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Food for thought: An occasional series

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image Chef Cris Blauveldt gives insight into what's cooking in the South Shore area. Photo Carol MacAlister

What the chef has under his hat at the Old Castle Restaurant

What was your worst kitchen disaster?

“The first time I made pancakes,” laughs Cris Blauveldt, the young-looking 49-year-old who is head chef at Old Castle Restaurant in Sun City Center. Cris started there just after it opened seven years ago; three years ago he took over the kitchen.

“Pancakes were supposed to be so easy, so it was the first thing I tried to cook as a kid, but I didn’t know that the pan has to be hot before you add the batter. The pancakes came out rubbery, but I didn’t know why.”

And you’ve learned a lot since then?

“I kept trying, that was the important thing. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’”

Cris is obviously someone who can persevere, so the next question was a slam-dunk.
What’s the best quality somebody has to have to be a good chef?

“Patience! You have to make a dish the way you want to make it, but not everybody’s going to enjoy it. So you have to adapt what you’re doing so that you satisfy your need to do it right but also please the customers. It’s a fine line. Just because I made it right doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. Some people will never care for it, and you’ve just got to accept that.”

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

“When I was a kid, I loved being in the kitchen when my mother and grandmother were cooking. Then in high school, I studied Food Service, graduated with a degree, and I’ve been in Food Service my whole life.”

What do you cook that you learned from your mother and grandmother?

“Sauerkraut and red cabbage.” Cris’s ancestors were from Baden-Baden, Germany. “I grew up on German food.”

Have you always worked in German restaurants?

Cris laughs again. “Oh, no. At the beginning I worked in pizza places. One of them, in Syracuse [NY] offered seafood — fresh seafood, crab legs, clams every way you could imagine, swordfish — right out of the basket. I was into food and variety and I loved it.”

If you had to cook a nice meal in 30 minutes, what would it be?

“Probably our schnitzel with spaetzle and cabbage.”

In only a half hour?

“Oh yeah, I’ve got it down to a science.”

What would you say is the best thing you make?

“Well, not here [at Old Castle] but I’d say my calzones. I love them and I make them pretty good. And pizzas, I love to make pizzas.”

What about when other people cook for you? Do they feel pressure because you’re a chef?

“No, they just like to show me what they like to make. I like to eat, so I’m not hard to please. And I’m usually hanging out with chefs or with people who like to cook.”

A lot of what a chef does is buying the best possible ingredients. How do you choose your suppliers?

“We have to have consistency and quality, so that’s how we choose suppliers. When customers come to the restaurant, they want to get the same meal each time they order it; our food shouldn’t vary at all. So we have to have the right stuff all the time.”

What about coming up with new things you’d like to add to the menu?

“Oh sure, I’ll take the ingredients and play with them in the kitchen. But we’re a German restaurant, so I can’t just add anything to the menu. But the owner and I do compromise, and sometimes she’ll put specials on the board.”

What’s the latest one?

“Our beef roast with carrots and onions and potatoes, instead of regular sauerbraten.”

Is there an unusual ingredient that you like to use?

“Probably nutmeg. The Germans use it in a lot of foods, particularly potatoes and breads. And it does bring out an interesting flavor in things.”

Have the tastes of customers changed during your career?

“When I was a kid, nobody ate chicken wings, they were scraps. Now you can’t go anywhere where they’re not serving chicken wings! So it’s a trend that’s been popular for 25 years … and we used to throw them away!”

If someone can’t afford to go to culinary school, what’s the best way to become a chef?

“Keep putting out applications. Start at the bottom, dishwasher or prep cook. Just get in there and keep asking to help; if they see that you’re interested, they’ll put you to work. But you have to have the drive and really want to do it, and accept that it’s hard.”

Do you have a recipe you’d be willing to share?

Ironically, considering his childhood cooking fiasco, Cris offers a brief synopsis of how to make pancakes … potato pancakes. “I can’t tell you the seasonings, but basically it’s potatoes, eggs, milk and flour. Mix it until it’s the consistency of oatmeal. Then you fry it.”

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