Getting Creative With Pantry Items and Preparing for Re-Openings: An Interview With Chef Alex Harrell
The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors due to COVID-19, and even with some areas beginning to re-open, restaurants appear unlikely to resume normal operations anytime soon. But all hope is not lost.
In this first of an interview series with renowned chefs, Symrise Flavor North America’s Marketing team speaks with Chef Alex Harrell of The Elysian Bar in New Orleans. While his restaurant closed for nearly two months, The Elysian Bar now offers contactless pickup, and Chef Harrell used the time off to get into home-cooking routines. His recipe for Braised Pork Shoulder with Fennel, Orange and Olives is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, even if the crowd currently just means yourself or the people you’re quarantining with.
In the interview, Chef Harrell touches on the flavorful simplicity that many pantry items can add to a dish, his predictions for how consumers will adapt in a post-coronavirus world and advice for how CPG and retailers can manage with this new wave of consumerism.
Symrise: What was the experience like for you when your restaurant temporarily closed due to COVID-19?
Chef Harrell: From a personal and professional standpoint, not having the day-to-day structure of going into the job and being with the kitchen team was difficult to overcome. Most chefs are very structured in how we approach our day-to-day business and kitchens. So not having that was definitely difficult to get past.
But I’ve found ways to create a day-to-day routine, such as with cooking meals at home for my family. I tend to stick to simple preparation, mainly one- or two-pot meals to limit cleanup. I've also been enjoying cooking outside over coals and live fire.
Symrise: How do you go about creating simpler recipes and leveraging pantry items that you have on hand?
Chef Harrell: In trying to minimize potential exposure to the virus, I’m limiting the number of times I go to the grocery store. So I buy things that are shelf-stable, like dried beans and grains, and large, whole muscle cuts of meat, like pork shoulder, which I can cook and then utilize throughout the week.
Typically, with most of the meals that I cook, I do so knowing that I can use the ingredients in other preparations throughout the week. It takes some planning to utilize what’s on hand and maximize everything that we do purchase.
So, for example, instead of just eating leftover pork shoulder, I pulled it and made tacos one night. You can try different things, like creating a stew or pasta with leftover pulled pork and vegetables.
Symrise: You’ve shared a recipe for Braised Pork Shoulder with Fennel, Orange and Olives that people can make at home. Can you tell us about this recipe and why you think it's great to use now?
Chef Harrell: A braise is one of the ultimate comfort foods for me and people crave comfort foods now. The recipe also incorporates light, spring flavors, like fennel. The orange also adds a nice floral and acidic component to the dish to help brighten it up. And I just love the salty, earthy component, that little pop that you get from the olives. This was all stuff that I literally had in my refrigerator. I didn't have to go out and purchase any additional ingredients, it just happened to work.
And you can adapt the recipe to what you have on hand. It would work well with chicken or even lamb.
Symrise: Switching gears, what do you think the new restaurant landscape will be in the coming months for restaurants that can reopen?
Chef Harrell: I don't think there's going to be a lack of people wanting to get out and return to normalcy. We saw that here in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But we have to do what’s ultimately best for the safety of our guests and staff, and we have to follow occupancy requirements.
I've heard possibilities of limiting restaurants to 50% occupancy or even 25%. And there are concerns with that. If you're only looking at potentially 25% of your revenue, then it might only make sense to bring back 25% of your staff. It’s not sustainable in the long term to operate a business on 25% revenue.
But I'm hoping that sooner rather than later we get more positive news about vaccines or potential treatments. And maybe that will give the general public a little bit more confidence and make it safer for everybody to get out. If we get a little bit better handle on the virus, hopefully we can increase our occupancy and increase our business levels.
RELATED: Traditional Cuisine Gets an International Flair With Alex Harrell
Symrise: Do you think that customers will be more explorative in what they're eating once the quarantine ends? Or do you think that the focus on classic comfort foods will continue?
Chef Harrell: I think initially people will be just happy to get out and to be in a restaurant setting again. Then pretty quickly they will get back to being more adventurous in a dining environment, in terms of having an exploratory nature and a desire to scout flavors.
Symrise: What advice would you give to food and beverage manufacturers, such as CPG companies, to approach the future authentically, perhaps by working with restaurants and chefs?
Chef Harrell: Getting more feedback from independent business owners is going to be really important going forward. Giving small businesses a platform where their ideas and concerns can be heard is important. Oftentimes those are the people that come up with the most creative solutions to problems every single day, because they're forced to be able to adapt and learn so they can make it amongst the competition.
Any avenue where we can share our experience, such as on managerial leadership or logistical planning, those are always partnerships I’m interested in. And I think that many others in this industry would really appreciate being a part of these partnerships.
While the future remains unclear for restaurants like Elysian Bar, Chef Harrell’s ability to adapt recipes and business models, such as by offering family meals for pickup, likely bodes well.
Meanwhile, for those outside of New Orleans or for those who simply want to try one of Chef Harrell’s recipes on their own, his pork shoulder recipe makes for a great home-cooked meal.
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