Thyme of His Life

12.03.08

Chef John Bubala owes his career to an envelope stuffed with five bucks and a packet of Kool-Aid. Bubala was entering his fifth year of college and going nowhere fast when his father sent him this curious “care package” as a means of cutting off financial ties.

Bubala left school and got a job working the line in a few national franchise kitchens, eventually launching a successful culinary career as chef/owner of Thyme, Timo and Baccala restaurants.

After closing Timo in 2007, he joined the staff of Kendall College to teach a new generation of cooks, some of who were probably rationing concentrated drink powder like he had 20 years earlier.

For most folks, a time of transition is stressful, but as far as I could tell, Bubala, who was teaching a class on stocks and sauces, seemed to be having the time of his life. No doubt having free weekends helped, but his class seemed to fuel him.

I wanted to know why an independent chef who called his own shots in Chicago for 10 years was so giddy. And selfishly, I’d also hoped to learn a thing or two about improving my chicken stock.

Over a couple of his five-hour classes, I learned stock tips in spades (see sidebar), but what I didn’t expect to learn was how the seemingly rarefied confines of culinary school also could be a practical primer on life inside the hot line of stoves.

Bubala, who didn’t attend culinary school, seemed like an unlikely messenger. He learned cooking through stints at Morton’s, the Four Seasons and Marche.

While his class starts with textbook technique, he brings his experience as a recent chef-operator to the mix.

“He isn’t just teaching stuffy French classics,” says David Wolf, one of Bubala’s students. “He shows us what it’s like to be in a real kitchen.”

Bubala doesn’t lecture for hours or do many demos. He operates the class exactly like an afternoon prep in one of his restaurants. He purposely omits methods or measurements, providing only ingredient lists and basic technique guidelines in his lesson plans to encourage independent thought and creativity.

On one of the nights I was there, the class worked on juices and oil infusions. One of their tasks was to make a New Orleans-style muffuletta olive spread. Some students made a traditional antipasto mix that could be spooned on bread, while another group pureed the ingredients, creating a gorgeous, silky, spicy salad dressing.

Bubala’s style allows for mistakes. That’s where the real teaching kicks in. When an aromatic carrot sauce breaks for Wolf and his partner, Bubala shows them how to save it with an emulsion of cream. When a hollandaise comes out gritty, he helps a student realize the burner was too high. When an expected yield of red pepper juice comes up short, he works through on-the-fly kitchen math with a student to adjust a recipe.

He also has fun, often ripping off a batch of pop culture quotes from movies like “Cool Hand Luke” and “Full Metal Jacket” during class.

“I think all chefs should take an opportunity like this to give back,” Bubala says. “You get few chances in life to witness the direct consequences of your actions, but the classroom is one of them.”

Though, for Bubala, it’s not all give. Caught up in the demands of running a restaurant, he rarely had time for experimentation.

“I always admired [Ferran] Adria [chef of Spain’s El Bulli],” says Bubala, who plans on opening another restaurant someday. “The guy takes summers off to do research.”

In one class, Bubala had students infuse ginger, cinnamon, basil, cumin and other spices into separate pans filled with reduced carrot juice. Then, he told the students to mix everything together and reduce the sauce. No one in the room, including Bubala — who was using the exercise to show the students how to add butter to a sauce — expected the mixture to taste good.

The result turned out to be an ethereal hazelnut-perfumed sauce, a surprise lesson potentially informing Bubala’s next restaurant.

Culinary schools have come under fire recently for providing what is essentially an expensive vocational education that some contest is best learned on the job.

At Kendall, students pay as much as $600 a credit hour and can incur thousands in debt, with hopes of securing a job that pays as little as $7 an hour.

It turns out a guy who learned in the kitchen of hard knocks is exactly what culinary school needs.

BUBALA’S STOCK TIPS 

– Garbage in, garbage out. Stock is not a receptacle for everything left in your refrigerator. Trim all vegetables like onions, carrots or celery of their peels and inedible parts.

– Use a ratio of 1:2:1 — chopped carrots to onions to celery — in your mirepoix.

– The surface area of the mirepoix also is important. Dice the vegetables the same size so they cook at the same rate. Dice size corresponds to cooking time, as you don’t want your vegetables to disintegrate and cloud the stock. For a medium-long cooking stock like chicken, which is usually about 3 to 4 hours, a œ- to *-inch dice is appropriate. For longer-cooking stocks like beef or veal bone, 1- to 2-inch dice.

– Tie up all flavoring herbs in a cheesecloth, that way you don’t have to fish them out later. A typical aromatic bundle, or bouquet garni, includes a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, a few sprigs of parsley and a handful of peppercorns.

– Caramelize the mirepoix before adding water and bones to the pot. Most recipes call for a sweating, but you really want the vegetables to brown a bit to pull out flavor and sugar.

– Most recipes just have you rinse off the bones. “I haven’t made a stock that wasn’t roasted in 23 years,” Bubala says. Roast your bones in a 45-degree oven for 40 minutes before adding to stockpot. Chicken backs and necks are best. If using veal bones, get the butcher to chop them into smaller pieces if possible, as the increased surface area means more flavor and body get pulled into the stock.

– Liquid-to-bone ratio is important, especially if you need to cut simmering time. Don’t exceed 1 quart of water for 1 pound of bones.

– Shallow, wide pans are better than tall, deep stockpots, as deep pots tend to make people overestimate the amount of needed liquid while impurities get trapped and are harder to skim from the stock.

– Don’t put the stockpot directly on the heat. Instead, set it toward the corner, about a quarter off-center. This creates a current that pushes all of the impurities that rise to the top of the stock to one side of the pot, making it easier to skim off.

– Simmer, don’t boil. A few bubbles should break the surface every few seconds, not constantly.

– When you’re done — the best way to check is to take a spoonful of broth, add salt to that spoonful and taste to see if it pleases your palate — don’t pour off the stock through a strainer into another pot. Gently ladle the stock from one pot to another through a strainer. Pouring things out jostles the junk in the stock, clouding it.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in a different form.

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