After working late on a weeknight, you rush home, drop your coat and bag on the couch, and open the fridge hoping to find something quick and satisfying to make for dinner. You eye that bunch of wilting produce that looked glorious when you bought it over the weekend at your local farmers market, but you just don’t have the energy to spend an hour finding a recipe, assembling the ingredients, and cooking. With a twinge of guilt, you close the fridge and reach for the phone to call the corner Thai place for a quick curry delivery. Two days later, that leftover greenmarket produce is headed to the trash.
This sort of scenario repeats itself far too often for busy Brooklynites – we know it happens in our homes more frequently than we’d care to admit.
Luckily chef Ronna Welsh of Purple Kale Kitchenworks is here to help us break free of that pattern. Ronna’s goal is to teach Brooklynites how the practices used by professional chefs in restaurant kitchens can be used at home to help us cook better food quickly, more creatively and more efficiently.
When most of us imagine a restaurant kitchen, we picture talented chefs hovering over a sizzling pan on a fiery range. But as anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen will tell you, the process of creating high-quality food quickly begins long before dishes are cooked, plated and served. Mise en place, the art and process of preparing the building blocks of a menu long before orders begin coming in, is at the core of any successful kitchen.
2 Minutes to Dinner is the name of Ronna’s blog and it captures the essence of her philosophy. Ronna doesn’t teach recipes, she teaches an approach: by using mise en place, home cooks can do a lot of prep work well ahead of time in a way that will give them much more versatility in the kitchen later. They’ll be able to improvise, combining ingredients that have been prepared well ahead of time to create great meals quickly throughout the week.
Ronna teaches her mise en place-based approach to home cooking in five hour workshops which she hosts twice a month at her home kitchen in Park Slope, and in custom classes and consultations.
We met with Ronna at a coffee shop near her home this week to learn more.
Ronna, tell us about your background with food?
I grew up in Philadelphia and went to graduate school for rhetoric in Austin, Texas, and during that time, I began to feel a real need to work with my hands. That’s when I began to seriously cook, working in restaurants and learning from chefs. We moved to New York ten years ago because we were offered a great furnished sublet. My husband is a huge jazz fan, I’m a huge theater fan and my career was in food, so we said why not? Let’s do it!
Savoy in Soho was the first restaurant I worked at here in New York and it was a formative experience for me. Peter Hoffman, the chef and owner of Savoy, is one of the more intelligent and articulate chefs around when it comes to making food and sourcing ingredients the right way. Back then, “local” and “sustainable” didn’t really have any meaning when it came to food. His type of political perspective – the dedication to working with local farmers, learning from them, and preparing food in a way that stayed true to the ingredients – was just unheard of at that time. The immediate connection between the farmer and the plate was obvious at Savoy long before farm-to -table cooking became cliche. His style of cooking and his respect for ingredients is much more common now, but it was revolutionary in New York at that time and it truly spoke to me.
People at that time were just beginning to really care about culinary degrees. I had a master’s degree in a liberal arts field which most chefs could care less about. I knew I wanted to make food my career so I considered going to culinary school, but other chefs I knew advised me against it. They told me to save my money and travel, which I did. I spent time cooking in France, Spain, Sicily and Greece which provided some of the best culinary experiences of my life.
How did you come to start Purple Kale?
The idea began when friends started asking me to help them improve their cooking skills. There is so much interest now in good food, in shopping at farmers markets and in cooking and eating well, but many people living the typically busy New York lifestyle just don’t have the time and often the knowledge of the methods professional chefs use to cook great food creatively, quickly, frugally and efficiently – with as little waste as possible.
I hosted a few workshops for those friends at my kitchen at home. We focused on using mise en place to be more creative, to improvise with confidence, to have fun and as a result to create great meals quickly at home. The workshops were a hit. The feedback was great so I decided to open them up to the public.
Can you tell us more about the workshops, and the approach in the kitchen that you’re teaching?
I don’t teach recipes or do cooking demonstrations in the workshops. I teach practices and techniques which will help you to be a more efficient, more creative cook. At the core of my approach is the concept of mise en place, which is a culinary term that means ‘putting in place.’ It’s much more than just ‘prepping’ – mise en place is what enables restaurants and professional cooks to function. The mise en place you see on cooking shows is very basic – they have their little bowls of chopped onions and carrots ready to add to the dishes they’re demonstrating in 10 minute segments. The mise en place used in professional kitchens is more sophisticated. It means bringing all the ingredients used in the menu to what’s called a ‘holding point’ – preparing them in whatever way allows the highest quality to be maintained while also making them the most versatile and useful to the cook.
An example I always use is turnips. If you find a nice bunch of turnips at the farmers market, you can braise them and use them in different ways all week. You can serve them alone one day, make a simple soup by combining them with a stock another day, and do all sorts of other things with them. By preparing those ingredients in a way that gives you that kind of versatility, it allows you to be creative and create great meals all week long without spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
Assembling ingredients into something special requires improvisation. I use the terms blocks and bridges to describe the different components that you create through mise en place. Blocks are things that are essential to a pantry – stocks, vinegars, oils, spices, compound or infused butters, purees, marmalades. Bridges are similar – they’re often leftovers or byproducts of the cooking process itself that can be combined with those blocks to make great meals very quickly.
For example, say you braise some duck for a weekend dinner. If you keep the leftover meat and the jus from the braising process, you can add them to some chicken stock that you made and froze weeks ago, add some herbs and maybe some leftover brown rice to make a soup. It only takes a few minutes, but it has all the rich flavors developed during the three hour braising process, not the flat flavor of a canned stock. Or say you roast a chicken. When you’re done, you take the scrapings and jus from the pan and let them solidify. You can use that fat to make amazingly flavorful crostini in no time. My freezer is full of those sorts of things in tiny containers and I try to impart that approach to my students.
There’s an architecture to creating a great meal. It’s kind of like a game. The idea is to give people the tools and confidence to improvise and to make interesting, sophisticated meals quickly, while wasting less. My hope is that the workshops will allow my students to be more creative, practical, versatile, and to have more fun cooking.
My blog is called “2 Minutes to Dinner,” and that name captures what Purple Kale is all about – using the mise en place approach that professional chefs rely on to create very high-quality and very versatile components which allow you to improvise and assemble great meals very quickly throughout the week. That’s the backbone of everything I teach.
Tell me more about your focus on reducing waste – on being more efficient in the kitchen. In our home it seems like we always end up throwing away a lot more of our weekly hauls from the farmers market than we’d like to admit. How do you help your students waste less?
Many of us have learned to be great consumers – we’re paying attention to where our food is coming from, how its being produced, who’s producing it…but many of us haven’t learned to be great users of the food we buy. There is a lot of waste in kitchens and that’s something that I want to help change.
It happens all the time – people love going to the farmers market. They’ll buy armfuls of beautiful turnips and radishes, and big bunches of fresh herbs. They’ll spend $40 on Saturday at the market, then find themselves throwing half of it away on Thursday. That’s not sustainable. A big complaint from most of my students is that they throw food away. I want to give people the ability take the ingredients they buy and to be resourceful and sustainable in their own home.
Sustainable cooking is based on resourcefulness. It means cooking and eating so there’s no waste. The goal is to make do with what you have…there’s always food in the fridge, but it’ll go to waste if you feel like you don’t have time to prepare something good with it and you order delivery instead. I try to instill an attitude of resourcefulness, impulsiveness and improvisation in the kitchen along with that practice of mise en place that will really reduce waste.
What sort of level of cooking experience do you think students need to get the most out of the workshops?
Any level of experience is welcome. The only thing that you need to join a workshop is a desire to cook better…whether that means more nutritiously, more creatively, or to create higher quality meals in less time. I have had people come who work 70 hour weeks and are sick of eating cereal for dinner, or people who have small children who want to cook healthy, flavorful food but don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen.
Tell us about your new line of provisions.
The provisions are not about offering prepared foods…for me prepared food suffers the minute it goes into the bowl or container. What I do is I offer those versatile blocks and bridges that I focus on in my workshops, but that people don’t always have the time to make for themselves.
I’d love to see people making stocks and butters themselves, but the reality is that we live in a city and a society where we generally have very limited time to cook. The provisions are meant to be a time saver for cooks who just can’t or don’t want to spend the time creating their own mise en place. I see my provisions as a way to help home cooks make restaurant-quality meals with the fresh food in their fridge and in their pantry without having to spend their own time doing the prep work.
All my provisions are completely handmade. There is no processing other than freezing them when they’re done. I make and store things exactly as they’re done in restaurants. All my ingredients in the provisions and in the food I make in the workshops and for my family is very carefully sourced and selected. I pay attention to flavor, production methods, how it’s made and how it’s procured.
Thanksgiving is the unofficial launch – this is not something I’ll be putting in stores for quite a while because I’m the only one making them right now! I’ll be launching with a winter poultry stock, a green peppercorn butter which is a compound butter including some zest some mustard, some garlic and peppercorns, vinegarettes and a few other things.