Getting Close, personal and confidential with Chef de Cuisine at Bistro du Marché: Miguel Baez
Chef Miguel Baez was recently promoted Chef de Cuisine. The following conversation and interview is meant to unveil his persona.
Sylvie: You just accepted the promotion to Chef de Cuisine at Bistro du Marché, and I see you evolving in the kitchen, you’re a so cool. What is your secret?
Miguel: One day at a time. I’m not going to stress myself over it. At least, I try not to. I’m too young to be stressing.
Sylvie: May be passionate too. You have an atypical career path, please I am curious to develop this with you.
Miguel: I went to school in Pennsylvania for two years. I got my degree in culinary arts and restaurant management. I accomplished a three months externship at Per Se in New York City with Thomas Keller.
Carla: What was that experience like?
Miguel: It was “awesomely awful”. This means great. They work you seventeen hours a day for free, but it’s something that has to be done. I remember when I first started; I was calling my mom crying “I don’t want to do this anymore” She was answering, “Come on, you already started it, you’ve got to finish it.” It was a long, hard learning experience, living in New York City. I got robbed; my wallet, my phone were stolen. I arrived at the restaurant and explained my situation. They offered me money to go home, in order for me to start getting my ID back. Also, one of the employees was Dominican like me. He took me under his wing and I worked with him a lot. Learning a lot of little details, and attention to detail adds up.
Sylvie: So, did you ever get a chance to work directly with Thomas Keller?
Miguel: Rarely. He’s there every now and then, but he doesn’t really cook, he makes his rounds.
Sylvie: It intrigues me that they have a satellite communication system in the kitchen. How does this work with the kitchen staff?
Miguel: There is a satellite in the middle of the pass. The Chef de Cuisine and the Sous Chef stay at the pass, and everything that is cooked goes there to be plated. Right there was a TV, and it’s a satellite link to the French Laundry in Napa Valley. You can see, in real time. When I first started working there, I was coming in at six in the morning and in Napa Valley, it was three in the morning, the kitchen was closed and there was no one there. But, by nine o’clock, there were cooks coming in. When we were starting the service, they were still in the middle of prep, and when we were finishing the service, they were just about to begin their service. So, there was an East-West communication between the two kitchens. It was pretty cool to see their whole kitchen, and that they could see us too.
Sylvie: That’s neat… please tell us about your roots.
Miguel: I’m originally from the Dominican Republic.
Carla: Were you born and raised there?
Miguel: Born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Both my parents are really good cooks. My dad owns a restaurant that has been passed on from my grandpa, and it’s been in the family for a long time.
When I was like a little kid, I used to come home from elementary school, then go to the restaurant in the middle of the city, and take my little nap. All the customers knew me.I was really young. At the bar I put together three high chairs and sleeping there until time to go home.
Carla: I remember being sick when I was a toddler and stay at the restaurant during the day. It’s definitely fun growing up in a restaurant.
Miguel: Oh yes. But then came the time I started cooking. I cooked with both my mom and my dad. It’s a different experience. With my mom, it is cooking anything with anything, spontaneous. My mom never went to a culinary school. In the Dominican Republic, it was hotel management and there were some culinary classes.
I also cooked with my dad. It is what you grow up with, it is what you’ve seen during your life. It’s what you’re used to.
Sylvie: What is the base of the food in the Dominican Republic?
Miguel: Farmland: It’s a lot of vegetables, and an island too, so a lot of seafood.
Sylvie: Make us dream. What type of seafood?
Miguel: We have tropical flavors, like sugarcane, citrus fruits; we cook a lot with oranges and lemons, a lot of passion fruit. That’s our flavors: Clean, citrusy, full flavors, nothing too heavy. We also have root vegetables such as yucca, and a lot of plantains, which are big and hearty vegetables. Those are the biggest things in our country, plantains. When plantains are green, they’re really nice and savory, and when they start getting ripe, they go from a bright green to yellowish to black.
The yellower and the darker it gets, the sweeter it gets, these cannot be eaten raw. It’s just too starchy, it needs to be cooked. We use a lot of tomato base and a lot of meats, and it’s just simple food, not very layered.
Sylvie: Being on an island must be a dream for fish eaters. What fish do you find the most?
Miguel: We eat a lot of river crabs; we call them mero, also tigre. The language is different. The fish is deep fried whole. The Dominicans love to marinate. They marinate for days. We work with fresh products. When you go towards the beach, there are little stands or tiny restaurants, they love to marinate fish for days with oregano, lemon, and it’s marinating there, and that’s the typical way they eat the fish. It’s a whole different culture.
There are fishermen selling oysters and various fish onsite at the beach. You see them walking and approaching you with this super fresh fish. Oysters are not cold-chilled. They just came out of the ocean. It’s fresher than if it was served on a platter with ice. Every one lives differently, it’s a slower pace.
Sylvie: So, what about meat?
Miguel: A lots of goat, chicken, beef. One of the popular dishes we have is called puerco con puya. It’s a Christmas tradition. The pigs are raised in an organic way. During festive period, we feed them with aromatics such as oregano or thyme, wild cilantro mixed with their food. Also using different spices in little amounts and pigs eat seasoned food. They are slowly getting seasoned from the inside. The pigs are roasted on fire slowly turned for about 13-14 hours, That’s a cultural tradition during Christmastime festivities.
Sylvie: So, what about wine? Or beer? May be root beer? Certainly Rum?
Miguel: Well, in the Dominican Republic, we do not consume a lot of wine. We have our staple rums, which is Brugal, and we also have Barceló. I’m a huge rum fanatic, when I see the Bacardi here, This is a no to me. In France is known for wine. We have one beer that everybody loves, and two types of rum that everybody loves. Of course, we have everything that every other country has.
Sylvie: I guess that leaves wine to be imported. From what country?
Miguel: Mainly South American wines, Argentina, Chile. They mainly import from the south.
Sylvie: What is your cooking forte? Fish or meat?
Miguel: Both. I love cooking vegetables. I feel that vegetables are the most important part of the plate. When you have a piece of meat, it’s just a piece of meat; it is just one element of the dish. You can have seven different vegetables that all need to be cooked differently. That’s where it shows if you are able to cook or not. Anyone can cook meat, even by luck. But a vegetable, you have a lot of different kinds, a carrot takes like five minutes, asparagus takes three, spinach takes twenty seconds. That’s where I can tell if somebody knows how to cook or not. That’s where people need to be paying attention, you know what I mean? But when cooking vegetables, It needs to be fresh all the time. Meats? You prep them, but they’re not hard to cook.
Carla: Are there any vegetables that were like a culture shock to you when you came here?
Miguel: I’d never seen before crones. They look like little maggots, but they’re like a root vegetable. I had never worked with salsify before or rutabagas, These are rarely seen, but they’re really interesting.
Sylvie: So, do you have a mentor?
Miguel: Yeah, myself.
Sylvie: You’re so cool, seriously!
Miguel: I mean me. I’m really true to myself. I’m not trying to sound rude or anything, but like, if Jean-Michel tells me to do something I’ve never done before, I’ll do it, but the next time, well, there’s a lot of new technologies that weren’t around before that came out, new ingredients that are out. So why would we try to do it the same way it’s been done for one-hundred years? I’m always trying to switch it up. I’m big on that. I’m true to myself, if I mess something up, I’ll be honest and say I messed up. So, in mentors, I feel like they teach you the way, but it’s up to you. They tell you which way to go, but it’s up to you to decide if you go in the same direction or not..
Sylvie: Mentors are like more fascination with someone. You’re fascinated with the way they do something, and they’re kind of teaching you.
Miguel: So, if I admire somebody? It would be would be Ferran Adrià. He’s a Spanish chef. He was the chef of El lBulli, which is where I wanted to go, but it closed. I mean, there are a lot of people I admire, René Redzepi, from Copenhagen. People that are changing the way people are looking at food. I’m young, I like the classics, they taste good, but I’m always looking for the next bigger new thing.
Sylvie: You feel you are more of an autodidact.
Miguel: In a way.
Carla: What do you think about the cult of personality around chefs like on the Food Network?
Miguel: What do I think about those celebrity chefs? If you look at a guy that goes on TV and tells you “Hey, tonight we’re cooking this.” What makes you think he knows how to cook? He probably read the recipe and made it one hundred times and put it on TV. If you see him try it—the food is so hot—don’t tell me you tasted that, it probably burnt your mouth! You don’t even know what it tastes like. Sometimes you see them put a little bit of salt, when actually it should be more, and they comment “Oh, it’s so good”. Fool, you needed more salt on that.
Sylvie: Do you remember the chef…”Bam!”
Miguel: Emeril Lagasse. I was not a fan neither. Those guys just made their money on TV. They can cook, I have to give it to them, obviously they have restaurants. But, once you reach that level, I mean, that’s why I admire René Redzepi – he’s the best chef in the world right now—he has one restaurant, he doesn’t have a TV show. He’s been offered millions to do TV Shows, but he says “No, my life is my restaurant. I’m not here to be a celebrity”. He’s already a celebrity.
Carla: I always wonder, because like, my guilty pleasure is Chopped, and all those shows, and they go on and compete, and it’s so fun to watch, but you always wonder, are those guys for real?
Miguel: That’s the thing, if you have the desperation to be on there, you want something else than to just cook.
Sylvie: What is the best food you’ve ever had?
Miguel: Best food I ever had? That’s a good question. Everything I eat is good food. I like everything. I just like food.
Sylvie: Like, one day, your grandparents, or your father put something on the counter and you tried it and your response was “Woah!”
Miguel: There’s a lot of things that I like. There is this dish, that is called menudo, beef stomach in a stew. We call it mondongo in my country, but it’s the same thing, we just cook it differently than it is being cooked here. But I traveled a lot back and forth to the U.S. My grandma from my mom’s side lives here, every time we were coming here, she would ask me on the phone what I wanted her to cook for me. I was always asking the same thing, mondongo, which is beef stomach cooked in a stew, it’s really good. And of course, we eat it with plantains because we are Dominicans.. It’s delicious. I would say my favorite—I don’t like sweets much—I’m not a sweet guy, I don’t like that sweet flavor, but the only thing I would eat non-stop would be this dessert. You take the milk and you curdle it with orange juice and just a bit of sugar, and that’s to me, that’s heaven.
Sylvie: Before you go let me come back to that question: Do you feel you are a self taught.
Miguel: I mean, you learn from everybody. Self-taught? Yes and no. You have to learn from somebody, you can’t just teach everything to yourself. You need people’s point of views, which help a lot. I try to be fifty-fifty, I try to do a lot of research. It’s a lot of trial and error, like it’s good, but it can be better. I can ask for help.
Sylvie: So what did you bring onto the Bistro du Marché menu? I know you did.
Miguel: I feel like it’s modernizing a bit. Everything seems a little lack of color and pretty black and white, but maybe bring a little bit of spice. When I eat, I always look for that kick. I’m full, but I could go for another bite.
Sylvie: What about the appetizer Beans and octopus?
Miguel: This happened through a team teamwork. You look at the beans, and then you search for a sauce, with jalapeño in it and everybody works together.
Sylvie We are reaching the end of the interview, it’s so cool to talk to you and discover more of you.. It was a pleasure. Thank you for your time and all what you are doing at the Bistro du Marche.