Chefs corner blog covers (7)

Big-Ole Flavor and Resilience

By Hari Pulapaka, PhD, WCMC, CEC
December 23, 2021

          The “big-O” symbol was introduced more than a century ago to describe the asymptotic “order of magnitude” of mathematical expressions. It represents the big-picture magnitude of a function or expression, while focusing on the most influential growth factor(s). About 45 years ago, Professor Donald Knuth — the widely regarded father of algorithmic computer science — defined a variation of the mathematical version as a way to describe the computational complexity of computer algorithms. The 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, omicron (O), is often used to represent the worst-case scenario of a computer algorithm — certainly something an implementation would aim to avoid. By analogy, the omicron variant of COVID-19 is threatening to be the worst-case scenario for restaurants, many already beaten up and down by the delta variant and its predecessors. On the heels of a late summer delta surge in the United States, omicron is already the dominant variant in many parts of the country. And just like that, we can only hope that big-O will cease.
          The challenge of labor shortages has laid evident the dysfunction and lack of resilience brought about by systemic top-down institutional approaches for businesses, especially in restaurants. In last week’s post, I invited you to imagine the “total restaurant,” wherein traditional narrow-laned positions would make way for universal team engagement. The devil being in the details: How do we nudge business practices to get there? What culpability rests in the hallowed business schools of this world?
          Assuming defined constraints and diligent bookkeeping, it would be possible for a small business to determine a sweet range of optimized profit. And the algorithm to determine that, in each instance, has a computational complexity of O(1), which, in efficiency terms, is constantly fast. Anybody else out there who still thinks mathematics is without “real-world” application?
          "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" may be Thumper's Law in the animated world, but versions of the sentiment have been around a bit longer than Bambi. The hospitality industry, more than any other, may have systematically enabled an expectation of servitude and pandering — at all costs. When that expectation is challenged, the show of dissatisfaction among the general public manifests itself in numerous ways. Poor tipping (tipping is a seriously flawed idea, despite what you may have heard), followed by venting on customer review sites and social media, has become the norm. Ironically, even though the world's population is at an all-time high, individuals resort to impersonal expressions rather than word-of-mouth — the most powerful mode of spreading an opinion before the advent of the Internet. The restaurant industry is likely going to face continued challenges in the weeks and months to come. There is a palpable fatigue in all sectors of society, and service industries are especially beaten up. As Chef Hugh Acheson recently suggested in a post: If you are in the position, support your favorite restaurants by buying food and drink, then buy a stack of gift cards, before promptly burning them. Of course, I’m assuming he’s referring to individuals who have the means.
          Many small businesses are experiencing growing demand amid dwindling labor stability and do not have the capacity, time, resources, energy — and sometimes courage — to stand up to the bullying customers of the world who are now enabled by corporate outlets. During these challenging times, should you find yourself unhappy with your experience at a small business, consider doing one of the following: Communicate with the business owner/manager away from the stressful environment of day-to-day operations. Based on the initial reaction, consider affording the business a second chance, and, if you are still unhappy, by all means, patronize elsewhere.

Local Ingredient of the Week
          Capsicum is how I knew green bell pepper before coming to the U.S. They belong to the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and eggplant, among other plants. There’s an adage in cooking that basically says that ingredients that grow together taste good together. Generally, this is a good philosophy for cooking, when you may be unsure of what combinations are gastronomically compatible. Some green peppers ripen to other colors, like red, while others are unique hybrids and even heirloom varietals. Although, all (most) peppers start out green.
          Bell peppers contain little to no capsaicin, the active component of chilies that give our taste buds the perception of heat. By some estimates, there are more than 50,000 varieties of peppers in the world, and the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale ranks them according to their heat level. Because we can genetically engineer so much now, it’s not uncommon to find jalapeño peppers without any heat. It has apparently become necessary to label jalapenos as “Hotties” — an actual brand that sells for about 50 cents a pepper, much to the chagrin of cooks like me who got screwed by the “heatflakes.” I get it; there is demand for the flavor, but not always the heat. Well, choose another pepper, then. May I suggest a green bell pepper?
          The Creole substitution of green pepper for carrots transforms a classic mirepoix into a holy trinity. A secret to an even more delicious North Indian red gravy is to sauté onions and green bell peppers briefly before adding the gravy. Something magical happens with this pre-step. Stuffed peppers are comforting and underrated, yet chiles rellenos remain wildly popular.
Spice of the Week
          Is it Creole or Cajun? A common cause of confusion, but the terms should not be used interchangeably. While there are definite commonalities, one distinction is place of origin. Creole is considered more a product of New Orleans, the behemoth of culture and identity in the state of Louisiana. Creole is the formal amalgamation of Spanish, Caribbean, and certainly French influences. Cajun, on the other hand, is influenced by the Acadiana region of the southwestern part of the state, also with a strong French influence. Some references point to the presence of tomatoes in Creole and absence or omission of tomatoes in Cajun cuisine. Seems a bit flimsy a distinction if you ask me. The origins notwithstanding, this blend is wonderful for sauces and in marinades prior to grilling or roasting.

Yield: approximately 1 cup


1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon black peppercorn
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons cumin seed
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon chili powder (like cayenne)
2 teaspoons coarse salt


Dry toast all the ingredients on medium-low heat for 10 minutes in a heavy-bottomed pan, like a cast-iron skillet. Allow the mixture to cool before grinding to the desired fineness. I prefer it somewhat coarse. Label and store in an airtight container.

Recipe of the Week
Shrimp ’n Grits 
          Most restaurants in the Southern United States have some version of this staple. I treat the grits as if it was polenta and infuse it with exotic mushrooms, bay leaves and lots of fresh thyme. The key is to brown the butter at the beginning stage for a deep nutty flavor in the grits. This ensures that the grits hold up to the strong flavors generated by the Creole spices, shrimp and capsicum.
          Mushrooms are seeing an explosion in demand and cultivation all across the United States, and I couldn’t be happier. During the restaurant days, I’ve paid a small fortune for cultivated and wild mushrooms.

Servings: 4

12 fresh extra-large shrimp, cleaned
1 cup medium onion, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
2 cups green and red bell peppers, diced
1 tablespoon freshly minced garlic
1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoons creole seasoning blend (see recipe above)
2 bay leaves, fresh if available
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped finely
1 cup ripe tomatoes, diced
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half (as preferred)
6 oz. yellow corn grits
1/4 stick unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion or shallot, minced
1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped finely
water, as needed
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

1.      Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or sauce pot.

2.     Add the onions (or shallots), 1 bay leaf, half of the fresh thyme, and mushrooms, and sauté until the butter browns and ingredients exude a nutty aroma.

3.     Add the cream and enough water to have about 3-4 times as much liquid as dry grits. Season this broth with salt and pepper at the level where you want your grits to be. Once it begins to simmer, remove the bay leaf, and whisk in the grits slowly, stirring constantly.

4.     Continue stirring until the mixture starts thickening. You may need to add more liquid, if the grits are getting too thick before being fully cooked. Uncovered, the process takes about an hour, including resting the grits. Don’t be like Mr. Tipton in My Cousin Vinny, who can apparently cook 20-minute grits in 5.

Shrimp & Sauce 
1.     In a saucepan over medium heat, place some extra-virgin olive oil and add the onions, celery and bell peppers (Pop-quiz: What’s this combination called?). Sauté until they are soft and slightly caramelized.

2.     Next, add the remaining fresh thyme, rosemary and minced garlic. Stir briefly for about a minute, being careful that the garlic does not burn.

3.     Add the Creole blend of spices and bay leaf. Stir for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and some water. Let the sauce simmer for about 30 minutes. Finish with chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley.

4.     In a saucepan, sauté the shrimp for about 30 seconds. Add as much of the “Creole” sauce as you wish, as well as some heavy cream.

5.     Simmer gently until the shrimp are just cooked (another minute). Finish with fresh parsley. Serve over grits and with a wedge of lemon.

1.    You could add a small amount of andouille sausage at the beginning of the sauce-making process, but doing so takes the dish from being pescetarian-friendly to not.

2.    By the same token, you could omit the shrimp and roast some cauliflower to a golden brown for a “Creole Cauliflower ’n Grits.”

Why is the Chef in a Corner?
          After spending well over a decade in my little restaurant kitchen fully immersed in getting sh!t done, I’m ready to bust out of my corner.
          Each week, I will pass judgment on a segment of food news that may or may not be interesting, shed light on a seasonal (for us) food ingredient or two, and dream up some minutiae about a spice I love and think you should, too.
          In true elitist fashion, I will share a recipe with you, because academia is in my blood and academics think everything they do or say is supremely relevant and important.
          I am here to champion the worth of food while fighting for flavor and the people who help provide food on our tables. What percentage of Americans eat at the dining table these days? It has been on the decline for the past decade because by many measures, “the kitchen ate the dining room.”

Photo Credit: Hari Pulapaka
About Chef Hari
Hari Pulapaka Chef's Corner
Hari Pulapaka

By Hari Pulapaka

Hari Pulapaka is a full-time, tenured Associate Professor of Mathematics in his 22nd year at Stetson University. When he is not teaching undergraduate Mathematics, cooking, speaking, or writing about food, Hari serves as strategic advisor on matters of sustainability for Postelsia and is a Chef/Partner for Enroot.

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