The chef, his mom and the latke: a Hanukkah story
The Foundry's Eric Greenspan riffs on holiday tradition, swapping short ribs for brisket and spicing up the doughnuts.
AROMATIC: Eric Greenspan fills light doughnuts with a mixture of persimmons, sugar and spices. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Mother and son are in the kitchen of her immaculate two-story apartment, banging dishes and arguing happily about whether to use the food processor to grate the root vegetables for the latkes. "Use a box grater, Ma," says Greenspan. "That's what they did in Roman times!"
"The Maccabees didn't have electricity," says Marilyn Springer as she assembles the machine.
"They had God on their side!" yells Greenspan, deftly reorganizing his mother's counters as he calibrates the ingredients for the three-course meal.
Greenspan is a charismatic man, with a big, low-slung presence and a loud personality that can distract you (is it a diversionary tactic?) from his considerable intelligence. His high decibels ("Too many Slayer concerts as a kid") come in handy in the Foundry's clattering, cramped kitchen. And even in his mother's serene place, the bluster seems part of a familiar routine.
As Springer stirs the bowl of grated root vegetables -- the carrots, russet potatoes, red onions and roasted beets turning a gorgeous deep mauve in her bowl -- she adds a little egg, a little flour. "I don't know what your recipe is," she says, reaching for more flour.
"Ma, it's a latke!" Greenspan shouts.
But Greenspan knows latkes. Yes, it's important to achieve the right consistency in the raw mixture: You either have to squeeze the moisture out of the grated potatoes before you combine them with the other vegetables, or you can add flour to absorb the moisture (that's what he does).
But the real secret to great latkes, he says, is frying them at a high enough temperature, using a neutral oil that has a high smoking point, such as grape seed or canola oil. The high temperature prevents the latkes from getting oily or mushy; instead, their edges fry into gorgeous filigrees.
Greenspan doesn't use a thermometer: He tests oil with a sprinkle of water, first getting his hands wet, mostly drying them off, then flicking a few lingering drops into the pan. (First he flicks a few drops of water at his mother, who makes a face at him.) When the oil starts to crackle, it's ready. (As this can cause dangerous splattering, we recommend using food scientist Shirley Corriher's method: When the oil starts to shimmer, drop in a small cube of bread. If it fries up golden-brown, the oil is ready.)
Greenspan likes to conceptualize flavors, to mix and match them in his head when he's coming up with any dish. Riffing on latkes, he says, is the perfect way to "raise the bar" on traditional food. So to the classic combo of potatoes and onions, he adds carrots and beets. But he doesn't just add shredded raw beets; he takes the extra step of roasting them first to intensify the flavor.
After flavor, he considers texture, balance, proportion. "There are five senses," he says. "Taste is the most important, but it's the last one you use" when you dine. That's why the latkes must be perfectly crisp -- with a bit of give in the middle. When you pick up one of Greenspan's latkes, you'll hear a faint crackle before you taste it.
On the road to Paris
GREENSPAN was born in New Jersey, and his family moved to California when he was 9; he grew up in Fullerton, high school in Calabasas, a business degree from UC Berkeley. He worked as a short-order cook through college and credits meals at nearby Chez Panisse for spurring his decision to "trade chicken eggs for quail eggs."
Upon graduation, he turned down his parents' offer of a car ("I'd just sell it") and instead persuaded them to spring for culinary school -- at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. "Why not work it?" Greenspan says. "Why not be as technically sound as you can be?"
He then spent four years cooking in New York -- at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Bouley and Union Pacific -- and did a "stage" at El Bulli in Spain. Back home in L.A. in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he worked for Joachim Splichal for two years, becoming executive chef at Patina, then spent a few high-stress months at Meson G.
After he and Meson G's owners parted ways, Greenspan spent a year and a half scouting for a restaurant of his own. Meanwhile, he taught at the Kitchen Academy in Hollywood, where he met his current business partner. They opened the Foundry a year ago. The restaurant -- at once lively, intimate and loud -- perfectly captures Greenspan's personality. And his cooking there seems more casual than it actually is. His gnocchi dish, for example, looks like potato gnocchi in a little white sauce studded with ham. Simple, right?
But Greenspan roasts the potatoes on a bed of salt (to leech out as much moisture as possible), enriches the Mornay sauce with butternut squash purée and makes the ham himself (it's duck ham, house-cured for three weeks). He refuses to write down the gnocchi recipe (if you use a recipe, he says, you'll get too much flour). Not so simple.
Back to those latkes. Greenspan presses the center of frying pancake with his fingers to see if it's crisp yet, urging his mother to do the same.