Valerie Phillips: Local chef Matthew Lake spills secrets on his dishes

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012 4:07 p.m. MDT

Tender Pecan Pork is served over wild mushrooms and sauteed greens at Zy, a downtown Salt Lake City restaurant. Photo by Valerie Phillips

Valerie Phillips, Valerie Phillips

There's an oft-quoted statistic that nine out of every 10 new restaurants fail in their first year. Having recently cleared that first-year hurdle with his downtown restaurant Zy Food Wine & Cheese, Chef Matthew Lake celebrated by sharing the secrets behind two of his signature dishes in a cooking class at the restaurant.

For those unfamiliar with this gem of a restaurant, it's located at 268 S. Main. The curious name comes, not from some mystical language, but because Lake was trying to come up with a name that nobody else already had. He told me that his wife, Catherine, is an attorney specializing in intellectual property rights (such as trademarks and copyrights), and she voted down some of his other name ideas because they had already been taken. He said he worked his way through the alphabet, and finally came to the last letters, "Y" and "Z" He turned the letters around, and came up with "Zy." Although he originally pronounced it as "zee," many customers pronounced it to rhyme with "sky," so he went with it.

Lake, who was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best Young Chefs in 1996, spent seven years commuting from Salt Lake City to run four New York City restaurants. (His wife is from Utah.)

When he first opened Zy, people often asked what his "signature dishes" were.

"But I don't pick the signature dishes, the clientele does," he said.

A year later, he knows that the two most popular dishes are his Tender Pecan Pork, served with wild mushrooms and sautéed greens, and Scallops with Almond and Curry.

Some of his cooking wisdom:

Keep it simple. "People tend to make mistakes at home by getting too complicated," he said. "It's really easy to add more, hard to take away."

To get that crusty, caramelized sear on a scallop, buy "dry" scallops, which are also sweeter and richer-tasting. Often, grocery-store scallops come in a milky liquid, which means they have been treated with a chemical preservative that causes them to absorb moisture. Why? "Because they will weigh more and they're sold by the pound, and so that they can stay on the boat longer," said Lake.

These "wet" scallops that squirt out moisture are very difficult to sear properly. He said Harmons and Whole Foods carry dry scallops, and the Aquarius fish market would be another place to ask for them.

He likes searing scallops in either grapeseed or canola oil, in a cast-iron skillet.

"Cast iron works beautifully for that, it helps retain the heat so well," he said, adding that he inherited a favorite cast iron pan from his grandmother.

When searing scallops, he gets them golden brown on each side, and just warmed throughout. They should still be a little translucent. If they are cooked too long, they tend to get tough and stringy.

"It pains me to see people sauté in extra-virgin olive oil," he said. "As soon as you heat extra-virgin olive oil, it breaks down very quickly," losing flavor and nutrients that make it more expensive.

He prefers to use it in dishes that don't need cooking, or to "finish" an already-cooked dish. (Rachael Ray, consider yourself warned about your EVOO!)

He's also not a fan of white pepper. When he was in culinary school, they followed the classical French technique to use white pepper in white sauces, "because you weren't supposed to see the pepper in it," he said. "But white pepper tastes very different than black pepper. I think you should question everything."

He is a fan of kosher salt because it dissolves quickly into the food you're cooking. Sea salt doesn't dissolve as well, regular table salt contains iodine, which gives off a "weird" flavor.

Always use fresh lemon juice instead of bottled, because the flavor is much better.

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