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

To go with the scallops, Lake made a Romesco sauce from blanched slivered almonds and parsley. Don't roast the almonds. "I am looking for the brighter flavor, not the dark roasted flavor."

His Pecan Pork dish uses a "confit" cooking technique, where a dish is surrounded by fat and cooked at a low temperature. He uses a pork shoulder, or butt, and covers it with duck fat, bakes it at 300 degrees for three hours. The result is a pot roast-like tenderness. "Most of you are probably not going to find 5 pounds of rendered duck fat, so you can use canola oil," he said, adding that the oil can be strained, refrigerated and re-used for things like frying French fries.

He believes in supporting local products as much as possible. "But the quality has to enter into the equation."

Recipes should be considered as guidelines. "You should taste often as you go, and trust your palate," he said. "A mistake is to follow the recipe to the letter and then tasting at the end and thinking it needs something."

Here are a couple of the recipes Lake showed us:

Almond Romesco

Lake serves his seared scallops on a bed of this sauce.

2 cups blanched almonds

1 bunch flat leaf parsley

1 clove peeled garlic

3/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil

About 1 cup bread crumbs

In a food processor, combine the nuts, garlic and parsley. Blend until coarsely ground. Add the lemon juice. Slowly add in the olive oil and puree to a loose pesto consistency. Remove the mixture from the bowl and place in a clean mixing bowl. Slowly stir in the bread crumbs to lightly bind the mixture. Season with salt and set aside. Sauce may be made up to two days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

— Matthew Lake, Zy Food Wine & Cheese

Tender Pecan Pork

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder

6 whole shallots, peeled

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon whole black pepper corn

Rendered duck fat or canola oil, enough to cover the pork

Pecan Crust

2 cups pecans

1 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

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Portion pork shoulder into four 8-ounce pieces. Place the pork in a baking dish deep enough to cover the pork with the fat.

Add the shallots, bay leaf and pepper corn. Cover with the fat. Cover pan tightly with foil. Bake at 300 degrees for three hours, until tender.

To make crust, place pecans, brown sugar and salt in a food processor. Grind until the consistency of wet sand. Top the pork with the pecan mixture.

— Matthew Lake, Zy Food Wine & Cheese

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com. Email: vphillips@desnews.com