A few years ago I was fortunate to spend some time in New York City on an extended working holiday, cooking and eating in some world class restaurants. One particular work placement or ‘stage’ in a very famous kitchen hadn’t entirely gone to plan. The Chef, (let’s just call him Wylie) seemed to take an instant dislike to me, perhaps I was asking too many questions and naively hoping to get involved in the main service kitchen rather than keeping my head down with the two slightly terrified Culinary Institute of America students who were also working for free in the dark, gloomy basement prep kitchen, but it was clear from the few brief exchanges I had with him that I was as welcome in the main service kitchen as Clostridium Difficile.
Back downstairs I resolved to knuckle down and get on with meat slicing blocks of frozen squid for hours on end or whatever other heinous task that Juan, the unnervingly troglodyte looking head prep chef gave me, I’d take my chances in the afternoon breaks to see what recipes & ideas I could pinch to make it worth my while.
On day three of my week long placement I was tasked with quickly turning some Wagu beef trim into burgers for the pre-service staff dinner. In my fatigued & by now slightly disillusioned state I managed to mis-assemble the industrial meat grinder which when switched on instantly made a spine shivering, metal on metal crunking sound followed by a deafening bang as the solid cast iron mincing attachment shattered onto the counter. I’m pretty sure the sound of this catastrophic mechanical failure was heard by anyone within 3 blocks of the restaurant. Wylie however, as my misfortune would have it, was at that very moment standing at the door of the prep kitchen barely five feet away, we locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity in a moment forever scarred into my psyche. Wylie never uttered a word, his look said it all
“I……I’ll get my coat”
I had 5 days until my flight back to the UK, I’d already done plenty of sight-seeing (I highly recommend Grandmaster Caz’s Old School Hip Hop tour of Harlem & the Bronx) in between my other, significantly more successful, work placements so I felt the need to somehow make the most constructive use of the time I had left in the Big Apple
I knew finding another restaurant to take me on at short notice was going to be a challenge, my other gigs had all been carefully arranged months in advance of my trip. After a fruitless morning trudging the streets of Manhattan between the restaurants I’d frantically googled the previous night I had an idea- There was a restaurant near Washington Square Park called ‘Babbo’, an informal Michelin starred Italian place that every afternoon people queued around the block to get a table at- it was owned by one of Marco Pierre white's protégés Mario Batali, his head prep-chef was a woman called Elisa Sarno , I already knew all of this as I’d been reading a book given to me by my brother the previous Christmas called Heat, the best selling detailed account of former 'New Yorker Magazine' editor Bill Buford’s experience quitting his day job to spend a year as an unpaid intern in the Babbo kitchen. With nothing to lose I arrived at the restaurant just after lunch- knocked on the door and blurted out my plight to a confused looking young chef who had answered the door, how I had traveled all the way from the UK and could I please, please come & work for a few days in the kitchen? Another uncomfortable silence/stare-off ensued, but I detected a look of confusion rather than Wylie’s death stare from the previous evening.
‘Is Elisa in?’ I confidently asked
The young chef pointed to a barely discernible figure in the distance descending the steps into the 9th Street subway. I turned and immediately sprinted after her, finally catching up with her at the turnstiles. Again, (but this time with more sweating & panting), I pleaded for the chance to spend a few days working in her kitchen. After a moment looking me up and down trying to figure out what this random Englishman was doing chasing her into a subway, she politely smiled
‘I’m sorry, that’s not really something we can do’
But then, somehow my instant look of genuine dejection together with bent over exhaustion from my sudden uncharacteristic burst of athleticism must have combined to give a sufficiently pathetic site for her to take pity, her composure momentarily softened,
‘7am tomorrow, don’t be late’
I was in.
My three days at Babbo could not have contrasted more with my previous gig. I was boning & stuffing breasts of veal, rolling fresh pasta, filleting fresh snapper & finishing sauces and surrounded the most amazing Italian & local market produce, ramps, garlic scapes, all kinds of charcuterie I’d never heard of.
The fact that I had travelled all the way from the UK just to work there carried well with the chefs, this was after all partially true, I’d travelled from the UK I just hadn’t had the idea to work at Babbo until I was already out there, a trivial detail I didn’t see the need to correct. After my final shift, the night before I travelled home I was given a seat at the bar whilst the head chef brought out course by course the entire 12 course tasting menu with additional courses he wanted me to try thrown in for good measure, breadcumbed tripe, osso bucco, herb roasted porcini.. it was a truly memorable few days for so many reasons and an experience I’ll never forget.
The very first Job Elisa gave me was to trim & marinate a case of beef onglet, (Americans call it ‘Hangar Steak’), a really simple recipe that I brought back with me that always reminds me of my brief time at Babbo. It became a staple dish on my restaurant’s menu for many years after.
Onglet is technically offal, in that it is usually removed along with the heart, kidneys, oxtail & liver at the time of slaughter and not hung to age with the carcass. It is attached to the diaphragm and surrounded by kidney fat, bright red & full of iron, onglet is particularly suited to marinating and its thick muscle fibres mean it is best grilled quickly to a bloody rare to prevent it drying out making it perhaps a serious carnivores cut of beef, its sometimes called the ‘butcher’s steak’ as there is only one per carcass the butcher would often take home the steak for himself.
This recipe pictured uses grass fed Dexter beef from my family’s farm in Yorkshire. Grass fed beef in good mixed pasture tend to forage naturally & mature slowly with incredible flavour. Wherever you source your beef may need to ask your butcher in advance for Onglet, (sometimes called Skirt in the UK) as it’s not the most common of cuts.
Herb marinated Dexter onglet with a red wine & smoked oyster sauce
Recipe (Serves 2)
1-2 Onglet ( depending on size, dexters are much smaller than most other cattle)
For the marinade
1 Bunch of thyme, picked
6 Sprigs of rosemary, picked
4 Cloves of garlic, peeled & chopped
250ml Olive oil
For the sauce
200ml Good quality beef stock, fresh is best as it will contain natural gelatine to help thicken the sauce
1 Bottle of full bodied red wine
1 200g Tin of smoked oysters, roughly chopped
50g Unsalted butter
With a sharp filleting knife, remove the thin strip of sinew that runs along the length of each onglet and trim off any excess fat- you can always ask your butcher to do this for you, this will turn each onglet into two separate steaks
Blend together the marinade ingredients to a pesto like consistency and pour over the steaks in a shallow container, turn the steaks over to make sure they are well coated
Marinate ideally for at least an hour or two in the fridge.
A large thick skillet or decent grill pan is ideal, as hot as you can get it. Add a little oil to the pan before colouring the steaks all over using cooking tongs for 3-5 minutes depending on size, you’re aiming for a dark crispy exterior, season the steaks with a little salt & pepper and remove from the pan to rest.
To make the sauce, add the beef stock & a glass of red wine to the frying pan & reduce on a low simmer, scrape the pan whilst stirring to get all the roast flavours mixing in with the sauce. When the sauce is starting to thicken slightly whisk in the butter and finally add the chopped smoked oysters, add a little salt & pepper to your taste.
To serve, slice the onglet into strips and pour over a little of the sticky red wine & smoked oyster sauce, perhaps serve with some chunky cut chips & fresh watercress, some fresh béarnaise and a glass or 2 of the left over red wine. Hope you enjoy!