18 Jan Chef Greg Martin on Finding Inspiration: Travel and Food
One of the primary reasons I travel is to get new perspectives, to see how other people live, how they interact and to observe the ins and outs of other cultures including their food.
Some of my favorite destinations are France, Italy and Spain. I really appreciate their reverence for food and family, something I hold dear as well. My inspiration for opening Bistro Menil and the menu I developed came directly from the classic European food and wine that I experienced in my many travels.
I have often found inspiration in various dishes, sometimes humbly presented but delicious. I’ve often gotten lost during a meal wondering how I could improve on them or give them a different slant that was more pleasing to my palate. Those are the dishes that I ended up modifying and hopefully improving upon while still staying somewhat true to their origin and heritage. Here are three of my favorites.
After a dusty day touring the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain. We stumbled upon a non-descript eatery, Meson Juan Pena at the end of avenue Dr. Fleming. We ordered pretty much everything on the menu including a spiced cardoon that was spectacular and just when we couldn’t eat anymore we ordered the fried eggplant, then we ordered it again. The great eggplant taste was there, battered and fried. My mind raced on how I could improve on the dish. When I got home I began tinkering with various formulations and focused in on two key aspects. Making the eggplant lighter and crispier and even more flavorful. After much toil, I found the answer: rice flour and a lemon infused coating. It has become one of Bistro Menil’s best selling food items.
I’m beginning to see fried eggplant in other Houston eateries and wonder if their inspiration and toil was the same as mine.
Hunter’s Stew (Bistro Menil’s Cassoulet)
While visiting Provence in 2014 with my niece and her husband we rented an apartment in Arles that happened to be next to a shop selling everything duck, including roasted duck breast. Finding other key ingredients, I decided to cook cassoulet. It turned out to be one of our best meals on the trip and it inspired me to make my “Hunter’s stew”. Using duck confit and venison sausage, I gave this classic French dish a bit of a French-Texas twist. Although not a classic French cassoulet, “Hunter’s stew” is a Texas cousin with a nod to our wild game hunting heritage.
Quiche with a lighter crust
While staying near Luxembourg Gardens in Paris a few years ago, I stopped by a bright and popular eatery, Bread and Roses, that featured lighter fare including various quiches served with a side salad. What struck me was the excellent crusts that held all the quiche contents in place, a bit thick but exactly what I imagined could elevate a quiche with a few changes. I felt it needed a bit of finesse and delicacy to meld better with the quiche ingredients. When I got home, after much trial and tribulation, I was able to formulate a crust that was both crisp and tender and able to hold the structure of the quiche. I also worked on a salad dressing and developed a classic French vinaigrette using walnut oil and Dijon mustard that I thought married better with the mixed greens that accompany the quiche. The inspiration was great, but I feel I was able to improve upon it and make it more of my own.
America is a big melting pot and part of what is so good about that has to be the foods people bring from their homelands that often become part of Americana. When traveling and eating abroad I feel that as a chef I can add to that melting pot by introducing a tweak, improvement, sometimes a re-invention of those dishes, perhaps adding to our own culinary vocabulary.
Tell us what food travels have inspired you and what dishes you have made your own. Thanks!
Meson Juan Pena, Av. Dr. Fleming, 1, 14004 Córdoba, Spain
Bread and Roses, 25 Rue Boissy d’Anglas, 75008 Paris, France