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Featured Chef: Q&A with Chef John Cartwright

Group Chef de Cuisine, Grace Hotels, and Executive Chef, The White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport, ME
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In our exclusive Q&A below, Cartwright discusses his philosophy on “staying local” and the fun and challenges of creating global restaurant menus.

You've said that you believe that in today's world there is more science to cooking. Can you elaborate?

Understanding science is important in today’s cuisine, particularly as you prepare foods using more modern techniques. Many chefs today are educated in different fields, not just in [the culinary arts]. That and new technologies have changed how we are able to prepare dishes. As we know more about coagulation and proteins, we can cook better. For example, now we know the advantages of cooking at low temperatures—slow-braising at a low temperature helps vacuum-seal the flavor.

Describe the menu at the White Barn Inn's restaurant.

Our menu is updated weekly to highlight the freshest ingredients of the season and the flavors of the area. We use local ingredients, so much of the inspiration comes from what is available. The menu is seafood oriented, but we offer a variety of dishes. In America, food, wine and the entire dining experience is now an event. More and more people expect to find something strange or different on menus. To appeal to these diners, we have our tasting menu, where we offer more unusual items. This menu does very well.

The February menu featured a "Greek Romance" menu. What’s behind this menu?

Greek Romance month is tied to the owners of Grace Hotels, who are Greek. The properties in Greece close in the winter, so the owners bring those chefs here and offer special Greek-inspired menus and wines throughout February. There is also a vacation giveaway raffle—the winner receives a trip to one of Grace Hotel’s Greek properties.

Muse by Jonathan Cartwright at the Vanderbilt Grace in Newport, R.I., is opening in June. How will the cuisine at Muse differ from the White Barn Inn restaurant?

The environment shapes the restaurant. The style and technique are similar—both are high-end, fine-dining restaurants with similar quality and service standards. But local offerings will determine what we have on the menu at Muse, which will differ from the local offerings at the White Barn Inn. We will be catering to a clientele that is comparable to WBI so we don’t want to deviate too far, but we will tweak Muse’s menu and it will have its own unique signature dishes.

Will the menu at Muse be refreshed weekly as well?

We will refresh the menu as often as possible—definitely seasonally, but we are aiming for weekly changes.

As the recently appointed Group Chef de Cuisine for the Grace Hotels [December 2010], you are now responsible for creating the menus at all of the new Grace properties around the world. What are the challenges in creating menus for a global restaurant business?

The key is having the philosophy of staying local—that is, focusing on local foods. You need good staff who understands what you want, what you are looking for, can buy into cooking local and can execute on those guidelines. The challenges are immense so, in addition to a great staff, you need good customer feedback. The challenges don’t stop coming, so customer feedback is important in helping shape the style of a menu.

Have you begun creating menus for the restaurants in the Grace Hotels that are currently in development?

Panama Grace Hotel is scheduled to open in mid-2012 and will be a more brasserie-style, casual restaurant with signature Panama seasonings, spices and flavors. The Argentina Grace Hotel is scheduled to open at the end of 2012. It will have a small fine-dining restaurant similar to Muse, and a casual, al fresco restaurant that is more robust and traditional. It will feature grilled items and empanadas. We are developing some signature dishes that will be available at Grace Hotels around the world, but the restaurants menus will focus on regional offerings—we don’t want to import too much from around the world. Want to stay as local and regional as possible.

Do you have a favorite ingredient with which you like to cook?

All seafood, but I enjoy trying new ingredients. Fiddlehead ferns are some of my favorite ingredients to use. They are great in soups or with seafood and lamb, and can be blanched and served with butter. Fiddlehead ferns have a very short season—before they blossom.

If you could suggest one food everyone should try in their lifetime, what would it be?

Any local food from a specific region—it’s always best there. If you’re in the Northeast coast of England, try the fish and chips—fantastic! In Alba, Italy, it’s the truffles. In Kennebunkport, it’s lobster—the coastal setting with the smell of the ocean in the air, the lobster is fresh out of the ocean and has so much flavor. There’s nowhere better for lobster than here.

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