Holiday hearth goes haute with chef Craig Strong
Chef de cuisine of Pasadena's Michelin-starred Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa layers flavors in a festive meal for family and friends.
INSPIRED: Craig Strong, chef de cuisine at Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa, finds himself in the kitchen even when he's not on the job. (Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times)
But in other ways, Strong is a world away, the distance more conceptual, even emotional, than geographic.
This is downtime, a rare day off during the holidays, a feast cooked purely for the fun of it to celebrate both the season and the gift of time with friends and family.
"Take a traditional meal and put a twist on it," is how Strong describes his holiday dinner, a menu centered around an old-fashioned roast duck but marked by a faintly Asian spice route of star anise and cardamom, honey, cinnamon and citrus.
Strong checks on a roasting duck the color of mahogany, then stirs a honey gastrique sauce in the copper pot his friend (and Langham maitre d') Robert Hartstein carried back from Paris in his luggage years ago. He gives his fiancée ("I can say that now! We got engaged three weeks ago"), Lissa Pallo, pointers on how to tie a bouquet garni to decorate a turnip-potato gratin while he arranges thin slices of fresh ginger around a pan of seared bok choy.
The bouquet of bay leaf and thyme sprigs is a pretty, aesthetic touch more than a flavor signal -- the gratin is subtly laced with star anise. It's also a cheffy gesture that represents how Strong thinks about food: classically, with an attention to detail and technique that provides the foundation for simple meals at home as well as for the tasting menus (operatic, inspired) he orchestrates at the Dining Room.
Pallo moves off to play with Hartstein's two small children, 15-month-old Ava and 3 1/2 -year-old Robbie, who has made a fishing rod with a large rubber spatula and kitchen twine. Hartstein fashions an ad hoc bib from a dish towel (Hartstein also trained as a chef) for Ava; his wife, Jennifer, a pediatrician, adds a finishing touch to the dinner table.
Strong begins dicing kumquats in the Hartsteins' kitchen, flicking the little seeds to the side of the cutting board with the tip of an old chef's knife.
"I love kumquats; they remind me of when I was a kid," says Strong, who lived in Camarillo and El Cajon, outside of San Diego, until he was 15. "When we lived in Camarillo, we had kumquat trees, Meyer lemon trees, loquats. There were pomegranates up the street. I'd stuff my shirt with them and then ride away on my bike. The lady hated us."
Another neighbor grew sugar cane, which he'd trade for his mother's chocolate chip cookies. Larceny, it seems, only applied to pomegranates.
An early passion
Strong grew up as one of eight kids and learned how to cook at an early age from his mother and grandmother. His mother not only made barter-quality cookies but also baked bread. "She ground the wheat for the bread she'd bake herself," he says.
Strong's father was president of a drip irrigation company, so he installed a system in the family vegetable garden, which was Strong's project. "My older brothers mowed the lawn; I pulled weeds" -- and grew tomatoes and zucchini, the first subjects of his culinary experiments.
In public high school in Salt Lake City, where his family moved when he was 15, Strong took cooking classes ("I'd make chicken cordon bleu and rice pilaf; back then I thought that was pretty cool") and apprenticed to a pastry chef at a local restaurant. At 19, he went to culinary school, L'Academie de Cuisine near Washington, D.C., and then moved to Philadelphia to work at the Ritz-Carlton.
Back in the kitchen, Strong whips cream into soft peaks, then folds in a ganache of melted chocolate and cardamom-infused cream to make a milk chocolate mousse. He recounts how he made a pie out of the mousse for Thanksgiving, showing Pallo's 9-year-old niece how to work the simple recipe: equal weights of chocolate, warm cream and whipped cream.
This same proportion works for a luxurious foie gras mousse Strong makes at the Langham. "You take out the chocolate and use foie. A little secret."
He adds layers of purchased pound cake, chopped chocolate, slices of banana and fresh blueberries and raspberries, alternating layers with the chocolate mousse as one would a trifle. ("At my house, we got to lick the bowl; we still do.") Sprigs of chocolate mint dot the top.
Another reason Strong likes this recipe is because it's so adaptable: One night at the Langham, he layered the mousse with delicate chocolate craquantes (pearl-size chocolate-covered rice candies) and perfectly cut squares of his own homemade pound cake, then piped chantilly cream stars on the top, alternating them in concentric circles around fresh berries. Sometimes he makes the mousse in individual cups; other times, it's one big family-sized bowl.