Bryan Voltaggio Makes Us a Maryland Crab-Cake Sandwich
Byon August 27, 2013
The best way to cook is at someone's knee. You stand, you watch, you get out of the way when they need to get something off the stove. Stand there long enough and you start to pick up not only little tips, like how to chop a pepper, but also larger truths, like why we cook at all. Here, four writers with varying levels of experience shadow four great chefs, each at the top of his game. Feel free to stand and watch. Check back here to read more this week!
Lesson 1: Cook Like You Mean ItIt took a bit for Bryan Voltaggio, the famous young chef with a pig tattooed on his arm, to decide I really was the tragic miracle I'd said I was. We were in the kitchen of his fourth and newest restaurant, Range, in Washington, D.C., pasta and cherry tomatoes and garlic simmering on the stove. A few minutes before, when I was cutting those same cherry tomatoes in half, I told him he was witnessing my first time putting a knife to a vegetable. Not long after, he wondered aloud whether he was being set up as part of some elaborate prank. That's when I mentioned I'd never cracked an egg. "How is that possible?" Voltaggio said. "How are you alive?"
I agreed that it was ridiculous for a thirty-nine-year-old man never to have cracked an egg, that it says something terrible about me as well as modern society that I can survive and in fact grow quite fat without acquiring even the most basic cooking skills, but nevertheless, I had never cracked an egg. Before entering Voltaggio's kitchen, I had possibly prepared the least food of any fully functioning North American adult: one plate of pasta — dried noodles and jarred sauce — just after I'd graduated from Meal Plan University and one serving of Hamburger Helper, with which I'd attempted to court the very good cook who somehow still became my wife. Other than those two barely digestible meals, whenever I have eaten, someone else has made my food for me, either because they love me or because I paid them. Only after Voltaggio watched me nervously crack that first egg did he finally believe me. "Nobody's that good an actor," he said.
Voltaggio comes from a family of cooks and chefs — he finished second to his brother, Michael, on the sixth season of Top Chef — and to watch him work in a kitchen is to watch witchcraft, years of experience and observation and fever poured into a cauldron. In some ways, that afternoon at Range confirmed my guiding philosophy: We should do only those things at which we are good. Why would I cook when Bryan Voltaggio cooks? If cooking makes him happy, and eating his food makes me happy, why would I upset that happy order of things? It had never made sense to me, and today it would remain nonsensical but for the fact that after we finished making our pasta, Voltaggio and I made the crab-cake sandwich that changed my life. We didn't just make that sandwich. We made every last component of that sandwich from its most basic ingredients. We made the soft, hot rolls, washing them with egg and sprinkling them with salt; we made the crab cakes, giant lumps of fresh crab combined with not much else and carefully levered into a pan of clarified butter; we even made the tartar sauce, from Voltaggio's original recipe, that went on top of the crab cakes like a blanket.
Now, here I must confess: While making that tartar sauce, I was consumed by the cynicism of my former self. It took me maybe an hour of work, not including the time I would need at home to find each of its fourteen ingredients. It required making grape-seed oil shimmer in the pan but not smoke — canola oil would smell like rotting fish, Voltaggio said, the sort of wisdom that seems impossible for me to own — and sweating diced celery, fennel, and onions, but not browning them. Alternatively, I could go out and buy a jar of tartar sauce in about six seconds. But then I finished Voltaggio's recipe, and I tasted it, and I understood. It wasn't some small fraction better than factory-born tartar sauce. It was better by orders of magnitude, turning something incidental into something essential. I can't recall eating any single tartar sauce in my life except for that one. Then we put it on the sandwich, and then we ate the sandwich, and holy sweet Mary mother of baby Jesus, it was the best sandwich I have ever eaten. It was the sandwich I had been dreaming about my whole life put suddenly where it belonged, in my open, groaning mouth.
What Voltaggio taught me, more than anything else, is that there is no particular magic in that trick. He refuses to call food art, or cooking artistry. That makes it sound more precious and inaccessible than it is. All good cooking requires, at its foundation, is generosity. Every decent meal I have eaten I have enjoyed because someone else had a big enough heart to make it.
I always thought of my refusal to cook as a selfless act: I was sparing the world my barbarism. In reality, learning how to make delicious whole food requires a capacity for goodness that I wish I didn't have to work so hard to possess. Yes, at some level, that crab-cake sandwich was just a sandwich, just caloric energy presented in a photogenic shape. But it was also this beautiful expression of care, this tender, charitable agreement that Bryan Voltaggio had made to teach me how to do some tiny fraction of what he does and to help me feel as though I could do more of it. I will make those crab-cake sandwiches again and again, partly because I couldn't live with the idea of never eating another one, but mostly because it will allow me to give something meaningful, my time and my effort, my attention and my education, to the people who remind me not only how I am alive but also why.
MARYLAND CRAB-CAKE SANDWICHBryan Voltaggio, Range, Washington D.C.
—As told to Francine Maroukian
Serves 6 to 8
- 7 Tbsp mayonnaise, preferably Duke's
- 1 Tbsp Old Bay
- 2 ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 ½ tsp Dijon mustard
- 3 ¾ tsp lemon juice
- 2 eggs
- 4 scallions, minced
- 6 drops Tabasco sauce
- ½ tsp fine sea salt
- 2 lbs jumbo lump crabmeat, picked of shell fragments
- 1 cup cracker meal for breading
- 1 cup clarified butter*
- 8 buns, toasted and buttered
Evenly coat the bottom of a baking dish with a generous dusting of the cracker meal, about ½ cup. Use an ice-cream scoop or a similar tool to divide crabmeat mixture into six or eight individual cakes. Place each crab cake in the cracker meal and dust with the remaining cracker meal, coating all sides. In a large frying pan, slowly heat the clarified butter. Use a candy thermometer to get it to 325 degrees, or stick the end of a chopstick into the butter — when it gives off a steady stream of bubbles, you're at 325.
Using a slotted metal or other high-heat-resistant spatula and working one at a time, place each cake into the butter, leaving a half inch between them so the crab cakes brown evenly. Cook crab cakes on both sides in the clarified butter, about 6 full minutes per side, until golden brown. (If you need to cook in multiple batches, set your oven at the lowest temperature and insert a cooling rack over a baking sheet, to rest the crab cakes on.) Let cakes sit for a minute, and then transfer them to the buns. Top with tartar sauce.
*Slowly melt three sticks of butter in a pan. When it starts bubbling, remove from heat. Using a spoon, remove white milk solids from the surface and discard. Pour the golden yellow layer of clarified butter into a container — this is what you will cook with. Discard the solids remaining on the bottom.