Inside the test kitchen: Developing and perfecting recipes with a culinary professional

For most cooks, preparing one version of a recipe is plenty of work, let alone two, three or four recipe variations. But for professional cook Jonathan Bardzik, it’s just another Tuesday night in the test kitchen.

WASHINGTON — Jonathan Bardzik stands over his kitchen counter and whisks a bowl of garlic paste, olive oil, Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar. When the ingredients come together, he turns his focus to another bowl — this one filled with garlic paste, olive oil, Dijon mustard and champagne vinegar.

Both vinaigrettes have the same destiny: They will cover a pile of quinoa, chopped asparagus and fresh herbs. But first, Bardzik must decide which iteration he likes best.

“The champagne for sure,” says Bardzik, after swallowing a spoonful of the coated quinoa. “That’s so light and fresh to me. And there’s almost a sweetness that still comes through.”

For most cooks, preparing one version of a recipe is plenty of work, let alone two, three or four recipe variations. But for Bardzik, it’s just another Tuesday night in the test kitchen.

For the past four years, Bardzik has been cooking in front of a live audience every Saturday morning at D.C.’s Eastern Market. There, he demonstrates four to five new dishes over a three-hour period using fresh ingredients from the market. He preps everything on a pop-up table and cooks his dishes (think butternut squash pancetta soup and summer squash goulash) on a camp stove.

The point of the demonstrations, he says, is to get people excited about fresh and seasonal food, and to show them all of the ways they can use their market produce once they get home.

“I love getting out and talking to people about food … and teaching them how to bring new foods home and have fun in their kitchen,” says Bardzik, a D.C. resident.

He even comes equipped to his market demonstrations with printed recipe cards, and of course, free samples of whatever he’s making that day.

This is not TV: The challenges of cooking live

While Bardzik has built a career in the culinary arts, the self-taught cook doesn’t call himself a chef. He prefers the title “entertainer.” Anyone who’s watched Bardzik would likely agree. After all, it takes more than pretty food and impressive knife skills to keep a crowd interested in a cooking demonstration.

“I just start talking,” says Bardzik, who fills his three-hour time slot at the market telling personal stories and dishing out culinary advice, all while chopping, boiling and sautéing in front of a crowd of 20 to 30 people.

At one of his first market demonstrations, Bardzik decided to make zabaione, which is a whipped Italian custard. But it wasn’t until Bardzik was already headed to the market that it dawned on him: The recipe requires seven minutes of whisking over a double broiler.

“And it doesn’t get any more exciting after the first 20 seconds or so,” Bardzik says.

So he quickly came up with seven minutes of whisking stories — and yes, in Bardzik’s life, those do exist.

Of course there are other challenges to live cooking, aside from coming up with creative conversation. For example, encounters with extreme weather. There have been winds so high his tent has blown over. He’s also cooked in downpours and in incredible heat.

“There’s nowhere to hide; you’re absolutely at the mercy of the weather; we’re setting up a kitchen literally in whatever environment we go into and in a short period of time,” Bardzik says.

Another challenge: His ingredients are never guaranteed. There have been plenty of times when farmers anticipate a particular crop, but for whatever reason, don’t end up coming to market with that product.

“And all of the sudden, you’ve got 30 minutes to figure out how you’re going to fill that three hour slot without any tomatoes. But it’s always exciting, it never gets boring,” Bardzik says.

With all of the unpredictable variables of live cooking, Bardzik at least likes to have his recipes planned out — even if he does have to switch it up at the last minute. And that’s what his Tuesday test kitchens are for.

Getting to work: Inside the test kitchen

Every Tuesday, Bardzik gathers his team, comprised of Nancy Mendrala and Matt Hocking, to develop and test recipes for the upcoming week. In the past four years, he says they have created more than 500 recipes.

Tuesday nights also give the team a chance to perfect recipes for Bardzik’s second cookbook, “Seasons to Taste.” The book, which features more than 100 recipes, is a four-season look at farm-fresh cooking. It also includes more than 35 of Bardzik’s stories — many of which he’s told at Eastern Market.

Bardzik’s kitchen is decked out with knives, pots, pans, serving dishes and a library of dried herbs and spices, but the most frequently used tool on test kitchen Tuesdays is the tasting spoon.

“It’s still missing something,” Mendrala said, after trying a spoonful of Bardzik’s colorful peach and blueberry salsa on a recent Tuesday. She opened her computer and checked Bardzik’s Facebook page. One Facebook follower suggested Bardzik add lime juice to the salsa. Bardzik squeezed some in, took a taste and agreed. Now it was complete.

When Bardzik is testing recipes in the kitchen, he frequently solicits ingredient suggestions and recipe advice on social media — and he uses it, too. He estimates about 90 percent of the dishes that come out of this kitchen have at least one ingredient suggestion or utilize one technique from his social media followers.

And there’s a reason he likes to get everyone involved: Bardzik wants to make sure his recipes are accessible. Of course they need to be delicious, he says, but they also need to be easy enough for the average home cook to whip up on a busy weeknight.

“I think it’s ridiculous if someone’s telling you it’s a Tuesday-night recipe and there are 45 minutes of knife work,” he says. “I want something that, realistically, you’re going to make. We’re eating three times a day and these are three opportunities to make our lives special. This is where the magic happens in our lives.”

After Bardzik finalized the salsa recipe, he turned his attention back to the quinoa and asparagus dish.

He added freshly chopped basil, parsley and thyme to champagne vinaigrette version and took another bite.

“This is the one,” he said. And he moved on to his next test kitchen recipe.

You can catch Jonathan Bardzik’s cooking demonstrations most Saturday’s at Eastern Market from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. You can also find his market recipes online.  

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