A few months ago, I attended the Small Bites Hudson Valley Restaurant Week wrap-up party hosted by chef Peter Kelly at Restaurant X, his restaurant in Congers. [Note from Liz: A post on that party will be coming up next week!]
The evening exceeded all expectations with (what else?) mega foodie conversations, a superb array of nibbles, and more than a few of Hudson Valley’s talented chefs. What impressed me the most about chef Kelly was his easygoing and inviting manner. He immediately made me feel comfortable and relaxed. Later on in the evening, when I spoke to him about Behind the Kitchen Door, he had no problem at all with me spending a day in his kitchen at X2O in Yonkers. Indulge me just a moment while I get a little giddy — this is our homegrown celebrity chef, who is a true Iron Chef beating Bobby Flay at the grill, and who hosted Anthony Bourdain for his Hudson Valley No Reservations episode. AND I’M GOING INTO HIS KITCHEN! Wooo hooo!!! Although I’m still a tad bit overwhelmed, I am beyond thrilled to tell you all about my experience Behind the Kitchen Door at X2O.
Restaurant: X2O Xaviars on the Hudson
Description: Situated directly over the Hudson River on a turn-of-the-century Victorian pier, impressive is the only way I can describe this restaurant. On the outside, it’s an eye-catching three story structure of glass and exposed steel. On the inside, the elegant modern décor of the spacious dining room is only overshadowed by the backdrop of the sweeping views of the Hudson River in all its glory (even on the rain-soaked day I was there, I could see a fuzzy George Washington Bridge).
Cuisine: Described as Contemporary American cuisine, Peter warns that the menu’s focus is variety not fusion (or as he puts it (con)fusion). He takes classic and modern recipes and techniques and blends in French, Spanish, or Asian influences creating what he considers a New American “supercuisine”.
Executive chef/owner: I feel like I’m going to be stating the obvious here, but just in case you don’t know anything about Peter Kelly, he is the chef/owner of X2O in Yonkers and also three other restaurants in Rockland County (Xaviars at Piermont, Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers, and the Freelance Cafe and Wine Bar in Piermont) all with through-the-roof (and well deserved) ratings and accolades. I was pretty intimidated at first to sit across from this prominent local restaurateur, but it didn’t take but a minute or two to be taken in by his gracious and warm personality. Chef Kelly is just an all around nice guy who totally breaks the old adage about those types finishing last. On any given day, he can be found in one of his kitchens; he views his restaurants as his children — there are no favorites, just lots of love.
I noticed that even while he was instructing me, he was very alert to all that was going on in the kitchen. What was truly exciting was viewing him in action on the line expediting as lunch service got into high gear. There was a more serious tone, as he guided his staff to get the plates out — all of which he meticulously checked.
Chefs/staff: To accomplish a successful service for this 250-seat restaurant (it’s the largest restaurant I’ve been to so far), I realized that the kitchen staff was organized more like a brigade system where each chef has a specific task. At the lead was chef de cuisine Eric Diokno. From prepping to expediting and even personally making the family meal for all 40 of the staff, he had his hand in all aspects of the kitchen.
Across the line, there was Sam Montgomery at the sauté station, Mike McNamara on the grill station, and Steve Ryan on vegetables and starch, all working in unison to get the plates completed perfectly and on time. On the cold station was Stephanie Romero and part time culinary intern, Dequan Thomas, making the salads and some of the appetizers. Tani Furutani and Alvin Chong are in control of the sushi station, which has counter seating in the Dylan Lounge in the bar area. At the barista station, Maria Romero takes care of coffees and also breads.
For the blissfully tempting side of the menu, pastry chef Donny Acosta and two other cooks in his sweet entourage create fabulous desserts like the sky high red velvet cake or the wide selection of ice creams and sorbets like raspberry, chocolate, caramel, passion fruit, pistachio, white chocolate, coconut, melon, peach, and, of course, vanilla.
X2O has about 40 on staff split between the kitchen and front of house. What was crystal clear to me was the incredible sense of loyalty that chef Kelly has fostered in his staff, creating a pleasant atmosphere of camaraderie. The proof is in the pudding (or crème brulee as the case may be) since pastry chef Donny has been with him for 10 years (he started at the dishwashing station) or Dequan, the culinary intern, who was so pleased to be invited back for the summer.
Front of house: The front of the house staff makes each one of X2O’s customers feel special with focused attention and friendly attitudes. Chef Kelly places a big responsibility on them because he feels that service, good or bad, can be a lasting impression of a dining experience. “A less than anticipated meal can be forgiven, but bad service is remembered.”
Signature dish: The Cowboy Ribeye for Two is the most popular specifically because everyone wants to try the dish that won Peter the title of Iron Chef.
Bar scene: The Dylan Lounge is the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail or a glass of Bubble Love (my favorite!) — prosecco, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and blood orange juice.
Sit at the bar for a quick dinner or at the tables with the Hudson River surrounding you.
Around the bend from the bar, you can watch the sushi chefs at work; and directly behind them, catch a glimpse of the kitchen in action.
Size of kitchen: The kitchen on the main level is long and narrow, about 60 ft x 25 ft. Situated right below on the lower level is the prep kitchen workhorse of the X2O universe where all the butchering of meats, fish and veggies takes place and where pastry chef Donny can be found hard at work. Also on the lower level are all the walk-in refrigerators.
Turning up the heat: To accomplish evening service during the week for over 150 diners (also called “covers”) and 400 on the weekend, it’s necessary to have some heavy artillery in this kitchen. There are a total of four Jade stovetop/oven combos. One is an open six-burner with a griddle and another is a grill.
The last two are French flat tops, and to the left of them making all that steam is a pasta cooker.
An overhead broiler does double duty by using the hot flames to broil meat below and then finish the dish quickly above.
A double stacked Imperial oven completes this impressive lineup.
Coolest appliance: The Polyscience Anti-griddle is X2O’s way cool appliance — I mean 50 degrees BELOW FREEZING cool.
Actually, it’s so cool that X2O’s ice cream lollipops just received a “Best of 2012” from Westchester Magazine, and I learned exactly how they are made.
Peter described the appliance as your run of the mill pancake griddle that is set in reverse; so, instead of getting hot, the flat surface of the griddle freezes. My first thought was couldn’t they have come up with a more creative name? Interestingly enough, a quick Google search turned up that the Anti-Griddle’s development was a unique partnership between chef Grant Achatz (molecular gastronomy extraordinaire of Chicago’s Alinea and Next) and the PolyScience company, a supplier of temperature control devices to the medical industry. The simplest application was freezing a custard base into those ice cream discs for the lollipops, but Peter demonstrated how he uses the Anti-Griddle for a savory tuna sashimi dish. He freezes spicy sriracha mayo and yuzu (juice of a Japanese citrus fruit which tastes sort of like grapefruit and lime).
Then, he places tuna sashimi over the discs, garnishing with dots of caramelized soy. First bite sensation is cold which flows into a twinge of spicy heat and then onto a creamy briny finish — brilliantly delicious!
Chef’s favorite dish(es): Chef Peter Kelly finds it difficult to pick a favorite, but he tends to gravitate towards what is in season at the moment. Soft shell crabs have a short run, and what better way to enjoy them than X2O’s crispy and buttery Soft Shell Crabs with English Peas and Crab Butter.
It’s easy to understand why chef Kelly would also favor the unique Steamed Japanese Custard with Warm Shellfish Broth appetizer. Beautifully presented in an earthenware jar, it is a medley of shellfish over silky custard topped with creamy uni (the edible part of the spiny sea urchin). The dish is completed tableside as warm dashi broth (fish stock) is poured over it.
Then, there’s the classic French charcuterie plate of Pate Gran Mere with Duck and Pork. It’s a country terrine served with locally baked baguette, pickled yellow watermelon rinds and peaches and, of course, cornichons (not to be mistaken for gerkins, these are cute petite sweet French pickles).
Most complicated dish on the menu: Simply put, no dish is easy. For example, the Salad of Warm Sunchoke appetizer seems like an effortless, straightforward dish comprised of Jerusalem artichokes, ricotta cheese, and Picholine olives. Think again. Herding cats is almost as tedious as peeling the gnarly sunchokes. Because they oxidize quickly (the way apples brown), they need to be put in an acid bath, like lemon water, to keep them from discoloring. To prepare, they are cut uniformly to ensure even cooking, and browned in butter. The components of this dish are a balance of textures (crunchy pistachios, creamy ricotta), flavors (buttery sunchokes, briny olives) and temperatures (warm sunchokes, cool ricotta).
Chef’s culinary mentor/idol: Back in the late ‘70s, while I was still trying to master Duncan Hines cakes, chef Kelly was making a pilgrimage to France, the ruler of the culinary world at that time. His culinary idols were French Master Chef and restaurateur Alain Chapel, who received an unheard of rating of three Michelin stars in 1973, and Joël Robuchon, deemed “chef of the century” in 1980 and whose philosophy is that “there is no such thing as the perfect meal — you can always do better”. In the present, he talks about Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whom he considers one of the greatest chefs, along with Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert. Yet, in the same breath, he sings the praises of Dobbs Ferry’s own David DiBari and the passion he has for his craft.
Favorite kitchen gadget: If you’ve been following along with this section, it won’t surprise you in the least to learn that the answer is, yet again, a knife; a paring knife to be exact. Hmmm, anything else? Well, there’s the pea baller (think micro-sized melon baller) that’s used for scooping out pea-sized veggie spheres. I’m sure if I was the one making a few hundred “peas”, I might re-think the favorite part of that gadget.
Come over to the sweet side: In the afternoon, I crossed over into sugar rush territory to join pastry chef Donny make ice creams and sorbets. It didn’t take long after the custard base of milk, cream and eggs was poured into the machine for the ice cream to flow like creamy cold lava. We made tubs of melon sorbet and both peach and vanilla ice creams. Not surprising that the latter is the most popular since it contains oodles of seeds that have been coaxed out of fragrant split vanilla beans. I think I might have gained a few pounds just tasting all those frozen treats.
From chilly cold to searing hot, I moved on to making some unbelievable spun sugar garnishes.
The delicate golden sugar dome sits atop the Green Tea Crème Brulee with lychee compote and lavender honey.
What’s on the prep list: Working with chef Kelly to clean the soft shell crabs was the first task of the day.
I learned how to remove the tab on the crab’s underside and gently squeeze out the roe. Then, I peeled back the soft shell on either side to remove the lungs (brings a whole new meaning to the term “I’m going to rip your lungs out”).
Next, I worked with Dequan, the culinary intern, to slice up some teardrop tomatoes. I love discovering timesaving techniques, and Dequan’s method to halving these little beauties was complete genius. He took a plastic container lid and filled it with the tomatoes. After he placed another lid on top of that to create somewhat of a tomato sandwich, he passed a sharp knife through the middle. Voila, perfectly halved tomatoes. Adding in fresh and simple ingredients like basil, shallots, garlic, olive oil and balsamic vinegar completed the tomatoes for the mesclun salad.
One more shellfish lesson from chef Kelly, as he demonstrated how to de-shell Larry and Lulu Lobster.
It definitely took some muscle power to twist and crack the shell, all with delicate finesse to gently remove the sweet lobster meat.
Of course, nothing goes to waste as we saved the all the shells for stock and made pretty little lobster butterflies for garnish.
Crabs and lobsters were a fun challenge, but sometimes it’s just about the daily task of chopping and mincing.
Family meal: A typical workday in a restaurant can stretch out to 12 hours from prep to service. Being together with co-workers for that long and usually in tight quarters creates a family by design. Hence, it makes perfect sense to call the meal served to the staff before service “family meal”. Anyone in the restaurant business will probably agree that they have consumed more than their fair share of chicken legs and thighs for family meal, but I can guarantee it’s nothing like the dish that chef de cuisine Eric served up while I was there. Put a fragrant mixture of spices including cardamom and curry into a sauté of onions, zucchini, tomatoes and cauliflower, with a generous splash of coconut milk, and you have something pretty special.
After helping to serve it up to the staff of 40, I took a quick taste for myself.
Tender chicken with an exotic slant and a little spicy kick.
Unusual ingredients: Skate, in the same family as stingrays, was certainly a different type of fish to stumble upon in this kitchen. Pleasantly light and flavorful, this is a “must try” when it’s on X2O’s menu.
Some other unique ingredients I got to sample were lily bulbs (these are the edible variety and not the ones that are blooming in your garden), lotus root (it didn’t taste like much raw, but thinly sliced and fried, I could see its addictive properties)
and red amaranth microgreens (these are vibrantly colored delicate baby greens no more than two weeks old).
My random insights: While working with Donny, the pastry chef, I was immediately struck by his quick smile and infectious enthusiasm. This is someone who absolutely loves what he is doing. His quote of the day still resonates with me: “When anything is made with love, it has to come out good.” It’s heartfelt sentiments like that combined with the sheer graciousness of Peter Kelly and his staff that make X2O a very special place that I can’t wait to visit again.
Details: X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, 71 Water Grant Street, Yonkers. 914.965.111. X2O is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 2 pm and dinner from 5:30 pm to 10 pm. On Sunday, brunch is served from noon to 2 pm and dinner seating is 5 pm to 9 pm.
Patrice Costa is a passionate foodie who is on a personal culinary mission to learn it all from local chefs. She looks forward to sharing her experiences as she goes behind the kitchen door in some of her favorite restaurant kitchens. When not on foodie assignments, she can be found working in the open kitchen at Thyme Restaurant in Yorktown.