Chef Jack Hodes recalls fondly the meal he and his wife Traci shared on their very first date, sneaking through an apartment building in New York City to find a no-name, speakeasy-style restaurant.
Now decades later Hodes, executive chef and kitchen director at Jefferson House in Newington, still takes pride in presenting dishes with old-fashioned finesse.
“I love classic, old style food from a different time,” he says. “There is more complexity to it. The shortcuts available to us now weren’t around then, so the flavors were simpler and cleaner.”
Residents at the nursing and rehabilitation facility value the care granted to their mealtime needs and wishes.
“I tell my kitchen staff, we have the privilege of coming to work each day and into the homes of 104 people,” Hodes says. “This is the greatest population to work for. We see them three times a day, seven days a week.”
One evening he served pot roast, upsetting a British woman who sought him out to ask why it was not accompanied by Yorkshire pudding. Hodes accepted responsibility, promptly whipping up the beef dripping-laden popovers to appease her.
The nursing home’s resident board discusses food requests and issues with staff. Sometimes Hodes cooks specific dishes that trigger memories in patients with dementia.
“Cooking is a lot about history,” he says. “I learned from one chef and he learned from another. The lineage goes back.”
He spent eight years as an apprentice to three-star Michelin Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, before going on to become executive chef at several fine dining establishments. His resume includes The Q Club and The Omni Hotel in New Haven.
Three children later a desire to abandon late nights in the restaurant world brought Hodes into the health-care sector.
He spent five years at the Southington Care Center before coming to Jefferson House.
Last summer brought the opportunity to serve a banquet lunch for four centenarians and their families in Southington. Hodes adapted a 1916 menu from the country’s first fine dining establishment for the occasion.
Delmonico’s opened in 1837, at the intersection of Beaver, William and South William Streets. Its founding family claims to have debuted the use of tablecloths and created Lobster Newburg, Eggs Benedict and Baked Alaska.
One of the dishes Hodes served the century-old group was a double consommé, basically a twice-clarified broth. Honored guests also had their choice of halibut, roast lamb and braised beef.
“Hopefully we brought them back to when they were young,” he says.
But the true difference between today’s dining and that of yore doesn’t end up in the stomach, according to Hodes.
“The biggest thing is the service,” he explains. “It’s nothing like how it was. It was a different time.”
Dinner was once presented by several waiters, back waiters and sommeliers: one to pour the wine; another, different beverages; and a third still for crudités and relishes. The entrée would often be finished tableside, with side dish accompaniments delivered individually, by separate staff.
The whole elaborate affair was as much about grace as it was a show. Fish, for example, was filleted tableside by the work of two silver spoons. This French technique is rarely found in restaurants today.
A common dish presented in this preparation was Sole Meunière, lightly fried with a lemon-butter sauce. Chef Hodes generously shares his recipe for this simple French classic, below.
2 tbsp. canola oil
½ cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tsp. black pepper
4 Sole filets
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
6 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp. chopped chervil or parsley
Combine flour, salt and pepper. Dredge sole and shake off excess. Heat sauté pan and add canola oil. Heat until just smoking. Put sole filet in pans and cook until golden brown, about two minutes. Flip sole and brown other side, about another two minutes. Add lemon juice. Add butter and swirl pan to finish sauce. Add chervil or parsley.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.