Russ Barker is known as a steady climber, tackling one rung on the ladder at a time. In the restaurant business, the climb involves innocuous tasks like washing dishes as well as innovative chores like recipe development.
Barker's journey reached a career-high pinnacle recently when the executive chef at the Alta Club was honored by his colleagues in the Beehive Chef's Association as the 1990 Utah Chef of the Year.The talented chef began his trek as a dishwasher at a neighborhood "mom and pop" shop in Ogden.
"I was just a kid," he recalled, "but it didn't take me long to decide washing dishes was no long-term career. That was the job that forced me into cooking."
The ascent was steady after that - prep cook, line cook, day manager and then a giant step out of Ogden to the Salt Lake Country Club.
"Mel (Harward, executive chef at the Country Club) really took a chance on me. I had a lot of rough edges, but he persisted. He gave me a chance to succeed," Barker acknowledged.
Barker credits his continued development to involvement in the professional association and a lot of hard work.
"Roger Cortello let me tag along in his kitchen at the Hotel Utah, for example. There were others, too. But the idea is I wouldn't be as accomplished if I didn't have them to grow from. A chef that is successful is one that is willing to give of his own knowledge. I received so much; now I owe it back," Barker summarized.
One of the pay-backs came when Barker was asked to host the annual Escoffier dinner at the Alta Club. The seven-course meal honoring the founder of French cuisine is a challenging step on the ladder of chefing.
"To direct the preparation of a meal that represents Escoffier, the chef of kings and the king of chefs, is difficult in itself, but then to serve the dinner to your peer group is even more challenging," the award-winning chef admitted. "But it gave me a chance to practice what I had been taught."
Barker assumed another reciprocal responsibility; he administered the apprentice program affiliated with the chef's association. "The apprentices are placed in three-year training programs, must pass both written and meal preparation tests and participate in course work as they train for the profession. This program gives me a direct opportunity to share what I've learned with aspiring chefs."
He admits to a life beyond the professional kitchen. As the father of four children, Barker finds as much fun with spaghetti, meatballs and the kids as he does trying to develop something sensational for a banquet or party. "My kids will try new things, and I do cook at home, but on the whole, they tend to be the typical hamburger-pizza kids," Barker said.
Climbing the ladder of his profession, Barker learned from each step, carefully crediting those who stand on the same step, or those above or below. His gracious attitude ensured the applause of colleagues when Barker earned top honors as the Utah Chef of the Year.
Butternut Squash Soup
4 each butternut squash
6 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons roux or 2 tablespoons cornstarch
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons cold butter
10 cups boiling water Peel squash with a potato peeler, cutting off stem end. Remove all seeds, hollow out bulb end and reserve. Place broth in stock pot; use wire whisk to blend in thickening agent, then seasonings and diced squash; cook until squash is soft, about 25 minutes. Saute onion until tender and then add to squash mixture. Chill slightly, just enough to puree in blender, then heat until hot; add cold butter.
Take squash bowl and place in 10 cups boiling water for three to four minutes, just until heated. Remove from water and drain. Place soup inside, garnish with dollop of whipped cream and a fresh cilantro leaf. Makes 4 servings.
1 cup water
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons cold butter
3 pounds potatoes, cooked and mashed Combine water and butter over medium heat until butter melts, then stir in flour until paste-like; continue to stir until it leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from heat and add eggs, one at a time. Work in mashed potatoes and shape as desired, then fry until golden brown. Makes 8-10 servings.
Oak Blossom Salad with Orange Balsamic Dressing
2 bunches baby red oak lettuce
2 bunches baby green oak lettuce
4 each edible flower blossoms
1 pomegranate, seeded
Orange Balsamic Dressing:
1 1/2 cups olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons sugar
Salt and pepper Mash lettuce thoroughly, but delicately, cut off core and pat dry with paper towels. Toss just to mix; place on plate. Peel orange and slice. Arrange on salad with blossoms and pomegranate seeds.
For dressing, combine all ingredients except oil in blender. On high speed, gradually add oil; chill until cold. Makes 4 servings.
- Note: Barker suggests red leaf or bibb lettuce as a substitute for the specialty red oak and green oak lettuces.
Chocolate Truffle Pears
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup milk chocolate, grated
1/2 teaspoon brandy flavoring
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups pear nectar
1 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
4 pears, peeled and cored Combine all ingredients for poached pears except for pears. Bring to a boil and then add pears and simmer for 8-10 minutes; chill immediately. Strain syrup and cook, then drizzle over pears. Stuff with chocolate truffle mix, place in hot oven and heat through. Serve over a bed of caramel sauce.
For truffles, scald milk and cream, then stir in grated chocolate and flavoring; work until smooth and shiny. Chill to set up.