James Beard Award-winning chef Zak Pelaccio’s latest book, Project 258: Making Dinner at Fish and Game, is an exploration of what “farm to table” can and should be. With the help of his fermentation genius wife Jori Jayne Emde and his indispensable staff, Pelaccio has become a leader in the local foods movement. For Pelaccio, having a connection to the area in which one cooks—in his case, the Hudson River Valley—and especially to that area’s seasons, is of paramount importance.
Pelaccio wasn't always a country boy though. He spent a lot of years in New York City, where he focused his energy on urban foraging and bringing the "nose-to-tail" philosophy toward eating to the city.
Pelaccio stopped by the test kitchen recently, and I chatted with him about chefy techniques all home cooks should learn, his favorite ingredients, and what farm to table means to him. That conversation—lightly edited for clarity and length—is below.
What restaurant chef skill do you think is most useful for the home cook to have?
Knowing how to properly heat your pan before cooking. For instance: If you’re going to saute a piece of fish—putting your pan on the stove, turning on the burner, and letting your pan heat up till you see a little bit of white smoke coming off your pan. When you put your hand over the base of the pan, and you can feel the heat coming off. This is incredibly valuable because that’s the point at which you want to cook a piece of fish so your skin doesn’t stick. I think a lot of home cooks run into this problem. Being patient with your pans and allowing them to heat up is an important nuance to cooking that I think a lot of people miss at home.
What’s your all-time favorite kitchen tool, and why?
I think my answer has changed over the years. Initially it was a spoon, then it was a sharp knife. I think I once said it was a telephone, because it allows me to connect with my farmers and have conversations with them and actually talk to them about what’s coming up so I can plan my menus. The latest evolution, though: a competent crew. Talented people—skilled, bright people who can make my job easier and who are only going to make the restaurant better.