The Chef Apprentice

Join a self-taught cook as he trains at a top restaurant

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Feeling wistful, I stopped by Oliveto the other week. I only wanted to stay long enough to chat with friends, clear out my locker and depart with my shoes and my knife bag.

But when I entered the kitchen, I wasn't ready for any abrupt goodbyes. And so I decided to grab a white jacket and an apron, and work for a few more hours.

My first task, assigned by chef de cuisine Paul Berglund, was to peel and finely mince four heads of garlic for a beef ragu he was preparing.

The garlic didn't take long - perhaps 20 minutes. When I started at Oliveto, such a task might have taken an hour or more.

After that was done, Berglund assigned me to slow-roast a few trays of Early Girl tomatoes. This was a moment of culinary convergence.

At home, my wife and I had accumulated a bumper crop of homegrown Early Girls and Brandywines. Roasting them had come to mind.

But until my serendipitous locker-clearing visit to Oliveto, I had never learned the restaurant's technique for slow-roasted tomatoes.

My visit provided further evidence that hanging around a kitchen can be a transformative experience.

Slow-roasting is a fine way to process tomatoes at the end of the season.

The caramelized, shrunken tomatoes exude the intensity of Italian sun-dried tomatoes or the finest imported tomato paste.

Here's the basic technique: Take 6 to 8 pounds of tomatoes and cut them into uniform sizes. If you have Early Girls, you can slice them in half. Bigger tomatoes, such as Brandywines, must be cut into quarters or eighths.

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Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment, and lay the tomatoes skin-side down on it. Sprinkle the pieces with sugar, then salt, then olive oil, then sprigs of fresh thyme, as you see to the left.

Place your tray in the oven. Leave it there for 30 minutes, then check. If your tomatoes are dry, like some Early Girls, you might need to add a bit of water. Turn the temperature down to 275 degrees.

Continue to roast until the tomatoes have collapsed on themselves and their sweet-salty juices have reduced to the consistency of a light syrup. This might take an hour. Pull from the oven and allow to cool. When done, they will look like those in the pan above to the right.

Serve roasted tomatoes in a salad, or use them as a base for pasta sauce. You may also can them or freeze them - to be reminded of summer, even in the coldest of months.

The photo at top shows simple roasted tomatoes with ricotta salata, olive oil and sprigs of thyme.

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About The Chef Apprentice

Stuart Leavenworth, an editorial writer for The Bee, will spend the next several months in the kitchen at Oliveto, a highly rated Italian restaurant in the Bay Area. As an apprentice, Stuart will start as a prep chef, preparing vegetables, soups, sauces and pasta fillings. Then he'll move on to more challenging assignments. He welcomes your questions. Read his first installment here. Email him at sleavenworth@sacbee.com.

March 2010

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