Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Culinary Creativity: Chef Steve Zimei

Chef Steve Zimei is the Executive Chef at Chopps American Bar & Grill, which is located at the Marriott Burlington. Steve is a native of Massachusetts and graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 1995. He then began his culinary career working for Chef Daniel Bruce, eventually becoming a sous chef at Rowes Wharf Sea Grille. Steve would also work on the opening teams for spots including Aquitaine, Harvest and XV Beacon Hotel. In addition, Steve moved onto executive chef positions at places including Gallia, Hotel MIT, The Worcester Restaurant Group, the Papa Razzi Group, and most recently Trails End Café in Concord.

Most recently, Steve returned to work with Chef Bruce at Chopps, introducing new flavors to rejuvenate the American chophouse. Outside of the kitchen you can find Zimei, an avid runner and cyclist, racing for the local cycling team Optimum Performance and serving his community through various charitable organizations. Zimei currently resides in Leominster with his wife and three young sons.

Chopps American Bar & Grill is one of my Top 50 Restaurants of 2017, and I've enjoyed numerous lunches and dinners at this spot. Chef Zimei is helping to ensure the consistent quality of this restaurant and it's great to see the new dishes he creates.

(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)

Now onto the interview--

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
"Culinary Creativity plays a vital role in being a chef. I am constantly thinking of what's coming in-season and new ways for my staff to learn and grow as culinary professionals. Being creative with menu design, technique, and presentation are all essential in this industry. The best part of my day is when I see a dish come to life. We have a vast array of clientele from all over the world that dine with us at Chopps, so we like to showcase our talents with weekly features that, if a fan-favorite, have the potential of going on our menu."

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
"I find that a lot of my inspiration stems from visiting local farms where I can feel, eat, and smell the freshest produce at the time. I like to utilize new ingredients to compliment dishes. Traveling to other restaurants to try different cuisines is also important to me to stay current in the culinary world. Not only is it fun, but experiencing new dishes really helps with flavor combinations that I can use to develop into my own style."

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
"A lot of my menu items develop from foods that I love to eat...I often go out and have dinner and say, “man I need to have a variation of this on the menu.” I will then experiment with flavors that are true to my style and build from there. Often seeking advice from my sous chefs is the best way to get a true feeling of whether the dish works or how to tweak it if needs be."

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
"Creating a dish for me always starts by using the highest quality of ingredients that is in-season. We change our menu quarterly, so a menu change isn't just a few items but 10-15 dishes. I typically focus in on an idea and then run it as a feature on a tasting menu. Eating a dish a few times helps me navigate textures and flavor profiles until it is at the standard we want to serve guests. With the chef’s tasting menus, we can really play around with off-menu items and those tend to be the most fun for us!"

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
"My sous chef and I are constantly bouncing ideas off each other. Most times, we will bring ingredients into the kitchen and cook until we are happy with the end result. This is a time when we can be totally honest and also allow for our staff to give feedback."

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
"The hardest part of culinary creativity is not letting yourself fall back into your "old stand bys". I try to not repeat dishes that I have crafted in the past and continue using different products. Staying focused when in the restaurant is a different challenge in itself when so many things are happening simultaneously."

Do you ever experience "writer's block," an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it? 
"Absolutely. I don’t usually tend to have writer’s block in terms of creativity, but I often overthink dishes, which can prevent me from letting the simplicity of natural flavors shine. To overcome this, I take a step back from my pad, and go for a long bike ride to clear my head. I’ve also found it’s helpful for me to think of food pairings late at night before I head to bed…when the kids are asleep and the house is quiet. Usually this is when I’m not stressing over why I just put watermelon and sea beans together!"

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