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Momasphere Goes Behind the Scenes with Melt Executive Chef Mark Simmons

By Ellen Bari

Just imagine being able to wander through the kitchen of your favorite restaurant to watch what goes on behind the scenes. The word wander might be a little misleading here, considering the size of the kitchen at Melt, but that’s just what an intimate group of Park Slope moms did on Monday night. Momasphere and Melt’s gracious owner and longtime Momasphere supporter Muguette Siem A. Sjoe, hosted a unique cooking class and dinner party with Executive Top Chef  Mark Simmons. The restaurant was closed to the public, creating an extremely relaxed atmosphere for an insider’s view of how to prepare one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, at a fraction of the cost.

The menu for the evening consisted of beer and honey braised lamb shank served with truffled polenta and charred asparagus. While seated at the elegant bar, nursing glasses of Pinot Noir, the Chef demonstrated how to prep the lamb. Being a native of New Zealand, Chef Mark has a deeper understanding of the ingredients, especially lamb, than traditionally trained big-city-bred chefs. Chef Mark maintains the unique position that “spices are the spice of life!” He believes foods must work in concert, like a symphony, where the spices play the strings, the herbs, the percussion and the vegetables make up the woodwinds.

After grinding an extremely aromatic mixture of toasted middle-eastern spices topped off with lavender flower, and coating the lamb shanks with the mixture, the group moved into the kitchen to braise the lamb. When asked how long the lamb needs to cook in the thick vegetable broth, he simply smiled and said, “never frown if it’s golden brown.” From there the lamb goes into the oven for 2.5 hours, and like any good TV Chef, Mark had prepared our dish in advance.  One of the reasons this lamb preparation is great for moms, is that it actually sits well in the refrigerator, allowing busy moms to prepare it during the weekend for a weekday meal, or late at night to serve on the following day/s.

Throughout the evening Chef Mark offered tips for how to substitute less pricey and kitchen-common alternatives to keep his recipes easy and affordable. Chicken could be substituted for the lamb, and a combination of red wine and chicken stock for the beer and honey. For those trying to avoid sugar, agave could be used to replace the honey as well. The truffle grits were cooked to perfection, though porcini mushrooms, fresh or re-constituted, could be used as a much less expensive alternative.

Cramped in this tiny kitchen, we marveled at how he is able to put out a restaurant’s worth of food, every evening. The chef strongly recommends keeping one’s appliances and pots to a minimum by having a few good multi-use pieces of equipment instead of an army of specialty items. The most important characteristic of a good Chef, he says, is the ability to maintain an even-keel, an apt metaphor for the captain of a kitchen often challenged with operating in limited space amidst boiling water, open fire and extremely sharp objects!

As we sat down to the table, the moms shared their dinnertime battle stories, one fatigued warrior after the other.  Some of the moms had come to learn new ways to entice their kids to the table, a never-ending challenge for many. When Chef Mark joined us for dinner, he continued to offer expert advice on subjects ranging from what to buy at the farmer’s market and how to prepare some of seasonal favorites, which he reiterated is another way to get the best bang for your buck.  Wined and dined to perfection, this group of fabulous local moms walked away with a few great new recipes, tons of cooking tips and the desire for more.

The class sold out with many on the waiting list, and with the attendees asking for classes on a full range of topics. If you’re interested in participating in a particular type of cooking class, or want to add your name to the waiting list for our next offering with Chef Mark Simmons, subject and date TBD, please sign up for the Momasphere list and send us an email at with Cooking Class in the subject line. In the body of the email, please include your first and last name and the type of class you might like to join.  

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