One of the pleasures of the long-running Food Network series Chopped is watching the faces of the competing chefs as they open their basket of ingredients and discover what’s inside. Shock, skepticism, amusement, grim resolve—the looks run the gamut. But what are they thinking?
In the case of Martyna Krowicka, 28, head chef of the esteemed Restaurant Latour at the Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, “In every round, my mind went blank. I forgot everything I ever knew about cooking, life, what my name was, what color the sky is.”
Fortunately for her, she snapped back in each of the three rounds with the simple realization, “Okay, I have to start working.”
The result was victory and a check for $10,000, which she says she used to pay off a pile of long-stewing credit card debt, run up “when you’re young and stupid and just pay the bare minimum and max them out.” The debt also testifies to years of struggling to get by on meager kitchen wages early in any chef’s career.
The episode, taped last July but aired last night, December 15, was titled “Betting on the Farm.” It pitted against each other four chefs in their 20s who share a penchant for foraging, farming or favoring local, seasonal ingredients.
The theme played to Krowicka’s strengths on a few levels. For one, foraging, working with area farmers and prizing high-quality seasonal ingredients is part of the ethos of Restaurant Latour, which has consistently won a place on NJM’s annual list of Top 25 restaurants in the state.
It also speaks to Krowicka’s family background and the roots of her love of food and cooking. The two dishes the judges found strongest in last night’s episode, the two that clinched her win, her entrée and dessert, reached back to her deep connection with her paternal grandmother, Gienia.
Born in rural southern Poland, Krowicka and her older sister and their parents lived on her grandmother’s farm there until they emigrated to America and settled in Newark when Krowicka was four.
Krowicka and her sister spent many idyllic summers in Poland with their grandmother, who had been widowed at an early age. “It was just a few acres,” Krowicka recalls. “Everyone there had their own cows and chickens and pigs for their own sustenance. It was how people lived.
“My grandmother always kept us engaged and active in the life of the farm and the kitchen,” Krowicka relates. “We milked the cows, picked vegetables and fruit, helped her make breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was a cool tradition with the neighbors, where they’d dig a fire pit in the yard, make a coal fire and when the coals burned down bake potatoes in there. Then everyone would eat the hot potatoes with butter and salt.”
This joyous period ended suddenly when Krowicka was about 13. “My grandmother suffered a stroke,” she says, “and spent the rest of her days in assisted living.” Gienia died in 2014 at age 89.
In last night’s episode, Krowicka spoke to the judges in every round about her connection to her grandmother, brushing away tears at certain points. It wasn’t for show.
“The reason I get emotional,” she says, “is that I was not able to spend more time with her, and her not living long enough to see what I’ve become.”
What she has become is an extremely organized and disciplined chef with imagination, a fine, inquisitive palate and solid technique, not just at the stove. In last night’s entrée round, for example, the chefs were presented with a bone-in lamb shoulder—not the tender, exquisite rack but a big complex chunk that takes skill to dissect, or “break down,” as chefs say.
Before coming to Latour, Krowicka had worked with chef Alex Stupak, perhaps today’s greatest interpreter of the art of the Mexican taco, at his Greenwich Village restaurant, Empellon Tacqueria. “We had lamb barbacoa tacos on the menu,” Krowicka says. “We used more than 60 pounds of lamb shoulder a week, so I had to break the meat off the bones. Shoulder takes a long time to cook, and in the entrée round you only have 30 minutes. So I first took it off the bone, then cut away the fat and gristle and sinew so I’d have small tasty pieces that would cook quickly.
“One of the other chefs,” she notes, “tried to do ribs with the shoulder, not understanding that the shoulder rises high in the rib cage and there is not as much meat on the bones there as in the true section of rib. The judges said his ribs were fatty and gristly and not edible. So I gave myself an inner high five on that one.”
Krowicka turned her lamb into what she called an Eastern European goulash. “It’s something I eat at least once a week.”
In the judging, Amanda Freitag, one of Chopped’s regular judges, challenged Krowicka’s terminology, saying her dish was more of a stew than a true goulash. In an exchange that didn’t make the final cut, Krowicka relates, “She told me, ‘I don’t understand why you call this a goulash.’ I said, ‘Well, this is how we interpret goulash in my family, and we’ve been eating it this way for 28 years.'” Freitag accepted that and moved on, Krowicka says.
In the dessert round, Krowicka again drew inspiration from her grandmother. The basket of ingredients included gooseberries, which Krowicka used to pick and eat fresh off the bush at her grandmother’s farm. She turned them into a marmalade, which she served over a corn pudding she invented with polenta and some of the other basket ingredients. She topped the pudding with a poppy seed streusel, another Eastern European reference, and whipped the goat’s milk in the basket into a foam.
The dessert basket included raw duck eggs. In her most daring and controversial move, Krowicka again flashed back to Poland, where her grandmother used to serve the girls raw hen egg yolks sprinkled with sugar and whipped into a froth.
“It sounds weird, but it is something I grew up on, and I loved it,” Krowicka says.
In last night’s denouement, Krowicka sprinkled the big dark duck egg yolks with sugar, brûléed them with a propane torch and served them on her corn pudding.
On the show, judge Mark Murphy, seeing this, blurted, “What is Martyna doing with those eggs?” Watching her torch the sugared yolks, he said, “I don’t know if I like that idea.”
“I felt it was maybe a mistake,” she says.
But things worked out fine.
“They did say it had a lot of density. But they liked it.”
To celebrate her win, Restaurant Latour is putting a version of Krowicka’s dessert on its menu. Krowicka has updated it, since gooseberries are no longer in season, and the brûléed duck egg is perhaps a bit too out there.
The new dish is called corn polenta cheesecake with gooseberry sphere, goat’s milk foam and poppy-seed streusel.
“Instead of egg yolk,” she says, “I made spheres out of gooseberry preserves left over from summer. The poppy-seed streusel is the same, and and the goat’s milk foam is the same.”
No one is prouder of Krowicka than her mentor, Crystal Springs executive chef Anthony Bucco, who brought her aboard at Latour to eventually succeed him as he broadened his focus to the entire resort.
He had first hired her to work at Uproot in Warren when he opened that restaurant in 2009. She later followed him to Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone and then to the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, where they won acclaim. Then she expanded her frontiers working with Stupak in New York, learning Mexican cuisine.
“That gave her a chance to spend time in a different organization and understand what she was accomplishing and how she was growing,” Bucco says. “We had worked together a lot, and I think she needed a change of scenery and a different pace to see what she actually had.
“I gave her an extremely long leash when she came back,” he says, “because I knew her talents and abilities. Coming to Latour in 2015, her learning curve was expedited and she owned it from the moment she walked in.
“It’s hard for an old chef to let go,” the 41 year old adds with a laugh, “but it’s her baby now. I take a lot of pride and pleasure in that. I cant say enough about how much she’s impressing me every day.”Click here to leave a comment