Erik Blauberg, Master Chef Cooks Vegan



Part I – Erik Blauberg
Master Chef Cooks Vegan

With more than 20 years of experience, renowned culinary expert Erik Blauberg is known around the globe as a master chef and first-class restaurant consultant. He has brought his considerable talent and expertise to such acclaimed eateries as Manhattan’s famed 21 Club, Colors, American Renaissance, the Ritz in London and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Blauberg has garnered rave reviews from revered publications such as Bon Appetite, GQ, Esquire, Forbes, The New York Times, New York Magazine, New York Daily News, the London Times and The Observer, to name a few.

He can be seen on The Food Network, The Discovery Channel, ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS and MSNBC, and he has made numerous guest appearances on the CBS Morning News, The Today Show, The Late Show with David Letterman and Live with Regis and Kelly.

As the founder of EKB Restaurant Consulting, Blauberg creates food programs and raises service standards for venues around the world. He is recognized for his ability to understand and help restaurants respond to economic, dietary and industry trends.

Blauberg’s professional accolades include being named “one of the world’s great chefs” in the Culinary Institute of America’s Great Chef series, serving as executive chef for the 12th Annual James Beard Holiday Auction, earning the Special Achievement Jay Walman Award, and receiving four stars from Forbes magazine eight years in a row. The Academy of Hospitality Sciences named him one of the world’s best chefs and presented him with its prestigious Five Diamond Award. Food critic John Mariani, famed food columnist and author, named Chef Blauberg one of the top 10 chefs in New York City.

His education in the culinary arts came the old-fashioned way, by working alongside some of the most celebrated chefs in the world, in regions including the US, France, England, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Japan. He traveled to the French kitchens of Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Kicho in Osaka, and to the Restaurant Freddy Girardet in Switzerland. In New York, he sharpened his culinary skills at Bouley, La Cote Basque, Windows on the World and Tavern on the Green.

Blauberg has contributed to countless cookbooks and recently joined other prominent chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, as a contributor to the vegan-inspired cookbook, “The Great Chefs Cook Vegan.”


Caryn Hartglass:  Hello everybody.  I am Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food.  Hey, thank you for tuning in today on this June 11, 2013 and here we go.  It’s all about food and one of my favorite things about food is that it can be really delicious and satisfying so why not put all of those pieces together.  Make food taste great.  Make it good for you.  Make it gentle on the planet.  Win! Win!  Win!  We can do it.  There are more people doing it now than ever before and this is really the direction we need to go in.  I always like to say that you do not have to be deprived when you want to take care of yourself and when you want to nourish your body and you can be doing good things for our home, planet Earth, as well, by eating a healthy, delicious, plant-based diet.  Right?  You know that.  I know you know that.  I’m so excited.  I’m here in the studio in Manhattan in one of the greatest chefs in New York City, possibly on the planet!  And we’re going to be talking to him today, Erik Blauberg.  With more than 20 years of experience, renowned culinary expert Erik Blauberg is known around the globe as a master chef and first-class restaurant consultant. He has brought his considerable talent and expertise to such acclaimed eateries as Manhattan’s famed 21 Club, Colors, American Renaissance, the Ritz in London and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

There is so much more about Erik and we’re going to be talking about that today.  Now, I got to know Erik through my friend and author Linda Long.  She put out a ground breaking cookbook a few years ago called Great Chefs Cook Vegan and surprise, Erik Blauberg was one of the featured Chefs in that book.  So, thank you for joining me today on It’s All About food, Erik.

Erik Blauberg:  It’s great to be here Caryn.

Caryn Hartglass:  I want to say that you’re very courageous for being here today.  You know I am a Vegan and it’s very brave of you to be here but you’ve mixed with Vegans before.

Erik Blauberg:  Absolutely.  It’s at the top of my list

Caryn Hartglass:  Oh.  He’s smooth isn’t he?  Let’s just learn a little about you and how you fell in love with food and learned about preparing food.

Erik Blauberg:  Well, Caryn, I got into the cooking world back when I was actually twelve years old and I started as a pot washer up in the Catskill mountains.  I was so impressed and amazed by everything and the energy that was going on in this particular kitchen and we turned the next year, my summer off from school and at that point I knew it was something that I wanted to do.  I started getting involved in the cooking aspect of it and slowly got away from washing the pots.

Caryn Hartglass: You moved up.

Erik Blauberg: Yeah I did.  I moved up and I love it.  It’s great.  I love to cook and I love to feed people.

Caryn Hartglass: You love to feed people?  I always say that if I could, I would cook for the world, if I could.  It’s just not possible to cook for 7 billion people but a lot of people say that if you could cook for them, they would eat better or eat more healthfully if they had someone there to prepare their food.  Okay. So you love to prepare food.  Do you think it’s in your DNA?  Is anybody in your family interested in preparing food or this was novel for you from the beginning?

Erik Blauberg: No.  My inspiration comes actually, my mom was a great home chef and so was my grandmother so I took a lot of interest in that and that’s what originally got me into the hotel.  They said “Hey!  Can you cook?”  I was like, “Yeah!  I cook, I can wash dishes.  I can do just about anything.”  So I thank my grandmother and my mom for that.

Caryn Hartglass:  So now you are a consultant and you work with other chefs in restaurants.

Erik Blauberg:  I do.  I do.

Caryn Hartglass:  One of the things that I think is really important and something that you have gotten involved with is telling main stream or chefs of conventional restaurants that Vegan entrees or Vegan dishes should be included in their menu.

Erik Blauberg:  Absolutely and that is always at the top of my list of priorities.  I go into existing restaurants and I go in and I make them work better or I will do start-up operations and do the pre-opening and opening of new venues or I’ll go into places that are having lots of difficulties and I’ll go in and turn them around.  It’s very, very important to appeal to everybody and Vegans and Vegetarians have always been put on the wayside so to speak in the past.  That’s been my experience with it and I started touching base on all of this back in the early 90’s.  At the time obviously, I was very young, but I thought it was very important to have different grains and different vegetables on hand so when you got that occasional, back in the 90’s person or guest that asked for something Vegetarian that it was accessible and I had it ready to go and I was very happy to put it together.  The thing about is that there are a lot of vegetables and grains and different products out there but I like to be creative with it and make them feel super special.

Caryn Hartglass: Make the people feel super special or the grains feel super special?

Erik Blauberg:  Both!  I put a lot of love in my cooking so, absolutely.

Caryn Hartglass:  That is such an essential ingredient.  You never see that in recipes.

Erik Blauberg:  Yeah.  Love and passion is what it is all about and it makes quite a difference.

Caryn Hartglass:  My understanding of traditional culinary training, especially in France, is that the chef is the artist and you are there to appreciate whatever the artist, the chef, has prepared and this is changing more and more, especially here in the United States.  We are individuals here and we are very demanding and there are people with allergies and food sensitivities, and then there are the Vegans.  There are people with Celiac disease that can’t eat wheat.  There are people that can’t eat nuts.  There are people that can’t eat this or can’t eat that and eggs.  Every food out there, somebody’s allergic to it.  This kind of plays in or changes that original concept of what a chef is supposed to do.  Were you trained that you present your art or that you’re flexible or a little of both?

Erik Blauberg:  A lot of everything I have to say. You’re absolutely right. There are a lot of dietary needs out there and restrictions that people have and sometimes it gets very complicated.  Sometimes if I’m working back in the kitchen, one of the wait staff will bring a note in and hand it to me and say this is what I can eat and this is what I can’t eat.  So, that’s to the extent that people are as far as demands go.  Typically, it’s hard to tell.  If someone says you’re allergic to this that and the other, I always like to be on the careful side.  I basically tell them whatever we have, ask what they usually eat.  At that point, this is what we have on the menu and we can pick and choose through this.  I have special grains and things that aren’t on the menu, what would you like?  I have them suggest to me and then at that point I run with it.

Caryn Hartglass:  That’s fun!  Now, you work with a lot of different restaurants and this can’t always be possible.  Some restaurants have more flexibility than others.  I imagine higher end restaurants have more flexibility with ingredients than some that are pretty much spitting out some pretty set recipes.

Erik Blauberg:  The restaurants that I work with, I make sure that they understand that, this is the chefs and the people that I work with, that it’s very important to listen to their customer’s needs, so whatever it takes to put together a dish that it’s important to bring those ingredients in.  And those ingredients, they are not expensive ingredients at all, it’s just keep a little of this, that, and the other in house so you’re able to put something together.  Because as you mentioned, there are a lot of people nowadays that have all of these dietary restrictions, so I make it certainly a priority to keep it in.

Caryn Hartglass:  Now you’ve worked all around the globe.  I think I read somewhere that you worked at Chez Bocuse.

Erik Blauberg:  Yes.

Caryn Hartglass:  My listeners probably have heard this story before because I shared it when Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation was on this show but in talking about giving the customer what they want, I lived in France in the early 1990’s.  It was a very different time and I’m sure lots of restaurants have changed since that time but we had called Chez Bocuse two weeks in advance and said can you feed a vegan?  Can you feed someone that doesn’t eat animal foods and they said, “Sure Sure,” in French of course “Venez, pas de problem!” and then a couple of days before we came we sent a fax reminding them and when we showed up, I was the only vegan in the party, but when we showed up, they didn’t know who we were and every course was a disaster.  Then at the end, the maitre d’ tried to explain that there were like twenty five chefs in the back and how could I possibly expect them to do anything like this.  Did you get that impression from Bocuse and the restaurant that they made specific food and you didn’t customize for the customer?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, I don’t want to say anything about Chef Bocuse in that regard but when I was there it was basically to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut.

Caryn Hartglass:  Certainly there was a lot of skill that I am sure you picked up.

Erik Blauberg:  Oh absolutely.  He was very impressive.  Frustrating at times but it was well worth it.

Caryn Hartglass:  I would like to think that that style of food and that style of preparation at this point today could accommodate all kinds of food styles including vegan.  I know.  I’ve seen it.  Anyway, it was fun at the time and it always makes for a good story.  I’ve eaten all around France and all around Europe and I really haven’t had a problem like that.  In fact, most of the restaurants I had been to, high end and low end, without any notice, if you get to talk to the chef, they get delighted like “I will take this challenge.”  It’s fun, right?

Erik Blauberg:  Yes.  It is.

Caryn Hartglass:  So what do you love about vegetables?

Erik Blauberg:  I love to prepare vegetables.  It is certainly a challenge for a chef to take a simple ingredient like that and to turn it into a masterpiece.  You have to think out of the box and as long as you have a variety of different things and I use a lot of fresh herbs and I use a lot of spices to make the food taste good, and that’s really important.  If the food looks like a masterpiece it needs to taste like one too.  It’s all about the flavoring.  You don’t want it to be just steamed vegetables on a plate.  That’s boring and it’s not satisfying.

Caryn Hartglass:  Well, I enjoy it sometimes but that’s not what you want when you go out and experience someone else’s art.

Erik Blauberg:  Exactly.  Lots of shallots, onions, and garlic and olive oil and ingredients like that can make a difference.

Caryn Hartglass:  A big difference.

Erik Blauberg:  Exactly.

Caryn Hartglass:  Tell me about truffles.  Erik Blauberg and truffles.

Erik Blauberg:  One of my ingredients.  I go truffle hunting at least twice a year.

Caryn Hartglass:  When do you go?

Erik Blauberg:  I go to Italy.  I go up to Alba as well in the Umbria region and we hunt for truffles.

Caryn Hartglass:  Let’s start from the beginning.  What is the fashionable truffle hunting attire?

Erik Blauberg:  Boots for the mud and a coat usually.  It’s usually in the fall and winter. That’s the best time for the truffles and a jacket and get ready to get your hands dirty.

Caryn Hartglass:  And do you take any animals along to help sniff them out?

Erik Blauberg:  Absolutely.  In Italy they use dogs and in France they use dogs and pigs as well.  I haven’t seen any pigs in Italy.  It makes a lot of sense.

Caryn Hartglass:  When you make a big hunt do you hang that mushroom on the wall or something?  What do you do with your treasures?

Erik Blauberg:  They put it in a bag, a paper bag and they get it back.

Caryn Hartglass:  Can you bring them back to the states with you?

Erik Blauberg:  Ummmmm.

Caryn Hartglass:  Well, not legally.

Erik Blauberg:  Exactly!

Caryn Hartglass:  We’ll skip that one….right.

Erik Blauberg:  It’s quite an ingredient.  It really is.

Caryn Hartglass:  I’ve read lots of different things about importing truffles and how you may not be getting what you think you’re getting.

Erik Blauberg:  Well yeah, there are a lot of different varieties of truffles out there and a lot of “imposters” is what I call them.

Caryn Hartglass:  How do you know?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, as a chef, I know what to look for just because of my experience but there are a lot of tricks that people do.  They take those Chinese truffles and they soak them in truffle oil.  Truffle oil is typically an essence of truffles that’s combined with oil and it is very potent and has a lot of fragrance to it so when they soak the truffles in it, it picks up the smell of the truffle, the scent.  The only way to really tell is to cut it open.  I’ve had a few come in to me, these truffle sales people, in the past and they were Chinese truffles so I could smell them before they even opened the bag and I knew they weren’t real because the scent was too strong on them and then when I poured them out to look at them, I said to the one guy, I knew what he had in his hands, I said, “Hey, let me take one and cut one open and if it is what it is, then I’ll buy them from you.”  And he refused to let me cut it open so I chased him out the door.

Caryn Hartglass:  So the salesmen know what they’re selling?

Erik Blauberg:  Oh absolutely.  It’s just such an expensive item so you have to be careful.  You spend a lot of money for it and you want to make sure you’re getting the right product.

Caryn Hartglass:  And what is so wonderful about truffles?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, it’s the texture.  It’s a luxury food.  It’s one of the rarest ingredients in the world so the price is high and it has a firm texture to it and it has a very distinct flavor.  The white truffles are typically, you don’t actually cook with the white truffles.  It’s a finishing product so if you make a dish, whether it’s a vegan dish and you slice up some white truffles over the top, you don’t apply heat to the truffle.  Now the black truffle, there’s a winter black and there’s a summer black.  The most desirable is the winter black and you can tell it’s a winter black not only by the season but when you cut it open, the inside of the truffle is black with white veins.  That’s a black winter truffle.  A summer black truffle, when you cut it open, is just the opposite.  It’s white inside with black veins going through it, but the more desirable in black is the winter and the black you can apply heat to it so that’s the difference between the two.  The white is more expensive as well but they are both great.

Caryn Hartglass:  Mushrooms in general are really good for us and even the simpler ones have lots of wonderful flavors.

Erik Blauberg:  That they do.

Caryn Hartglass:  That’s our meat. That’s our vegan meat.  I want to talk about your food soon but I want to save the best for last.  There’s a lot of stuff going on on television when it comes to food, all the food network shows and Bravo and Top Chef and it seems like anybody can be a chef these days.  What do you think about that?

Erik Blauberg:  I think it’s pure entertainment.  It is what it is.

Caryn Hartglass:  That’s right.  Pure entertainment.

Erik Blauberg:  A lot of hype.

Caryn Hartglass:  I know I love to cook.  I don’t call myself a chef but I like the food that I make and I make food at home all the time.  The things is though, certainly I can be efficient and prepare some dishes very quickly, especially when I’m making a dinner for people, I really like to get into the Zen and take time to prepare my food.  And yet, some of this entertainment that goes on, the Iron Chef and Top Chef and stuff, a lot of it has to do with speed and I know in restaurants you have to put stuff out quickly, but does it kind of contradict with the art of making great food?

Erik Blauberg:  That is a great question and yes it does contradict.  When we talk about love and passion that you put into your cooking, yes it takes time to do that, to create that dish.  If it’s a simple dish, it’s a vegan offering and you have some cauliflower in this particular dish, you want to cook each thing differently, I mean that’s what I do.  And then even if you combine them in the end they all have their own distinct flavor and that’s what love and passion is all about.  You take that cauliflower and you put it in a pan with some hot olive oil and you cook it off and you roast it and you get that nutty flavor and you caramelize the outside of it, releasing its natural sugars, and then your fresh herbs and whatever and you do each vegetable separately, it makes a difference.

Caryn Hartglass:  But you can’t always get that, even if you’re paying a lot, if you’re pressed for time, right?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, it’s about being organized too when you’re working in a restaurant that you’re organized with these ingredients.  And yes, it can be done so it’s all about preparation.  I go into some of these restaurants that are doing pre-openings and it’s like, “Well how do we do this chef?  How do we do it?” And it’s like, “Relax.  I’ll show you. This is how it’s done.”  You don’t do it in one day.  You build up to it.  You put your sauces together and you do your spice mixes and you get all that stuff ahead of time.  You prepare it and you just need to organize yourself.  So, yes, we can do it and I will show you how it’s done.

Caryn Hartglass:  I like that.  You know, that’s true in restaurants and its true at home.  I am always telling people to find their kitchen and start making food and a big important piece is being organized, having all of the ingredients.  I might go a little too far with how I have got everything organized in my apartment with the ingredients, but I want to know I’ve always got everything.

Erik Blauberg:  I agree with you. It starts with a menu.  You create the menu first and then from the menu you create the shopping list and then you make sure you eat before you go in to do your shopping.

Caryn Hartglass:  You said you’ve been creating menus for vegans since the 90’s so what were the early dishes and how have they changed over the decades?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, some of the early dishes, I used to put together tasting menus as well as an a la carte menu.  Tasting menus are, let’s say 5 courses, and they’re all different items from different categories and always a treat to have on my menu was a vegetarian tasting menu whether it was a simple dish starting off with steamed artichokes with a tomato tapenade and then the next course, celery and potato and carrot mousseline, chervil spinach sauce. Next up, lentil stew spiced with cumin and crispy rice dosa and then onto desserts, you know, simple things, poached forelle pears with champagne.  It’s about being creative and putting some love behind it.

Caryn Hartglass:  Now those were the earlier ones.  Has your style changed at all?

Erik Blauberg:  Yeah I think.  Now I’m into the truffles and more of the luxury items to top off what I’ve been doing.  As you move along and you learn through creating dishes, you become more creative with the dishes whether its presentation and maybe adding a few extra ingredients and deleting a few but yeah it’s evolved, definitely.

Caryn Hartglass:  Now I believe that most chefs get into the business because they love to make food and they love to feed people.  Where I come from, I like to add a few more parameters in that equation of wanting to be a chef and feeding people, providing delicious food, but also making food that is good for us, making food that is not cruel to animals or even people and that’s a challenge because the people that are growing and harvesting our food today very often are not treated very well, and food that the growing of it doesn’t create an imbalance on the planet in terms of using up resources or polluting.  Are we going to see this?  I would like to see this, ultimately as all of the important factors in people that are studying the culinary arts.  Do you think it’s happening?  Is it a trend?  Are people moving in that direction?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, it’s all about putting the message out there.  It’s such a crime to see the way things are industrialized and how farming has taken a certain direction.  This has been going on for some time now and I think that it’s really up to all of us is what it’s up to.  If we stop buying those products then those products will eventually go away.  They’ll go out of business so it’s the feed lots and away from the vegan thing, but buying meats and stuff, grass fed, farmers that are taking care of the animals the way they should be taken care of and they’re not cruel.  That’s important.  The same thing with everything that’s going on.  Stay awake, go back to our roots and the origin of those vegetables and the heirlooms and all that stuff.  It’s a little more expensive but I think that once all that industrial stuff goes away, it will even out because there will be more people involved in doing this type of farming and processing of foods that it will certainly change – it will change the world so I think it’s up to us to work on that.

Caryn Hartglass:  A lot of us when we have an image of a chef, a stereotypical cartoon image, it’s usually someone who is on the plus side, large.  We think a good chef has to be that way because he’s eating all of this great rich food.  I’m looking at you and you are stunning.  You’re fit and slim and the chefs that I want to work with are the ones that look good and are taking care of themselves.  Any comments?

Erik Blauberg:  That’s funny.  Ivana Trump once said that to me at a dinner.  She said, “My mother said never trust a skinny chef.” It’s important.  I work around food and to be honest with you, I’m not hungry when I’m working around it.  It’s when I walk away from it is when I become hungry.  It’s important to take care of yourself.  I try to eat right and to the right things so I think that certainly adds to your health which is very important.

Caryn Hartglass:  It is and you’re going to have a lot more energy to more of what you want to do if you’re eating right.  You can eat well and eat a lot of great, interesting foods and still maintain your girlish figure.

Erik Blauberg:  There’s so much that you can get out of the plant based products these days.  You don’t have to worry about the protein and all. It’s all there.

Caryn Hartglass:  It’s all there!  People need to know that.  In Linda Long’s book, Great Chefs Cook Vegan, I remember you had some really lovely dishes in there, and one of them was this green and white asparagus dish.  It was like an aspic of sorts or a terrine. It had agar in it.

Erik Blauberg:  Yes.  What I did, I took the white and green asparagus which were organic and then I took some of the white asparagus and I steamed them off and I added some shallots and some different herbs to it, and then I pureed it.  It was almost like a soup and I added the agar to it to thicken it up and again, it’s about putting love and passion behind what you do.  I laid the asparagus out in a terrine mold and I basically poured this soup, so to speak, over the top and I lined it with truffles and a little bit of opal basil, which is a purple basil, and that was my terrine.  I let it set up in the fridge and I sliced it, set it onto a plate with some flavored oils and it worked well.

Caryn Hartglass:  It’s gorgeous and I think it’s probably the most creative dish in the book.

Erik Blauberg:  Well thank you.  That is very kind of you.

Caryn Hartglass:  So we just have a few minutes left.  What are you working on these days?

Erik Blauberg:  Well, the big thing out there is all these craft beer venues are happening now and I’m working on tuning up a lot of different operations and making them work better.  The way the economy is now, it’s important again, to listen to your customer’s needs so I’ve been working on that mostly.  Getting the message out there.

Caryn Hartglass:  Yeah we didn’t talk about that, but the economy is a really important piece of the whole culinary world, especially with restaurants.  It’s so hard to make a restaurant work and it’s even harder in this particular climate, but probably not as hard for the high end restaurants.

Erik Blauberg:  Well I think the fine dining thing is definitely on the slower side these days and people are into, let’s call it fine dining, but it’s more on the casual side.  Again, it’s more challenges for the chef because now price point is definitely a big issue and a factor in the success of the restaurant and also the customer that goes in to buy this food, that you have a price point that works for all.  I think it’s important that it’s there.  And then a chef becomes more challenged because he has to be more creative to create these special dishes at a lower price point.

Caryn Hartglass:  Before we end the program, I want to get back to chefs including vegan options on the menu so that everyone can have something to eat in a restaurant whether they are vegan or not.  Are there any chefs you work with that are really resistant to that idea?

Erik Blauberg:  I actually find it more with the restaurateurs.  It’s like “Why do we have to put that on the menu?  Can we take the word ‘vegan’ off?” My answer is “Absolutely not.  There are a lot of vegans out there and just wait and see what happens once we do put it on the menu.”  The Highline Ballroom, here in Manhattan, was one of my venues and I went ahead and I did a vegan dish on there, actually, I did several.  They didn’t really expect that anything would really happen or that it would really sell and one of the items I did very simple, was a vegan burger.  It was all handmade with these really special ingredients and I put it together and it actually outsold all of the meat burgers and they were so impressed by it and after that, all of the sudden, they wanted three more vegan items on the menu and they actually created a vegan section on the menu.  It’s so important.  You’d be surprised.  There are a lot of people out there that want to eat healthy and it’s important that the restaurateurs and the chefs comply with that and give people what they want.  It’s important.

Caryn Hartglass:  I think one of the things that scares people about healthy eating and vegan eating is that they are not going to get the flavors and the foods that they are used to and what they want.  You’re doing a wonderful job at showing people that that is not true and they can eat healthfully and deliciously.  Thank you for that.

Erik Blauberg:  It’s my pleasure.

Caryn Hartglass:  Sometime I hope to be able to have you over and cook for you.  How’s that?

Erik Blauberg:  Sounds good.

Caryn Hartglass.  Okay.  Thank you for joining me today on It’s All About Food and I’m really so glad you’re out there.  We’re going take a break now and we’ll be back in a minute or two with Gene Baur, the co-founder of Farm Sanctuary.

Transcribed by Erin Clark, 7/24/2013

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