Sunday, July 03, 2022

Life & Style

In the Kitchen with Mo Jalil

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Mo Jalil, the banquet chef at Madison Beach Hotel, will be creating a multi-course Middle Eastern Epicurean Series Dinner on Saturday, April 9 at 7 p.m. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

Mo Jalil, the banquet chef at Madison Beach Hotel, will be creating a multi-course Middle Eastern Epicurean Series Dinner on Saturday, April 9 at 7 p.m. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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The key to making great tabouleh is using the freshest ingredients, says Jalil. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The key to making great tabouleh is using the freshest ingredients, says Jalil. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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Before Jalil starts making the tabouleh, he makes sure all of the ingredients are chopped, prepped, and ready to add, part of a French culinary technique called mise en place. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

Before Jalil starts making the tabouleh, he makes sure all of the ingredients are chopped, prepped, and ready to add, part of a French culinary technique called mise en place. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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Jalil adds fresh lemon juice to the tabouleh.

Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

Jalil adds fresh lemon juice to the tabouleh. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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The goat cheese mousse garnish is made from goat cheese and sour cream in a food processor.

Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The goat cheese mousse garnish is made from goat cheese and sour cream in a food processor. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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An olive oil drizzle at the end helps bring all of the ingredients and garnishes together.

Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

An olive oil drizzle at the end helps bring all of the ingredients and garnishes together. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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The finished plate of tabouleh includes a tahini sesame za’atar puff pastry. But Mo Jalil says any bread is fine, including a pita. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

The finished plate of tabouleh includes a tahini sesame za’atar puff pastry. But Mo Jalil says any bread is fine, including a pita. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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Lou Carrier and Mo Jalil Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

Lou Carrier and Mo Jalil (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)

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The guests and conversation at the Epicurean Dinners are as important as the food and service. Photo courtesy of Madison Beach Hotel

The guests and conversation at the Epicurean Dinners are as important as the food and service. (Photo courtesy of Madison Beach Hotel)

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The number of guests at the Epicurean Series dinner is kept small to make the experience more intimate, says Lou Carrier. Photo courtesy of Madison Beach Hotel

The number of guests at the Epicurean Series dinner is kept small to make the experience more intimate, says Lou Carrier. (Photo courtesy of Madison Beach Hotel)

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Lou Carrier says his goal is to make Madison Beach Hotel’s bar the finest in Connecticut, with a fully stocked wine cellar and premium liquors including Louis XIII Cognac by Rémy Martin. Photo courtesy of Madison Beach Hotel

Lou Carrier says his goal is to make Madison Beach Hotel’s bar the finest in Connecticut, with a fully stocked wine cellar and premium liquors including Louis XIII Cognac by Rémy Martin. (Photo courtesy of Madison Beach Hotel)

When Mo Jalil steps into the kitchen at The Madison Beach Hotel’s restaurant, The Wharf, on Saturday, April 9 for a multi-course Middle Eastern Epicurean Series Dinner, he will be drawing upon his 40 years of experience in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and at the former Hungry Lion restaurant owned by his family in Clinton.

Trained at the Notre Dame Culinary School in Jerusalem as a young man and then later at the Cordon Bleu in France, he’s worked all over the world at numerous large and prestigious venues, boutique hotels, and at a leading catering company.

The menu at the Epicurean Dinner on April 9 will include baba ghanoush, muhammara, Moroccan-style short ribs with onion jam, tabouleh salad, grilled chicken kebab with shawarma spice, stuffed beef kibbeh with tzatziki sauce, a lamb shank tagine with tomato confit, and baklava with pistachio gelato, rose water gelée, and fresh honey. There will be wine pairings with every course and dessert too.

Guests will include the regulars who live just down the street and people from as far away as New York and beyond. Jalil and his team will guide them through the experience he plans to create. If past dinners of this sort at The Wharf are any measure, the delicious food and wine pairings will be served with a generous side of spirited and convivial conversation.

That night, Jalil will be drawing upon all of his training and experiences over the decades, but the inspiration for the food he will serve his guests comes from a deeper place, one that informs all that he does and everything he aspires to do, the memories of making food with his mother in her kitchen.

Food Fresh from the Back Yard

Jalil was born in Jerusalem and his earliest memories of falling in love with food happened at the side of his mother Rebecca. Jalil says his mother was the best cook who made breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, drawing upon the riches of her garden just outside, along with those from his grandfather’s farm.

They had sheep. They had a cow that Jalil helped milk when he was a small boy. They had chickens, and Jalil carried a little basket to help collect the eggs. They had rabbits.

They had apricot trees. Lemon trees.

“We had fresh figs. I used to walk from my family’s house and go get the figs, bring it inside, wash it, and eat it with homemade cheese, labneh cheese,” a kind of thick yogurt cheese often studded with fresh herbs or lemon zest. “It’s like sour cream, but better,” says Jalil of the labneh.

They had olive trees.

“We never bought extra virgin olive oil. We used to go and shake the trees, and the olives would come off on a blanket,” he says.

They were then transported to a press, where they were transformed into olive oil.

“Because we made so much, some of it we put in a small bottle and give to the neighbors.”

And they had pomegranate trees.

“I’d go outside and pick them up, nice and red,” he says.

Jalil’s love for food was strengthened when he took a few classes on the subject in high school. He graduated early at 17, determined to become a chef. Where he came from in Jerusalem, chefs were celebrities.

“Over there it is very popular to become a chef,” he says. “Jerusalem is the Holy Land, so there are many five-star hotels. And so many tourists. And I hear from all my friends, ‘If you become a chef, you will be famous.’ I wasn’t looking for money. But I got to work with a master chef from Israel, then from Germany, from England, from France, Italy, Spain. All top chefs. And we have to learn to cook not one item, but internationally, Middle Eastern, Spanish, French, German, continental cuisine. And you had to be the best.”

Taste As You Go Tabouleh

The dishes he will serve April 9 includes tabouleh, which features the fresh ingredients he might have gathered from his mother’s garden.

The basic recipe is simple. Ingredients include a half cup of bulgur wheat that is cooked and set aside to cool. When it’s cool, added to that is a half cup of diced English cucumber, a cup of diced tomato, three bunches of flat leaf parsley finely chopped, a third cup of fresh mint finely chopped, a third cup of thinly sliced green onion, a third cup of olive oil (with more to taste as needed), three to four tablespoons of lemon juice (or more or less to taste), and a tablespoon of pomegranate glaze (optional).

Toss all of the ingredients in a large bowl.

The key is to make everything with garden-fresh ingredients, says Jalil. If he was back home in Jerusalem and it was the right season, he would go out to his garden and pick up a pomegranate and use that for a garnish. But it’s not and he can’t, so he will be making a garnish of pickled onion, and serve it with a goat cheese mousse and some greens, sprinkle it with nuts, and add more pomegranate molasses and olive oil over the top.

The pickled onion is easy and quick to make. Take two small or one large red onion and slice it thinly. In a saucepan, heat up two cups of white vinegar and two cups of water with about a third cup of sugar, and about two tablespoons of salt. Let it cool a bit and then pour it over the onions. When it’s cooled to room temperature, it can be stored in the fridge. Let it marinate for at least an hour, overnight is better. To make it even more interesting, Jalil says, you can add spices, such as bay leaves, anise, whole peppercorns, or cardamom.

The goat cheese mousse is similarly easy to make. Put about four ounces of goat cheese in a food processor. Add about half cup to three quarter cup of sour cream, and process until smooth. The thickness of different brands of goat cheese can vary, so if it still seems too thick to spread easily, add heavy cream or whipping cream until you get the desired texture.

Jalil plates the tabouleh by putting it in a circular mold on the plate. If you don’t have a circular mold, he says, use a cookie cutter of your choice, or take a used can and cut out the top and bottom and use that. He puts a swirl of the goat cheese mousse on the plate. He adds some salad greens, sprinkles it with nuts, and pulls it all together with a squirt of pomegranate molasses and another of olive oil.

As for nuts, you could use pistachio. You could use almonds. You could use walnuts. If you don’t want nuts, that’s fine. For the greens you could use Boston bibb, mache, radicchio. You could add carrots as a garnish.

If you don’t want to use wheat, you can substitute in quinoa. And to add more flavor, you could also add chickpeas.

One of the keys is to taste as you go, he says—”Every time you put something in, you taste it.”

Jalil also will be adding some puff pastry that he made by spreading it with tahini, sprinkling it with sesame seeds and za’atar spices, cutting it in straight rows, twisting it, and baking it.

“But you could do any bread you like,” he says, including pita.

Jalil says he loves this dish because it is delicious, it is healthy, and because it reminds him of the food his mother used to make for him.

Focusing on Creativity, Excellence, the Future

After Jalil shows me how to make the tabouleh, we move into the dining room, which is under construction as part of a hotel-wide refurbishment and renovation to freshen it up for the spring and summer season. We sit with Madison Beach Hotel General Manager John Mathers and Lou Carrier, president of Distinctive Hospitality Group, the privately held hotel management and ownership company that includes Madison Beach Hotel as part of its portfolio.

As hammers pound away and circular saws squeal, we talk about the challenges the pandemic has posed when it comes to putting a meal on the table, challenges that have shuttered restaurants and hotels all over the world, and how it has emphasized the need for creativity and going back to what is most important, including an insistence on what is fresh and what is best.

“You have to shop around,” says Jalil. “You can substitute something different if you need to, and you might have to be more creative to make a good dish, but it all has to be fresh.”

Mathers says Jalil is a “hidden gem” and that he looks forward to featuring his background and experience during the upcoming dinner and beyond that as well.

“We want the hotel to be known for, among other things, food. I want people to be able to say they had an extraordinary experience,” Mathers says.

Carrier agrees. His goal is to make sure the food is complemented by a spectacular beverage service, and the highest level of service.

“The food and the beverage is the tip of the arrow,” he says. “This is a jewel of a place. And it’s not just the food. We want it to be a deep exploration of spirits and wines. And a great experience.”

He says the experience should appeal to every one of the fives senses.

“And conversation is part of that,” he says. “And the individuals who attend are part of that. These dinners attract people who are interested in unique experiences. There is Pete and Sher from down the road and people coming all the way from New York. You never know who’s going to come.”

He adds that he also has a reverence for the Madison Beach Hotel’s roots in the community and its spectacular location overlooking Long Island Sound and the West Wharf rocks. The rocks are both a constant and they change from minute to minute, on any given day perhaps hosting fishermen in the early dawn, a couple who just got married and are having pictures taken in the afternoon, and small children exploring in the tide pools in the evening.

“It’s a very spiritual thing” to have them just outside, he says.

He says he knows the locals miss the old Crow’s Nest, the friendly, sometimes raucous eatery that sat atop the old version of the hotel. In addition to big fancy dinners, the renovated eating area will have new spaces that he hopes will serve as an attraction for people who live nearby and just want to pop by for a drink and to watch the sun set.

He and Mathers are thrilled the town’s movie theater is back open and have already collaborated on a blues music weekend that included a showing of The Blues Brothers at the newly reopened Madison Cinemas. They are looking forward to offering music festivals, a fall festival, and collaborations with R.J. Julia Booksellers. Peter Loden, who runs Walker Loden in downtown Madison, runs the hotel’s little boutique as well.

“We hope all of this will help strengthen the community while we are building the reputation of the hotel,” he says.

In the meantime, Jalil is making some big plans, too, including a chef’s series that offers the best of a variety of cuisines.

For Jalil, this emphasis on international cuisine came naturally. His mother, who immigrated to Jerusalem during World War II, is Sicilian. His grandfather is Arabian. His grandmother is Moroccan, and Moroccan cuisine includes influences from southern and sub-Sahara, Andalusia, the Mediterranean, France, and Spain.

These influences are clear when he talks about his goal when it comes to the upcoming dinner, the chef’s series, and his work at The Wharf in general.

“I want to bring the world to Madison,” he says.

The Middle Eastern Epicurean Series Dinner will take place on Saturday, April 9 at 7 p.m. at the Madison Beach Hotel, 94 West Wharf Road, Madison. Tickets are $150. More information is available at EventBrite or visiting the hotel’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MadisonBeachHotel, and going to the “events” tab.











Pem McNerney is the Living Editor for Zip06. Email Pem at p.mcnerney@shorepublishing.com.

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