Elizabeth Falkner: Reflections of a Culinary Athlete
Dazzling smile, signature spiky hair, a bit of mischief in the eyes…Elizabeth Falkner always looks like a daredevil ready for a challenge and up for some fun!
Having battled to the grueling end in the Next Iron Chef competition and coming in as runner up, and having closed her three restaurants in San Francisco last December, Falkner is looking at what’s next. I met her at her transitional apartment in San Francisco to learn more.
Falkner is preparing to move to Brooklyn in June to open a new Southern Italian restaurant, Krescendo. She has also written a new book, Cooking off the Clock, to be published this fall by Ten Speed Press. Last month Falkner made a birthday cake for Muhammad Ali’s star-studded 70th birthday gala fundraiser in Las Vegas. The cake, an abstract cityscape of Frank Gehry-like buildings, was a foil for a pink miniature Rolls Royce, the car Ali had asked for, for his birthday.
The Chefs’ Reality Show Phenomenon
Falkner is one of the most recognizable chefs on the American culinary scene. In addition to the Next Iron Chef, she was a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, Just Desserts in 2010; competed on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters in 2009 and appeared as a judge on Top Chef Masters and Top Chef. She was a competitor on Iron Chef America in 2006 and a three-time competitor on Food Network’s Challenge.
“We’re seeing this phenomenon of really competitive cooking on TV because chefs are naturally competitive people and it’s a physically demanding job,” Falkner surmised. “You have to be somewhat physical to be able to handle the militant stress of those competitions. Plus, you get the opportunity to show off your culinary skills. I think it’s a combination of all those things.
“I love culinary sports – that’s what these shows feel like to me. I play a lot of sports. I used to play soccer. Culinary competitions feel like culinary and soccer at the same time,” she said.
Mind and Body: How Falkner Trained for the Next Iron Chef
“For me, being physically fit helps me on the competitive side a lot. I’m not huffing and puffing when running to get the bowl. I want to be there first,” Falkner said. She invested in a trainer. “If I’m physically fit, I can make better mental decisions.
“I also had a life coach working with me on being competitive and reading certain books to keep an edge as an individual athlete,” Falkner said, pointing out that a chef is, by nature, “more of a team athlete.”
She then staged with some of the best people in the city to shore up her skills. She observed the head fish butcher at work at Ozumo. “I didn’t get to cut up fish with him but I was physically watching him and taking notes and videos, paying attention and really asking him questions,” she recalled.
Falkner worked with the pasta maker at SPQR. “I felt like this is the best pasta in the city.
“I would go to May Wah (Asian supermarket) and buy unfamiliar ingredients to cook. That was my way of training for the random stuff that would come flying at me in the culinary competition,” Falkner explained.
Did other chefs in the competition put themselves through such rigorous training? “I don’t think so. That was my own strategy to prepare,” Falkner said, adding, “I do Korean sword fighting so I brought a sword. I used every possible way to intimidate people. And I’m really nice, too,” she added with a chuckle.
Falkner as a Judge
As a frequent judge of culinary competitions, Falkner finds that the best rise to the top. At the Second Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition in the fall, Falkner was a judge with Johnny Iuzzini, Pierre Hermé, Claudia Fleming and other pastry luminaries. There were 50 contestants and that number was cut in half on pre-dessert on the first day; 25 people remaining made a plated dessert and the judges then cut all but three contestants.
Falkner noted, “At the first round about 10 people were really on fire. The results were beautiful and all different. The second day I think I began to see the style of a few people. I was starting to hear their message. There was a general consensus among the judges as to who is standing out, give or take a few people.”
On Being a Chef
“I love cooking. I love learning how to cook more and more things. And certainly one of the perks I’ve had is to be able to cook and travel to different places,” Falkner said, to explain what she likes best about her chosen career.
“The hardest thing about being a chef is managing other people – trying to find better performers all the time. I’m looking for strong people. Julian Serrano was one of my chefs and when he interviewed me years ago at Masa’s, he asked, ‘Are you strong?’ I play soccer. I never get sick. I hate it when people don’t have the stamina, complaining, ‘I’m so tired.’ You can’t act like that in this business. I never say that,” Falkner emphasized.
Savory VS Pastry Chef
Falkner is one of the few pastry chefs who also is a savory chef. “In this country our pastry or bakery is so dramatically different from the rest of the kitchen and not always taken as a fine art. You still look at a lot of American pastry and they’re not even like pastries but bakery – cupcakes, layer cakes and pies that don’t fit into classic patisserie.
“Bread baking is great – we’ve seen that go through a massive revolution but I think cupcakes set us back in time a little bit because of economic reasons,” Falkner reflected.
“I focused on pastry for a long time because we needed so much help in pastry. And San Francisco needed a good pastry shop. That’s why I started Citizen Cake. But then my places morphed into bigger restaurants,” she said. Falkner realized she needed to have control over the dishes since these were her restaurants. And organically, she began to do more of the savory cooking. “When I opened Orson’s I worked on the line a lot. I think it’s hard to manage pastry and savory at the same time. It’s taken me a while to get to the point of saying here’s what I want and find people to help me execute it,” she explained.
Falkner says there’s a benefit to going to a restaurant where the savory chef is also the pastry chef. You know the desserts will be well-considered and too good to pass up. Otherwise, you might simply say, “Nah it’s only going to be bread pudding,” Falkner chuckles.
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For a simple dessert idea for Special Fork visitors who need something in a hurry, Falkner suggests store-bought ice cream with a sprinkling of homemade streusel (recipe below) and a drizzle of chocolate or caramel sauce. Of the streusel, she says, “It’s like eating broken cookies – it’s like cookie crumbs.”
Cacao Nib Streusel
½ cup ( 3 ½ ounces) granulated sugar
½ cup (2 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (3/4 ounce) unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 vanilla bean, split
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup (1 ounce) cacao nibs
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, unsweetened cocoa powder and salt. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and with the tip of the knife, scrape the seeds into the bowl. Stir until the seeds are distributed evenly. Using your fingers, a pastry blender or two knives work in the butter until the mixture resembles gravel. (I prefer to use my hands, but you can use any of the methods.) Scatter the cacao nibs over the top and toss together to mix thoroughly.
Dump the mixture on the prepared baking sheet, shake the pan to spread the mixture a little, and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and rake through the streusel with a fork, like you would rake granola, moving it out from the center to the edges where it cooks fastest. Bake for another 8 to 10 minutes then rake again, moving any dark pieces along the edges to the center and any underdone center bits to the edge. Then continue to bake for 5 to 7 minutes longer or until the streusel is a nice and even deep gold.
Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Use immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Makes 1 ¾ cups.
- Place a mound of streusel next to baked apples and vanilla ice cream.
- Set streusel on a plate next to fruit (apples, pears, any stone fruit) that has been sautéed in a little butter and muscat.
- Serve with yogurt and fresh fruit.
- Make a small nest of streusel for fruit, ice cream or sorbet.
- Place small bowls of streusel around the room during cocktail parties. Refill often.
Recipe from Demolition Desserts by Elizabeth Falkner, c. 2007, published by Ten Speed Press.
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