Cracking The Code: Perfectly-Crisp Fried Chicken


The above image isn’t perfect in any manner, but the chicken was downright amazing.

Over the years, I’ve tried lots of other peoples’ techniques in making my own fried chicken. Back in a college dorm in 1983 a young man attempted to teach me his family’s method for pan-frying chicken, which was a complete failure for me. Too crispy on the outside to the point of being burnt, while still being bloody near the bone … I know now the oil was too hot. Later attempts resulted in soggy coatings, which is normally a combination of oil being too cool, along with putting a lid on the skillet as I had seen others do, which creates condensation.

Whenever I’m frying chicken in restaurants, it normally includes some kind of “cheat”, i.e., starting with par-fried pieces. I could do this at home as those same pieces are sold at local food service supply shops. The other method involves the pressure fryer, which was invented by Col. Harlan Sanders himself. (No joke, look it up.) But home pressure fryers don’t exist, and using a pressure cooker as Sanders did in his earlier work did is inherenty dangerous, as he described in detail in his autobiography. So I won’t go there at home.

But restaurant chicken generally has a batter that’s almost brittle, and the chicken itself in many instances really isn’t cooked nicely enough for me.

Something’s always been missing.

I have an ideal when it comes to fried chicken. The skin on the chicken itself should be crisp, the batter lightly fried and golden brown, and the chicken cooked all the way through, to the point where it has a nice “bite” while simultaneously almost falling off the bone.

That was the whole point of this experiment.


The fried chicken at Zehnder’s in Frankenmuth, Michigan, on November 12, 2016.

Just a few days before receiving my pacemaker a couple months back, Mary and I enjoyed the all-you-can-eat chicken dinner at Zehnder’s in Frankenmuth, Michigan. The restaurant seats 1,500 people at a time, and with their volume they are constantly rated as the independently-owned restaurant serving the most “covers” or individual meals in the U.S. annually, generally around 950,000 meals per year.

Coincidentally, they also serve fried chicken that’s almost exactly my ideal fried chicken.

Biting into my first piece two months ago, it hit me: It’s not the overall recipe or equipment that’s the trick.

It’s the technique as a whole.

I’m not saying this is Zehnder’s actual technique, but in my mind it seems a distinct possibility.


A frying thermometer from an outdoor fryer clipped to my 8-quart pot.

Holding that single bite of chicken in my mouth, three thoughts collided:

  • Getting chicken done to the point where it’s cooked all the way through, to the point where it has a nice “bite” while simultaneously almost falling off the bone, requires slow-roasting.
  • Slow-roasting chicken with the skin on results in a fairly crisp skin.
  • Getting the batter on fried chicken a light golden brown while still getting crisp skin requires relatively quick frying.

The technique then becomes simple:

  • Slow-roast the chicken to about 165F internal temperature.
  • Then, batter and fry the chicken, just till the outside is done.

That’s it, really. Cook it twice, but for different reasons.

Here’s the full technique. I only describe a dry dredge here, but you can also use your favorite wet batter to get the ridges of a classic southern fried chicken, too.

Crisp Fried Chicken Technique

Ingredients
Chicken pieces
Frying oil (Wesson works well)
All-purpose flour
Seasoning (personal taste)
Buttermilk (optional)

Equipment
Roasting pan, or sheet pan, with strainer
Meat thermometer
8 quart steel pot or larger
Frying thermometer
Tongs
Bowl (for dredging)

If desired, soak the chicken pieces in buttermilk for 24 hours.

Preheat an oven to 275F. Remove the chicken pieces from the buutermilk and pat them dry. Roast the chicken in the oven till a meat thermometer tests for an internal temperature of 165F (about two hours or so, which will vary depending on the oven.) Remove the chicken from the oven and allow it to drain.

Clip the frying thermometer to the pot and add about 3″ of oil. (This is deep frying, not pan frying.) Heat the oil to a temperature of 350F. Add the flour to the bowl and season it with salt, pepper, garlic, marjoram, and/or any other herbs and spices you’d like. While the chicken is still hot, dredge each piece individually in the flour mixture and gently add it to the oil. Make sure you don’t crowd the oil. (I only fried four pieces of chicken at a time.) The chicken will float when it is almost done frying, and will only require maybe four minutes for each piece. Use a pair of tongs to remove the chicken from the oil and set aside on a strainer to drain and finish crisping.

Allow the oil to cool completely before disposing it.

That’s it. It’s actually really simple. It does create a huge mess, though, so be ready to bribe the kids to clean up the kitchen afterward.

Taco Casserole: Reworking Americanized Mexican Recipes


A completed serving of Taco Casserole, without any of the optional toppings.

Two summers ago when I was Kitchen Manager at the Skyroom at Indiana Beach I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with a man we called Chuey. Jesus Valdes Dominguez lived outside Mexico City, but during that summer and the twenty preceding summers he traveled to the Skyroom to work in the kitchen for the entire season.


Chuey doing the prep to roast a couple 50 lb hogs in July of 2015. He cut them into halves so they’d fit into the tall but narrow roasting ovens.

I was hired on that summer solely as Kitchen Manager. I’ve become quite good at organizing professional kitchens, getting the ordering systems right, building spreadsheets for monthly inventories, making sure things at least make a little bit of sense. … All the technical reasons I was called out-of-the-blue by a former supervisor and brought on-board in the spring of 2015. But there were longtime cooks there who always called me “Chef”, and Chuey was one of those cooks. Of course, he’s one of the many excellent cooks I’ve known throught my life whom I’ve learned a lot from. But in his case, it’s his sense of humor that stands out as one of his best traits.

July 25, 2015, 4:00 a.m.: More than 2,000 to cater for today. Dragged my ass out of bed an hour ago, tried to focus my eyeballs to continue an online discussion on coneys, downed two cups of coffee before slowly lumbering to the restaurant 200 feet from my cottage … The sound of rapidly running feet behind me, I glanced back to see a figure flying toward me, I’m scared witless … 43-year-old Chuey goes flying by and races up the eighteen steps to the door … before he’s had his first cup of strong Mexican coffee. Laughing maniacally at the door he bellows “Chef, Chuey mucho loco!!!” Yup, he done be cray-cray …

Later in the summer, as my health started to take another tumble (I finally received a much-needed pacemaker on November 15, 2016) Chuey took it upon himself to make sure I was taken care of in regards to meals. Regardless of how busy he was, regardless of what I had going on, he would throw another serving of his own meals of authentic Mexican cuisine together, wrap the second serving in film, place it on my desk, and demand I take the time to eat.

Chuey: “Chef, you go eat!”
Me: “We’re behind, I gotta get this done!”
Chuey: “No Chef, you get sick later …” [points at me] “I tell your wife!!!”
Dammit …

I’m experienced enough in running professional kitchens to know when to let cooks thrive. If they’re under my supervision, and they want to do something unique, and it’s possible to let them go off-menu, I’m more than happy to let them go. Our first experiment with pork belly was to rub it with a mix of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, and a lot of herbs, let it sit for 24 hours, sear it on the flattop, then cook it for 3-1/2 hours in a 50/50 brine of chicken stock and Budweiser at 225F. It was like butter when it was done and had amazing flavor. That we cut it up for a high-end Pork & Beans for the Father’s Day buffet just made it more fun. Jenelle Solomon from Jamaica, a Chef in her own right without accepting the title, later took more of the pork belly, mixed together her own jerk seasoning rub for it, let it sit overnight again, then cut and grilled individual slabs for sandwiches for another buffet. Letting excellent cooks be creative helps everyone learn, and as none of us had attempted pork belly prior to this and that we all felt good about the results is what counts in recipe and menu item development.


Jenelle Solomon, grilling off slabs of Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly, July 5, 2015.

I learned more about what real Mexican food is about from Chuey than he probably realizes. There are specific packaged ingredients available here in the U.S. that Mexican families use on a regular basis. You just have to find them. Believe me, that’s not difficult to do. Many larger grocery stores carry the right products in a special “ethnic” section, but there are enough real Mexican groceries around that it’s even simpler to go to one and find what Mexican families are using in their own kitchens. You’ll likely pay less there for the same items, too. In Monticello, Indiana, that Mexican grocery is actually inside Esmeralda’s, an authentic Mexican restaurant Chuey himself ate at. That’s where he would pick up the ingredients for his own meals in the Skyroom, and would later share with me. (In nearby Monon, Indiana, the grocery was also attached to a Mexican restaurant next door, and had its own butcher shop and fishmonger as well.) So I learned rapidly what worked for him, and what he would turn his nose up at.


The Bronner’s staff cookbook and its Taco Lasagna, along with the write-up for the resulting Taco Casserole.

I’ve been an avid collector of cookbooks for quite some time now, and have more than 400. The past few years I’ve gotten rather picky about which cookbooks I’ll add to the collection. One category of cookbooks to be particularly picky about is that of the “fundraiser” cookbooks, generally published by local organizations by the ubiquitous Morris Press Cookbooks for the past umpteen yea … er, since 1933. The majority of these cookbooks have, unfortunately, become rehashes of one another. But at the same time, businesses use Morris Press to publish their own “staff” cookbooks. These collections are rather well curated, especially when the business wants to stay within a target audience or occasion. The two staff cookbooks from Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, “Bronner’s Flavorful Favorites“, one from 2005 and the other from 2008, are excellent examples of this. I added these two cookbooks to my collection about a month ago, and have really enjoyed browsing the holiday-specific recipes.

Quite a few of the recipes in the Bronner’s cookbooks are intended for family gatherings through the holidays. One in particular caught my eye, the Taco Lasagna in Book 2 as submitted by Bronner’s staffer Rebecca Fowler. Our family as a whole loves Mexican food, to the point where I keep the large foodservice container of taco seasoning in the pantry. The kids and grandkids come to visit us almost every weekend, and large recipes are necessary on a regular basis anymore. So the Taco Lasagna became something to seriously consider.

But as I looked at Ms. Fowler’s recipe my mind took the leap: How would my good man Chuey make this? What changes would I need to make to make it palatable for him if he were here? To raise the level of authenticity?

Hoping not to offend Ms. Fowler in what I’m certain is a seriously nice dish, I immediately knew calling it a “lasagna” wasn’t something Chuey would have agreed with. He made his own lasagna for the restaurant in a very specific manner, and had for years. He begged me to get him the right lasagna, an uncooked pasta sheet that had never been dried, which took me a good month to find. He then proceeded to make his own sauce and meat mixture from scratch, used all the right Italian cheeses, and par-baked the batches while finishing servings individually. His lasagna would put most others to shame. Pasta-maker Barilla, founded in 1877, agrees with him. In their now-out-of-print book “I Love Pasta: An Itallian Love Story in 100 Recipes” from their Academia Barilla, the Barilla family members wrote about how the pasta was mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman descriptions of cooking. The end the paragraph with “There is also an industrial version with curled edges”, referring specifically to what most westerners are used to seeing and cooking.

Chuey would have made this baked dish for a buffet, meaning we would call it a “casserole” on the menu.

Chuey never used ground beef spiced with taco seasoning in the dishes he made for him and I. He always used pork chorizo, generally the mild variety. The real thing is made with salivary glands, lymph nodes and cheek fat, and other cuts of pork. This follows the centuries-old Central American cultures always being nose-to-tail, and is authentic, whether or not squeamish Americans want to admit it. The seasoning is correct for what Americans call “taco seasoning”, so no additional spices are necessary.


The meat mixture after simmering.

The basics of Ms. Fowler’s recipe are good, but I think Chuey would have made at least a few changes. Knowing I’m making a double batch means I can replace one of the cans of black beans with a can of Chuey’s beloved whole kernel corn. “Mexican” tomatoes are merely tomatoes with green chillies added. By splitting out the chillies I can adjust the amount of heat, the hotter the better. And no Mexican dish is right without a good bunch of chopped fresh cilantro.

About those canned vegetables: The Mexican versions of these canned goods are indeed authentic. They’re less processed than their American counterparts, have considerably fewer ingredient, and in many instances are imported from Mexico or other regions of Central America. They also taste better than what’s made in the U.S. and are used in Mexican family kitchens every day.

Finally, we’ll tweak out the process just a bit, heating the refried beans until they’re smooth so they’re easier to spread, draining the tomatoes and chillies so the resulting casserole holds together and the tortillas don’t get soggy, adding the possibility of greasing the casserole dishes with lard, and adding optional toppings.

The end result had people going back for seconds and thirds. Really, it’s that good. And all kinds of variations are possible. Give this a shot. Your family will be glad you did.

Taco Casserole

Ingredients
2 lb El Mexicano raw Pork Chorizo, mild
1 cup Onion, chopped
1 can Herdez or La Preferida Black Beans, drained & rinsed
1 can Corn, whole kernel, drained
2 cans La Victoria Diced Green Chillies, drained
2 cans Petite Diced Tomatoes, drained
2 cans Herdez or La Preferida Refried Beans
2 cups Cilantro, fresh, chopped
6 cups Mexican Cheese Blend, finely shredded
12 8″ La Banderita Flour Tortillas
Sour Cream for topping (optional)
2 cups Mexican Cheese Blend, finely shredded, for topping (optional)
Herdez or La Preferida Salsa, for topping (optional)

In a high-wall skillet over medium heat, cook the chorizo and onion for about 15 minutes, until the meat has crumbled completely. (With good chorizo, it will not change color.) Place a stack of paper towel or a lint-free cloth on a plate. Transfer the cooked meat to the plate and allow the oil to drain. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the meat back to the skillet. Add the black beans, corn, shillies and tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. (The corn should still have a nice crunch.) Remove from the heat.

Dump the two cans of refried beans into a sauce pan, stirring occasionally, and heat just until smooth. Remove from the heat. (This allows for the refried beans to be used more easily in the next step.)

Use lard or vegetable shortening (lard is preferable) to grease two 13″ x 9″ x 2″ glass casserole dishes. Lay two tortillas in each one. On the tortillas in each dish, spread one-quarter of the refried beans, followed by one-quarter of the meat mixture, one-quarter of the cilantro, and one cup of the shredded cheese. Top each with two more tortillas, and then build a second layer identical to the first. Top with the remaining tortillas and one more cup of cheese each. Cover each dish with aluminum foil, being sure to “tent” the foil upward in the midle so it isn’t contacting the top layer of cheese.

Bake at 350F for 30 minutes. Let set for 5 minutes before serving. Top each serving with sour cream, more shredded cheese, salsa, or other optional toppings.

Notes:

  • Play around with the ingredients. Increase or decrease the seasonings to taste, use hot chorizo if you’d like, or even top each serving with a fried egg. The possibilities are endless.
  • Replacing the chorizo with cubes of slow-cooked beef tongue seasoned with taco seasoning would make for another authentic version, as would using pulled pork or chunks of slow-cooked pork belly seasoned in the same manner.
  • This makes a lot of Taco Casserole. You can also do the assembly in the same size foil casserole pans, cover with foil, then freeze immediately to cook at a later date.

Deviled Eggs, and Getting Those Eggs Right


A dozen hard-boiled eggs, prepared using the following technique.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving 2016. Personally, I’m looking forward to all the deviled eggs at the various get-togethers over the next month or so. I’m seriously addicted to hard-boiled eggs, and if there are deviled eggs in the vicinity you’d better hide them from me. I’ll eat eight halves before I’ll even consider stopping.

It might take a couple more halves before I finally stop eating the things.

One of the more oft-asked questions is “What’s the best way to cook hard-boiled eggs?” There are a lot of different answers out there, some using vinegar, some barely boiling the eggs once the water starts rolling then letting them rest in the hot water off the stove for an additional time, others suggesting using sous vide (that is, if you can afford the equipment.)

Some folks also say it’s impossible to hard-boil eggs at altitudes greater than 10,000 feet above sea level. I have yet to be able to vouch for this.

I learned quite a bit from a Greek I worked for from 1983 – 84 by the name of Gus Pappas. A Vincent Price doppelganger, Gus used the restaurant kitchen’s commercial steamer to steam a few dozen eggs at a time to hard-boiled in 12 minutes flat at low pressure. He’d then immediately place them in a running-cold water bath to stop the cooking process, and have us peel them five minutes later. They were great for salads and such, and the yolks never turned green. If you have a presure cooker, you can use this same process with a steamer basket with water underneath.

Gus was the one to explain the following process to me, which has worked for me every time since. The claim of “you have to use the freshest eggs” doesn’t seem to apply here. They still come out perfect every time.

Basic Deviled Eggs

Ingredients
1 dozen eggs
Mayonnaise
Yellow mustard
Salt, iodized
Black pepper, ground
Paprika, smoked

  1. Place a dozen chilled eggs in the bottom of a short pot wide enough to allow the eggs to remain in a single layer.
    Add cold water to about a half-inch inch above the tops of the eggs.
  2. Place the pot on a burner on the stove, and set the burner to High.
    When the water begins to actually boil, lower the heat to about 90% and set a timer for 20 minutes.
  3. Walk away.
  4. When the timer goes off, remove the pot from the heat. Gently dump most of the hot water down the drain and set the pot with the eggs into the sink.
  5. Run cold water into the pot and walk away for five minutes while it continues to run. This stops the eggs from cooking themselves all the way to the center.
  6. Stop the running water and walk away for five more minutes.
    Return and shell the eggs, being sure to rinse excess shell and membrane off in the chilled water in the pot before placing them off to the side.
  7. Cut each egg in half, removing the halved yolks and placing them in a small mixing bowl. Place the halves of the whites into a presentation platter.
  8. Add mayonnaise and a small bit of yellow mustard to the yolks and stir until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste, stirring as you go.
    Spoon or pipe the smoothed yolk mixture into the halved whites.
  9. Top with sprinkles of smoked paprika.

On Food Waste, and the So-Called “Expiration Dates” of Food

date_label_sign

For some interesting information take a look at this article which reads, in part, “[D]espite what the labels may suggest, the food is safe. The date printed on packaging clues consumers into when the product is at its best, peak flavor … The flavor or quality may start to degrade over time, but food safety isn’t an issue.” — Dave

There are many causes of food waste. “Expiration dates” on food and food products are probably one of the more serious culprits. If you subscribe to these things, you need to take another look at what’s really going on.

One of the local papers here reprints restaurant inspections via the county Health Department. Entries like this have a tendency to catch my eye:

Refrigerated ready-to-eat food held refrigerated for more than 24 hours was not properly date marked. Items in the cooler not date marked. To prevent food borne illness, refrigerated, ready-to-eat food held at a temperature of 41 degrees or below for more than 24 hours should be clearly marked at the time of preparation or the time the original container is opened to indicate the date or day that is a maximum of seven days by which the food should be consumed, sold, or discarded. The day the food is prepared or opened is day one.

Of course, the embellishment of the findings from two sentences into a whole paragraph is always completely ridiculous. But then again, so is the concept of expiration dates in regards to food.

Back in May of 2015 during a ServSafe course, before looking at the supplied book for the course, my classmates and I discussed the concept mentioned in this inspection at length. Some admitted to putting the preparation date on labels as a matter of habit. But we decided that was incorrect, as someone might look at that date the following day, assume it was the day the item was supposed to be pitched, and do just that.

It turned out the 6th edition of the ServSafe Manager course guide is kinda specific on this subject, on page 5.9:

Ready-to-eat TCS [time and temperature control for safety] food can be stored for only seven days if it is held at 41F or lower. The count begins on the day that the food was prepared or a commercial container was opened. For example, a food handler that prepared and stored potato salad on October 1 would write a discard date of October 7 on the label.

Ignoring the fact that “41F and lower” in the above paragraph also includes temperatures that freeze the food, which makes the dates useless, there are also the paragraphs that follow the above paragraph in the book:

Operations have a variety of systems for date marking. Some write the day or date the food was prepped on the label. Others write the use-by day or date on the label … Sometimes, commercially-processed food will have a use-by date that is less than seven days from the date the container is opened. In this case, the container should be marked with this use-by date as long as the date is based on food safety … When combining food in a dish with different use-by dates, the discard date of the dish should be based on the earliest prepared food.

Ok, I have a question, which would be … WTF???

Here’s a simple fact: Federal regulations require a “use-by” date on the product label of infant formula under FDA inspection. Baby formula is the ONLY food product the FDA says there must be dates on. The FDA site and regulations are full of phrases such as this one regarding eggs: “When a ‘sell-by’ date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of pack.” Notice that it’s a suggestion that the date be there. It’s not a requirement. There are countless other examples of this ambiguity within the FDA.

On all kinds of food products, both for commercial/restaurant use and consumer consumption, there are various types of dates. Supposedly, they go like this:

  • Sell By – Could be the shelf life on a store shelf, or even the shelf life after purchase. No one really knows.
  • Best By – A guess as to when the product will be at its peak quality. Doesn’t really apply to things like salt, which are already millenia-old products, but is still on some packaging.
  • Use By – Another phrase meaning “Best By”, which is another guess.
  • Freeze By – Again, it’s “Best By”, but for something that can be frozen.
  • Expires On – Eat it one day after this date, and we’re sure you’ll expire, too.

When you go grocery shopping I’m sure you’re probably checking some dates. You’re most likely actively looking for dates on containers in the dairy section and, in some cases, in the bread aisle. Without realizing it, when you look through various items for the ones you want in the produce section, you’re inadvertently “checking dates” as you either want what’s most fresh or, for something like bananas or tomatoes, something that will be ripe enough soon.

But do you check dates on canned goods, on bottles of dressings, jars of peanut butter, jams and jellies, or dry goods such as flour, sugar, cereals or cake mixes? Probably not. We have an expectation that these types of products will be good for some time, especially canned goods.

Some people assert canned goods would be fine after a nuclear blast, which I have serious doubts about.

Here’s a simple set of facts: There are far too many variables in product distribution for any date to be accurate. The transportation and storage chain for many food items has to be considered in the development of any kind of “expiration date”, which is completely impossible. Think about, say, a piece of fruit or a vegetable that’s picked in California and is on its way to Michigan. The pickers pick all day long and place them, sometimes tossing them, into a collection truck. We don’t know what the temperature or humidity might be there. The item then goes to a temp-and-humidity-controlled processing and packing plant where they’re cleaned, the good ones are selected by hand or machine, and they’re packed into their case size. They’re then loaded into other trucks, again with temp and humidity unknown (I’ve seen some recent trucks that are still simple boxes with extra refrigeration units tacked on) and transported to distribution centers for grocer or restaurant wholesalers. They’re then stored in well-regulated areas again, until another distribution takes place to wherever you purchase or consume them. In some cases, the truck is open for long periods at other restaurants before it’s off-loaded at the restaurant you eat at. If you buy them, how do you store them? In fact, what’s the temperature of your own refrigerator? You likely don’t even know.

There are a couple extremes to consider. When ordering from a supplier for a restaurant, you might get #2 breaking avocados for your Cobb salad. “Breaking” means they should be about two days out from ripening when you get them. But warehouse workers may be too busy to keep track of the ripeness of avocados under their care. So when a restaurant receives them, they might be immediately ripe and need to be used right away. They’re obviously not going to last seven days, regardless of how you mark them. That fresh guacamole you decided to make from them might end up too brown and sour to eat after two or three days.

One of the other extremes is the ubiquitous five gallon pail of hamburger dill pickle chips. No one, and I mean no one, dates those things. But very few places in a given area will go through one of these buckets in a week. I’ve seen them last at least a couple months, even when they’re not always resealed properly in the walk-in cooler. And even then, the pickle chips are perfectly edible, crisp, and safe.

Based on experience, I’d give pickled vegetables four or five months under good conditions, maybe even longer.

One of the other issues with that five-gallon pickle bucket, in some cases, is the unavailability of smaller packaging. Knowing our operation wouldn’t go through a whole bucket at the end of the season I asked the Sysco sales rep for a one-gallon version. He stopped in his tracks, looked at me oddly, and said “You know, I don’t think we have that.” And he was right. Unless I went to a store, a smaller package just wasn’t happening.

At the end of seasonal operation, what happens to those buckets still holding maybe three-and-a-half gallons of pickles? Some are actually pitched. Other operators might divvy up the remainder and sell them to employees to take home, or even relocate said bucket to properties that are still operating.

And finally, another contributor to waste is an aversion to eating leftovers. Really? Yes, teenagers, and yes many over the age of 18, largely hate eating leftovers, as do a lot of adults. So a lot of the food in our refrigerators, especially vegetables, head to the dump on a regular basis, only because too many people would rather eat something cooked right now.

We have to stop doing that.

Expiration dates on food is probably one of the largest contributors to the 40%, 133 billion pounds, or $165 billion dollars worth, of food wasted every year in the U.S. When deciding to throw food away, do yourself and the world a favor and don’t go by “expiration dates”. Use common sense. Eat the leftovers. Use your nose, your taste buds, and your brain. Transport and store your food properly. Listen to this guy. Just make good decisions.

Starting now.

Chef Buddha’s Recipe: Skyroom Hoosier Chicken & Noodles, Indiana Beach, Monticello, Indiana


A batch of Hoosier Chicken & Noodles in the Skyroom Kitchen at Indiana Beach Amusement Resort, Monticello, Indiana, made by Chef Buddha on June 14, 2015.

The summer of 2015 was … odd for me. Back in 1979 I’d spent the summer cooking at a YMCA camp in Irons, Michigan, and had a hackuva time up there. I was fresh out of high school and on my own for the first time, cooking three meals a day for kids out of central Chicago. To say there were problems was an understatement, but those ten weeks were still a lot of fun. I never thought I’d do such a thing again.

So it was strange this past May 6th for me, a 53-year-old man, to head out at 7 in the morning to drive five hours to an amusement park in central Indiana, driving away from my wife, kids and grandkids, to what was supposed to be only a 100-day position running a 50-year-old restaurant at the park. Getting there at noon, there was a Sysco truck waiting, along with the people I’d spend the whole summer with. We spent the next eight hours putting things away and starting prep for the Mother’s Day Brunch on the 10th.

Things rarely slowed down in Monticello after that.


The Skyroom dining room on the morning of August 16, 2015.

The Skyroom Restaurant at Indiana Beach Amusement Resort had an elegance over its five decades, serving Shrimp Cocktail, Prime Rib, Steaks, Salmon, Cobb Salads, even a Chateaubriand for Two. The various Chefs over the years would do Luau buffets with whole roast pig, Pasta Nights with fresh pasta dishes being made at an impromptu station in the glass-walled dining room overlooking the park, and many other special events. By the time I got there this past May tastes had, of course, changed. Diners don’t select dishes like Chateaubriand at amusement parks anymore, and we served fewer Shrimp Cocktails than ever. We still did some Pasta Nights and Luaus, but more burgers, steaks and salmon. The porkchops were alright, but when we ended up with some seriously nicer ones for a special they did better. The Skyroom has more of a “pub” feel now, which is fine. It’s still a great place to eat.

As the location is an amusement park people would come from all over to work there. Of course the locals and college kids came and went as staff, but there was an international program as well, pulling in staff from Jordan, Romania, and many other countries. Our own Jenelle Solomon, a vegetarian from St. Elizabeth, “the bread basket of Jamaica”, was there for her fifth season, grilling the best salmon and steaks anyone had ever tasted while honestly never trying them herself. Jesus “Chewy” Dominguez had come up from outside Mexico City for his 21st season this summer, and could cook up just about anything you asked him to. When he made Cream of Mushroom Soup this summer for the first time ever, just guessing the recipe while using fresh mushrooms and heavy cream with 36% milkfat, the result was astonishing.

But the real backbone of the Skyroom, the man who was there for most of the restaurant’s existence so far, was Chef Buddha. Robert M. “Buddha” White had started working at Indiana Beach out on the piers at the tender age of 13. This was his 47th year at the park, most of them spent moving up through the ranks in the Skyroom until he was appropriately named as Chef. But that’s not all he did … He was also a county Sheriff’s Deputy for 34 of those years, along with being SWAT Team Commander, while spending every summer at the Skyroom. To say he was a proud and hard worker is an extreme understatement.

When I first met Chef Buddha in May I watched as the entire staff, those who had been there many years themselves, treated him like gold. I instantly understood the serious respect he had earned over the years from everyone around him. And when my wife showed up for her first of many visits to the park on May 22nd, Chef Buddha took the time to sit down with her in the dining room for a long and friendly chat.

One of the things I’d heard many times from Chef Buddha was that he had wished he and I had met earlier. We shared lot of similar interests and, as he was only six years my senior, a lot of common experiences outside of our work areas. And as I’ve developed a keen interest as an amateur food historian, he told me it was nice to have someone to discuss the Skyroom’s history with.

Early in the 2015 season I’d heard about an older special, the Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles, that was apparently last served during the 2008 season. On June 5th I asked Chef Buddha about this dish. He replied it was in his head, and had simply never been written down. The Spackman’s had founded the park in 1926, and the Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles special was a Spackman family recipe that was then tweaked by Chef Buddha and an earlier Chef Dave via discussions, nothing more. So I promptly asked for it. As you can see in the above photo, he wrote it down, taking over an hour to cover an entire page with the details.

After writing the recipe down for me, Chef Buddha told us Tom Spackman had the following policy: “You only serve peas on Sunday, and you’d better have peas on Sunday, and you only serve peas with this dish.” It turns out Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles had defined Sunday in the older iterations of the Skyroom. It’s the kind of tradition the Skyroom’s caretakers and diners had drifted away from over the years. Without realizing it, I was just as guilty as any of them. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful those days will return.

As he was becoming quite ill, we saw less and less of Chef Buddha as the season went on, and by mid-August he had stopped coming to the Skyroom. In late September I received a text from his phone, a photo sent by his longtime girlfriend Kathy, showing them getting married on September 20th. We lost Chef Buddha to cancer on October 3rd. I was in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when Kathy sent me the news that morning. I cried like a baby.

When I think about it, I realize I had only known Chef Buddha for a couple of months. It’s amazing the kind of impact some people can have on your life over a very short period of time. There are people I proudly say are more like family to me. Chef Buddha is near the top of that list.

My wife and I have discussed my getting a Buddha figurine for the fireplace, with it wearing a Chef’s toque. It seems only fitting.

Merry Christmas, Chef Buddha. I’ll see ya’ later.

Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles Special
Chef Robert M. “Buddha” White, June 5, 2015

Ingredients
5 lb ½” diced white chicken
1-1/2 gal 2% milk
4-1/2 qt 36% heavy cream
Extra wide egg noodles (aka “butter noodles”)
Fresh basil
½ lb cornstarch
Chicken base to taste
Cold water
Peas, frozen
Mashed potatoes, hot
Chicken gravy, hot

Method: Thaw and heat the diced chicken in a 4″ full-size hotel pan. Sprinkle chopped fresh basil over the chicken and set aside. Also, make a slurry with the cornstarch and cold water and set aside as well.

Combine the milk and cream in a heavy-bottom pot. Add enough chicken base to get a golden color and good chicken flavor. While stirring often, cook over medium-high heat to just before boiling. Slowly add the slurry while constantly whisking until thickened. Remove from heat immediately.

Pour the thickened cream sauce over the chicken, cover with plastic film and foil, and keep hot in the steam table. Also cook the green peas al dente and keep them hot separately. Cook egg noodles (aka “butter noodles”) to 80%, drain, rinse with cold water, and keep cold.

To Serve: Rejuvenate noodles in pasta pot. Place scoop of hot mashed potatoes at one end of an oval plate, off-center. Ladle heated chicken gravy over potatoes. Put egg noodles on plate diagonally, and ladle the chicken mixture over the noodles. Serve with green peas on end of the plate next to the mashed potatoes.

Buffet Style: Prepare cream sauce and egg noodles as described. Cook green peas till al dente. Combine cream sauce, noodles and green peas. Present on buffet in 4″ full-size hotel pan.

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