Chef Oren Zroya: a Radical approach to sensible, flavourful cooking
Although Malibu-based chef Oren Zroya made his name as a personal chef for A-list celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Gerard Butler and Owen Wilson, he insists anybody can bring out their inner A-list chef with the right set of tools. His first rule of thumb is that a well-outfitted home kitchen begins with a perfect, all-purpose cast iron skillet, reports US west coast editor Elyse Glickman
If you’ve always dreamed of having a celebrity chef giving you an assist towards perfectly cooked, healthier creations, your wish may be about to come true. Oren Zroya, who has personally put celebrities like Shannen Doherty, Brooke Burke, Barbara Streisand and Owen Wilson on a path to healthier and more interesting home dining, developed the Radical Pan. The innovative shape and design practically ensures almost any homemade dish will look and taste its best. The non-stick-coated pan’s secret “weapon” is a lip-like shape on one side that forms a backboard that makes even cooking easier either with a spatula or by shaking and flipping your ingredients. The FDA-approved surface also allows one to minimize oil and fat usage, which in turn lets the natural flavours of the ingredients shine through. This is especially important if you are spending extra on ingredients to ensure what you eat and serve will be at its peak of flavour and nutritional value.
One may argue that some of the knowledge that went into the design of the pan could be traced to Zroya’s years training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena, or a postgraduate job at a posh French restaurant in Malibu (Beau Rivage), where he eventually served as its chef. However, the job that changed the course of his life came to him via an unassuming want-ad for a caretaker in a small community publication. He would end up looking after playwright and author Jerome Lawrence, whose work included Inherit the Wind, Auntie Mame, Mame, and many more classic American plays, films, and novels. In the process, he learned why organic, locally-farmed ingredients made a big difference for both a cook and the people eating his food.
‘Taking care of Jerry, I was able to shop at Pacific Coast Green, an expensive grocery store with the freshest, natural and organic ingredients, and had the freedom to choose what I wanted,’ Zroya recalls. ‘Using these foods in a medicinal context, I saw Jerry’s health start to improve. Aside from cooking his meals, I booked swimming and physical therapy appointments to stimulate his mind. Jerry was getting healthy enough to travel back to New York to see his plays on Broadway and attend the Tonys and Peabody Awards to accept awards.’
During his breaks, while Jerry was resting, Zroya began watching programmes on Food Network to learn from its cavalcade of cooks and chefs (Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Ina Garten, Alton Brown, and Jamie Oliver) about how to make every meal a special event for Jerry. With gratitude, and seeing the potential he had as a chef, Jerry put a down payment on his future education at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena to ensure he could translate his natural talents into a career in culinary arts.
‘For the next two and a half years, I worked for Jerry in the morning and attended culinary school the rest of the day,’ he says. ‘Jerry was a very sweet man, and always helped me with my homework at a time when I was still refining my English language skills. In a way, I owe my success to the kindness I received from Jerry during the seven years I spent as his caretaker.’
Today, Zroya still adheres to the notion that food is medicine, having observed the ways seasonal and local–native foods helped his private chef clients address a variety of health issues. Garlic, ginger, mushrooms, fennel, oregano, and turmeric are still constant pantry staples in his private and professional kitchens because of their nutritional attributes, as are herbs and root vegetables because of their nutrient density.
As timing is key when sourcing ingredients, no matter what cookware one uses, Zroya recommends regular visits to local farmers markets, as vegetables, fruits and herbs sold by the purveyors tend to be fresher and are more likely to be organically grown than their supermarket counterparts. While this approach is a little more time-intensive, the resulting dishes are worth the extra effort.
‘Anything perishable, like leafy greens or meats, I’ll buy to last for two or three days max,’ he continues. ‘Other things like dry goods and root vegetables can last for a couple of weeks, but I like to use them sooner rather than later. The biggest enemy to freshness is moisture and air, so for things like picked herbs, I wrap them in newspaper and put them in a dark, dry drawer along with things like onions, garlic, shallots, and potatoes.’
Although Zroya creates many globally inspired dishes, he says he always applies his own personal Mediterranean twist, especially when it comes to bringing out the best flavours in produce. This means using ‘oils that taste good,’ such as avocado, hazelnut or almond. He will also add in spices like zaatar, sumac or allspice, and complete the dish with fresh greens and herbs, lemon juice, and olive oil.
To guarantee consistency, the same principles apply in keeping pans, tools and surfaces in the kitchen clean and sanitary.
‘Take care of your equipment by wishing it with soap and hot water and let them air dry,’ he advises. ‘Have designated cutting boards for veggies, for fish, and for meat. Avoid using wooden cutting boards for meats as they’re harder to disinfect. This method helps prevent cross contamination between the different types of food. When it comes to sanitizing, I recommend using a half-teaspoon of bleach or white vinegar mixed with four cups of water in a spray bottle. Spray the surfaces and scrub with hot soap and water and let them air dry.’
Zroya will never forget the good fortune he had in Malibu, even as his work becomes nationally and internationally recognized. Even with a busy schedule, and his continued passion for surfing (his reason for moving to California), he makes time to give back to community organizations like the Boys and Girls’ Club, Life Rolls On, and Chabad of Malibu.
‘To this day, I still consider my life, surfing, the ocean and outdoors, and now, raising a family to be a blessing,’ he concludes. ‘This is my definition of the American Dream.’ •