes, this counts as a course)

Pomegranate and Blood Orange Salad

Grilled Bluenose Bass with Apple Brown Butter, Winter Root Vegetables, and a Specially Seasoned Sweet Potato Puree

When the plates had been licked cleaned and the restaurant began to slow (which is definitely an overstatement as the place seems continuously packed), Jamie joined me at my table to answer a few questions about her approach to low sodium cooking.  Beyond being a great chef, Jamie is also a wonderful person and was equally curious as to know my personal story.  Talented yet unaffected – it is a great combination of traits and I’m finding that most of our Bay Area chefs have a combination of the two.

So enjoy a brief look at the behind-the-scenes action of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar and the thought process behind one delicious, low sodium dinner.  Chow on

Sodium Girl: What was your reaction to cooking without salt and how did you approach altering the dishes?

Jamie Lauren: For me, because of being on Top Chef, I feel prepared for instances where I have 30 minutes or an hour to cook something.  You get used to it.  Tonight, I thought about what I had in the kitchen and how I could deconstruct the dishes and break them down without salt.  I made the squash puree without salt and then thought about what’s in season that goes well with squash, like root vegetables and brussel sprouts.  I then realized that apples go perfectly with this too and that’s where I got the apple brown butter idea.

SG: How did my order change the flow of the kitchen?

JL: Luckily tonight I had someone that could be on the line with me, so I could be back there prepping everything for your meal.  But had it been a Friday night and I was the only one on the line and I was short staffed, it would have been a lot more difficult for me to pull off.

SG: For those busy nights, what is most helpful for you as a chef?  What should diners with restrictions do to help make their request an easier task?

JL: If you are going to dine out, be communicative with the restaurant and give the chef a heads up. Lists are always helpful. Special orders can be a challenge, but I like that challenge.  It keeps me on my toes and keeps my brain moving. As a chef, I think it’s important to have that.

SG: For the home-cook, what are five things they can do to give their food flavor without adding salt?

JL: 1) Acids are awesome, like lemon juice, lime juice, and wine; 2) Spices are great too and tonight I used a combination of cinnamon, star anise, and cloves to build a more complex flavor; 3) Get spicy and use hot sauce and jalapenos; 4) Sweet is good too, play with fruit; and 5) Don’t be afraid to cook on your own and try things at home to expand your horizons.

toastitegirl January 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Awesome interview! I think it’s very cool to get a professional chef’s opinion on how to make low sodium not only work, but taste great both in the restaurant and at home. Not to mention, Jamie was awesome on Top Chef. 🙂 I think she should have gone to the finals.

Now I just have to go to Absinthe for dinner!

Catherine January 27, 2010 at 9:23 am

Love your site! Thanks for sharing your approach to eating and the opportunities it has brought your way.

sodium girl January 27, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I’m so glad you enjoy the site. My need to cook low sodium food has definitely propelled me into a deep love for cooking. Let me know if you have any special requests!

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