As promised (but not delivered) last week, I had a chance to cyber chat with Frog Commissary founder Steve Poses. On Oct. 15, he participated in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Speaker Series/Author Events, showing off his new book, At Home: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking and Entertaining. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but since I still refer to my 20-plus-year-old Commissary cookbook, I am sure it will get a lot of use over the coming years. (Sidenote: I said I’d have some of my favorite Commissary recipes up last week, and did not. They are coming, I promise.)
I think it’s cool that Poses took the time to answer all these questions, so I hope you’ll enjoy reading through them. But first, I’ve got some hot-off-the-press news:
Georges’ executive chef Jeremy Duclut is getting his 15 minutes of fame—and $10,000—after winning on the Food Network’s popular series Chopped. The popular show, hosted by Ted Allen (Food Detectives), pins four professional chefs against each other in a race to create a three-course meal from a select list of mystery ingredients that are revealed once the clock starts ticking. They have a limited time to cook an appetizer, entrÃ©e and dessert, and one contestant gets “chopped” after each course. Some of the surprise ingredients included in Duclut’s basket were eel, peaches and peas (appetizer course); butternut squash, oatmeal, shrimp and Chinese pickled prunes (entrÃ©e); and sharp cheddar, saltine crackers, parsnips and Limoncello (dessert). Rest assured, the winning dishes will make an appearance on georges’ menu in the not-too-distant future.
Now, with no further ado, Mr. Steve Poses will take the floor:
MLT: For those who may not have kept up with the life and times of Steve Poses post the Frog Commissary heyday, can you bring us up to speed?
SP: I have continued to operate Frog Commissary Catering. We recently took over the restaurants at the Franklin Institute and have plans to make major changes in the winter.
MLT: What are the most notable changes among kitchens and menus across the city?
SP: I guess there are two key changes, and both have to do with an explosion of choices now available to diners. One is the explosion of Stephen Starr’s and Jose Garces’ restaurants as well as other “expensive to create” restaurants. The other is the explosion of more modest but wonderful BYOBs.
MLT: Who’s dictating the trends: chefs or diners?
SP: Chefs offer the change, and patrons vote. You cannot have one without the other. No one dictates. It’s a democracy!
MLT: Who do you think is the most inspirational or innovative chef in the city today?
SP: I would say Jose Garces is the single most creative chef.
MLT: What restaurant do you miss the most that’s closed over the past decade or so?
SP: I never look back. I can’t say that I miss anything. Though, I always feel bad when a restaurant closes because I know all that goes into a restaurant and the pain of closing.
MLT: How long have you been working on the At Home project?
SP: I began on the book with the notion of the side notes and bottom notes about six years ago. The intensive work has taken place over the past two years.
MLT: What was your inspiration to tackle both a book and a website, and what is the thinking behind not going mainstream with the book and only offering it on the web?
SP: My goal is to increase home entertaining 10 percent nationally, and I feel strongly about that. So, I am trying to create a powerful community around that goal. Selling the book in a traditional fashion—through third parties like traditional bricks and mortar—and online retailers did not feel right. It felt as though I would work hard to open a restaurant and, just when customers started coming in the front door, I would leave by the back door. I want a relationship. By creating a book and website linked to the book, and a public blog, it felt like a much more vital approach to creating a community around At Home and home entertaining. The website is alive and dynamic, and provides a way to create, link and have an ongoing relationship with a community.Â This is not just “a book,” but a multi-faceted approach to distributing content that I hope will help and inspire people to entertain at home more.
MLT: How realistic is the information in the book and on the web for less accomplished home cooks/entertainers? I personally got a kick out of the “hour of rest” prior to guests arriving. I am notorious for jumping in the shower right when the first guest arrives—of course, who actually arrives on time?
SP: My No. 1 message is that all this can be done by anyone—provided they allow themselves time to plan far enough in advance, spread out the tasks involved over time, and, critically, scale the party to the available time and resources. Given that charge, it is entirely realistic. Also, please see the book’s introduction where I talk about why this is important and “The Good Enough Entertainer.”
MLT: What is your philosophy on entertaining, and why is the notion of entertaining at home more important than ever to you?
SP: It’s all connected to my belief in community, in the human connection. It is no more or less important now. And I think you can have that connection by sharing your home and good food.
MLT: What are the differences in the philosophies and business strategies of a caterer vs. a restaurateur?
SP: This book is written from a caterer’s perspective. Caterers focus on the whole event and doing things ahead. They think more holistically about entertaining. Restaurants think in terms of turning out meals “a la minute” to tables of twos and fours. It is a very different perspective. A caterer’s perspective can serve entertainers far better than restaurant-centered books.
MLT: What’s the most memorable party you’ve put together, whether for yourself or a client?Â Â
SP: My recent wedding. You can see the menu from it in the book. It was not at my home, but was at the Franklin Institute, where I have catered for more than 30 years—so it was sort of at my home away from home.
MLT: Professionally and personally, do you allow yourself any cooking shortcuts, or is everything done from scratch?
SP: I am a scratch cook to a fault, and I think it’s a problem. The book has a section about hybrid entertaining, where people make some things and buy some things—or buy everything. What counts is having friends and family to your home. It would be far better if people were less ambitious and entertained more, myself included.
MLT: Is there an optimum number of guests for different types of parties?
SP: Overall optimum guests: It really depends. To spend an evening with a single close friend or a few really close friends is wonderful, but entertaining at home—inviting acquaintances into your home is a great way of converting acquaintances into new friends. And mixing old friends and new friends enriches the lives of both. I think the key is to not be overly ambitious. Again, do less and entertain more. If the group is larger, keep things simpler. In general, I would say six to eight is the optimum number for something intimate—small enough to be intimate, but large enough to have some diversity.
MLT: What are some of the more unique entertaining trends for the 2009-10 holiday season? Are we still leaning toward comfort fare, and is ethnic/global still hot? How has the recession affected both food and dÃ©cor trends for both caterers and home entertainers?
SP: I am not into trends. Frankly, I think all this “foodiness” works counter to people just enjoying being gracious hosts. I think trendiness is the enemy of the Good Enough Entertainer. The comfort food I am interested in is food people feel comfortable serving—whatever it is.
MLT: What’s the “No Place Like Home Project”?
SP: It grew out of the anecdote told at the end of the book involving Pascal’s wife, Manou. (Pascal is my friend, and the book’s amazing illustrator.) She is trying to build a modern dance troupe in Cambodia—not easy. I hope to support them. It’s still something in the process of being born.
MLT: What are three things that most people don’t know about you?
SP: I get anxious when I entertain, just like most people. I am from Yonkers, New York. Can’t think of a third thing.
MLT: Five things in your fridge right now â€¦
SP: Olives, aromatic red lentil dip from At Home, cornichons, pappadews and, in my freezer, pumpkin pecan praline ice cream that I made.
MLT: Favorite regional fare?
SP: Probably Vietnamese for regular dining because I love its lightness and use of herbs. Beyond that, I love food that is authentic and full-flavored, and not precious.
MLT: Most useful cooking equipment on the market?
SP: Plain old stainless spring tongs—an extension of my hands.
MLT: Do you see a show—either online or on TV—in your future?
SP: When I opened Frog in 1973, what I cared about is serving customers good and interesting food in a warm and inviting atmosphere. I figured if I did that well, the rest would take care of itself. With At Home, I have the same goal, but for people to do this in their homes. Right now, the goal is to get people to know about At Home—the book, the companion website and the public blog. That’s plenty on my plate.Â Â
To see At Home, visit athomebysteveposes.com. For the At Home blog, go to athomebysteveposes.wordpress.com.