DonRocks

A Chat With Cathal Armstrong

62 posts in this topic

I'm pleased to welcome Chef Cathal Armstrong as our next guest here. Cathal will be onboard for the next week-or-so fielding questions. Please feel free to begin asking questions now.

Cathal, THANK YOU for taking the time to be with us - you have many admirers here, and you can count me as one of them.

And here's a brief bio of Cathal:

Cathal Armstrong, Executive Chef and Owner of Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt Street, Alexandria, Virginia, 703.706.0450, www.restauranteve.com) was born into a family with a passion for food. Cathal (silent t), a native Dubliner, grew up in a family unlike any other in Dublin at the time; they had a fruit and vegetable garden, ate plenty of garlic and had their own travel business. Through his father’s eyes, during their travels, Cathal was exposed to many different countries, cultures and cuisines. According to Armstrong, “My father is a natural, a great cook.” As they traveled to neighboring European countries, Cathal was introduced to the wealth of the food world.

From the mountains of Spain to the piazzas of Italy, Cathal experienced the tastes and aromas of fresh paella and pasta, developing an appreciation of gastronomy. However, it was in France, at the tender age of seven, that Cathal began his annual student exchange and his food curriculum for life. Each summer, he lived with the same family, the Boudains’, returning to the truffle farms, peasant food and local farmers gently tending their vineyards. Those influences taught Cathal the importance of fresh produce, the value of animals and respect for the land.

At the age of 20, he and two partners opened The Baytree, a fine dining restaurant in the Dublin suburbs. Two years’ tenure and a desire to learn more of his craft led him to America. Cooking school may have been in his future, but a quick stopover in the Nation’s Capitol headed the agenda. Once in Washington, he was befriended by great chefs and decided he would stay ‘for just a while.’

For three years he worked in the kitchen of New Heights, a restaurant known for producing talent. Then he moved to Cities where the cuisine changed yearly. In 1994, the Spanish owned Barcelό hotel recruited him as sous chef of Gabriel Restaurant. 1995 found him employed as Sous Chef of the nationally acclaimed Vidalia restaurant under the tutelage of chef/owner Jeffrey Buben. In 1998, Jeffrey Buben opened Bistro Bis in the Hotel George, where Cathal took the reins of the new kitchen as chef. During the four years the kitchen was under Cathal’s direction, the restaurant received local and national accolades.

At Restaurant Eve, Armstrong presents his version of simple, straightforward cuisine, sourcing the highest quality ingredients. Almost all of their ingredients come from local producers who grow organic products and Cathal and his team scour the local farmers market every day. “Growing up on our farm, almost everything we ate, came straight from the garden”, explains Armstrong. “Our food went right from the earth to the plate, maintaining their original flavors.”

In addition to the Bistro Dining Room, Armstrong’s cuisine takes center stage in the Tasting Room. Guests may choose wither 5 or 9 course prix fixe menus. Highlights include the stunning Lobster Crème Brûlée with Baby Fennel and Tarragon Vinaigrette, which features a small pot of crème brûlée with a creamy lobster filling, a poached lobster salad with fennel and lobster bottarga aioli. One of the house favorites, the Braised Beef Short Ribs with Pickled Red Onions and Salsify, is cooked for 12 hours, so the meat almost melts in your mouth.

Cathal has cooked for many notables, including Senator Kennedy, Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, Julia Child, Don Rockwell and David Bowie. His fondest memory? When he cooked a private dinner for President Bush, the First Lady and 14 of their closest friends and to hear, from the President himself, “So, when is your restaurant opening?”

Twelve years after first arriving in Washington, DC, Cathal and his wife Meshelle have opened Restaurant Eve (named for their first child) in Old Town, Alexandria, where he lives with his two children who may someday utter the words, “My father is a natural; a great cook!” Currently five year old Eve looks at her baby brother Eamonn, smiles and says, “Don’t worry…you’ll have one next.”

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Chef Cathal:

Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to take some questions from the left field bleachers.

Restaurant Eve is known for its focus on high quality seasonal ingredients. For instance, recenlty you took the spring lamb off of the menu because it is no long spring and therefore spring lambs are no longer available. My question has to do with your ability to source such high quality seasonal ingredients. How much of your time do you spend looking for new sources and how far are you willing to travel in your quest? Can you give us some examples of the lengths you go in order to source the ingredients that ultimately wind up on the plates at Restaurant Eve.

And thanks again taking the time chat with us.

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Chef Cathal:

Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to take some questions from the left field bleachers. 

Restaurant Eve is known for its focus on high quality seasonal ingredients.  For instance, recenlty you took the spring lamb off of the menu because it is no long spring and therefore spring lambs are no longer available.  My question has to do with your ability to source such high quality seasonal ingredients.  How much of your time do you spend looking for new sources and how far are you willing to travel in your quest?  Can you give us some examples of the lengths you go in order to source the ingredients that ultimately wind up on the plates at Restaurant Eve.

And thanks again taking the time chat with us.

Thanks for your question Monsieur Gastreaux,

Most of what I look for is ingredients I can get from harvest to plate with the least amount of time and manipulation. There is clear scientific evidence that these products are better but have you ever been blackberry picking? They don't taste the same when you get them home and even worse still the next day, the best berries are right there in the field. I look for peas that tasted like the one's my Dad grew. Nothing tastes better.

We start there then build dishes and menus from these basic foundationds. I spend a lot of time with small farmers, feed them, get into their hearts and convince them to grow what I want.

The produce for the most part is easy now, there are great markets around with tons to choose from. Meat and Fish are much trickier products to procure. I was brought up on fresh beef and no fancy terms like "Dry Aged" or worse "Wet Aged" will ever convince me that they are better than fresh. This takes great effort and we just spend hours on the internet or on the phone hunting suppliers,

Another unique resource we have is other Chefs. Fabio and Eric and others are good friends, we often trade suppliers. This saves a good amount of time.

In a given week we will order food from about 130 vendors.

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Chef, I have a few questions about the importance of eating local food when it is in season.

First, how would you explain to someone, who thinks they know about food and have a good palate, the importance of eating a tomato only when it is in season and not when it appears in their dish in the middle of March? People tend to think I am a bit obsessive, if not down right crazy, because I refuse to eat certain (if not most) produce out of season.

Second, I am someone who, like you, believes in the importance of eating locally and in season. Yet lettuce is something I eat year round without hesitation. Does this make me a hypocrite, as I have been called? How do you explain to the tomato person mentioned above the difference between eating a great tomato for only a few months but eating lettuce in February?

Finally, what do you do for fresh produce and herbs in the winter? Do you ever break down and buy some Driscolls just to remind yourself of what summer will bring?

Thanks!

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Cathal

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Hopefully my question is not too off topic, as strictly speaking it does not pertain to the Washington DC dining scene.

<Begin shameless asskissing>Your cooking is without a doubt the best I have ever tasted from an Irish chef and I admire the way that you integrate traditional Irish food such as black pudding into top notch dishes worthy of any table<End shameless asskissing>

I'm wondering if when you return to Ireland on visits are there are other chefs whose work you admire/would seek out. One of my favorites is Neven Maguire, who operates a top class bistro in the wilds of Co. Cavan, using many local and organic ingredients like you do.

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Chef, there seems to be a unique synergy between you and Todd "Evil Genius" Thrasher...I mean what other bar makes their own tonic water from scratch!

Can you get into a little more about how you two met? how do you two work together to combine the "front of the house" bar area with the restaurant area? and do the two of you ever get into any mad competitions over who can create the most off the wall concoctions?

Also, I took my parents to Eve over memorial day weekend and your pork belly kicked ass...my mom ordered the lamb and there was some braised lamb shoulder as part of the dish....can you describe your method for making the braised lamb shoulder...it equally kicked ass!

Thanks

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Cathal

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Hopefully my question is not too off topic, as strictly speaking it does not pertain to the Washington DC dining scene.

<Begin shameless asskissing>Your cooking is without a doubt the best I have ever tasted from an Irish chef and I admire the way that you integrate traditional Irish food such as black pudding into top notch dishes worthy of any table<End shameless asskissing>

I'm wondering if when you return to Ireland on visits are there are other chefs whose work you admire/would seek out. One of my favorites is Neven Maguire, who operates a top class bistro in the wilds of Co. Cavan, using many local and organic ingredients like you do.

My favorite Chef in Ireland is still Derry Clarke, he and his wife own a lovely restaurant in Dublin called L'Ecrivain. I also admire the work in the kitchens of the famed Ballymaloe House, it is farm style fresh food with no pretense.

It is interesting that the population grew in Ireland in 1997 for the first time since the famine of 1884. A lot of this growth is a result of emmigrants returning from the US and Europe because of the ecenomic boom Ireland has seen in the last 10 years. Some of these people are of course chefs and they have returned educated and quite able. There has been a great surge in the development of Irish cuisine, similar to modern American cuisine, and towns like Kenmare are now being called "the culinary capital". It's great to see. There's still a lot of crap though.

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Chef, I have a few questions about the importance of eating local food when it is in season. 

First, how would you explain to someone, who thinks they know about food and have a good palate, the importance of eating a tomato only when it is in season and not when it appears in their dish in the middle of March?  People tend to think I am a bit obsessive, if not down right crazy, because I refuse to eat certain (if not most) produce out of season.

Second, I am someone who, like you, believes in the importance of eating locally and in season.  Yet lettuce is something I eat year round without hesitation.  Does this make me a hypocrite, as I have been called?  How do you explain to the tomato person mentioned above the difference between eating a great tomato for only a few months but eating lettuce in February?

Finally, what do you do for fresh produce and herbs in the winter?  Do you ever break down and buy some Driscolls just to remind yourself of what summer will bring?

Thanks!

Tomatoes are amazing when they are in season, lush, juicy, sweet, full of flavor. When they are not in season they suck. Very easy, tomatoes are fruits of the earth, the require nitrate for sustenance, the get this from the earth through the root structure and the vine, eliminate this food source and the fruit starts to consume itself converting its natural sugar to starch....then you have a grainy, bland tomato. Tomatoes also need sun to ripen, like all fruit, so they ripen in the summer, you have to ask yourself where the tomatoes come from in March. The answer is geneticaly altered fruit designed to sacrifice flavor for extended shelf life, then they are washed with wax and kept in cold storage for months, sounds like a bad sience project to me.

As far as lettuce is concerned you could argue that its not the same thing because it is such a subtle flavor even at the acme of its season. Very little lettuce is grown in the ground any more, most of it is either hydropnic or in little plastic trays. Both methods are terrible. These plants require great amounts of nutrients to develop their true flavors, most people don't know what Arugula really tastes like for example...sooo peppery it almost burns the palate. So the grass we call mesclun in February for the most part tastes like the grass we call mesclun in May. Unless.... you find a farmer like David Lankford who shares the same passion for flavor as I do and learns how to manipulate.

Driscoll? Four letter word. Never, never. I just don't offer berries in the winter, there are plenty of interesing winter and dried fruits. I also buy large amounts of fruits when the are at the peek of their season and make jams and preserves for the winter, just like my Grandmother did. The smell in the kitchen at that time takes me back 30 years.

Also I mentioned my friend David Lankford (who is in serious financial trouble, but that's another story) He has 4 acres under greenhouse(one of his houses is the size of 3 football fields) and has had great success with necessities for the winter. He even brought me a few pints of local strawberries for Christmas. No genetic altering just tricking the plants with heat and light for the most part.

The bottom line...Flavor isn't everything, is't the only thing.

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Chef, there seems to be a unique synergy between you and Todd "Evil Genius" Thrasher...I mean what other bar makes their own tonic water from scratch! 

Can you get into a little more about how you two met?  how do you two work together to combine the "front of the house" bar area with the restaurant area? and do the two of you ever get into any mad competitions over who can create the most off the wall concoctions?

Also, I took my parents to Eve over memorial day weekend and your pork belly kicked ass...my mom ordered the lamb and there was some braised lamb shoulder as part of the dish....can you describe your method for making the braised lamb shoulder...it equally kicked ass!

Thanks

Todd and Chef de Cuisine Nathan Beauchamp and I have a unusual relationship. I work to develop a creative team unlike many restaurants that are supreme dictatorships. We learn from each other and then usually I have the final say(which really means my wife has the final say, but I like to pretend I'm in charge, you know... the whole ego thing with boys right??)

Tonic is a good example of how we work, I came in one day and said let's make tonic. So Todd went online and found a source for Quinine, so we bought some. This bag of brown powder shows up a few days later and we taste it and it is disgusting, so it sits on the shelf for a few weeks while we look for processed quinine tabs to no avail, then we started to experiment with the nasty brown powder, each of us like Harry Potter mixing our concotions, comparing and blending and then finally voting on the best one. We found the secret by accident, we made a green papaya salad for another dish and when I tasted it with the dressing we made I said, hey that tastes like tonic.

When I first met Todd he already had a great creative sense for cocktails but a big turning point for him I think was when he went to the store and bought strawberries for a cocktail. When I asked him what he was doing he said he didn't want to us our good berries for a drink, I threw away those berries and explained to him that the cocktails are just as important as the food and we should us only the best ingredients at the bar just like we do in the kitchen. It just makes sense to me.

The lamb shoulder is much like a daube, after it is braised we strain the liquid and reduce it to syrup like consistency then fold the picked meat back into the sauce. You end up with just intense flavor.

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When he cooked a private dinner for President Bush, the First Lady and 14 of their closest friends and to hear, from the President himself, “So, when is your restaurant opening?”

Which one -- 41 or 43? And where, at the WH or elswhere?

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Which one -- 41 or 43? And where, at the WH or elswhere?

[i assure you it was 43, as Cathal was still in diapers 12 years ago.

This is a fascinating chat so far! (translation: don't even think of going here) :P ]

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[i assure you it was 43, as Cathal was still in diapers 12 years ago.

This is a fascinating chat so far! (translation:  don't even think of going here)  :wub: ]

But of course. However I had to ask because this gives the lie to W's reputation as purely a BBQ and steak man. The First Lady is another matter as we know her to frequent both Mendocino and visit at least once Sonoma. :P

Edited to return to topic:

Cathal, the bio Rocks has provided is very interesting. I suppose you are familiar with Bourdain's description of his first food epiphany in France -- eating an oyster just plucked from somewhere around Normandy (I think). What was your first or most memorable food epiphany?

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But of course.  However I had to ask because this gives the lie to W's reputation as purely a BBQ and steak man.  The First Lady is another matter as we know her to frequent both Mendocino and visit at least once Sonoma.  :P

Edited to return to topic:

Cathal, the bio Rocks has provided is very interesting.  I suppose you are familiar with Bourdain's description of his first food epiphany in France -- eating an oyster just plucked from somewhere around Normandy (I think).  What was your first or most memorable food epiphany?

It was W. As it turns out he and his friends like to hunt and then eat. So Venison, Dove and Quail were on the menu thet night,

My most vivid childhood food memory was when we went to visit my father's friend Ramiro Ivora's grandmother in the mountains above Alicante. The men went out in the field and caught rabbits and skinned them alive in the kitchen in front of us and cleaned them for the Paella. I can still see the rabbit bucking and taste the rice. There was no bravado just a necessary sacrifice for the benefit of the guests. I think I must have been 5 or 6.

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Chef,

Don mentioned in his intro how your path in life was influenced by your parents' love of food and travel. Now that you're a parent yourself, what's your take on how best (other than opening your own restaurant named after them) to get kids enthused about food and cooking and accustomed to eating out?

Looking back on your career so far, what would you most like tell your younger self just starting out in the business if you could meet him today?

What's next for you and the family? Do you see yourselves mainly concentrating on Eve in years to come, or are there still other things you'd like to do?

Many thanks.

PS: When are you on Iron Chef?

Edited by Stretch

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Chef,

Don mentioned in his intro how your path in life was influenced by your parents' love of food and travel. Now that you're a parent yourself, what's your take on how best (other than opening your own restaurant named after them) to get kids enthused about food and cooking and accustomed to eating out?

Looking back on your career so far, what would you most like tell your younger self just starting out in the business if you could meet him today?

What's next for you and the family? Do you see yourselves mainly concentrating on Eve in years to come, or are there still other things you'd like to do?

Many thanks.

PS: When are you on Iron Chef?

I don't know what the answer is with kids, I know when we were raised we were taught to eat what we got and be glad of it, there was no leaving anything on your plate either. I try to encourage my kids to eat, I sneek things in and don't tell them about it and I try not to make dinner a chore for them.

When I grew up in Dublin there were eight of us in the family, my father had a very sucessful business for a while but the government owned airline changed some rules overnight and forced a lot of travel agents out of business so we went from being comfortable middle class to struggling for some years before my father started a new smaller firm focusing on business travel. We learned to enjoy what we had, Sunday dinner was chicken for the special day that was in it, 1 chicken between the eight of us. Nothing was ever wasted, the carcass became soup for the next day and my father grew everything he could in the garden. So...going to a restaurant for us was a very rare and special occasion, we bathed and put on our Sunday best and behaved ourselves. Besides the restaurants in Dublin at the time were all expensive. My kids go to restaurants often and it's funny for me to look at them with coloring books and toys at the table, my father would have a heart attack. I turned out ok his way, they'll turn out ok my way.

I would tell myself to stick it out in college studying computer programming, much less work, much more money, much less pratts telling me that what I put my heart and soul into 16 hours a day six days a week is "nothing special", "no wow factor".

Next....something for Eamonn. But Eve will always have my undivided attention.

Iron Chef? Too easy.

Edited by Cathal Armstrong

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Next....something for Eamonn.
Restaurant Eamonn Shoot - featuring venison, quail, dove and other fine delicacies from the wild. :P

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Chef Armstrong,

My husband and I took his parents to dinner in your tasting room about 2 months ago. Our experience was special, wow and really memorable. I feel so fortunate to have Eve nearby for an amazing cocktail and apps, to the Bistro and the occasional treat of the tasting room.

Well, the tasting room was my first meal there, and I was impressed at how you and your staff manage to present delicious meals which are painstakingly prepared and presented with impeccable timing and grace.

Could you elaborate a bit on what it takes to orchestrate meals in your tasting room? How many prep/ sous chefs, how many servers etc. How do you get it to come together? Regarding staff training: Does your staff do wine and food tastings to be able to advise guests ?

Thank you and know that you're hard work and dedication is appreciated.

Cheers,

An anti-pratt

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Chef Armstrong,

My husband and I took his parents to dinner in your tasting room about 2 months ago. Our experience was special, wow and really memorable. I feel so fortunate to have Eve nearby for an amazing cocktail and apps, to the Bistro and the occasional treat of the tasting room.

Well, the tasting room was my first meal there, and I was impressed at how you and your staff manage to present delicious meals which are painstakingly prepared and presented  with impeccable timing and grace.

Could you elaborate a bit on what it takes to orchestrate meals in your tasting room? How many prep/ sous chefs, how many servers etc. How do you get it to come together? Regarding staff training: Does your staff do wine and food tastings to be able to advise guests ?

Thank you and know that you're hard work and dedication is appreciated.

Cheers,

An anti-pratt

We have a total of eighty seats in the restaurant, we have 52 full time employees. During a given service we have 11 Chefs on the line, 2 Expediters, 2 Bartenders, 10 Waiters, a food Runner, a glass and silver polisher, 2 Managers and 3 Hosts, for a total of 32 employees needed to operate.

For the most part the ship runs like a well oiled machine, there are of course hicups, managing 32 employees and 80 guests at one time is insane when you think about it but it keeps me looking young.

We do a lot of training at the beginning when an employee is first hired, about two full weeks and then we have two staff meetings every day to discuss food and wine and service issues. We all taste food when we bring on new dishes and aside from Todd doing wine classes we are often visited by winemakers which is very educational.

BTW.... The questions so far have been great, I have enjoyed reflecting. Thank you all.

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I would tell myself to stick it out in college studying computer programming, much less work, much more money, much less pratts telling me that what I put my heart and soul into 16 hours a day six days a week is "nothing special", "no wow factor".

Duely noted, but I'm about ready to jump the CS ship and go to culinary school. Probably should have taken the hint and done so two years ago. Especially on days like today... :P

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wow, I'm kind of shocked that Restaurant Eve has 52 full time employees...That's just amazing to me! I'd guess maybe 25-30 people

I completely understand if you don't want to get into financial specifics on an internet chat board (even percentages would be ok), so feel free to ignore this question, but what sort of cost structure does an upscale restaurant like Eve have. I think it would be eye opening for us outside the industry to get a grasp on what goes into running and funding a restaurant at Eve's level.

rent, labor, food costs, taxes, equipment/table service (glasses, knives forks etc.)

Thanks

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wow, I'm kind of shocked that Restaurant Eve has 52 full time employees...That's just amazing to me!  I'd guess maybe 25-30 people

I completely understand if you don't want to get into financial specifics on an internet chat board (even percentages would be ok), so feel free to ignore this question, but what sort of cost structure does an upscale restaurant like Eve have.  I think it would be eye opening for us outside the industry to get a grasp on what goes into running and funding a restaurant at Eve's level.

rent, labor, food costs, taxes, equipment/table service (glasses, knives forks etc.)

Thanks

Labor cost is about 30% of gross, cost of goods is about 30% of gross, rent is about 5% of gross. So of the 35% that's left we pay china, glass, silver, linen, gas, electricity, water, trash removal, linen, insurance, public relations/advertising, repairs and maintenance, payroll taxes, credit card processing fees, flowers, interest on our bank loan, permits and licences etc., etc., etc.

If we try really hard and don't have any surprises, like the toilet overflowing on Friday night causing us to call an emergency plumber at $1500, we might hit around 5 or 6% net. Bear that in mind, when your bill is $600 for 4 people usually a restaurant of our calibre will net $30.00-$40.00.

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Chef,

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. My wife and I enjoyed a fantastic meal in the tasting room 2 weeks ago to celebrate our 2 year wedding anniversary. All of the dishes were terrific, but the stand-out was the Gnocchi with Oven Dried Tomatoes and Spring Arugula. We were raving about the gnocchi to our waitress, who agreed and commented “who would have guessed that an Irishman can make such darn-good gnocchi". :P So my question to you is, how does an Irishman make such darn-good gnocchi?

Edited by Pete

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Chef,

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. My wife and I enjoyed a fantastic meal in the tasting room 2 weeks ago to celebrate our 2 year wedding anniversary. All of the dishes were terrific, but the stand-out was the Gnocchi with Oven Dried Tomatoes and Spring Arugula. We were raving about the gnocchi to our waitress, who agreed and commented “who would have guessed that an Irishman can make such darn-good gnocchi".  :P   So my question to you is, how does an Irishman make such darn-good gnocchi?

Irishmen are certainly masters of potatoes if nothing else. Seriously though there are only a couple of important things to worry about when making gnocchi, first is the potatoes you use, they should be fresh potatoes, you can tell, if the potato is not very firm it is old. Let them stand at room temperature for 24 hours, this allows some of the sugar to convert to starch giving you the right balance between soapy and floury mash. Don't overwork the dough, you will expand the gluten molecules in the flour and make your gnocchi tough. Remember you are poaching the dumplings, not boiling them, your poaching liquid should be gently simmering and when the dumplings rise to the top they are cooked, either serve them or arrest the cooking process.

It's that simple.

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Given the overloaded schedule you already described I hesitate to ask, but what the hell. Any chance you might offer cooking classes from time to time? Your answers here have been very descriptive...definitely painting great mental pictures and I can't help but think you would be a wonderful teacher.

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