Top Chef at Formaggio Kitchen

Written by: Andrea Merrill 

Formaggio Kitchen, located in Cambridge, MA, has been a Boston-area mecca for foodies and cheese lovers since it opened 30 years ago.  I have been going to Formaggio Kitchen since I first learned of it 10 years ago, just after college graduation.  I remember weekend trips with my best friend to peruse the store and sample delicious goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses.  The knowledgable cheesemongers always made sure we left with a delectable cheese or two that fit within our meager post-college budget. While much has remained the same at Formaggio Kitchen since my initial visits, they are continuously trying to make improvements for their loyal customers.  One of their newest features is their classroom series offered at their learning annex off-site in Cambridge.Classes at Formaggio Kitchen actually started about 7 years ago but were mostly basic cheese 101 and pairing classes.  Over the past year, general manager, Julia Hallman, has been transforming and elevating the class series often bringing in local food and drink vendors, as well as local chefs.  Some highlights include beer and cheese with Night Shift Brewingcocktails and cheese with Alden and Harlow and a night of Ottoman cuisine with Ana Sortun of Oleana and Sarma. The idea behind these classes with local chefs, was to introduce the Boston community to the wonderful chefs who shop at and frequent Formaggio Kitchen.  One such chef even worked one of his first jobs in the food industry at Formaggio Kitchen 14 years ago, Chef Carl Dooley.

You may recognize Carl Dooley from Top Chef Season 13, which just finished airing several months ago.  Carl, a formidable competitor known for his French techniques, attention to detail, and calm demeanor, made it just shy of the finale before he was told to “pack his knives and go”.  Since Top Chef, he has opened his own restaurant, The Table at Season to Taste, in Cambridge, MA.  The small restaurant is an intimate affair with only 20 seats overlooking an open kitchen that focuses on French techniques with an international influence.  The restaurant has been quite successful since it’s opening in January and is fully booked every night (they are currently booking out 6-8 weeks in advance!). As a hard-core food nerd and Top Chef fan (although still bitter about not getting selected as a diner for Top Chef Boston), I was super excited for this class at Formaggio Kitchen featuring the food of Southern Spain. 

After giving a brief introduction, Carl got to work demonstrating how to prepare the first course, ajo blanco, a classic Spanish chilled almond and garlic soup. Consisting of almonds, garlic, grapes, and cucumbers, this soup is perfect for a summer party as it a) requires no actual cooking and b) gets better with time so can be made the day  or two before a party.  Carl elevated the dish by using muscat grapes (sweeter and more complex than regular grapes), local green garlic, a touch of jalapeño (he says he adds it to almost everything!) and sherry vinegar from Jerez, Spain.  The result was a refreshing chilled soup with a great balance of mild garlic and acid.

The next dish was mussels escabeche with sherry vinegar, pimenton, and jamon Serrano.  Escabeche started as a preservation technique, similar to a ceviche.  It works best with high fat fish and shellfish, especially mussels.  The mussels were first steamed in a mixture of red peppers, onions, lemon zest and pimenton (Spanish paprika).  Once cooked, Carl removed the mussels from their shells and once cooled, returned them to the steaming liquid to chill overnight.  The dish was then topped with sherry vinegar, olive oil, scallions and finally jamon serrano and a toasted crostini.

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The next dish was fideos with chorizo, peas, and ramps.  Fideos is similar to a paella but instead of rice, it uses short, thin pieces of pasta.  Carl used toasted spaghetti broken into small pieces.  The dish is then created in a manner similar to risotto, adding a small amount of liquid (in this case water) at a time until the pasta is cooked through.  He then mixed in chorizo and English peas and served it atop seasonal sautéed ramps.  It was the perfect comforting mixture of chorizo, savory noodles, with a bright pop of flavor from the fresh peas and ramps.

The last dish was my personal favorite and one I had enjoyed on my visit to Carl’s restaurant- braised lamb ribs with garbanzo beans and topped with yogurt and preserved lemon.  The lamb and garbanzo beans are braised with delicious spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and all-spice.  These aromatic flavors are then balanced by the acid in the yogurt and preserved lemon.  The lamb was so tender and just fell apart in your mouth with an explosion of flavors.  I definitely licked my plate clean! 

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Aside from the delicious food (and the ample wine poured by the Formaggio Kitchen staff), one of the highlights of the class was learning more about Carl and some of his experiences on Top Chef.  So now, here’s a little Q+A with Carl Dooley:

Q: What is the most important ingredient to have in your kitchen?

A: On a day-to-day basis, salt is the most important ingredient in the restaurant and the home.  People always ask me the difference between restaurant food and their food at home and the answer is salt.  Continuously taste and season as you go. 

Q: What are your favorite Boston restaurants?

A: Sarma, I probably go there once a week.  Branchline, which just opened in Watertown and the new Uni.

Q: What was Top Chef like?

A: It was kinda like camp!  All of the other chefs were so great with so much integrity.  There was definitely a lot of stress on the show, which TV captures pretty well.

Q: Who was the most intimidating person to cook for?

A: Tom.  He is exactly like he is on TV in real life.  Hi is incredibly direct with no BS but such an accomplished chef.

Q: Is judge’s table just like how they show it on TV?

A: What they don’t show you is that judge’s table is actually 3 hours long.  They give you way more feedback than they air.  It is a really great opportunity to get high-level feedback from extraordinary chefs.

Q: How did you get into cooking?

A: I started washing dishes at age 15-16 and thought the chefs were really cool…they would give me beers after work.  I then started reading cookbooks, and skipping high school to read cookbooks, and started working at Formaggio Kitchen and things kinda spiraled from there.

For more posts by Andrea, see her blog and photography sites:

https://aspoonfulofsugarbaking.com

https://andreamerrillphotography.wordpress.com