Watching television isn’t one of my favorite pastimes, especially if it is a reality show. Reality shows seem to include way too much drama. However, a few years ago, Food Network introduced The Next Food Network Star, and I was intrigued. Watching people with various food backgrounds compete as chefs and tv personalities for the chance to have their own show- I was hooked.
As of last night, the current season of Food Network Star, (apparently marketing decided to drop “Next”) has reduced its group of contenders from fifteen to four. Among the original group of fifteen was Justin Balmes, who has worked in almost every area of the food world, from line cook to executive chef to butcher to fishmonger. Unfortunately, he was eliminated from the show on the fourth episode.
I was able to speak with Justin about his advice for home cooks and his plans for the future.
TT: Having watched Food Network Star, your food was always prepared impeccably. What is the best piece of advice you can offer to home cooks who want to prepare meals as well?
JB: Keep things simple. Be thoughtful in your ingredient selection and prepare them with respect.
TT: Most of our readers aren’t trained chefs. What cooking techniques should they learn in order to improve their cooking?
JB: I firmly believe that if readers are genuinely interested in cooking good food they need to research and practice. This could be as simple as paying attention to menu descriptions, then going home and researching said ingredients and cooking techniques. Example: Pan Roasted Scallops or Braised Short Ribs. The information is out there and readily accessible; you just need to make the effort. Additionally, readers can seek out local cooking classes which more often than not offer a comprehensive basic skills class covering everything from various knife cuts, sauces, cooking techniques, etc.
TT: As a butcher and fishmonger, are there certain fish and cuts of meat that are easier to prepare for a non-chef?
JB: With regards to cuts/types of fish, I would say to have readers stick to Round Fish (example: Salmon/Grouper) fillets before branching out to Flat Fish (example: Sole/Flounder). Generally speaking, Round Fish fillets are a good bit heartier and can handle improper cooking far better than the often very delicate texture of Flat Fish fillets. In this case practice makes perfect. Whole Roasted Fish is for the most part a “safe” dish to prepare. Obviously when selecting a Whole Fish ask for a little input from the Monger as to which fish lend themselves well to this cooking method and make sure they properly clean/scale your selected fish. One of my personal favorites is a Small Striped Bass with a well salted/peppered skin and stuffed with Fennel, Shaved Garlic, Shallot, Lemon Slices, Flat Leaf Parsley and EVOO. Roast at 375 until done (cook time is relative to the size/weight of fish). Clearly there are some bones to navigate but well worth it in the end!
As far as Meats go… I generally prefer the “cheaper” cuts and for a few reasons: 1. They are cheaper! 2. They generally require a little more love with their respective cuts and cooking methods; a good Butcher should be able to provide a plethora of information on both. I personally enjoy the following (Grass Fed when available): Chuck Eye Steak, Flat Iron Steak, Short Ribs, Chuck Roast and Brisket as far as Beef goes. Though as a treat, I love a good crusted Iron Skillet seared Bone-In Grass Fed Ribeye! Pork: Butt, Shoulder, Country Style Ribs, Bone In Loin (towards the neck), Sirloin, Belly, Jowls, Trotters, Ham/Picnic just to name a few! I also really appreciate high quality Lamb & Bison. There again, ask your Butcher. Also, as stated above there is a TON of information online Cuts/Recipes/Cooking Techniques and Pairings.
Just about anyone can pick up an expensive steak whether a Ribeye or the always popular Tenderloin (sadly, which I don’t personally care for due to cost and lack of flavor) and throw it on the grill with little worry or need of much skill. Get involved in your cooking and don’t just take the easy route! You will impress your guests far more by demonstrating skill and knowledge than some run of the mill steak.
TT: What dish has a lot of wow factor but actually could be mastered at home?
JB: I would say braised pork belly in a pressure cooker then crisped in a hot skillet and finished in the oven. Sounds complex but truthfully with practice it isn’t that difficult! There are many flavor options as well as complementary pairings (sides/sauces/beverages) to go along with.
TT: Now a little bit about you: What are your future plans? Will you return to chef work, write a cookbook?
JB: I have just recently signed with the Lisa Ekus Group (www.lisaekus.com) and have begun working with Melissa Libby (www.melissalibbypr.com) for PR/promotion. That said, the sky is the limit! I am interested in teaching, charity/fundraising work, appearance/group presentation work, consulting: menu development/staff training/putting systems in place, etc., and I am absolutely going write/produce cookbooks through the help of Sally Ekus of the Ekus Group Literary Division. I have a lot of wonderful and very tasty recipes for beautiful food, and I want to share them!
TT: What was the best part about your Food Network Star experience?
JB: Aside from the experience as a whole including everything from meeting and cooking for celebrities, especially the chefs, I love the exposure that the show got me, and I met some amazing people, both cast and production. I knew from the beginning that my life would never be the same (99% in a good way!) I have been working toward and professionally preparing myself for just such an opportunity for many years, and I am now seeing my dreams come to life. This is a very exciting time for me right now and through the help my new professional alliances, along with my own drive and ambition (and great need for a creative outlet!) I intend to make the absolute most of it!