Hotel chefs are in a class of their own. Sure, it’s one thing to be a restaurant chef and thus a de facto member of the hospitality industry, but it’s another thing entirely to be a chef for the hospitality industry and run a hotel kitchen. It’s a different world. Just ask Chef Earl Gray.
With almost 20 years in the culinary industry, Chef Earl was originally French trained but has developed a definitive style of his own where ingredients come first and everything else comes after. He’s also taken a firm stance on sustainability, from diminishing waste in the kitchen to being an ambassador for Revol’s No.W (No Waste) movement.
As Chef at the Renaissance Hotel in Baltimore, the past year has been one pivot to the next. We caught up with Chef Earl for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, perspectives on school and community, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Chef Earl below:
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“When I was a kid and spent the night at my grandma’s, I’d wake up to the smell of fresh biscuits, plantains, rice, her recipes from Liberia. I saw her passion for making things from scratch, and it created a passion in me and that’s why I started off as a baker.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“It’s all about the mise en place; getting all my ingredients together and building process and structure and shapes – figuring out how I can highlight a certain ingredient. How I can create negative space to highlight that star ingredient and then build around it, while the entire time taking into account the sauces and textural components.”
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“I actually get inspiration from financial reviews (laughs). When I look at what’s going on with the economy, it gets me focussed on creating dishes and how to cross-utilize ingredients. Making sure creative ideas come into line with food costs – it gets my gears going. That could be testing new produce from distributors, sample boxes, whatever’s in season.
And I’d also say art is an inspiration; sometimes I’ll start with abstract shapes, look at the plate as a clean canvas, or I’ll feel a need to do something circular. I’ll do Google image searches of shapes, art and start to build structure. Also, watching Youtube shows like Great British Menu, or referring to content by other chefs like Marcus Wareing. Or even the Search page on Instagram.”
Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block?
“There’s a lake by my house, and I’ll go there, look at all the boats and just instantly get a sense of ease, and it will clear my head. I tend to always come back with fresh ideas.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“Consider if you really want to come into what’s called the ‘hospitality industry.’ Inside the kitchen, it’s not very hospitable. You have to have a good core of principles and be prepared to dedicate yourself to service and sacrifice your livelihood. Not to scare them but fair warning.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“Just using one protein with several different spices and building flavors and training my palette. Building sauces – tastings, exploring all the different components to enhance a demi.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“You know, I really love your Smoked Honey Habanero blend (laughs). That with rockfish, skin on, I just score the top, sear gently, baste with wine, buter, salt, honey – it ends up being flaky with a perfect crispy skin.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“Don’t be scared of the mandolin! But be careful (laughs). I use it to make one of my favorite dishes, Potato Pave. You can slice the potatoes nice and thin, layer them together with cornstarch and salt, and then bake the stacks with cream.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“Lomo Saltado – it’s a very simple dish, almost like grub or a family meal. You have steak, fries, cilantro, peppes, onion, then add hoisin sauce and serve over rice. I used to work in an Asian restaurant that had a lot of hispanic staff, and this was our family meal. It’s simple but delicious.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“Mac and cheese. The funny thing is – my family loved it, but I don’t eat it (laughs). I worked on the roux sauce over the years and they always ask me to make it.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Juniper – I feel like I never see it on menus. I make a Juniper Jus and I’d always need to show the staff how to extract the juniper.”
What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?
“First, to educate your area on what to eat. Setting up a restaurant is hard, and your area or neighborhood might not necessarily be receptive to your cuisine. It’s your responsibility to teach the people how to eat and create and present menu items so they’ll be open to new things. Second, I’d say create products and dishes with as little waste as possible. I’m an Ambassador for Revol Porcelaine’s No.W (No Waste) campaign and dinnerware collection made of Recyclay.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“Absolutely. As a male we’re competitive by nature – I think we love to compete. But when it comes to competing, it’s always friendly. Competing with contemporaries helps you learn new things. When you’re under fire and feeling the pressure, you produce a better product.”
How do you see restaurants operating in 2022? Where do you see the Baltimore food scene then?
“I think we’ll be making a gradual approach back to normalcy. Now we have to do everything in to-go containers for contactless delivery. If we go back to normal, it will be on a smaller scale. As for Baltimore, it’s always been about the crab – that’s not going to change.”
What are your restaurant recs when in Baltimore?