Want to know a secret? There is no full-time staff behind Edible Cleveland. In fact, there isn’t one full-time employee. Instead, every issue is handcrafted by a talented community of contributors that I have come to think of as family. Some have been with us since the very first issue, while others have just joined the fold; they each bring passion and creativity to the work of cobbling together this magazine season after season. Our portrait here captures a good number of family members (with some very important folks missing), but we thought in celebration of our 5th anniversary, we’d also give you a look behind the scenes by introducing you to a couple of our regular contributors and their work that we’ve all come to love. – Noelle Celeste
Our Editor Gets Into The Spirit
When Jon Benedict was perfecting his recipe for The Aviation, a crème de violette-inspired cocktail (see page 22), it was a little sweet, so he backed off the simple syrup. Then, he noticed that lemon overpowered the subtle floral notes. To maintain sweet-sour equilibrium, he substituted lime for lemon. And, voilà, the perfect cocktail.
“Lemon can be aggressive. It’s kind of a bully,” Jon says. “Lime is more subtle. Sometimes you want a bully because you need to wrangle something. In The Aviation, you have subtle flavors and aromas to bring out, so lime works well.”
Jon has become quite adept at creating and refining cocktails over the years. He got into the spirit about five years ago with the birth of Edible Cleveland. His first assignment led to the Rhubarb Basil Smash in the inaugural Spring 2012 issue.
“Developing cocktails every quarter is a creative outlet for me,” he says. “I like writing, but I write all the time for work. This is a regular outlet for creative thinking and learning. I like learning. In making cocktails, I realized that I like tinkering also.”
Tinkering is part of the research process. Self-titled cocktail books from New York City bars Death & Company and The Dead Rabbit inspire his creations. And then he tests, tests, and tests his own concoctions.
“The fewest [tests] have been three, the most have been a couple dozen…for one drink,” he says. “I like exploring the fine and subtle changes.”
Homegrown drink development could easily guzzle cash if you’re buying obscure liqueurs like crème de violette and maraschino. But, creating doesn’t have to be expensive.
“If you don’t want to invest in completely off-the-wall liqueurs, a collection of bitters will change up drinks easily,” he says. “And, interesting bitters are being made locally by Full Measure Bitters.”
A Manhattan is a good example. The traditional recipe uses a couple dashes of Angostura bitters. But, that could be changed up with, say, orange bitters.
“Get different bitters and test the drink,” Jon says. “The best one I’ve had is a regular Manhattan with black walnut bitters. It’s radically different from one made with Angostura or orange bitters.”
For newbies, he suggests identifying one or two favorite base liquors, although he advises steering clear of vodka since it is generally flavorless.
“The challenge is to take a base spirit and marry it with cocktails to create something else,” Jon says. “Take your bottle of midshelf bourbon. You can make a number of drinks with just some small variations in accompanying flavors. You can go one way with ginger beer and muddled oranges. You can go another way with cola and lime.”
One of the most surprising things he’s learned is that the best drinks can be the simplest, and that idea has crossed over into his cooking. “My instinct is to believe more ingredients are better,” he says. “And, that can have its place. But, creating drink recipes has taught me about simplicity and clarity of flavor. The best drinks have, maybe, three ingredients. Remembering what flavors I’m trying to bring out of a drink is important.”
The Secret To Reliable Recipes
“If there’s a recipe in there, I’ve tested it.”
Robbie Washington has been the recipe tester for Edible Cleveland since the first issue debuted in Spring 2012. Robbie tests all of the recipes—12 to 15 for each issue—over and above his daily duties as executive chef at the Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University. Though Robbie is a trained chef, he puts himself in the mindset of the everyday home cook when he’s testing.
“I check the ingredients, the measurements, and all the steps,” he explains. “A professional chef will view recipes like a blank canvas. We’re trained to improvise and make adjustments. The typical home cook is going to stick with the recipes and follow directions to the letter.”
His no-nonsense, pragmatic approach is what you want in a recipe tester. By replicating a recipe to the letter, he determines if it is too complicated, or if it might not present well. He likes to work weekends when the kitchen is quiet, and he takes notes as he goes through each step. He interprets what he can, and fills in the blanks so the recipe is viable. It doesn’t matter if he’s made the dish before. His intuition will fill the gap—mostly.
Over the years, he has encountered recipes that need a little work, and some that just don’t work. Chefs aren’t the best at writing down all the details, he says. They have a knack for memorizing, adapting, and improvising.
Robbie also knows that most of us want our finished dish to look just as it does in the magazine. So as he’s testing, he keeps the visual look of the completed dish in mind. It’s one thing to see a beautifully photographed dish in the pages of a magazine. Replicating it at home is entirely different. And while he can’t guarantee a reader’s efforts will look like the picture, he believes that it should be attainable. “Before I actually start to prepare it, I see the end result in my head,” he says. “A lot of planning goes into how something looks on the plate. It has to look good. We eat with our eyes.”
The origins of Robbie’s love of cooking can be traced back to his grandmother. “I always paid attention to what my grandma was doing. We’d have 15 people in the house for meals,” he says.
Robbie has spent 35 years in the culinary industry, the last nine with Bon Appétit Management Company, a national foodservice company that serves the CWRU campus and other institutions, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Botanical Garden. He conveys a masterful command of his kitchen. He plans menus, oversees purchasing, and keeps a close eye on the environmental footprint of the whole operation.
Bon Appétit has been recognized for its waste reduction efforts. Frontline culinary pros like Robbie evaluate how they can run leaner and more sustainably, using a computer program called ValuWaste, which weighs, logs, and monitors food waste.
“Our partnership with Bon Appétit is a reflection of our commitment to sustainable operations. Working with them allows us to live our values,” explains Noelle Celeste, Edible Cleveland’s publisher. “We get recipes from so many different people every season, so having Robbie on the team helps ensure we’re providing our readers with the best recipe possible, particularly for those who enjoy trying new recipes they find in each issue.”
Like most chefs, Robbie’s downtime doesn’t involve elaborate cooking. In fact, he’s more likely to enjoy a hot dog or a bologna sandwich on his off days. He saves his A-game for the 1,500 students, faculty, and guests for whom he and his team make everything from scratch, sourcing as locally as possible, and catering to a variety of special diets and cultural preferences, for three mealtimes a day.
“We’re really bringing our guests the best from farm to campus, and from kitchen to the table,” Robbie says. “Edible Cleveland stands for things that are local, and so does Bon Appétit.”