Spring is a temptress. She teases us with a 70-degree day here and there before throwing a heavy blanket on our hopes in the form of a return to winterlike temperatures. But even the hint of a new season stokes visions of certain rites, not the least of which is lobster. And who speaks the universal language of lobster better than Chef Ed McFarland, owner of the very popular Ed’s Lobster Bar in New York.
Needless to say, when a chef marries his or her name to a specific item, the onus is then perpetually on them to excel. And excel Chef Ed McFarland does, as evidenced by the many “Best of” lists that his lobster creations have appeared on, not to mention the enduring popularity of his Ed’s Lobster Bar outposts in Soho and Sag Harbor.
For me, the obvious first question I had for Chef Ed McFarland was, why lobster?
“Interestingly enough, I always gravitated towards seafood as I was working my culinary career. And as I got more narrowly focused on seafood and wanting to have a seafood restaurant, I realized that at the time, when I was aggressively looking, there were people doing lobster and there were people making lobsters, but there was nobody who was really focusing on a lobster-centric restaurant, and I wasn’t afraid of the price of the product. I think that’s a big thing for a lot of people. People aren’t afraid to serve lobster, but they’re afraid to play around with it because when you start shelling it, the meat becomes very, very expensive. So I think that was a big defining factor for me, really enjoying the delicateness of the flavor and also knowing that very few people wanted to specialize in that specific product.”
Having shared what led him to focus on lobster, I couldn’t help but ask Ed what advantages and disadvantages exist by doing so.
“So the big advantage is that people know what they should expect. They know they should expect lobster everything, and they should be expecting to have the best lobster. So 100% of diners know exactly what they’re coming for and what they’re going to get. And that’s a big advantage. At the same time, it’s also a disadvantage, so it’s kind of like an advantage and disadvantage together. One major disadvantage would be that people view lobster as a seasonal food. And while that could be true to some extent, and that’s the image you get of eating it, you can get great lobster year-round. And the fact is that the hard-shell lobsters in the winter that we get are going to be much sweeter.”
When we think of lobster, we invariably think of the whole crustacean and its various preparations or the popular lobster tail, but McFarland is much more than a one-trick pony, or should I say lobster. One popular item on his menu that caught my eye is Lobster Poutine, a dish that originated in Quebec, Canada, that not everyone may be familiar with. So, Chef Ed McFarland, whither Lobster Poutine?
“You know, it’s interesting because it is a fairly popular dish. And every time I looked to make menu changes, my staff is always like, don’t take the poutine off the menu. People really come in specifically for it. And you know, the dish came about more as a disco fries kind of thing because I have this fantastic lobster sauce, a cream sauce that I make in the restaurant that goes with everything. And I remember people asking me for the sauce to dip their fries in, and I used to joke around and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to melt cheese on the fries.’ Finally I was like, you know what, we can turn this into a great dish. The sauce is perfect for the fries, the melted cheddar cheese on top, and the chopped lobster; it just really works and turns out to be a very special and interesting dish that is a good expression of taking a traditional protein and turning it into something else.”
If you’re like me, you love lobster but are intimidated by the thought of actually making it at home. Because of that reluctance, I asked Chef Ed McFarland to share some tips for home cooks.
“So it’s always best with a product like lobsters to keep it simple. And don’t overthink it. Lobster is actually very easy to cook, and yeah, I guess you’re seeing this live product. You’ve got to take it; it’s alive. You have to cook it; it’s alive. It’s got rubber bands on, so you think you’re going to get bit and attacked by this little creature, but that’s not the reality of it. Really. The reality is if you know that lobster out of water, though it’s hard and it’s moving, and it seems kind of scary to some people, you could pull those rubber bands off, and as long as you’re holding it by the back, it can’t do anything. So foremost, the simplest way is if you have a big pot of boiling water and you just drop that lobster in the boiling water. When it floats, it’s cooked.
And you don’t need butter. You don’t need anything. The lobster meat is sweet tasting and has a lot of flavor to it. You don’t need to put anything in the water. You don’t need salt in the water; that’s a myth. There’s plenty of salt inside the lobster body. It’s coming out of saltwater, to begin with. You don’t need to do anything. You just need to be able to get that meat out of the shell and eat it. And if you don’t want to boil it, cut it in half the old school French way, split it open, crack the claws, and stick it in the oven on a sheet pan.”
Having been both a competitor and judge on such shows as Beat Bobby Flay, I asked Chef Ed McFarland which role he prefers.
“So, to be honest with you, I’m not a big fan of cooking competitions. And I participate because I am a judge, so I think it’s to show that if I can give out criticism, I should be able to take it as well. And you should know what it feels like to be on the other side of the camera. But I’d much rather be a judge and taste the tastes, the wonderful food that everybody’s making. And I enjoy the stress-free side of it because you’re hanging out with other chefs and restaurant industry people, and you’re discussing what you’re eating. And when the camera’s not on, you’re discussing what everybody else is doing and where to go and what’s going on in the industry. But when you’re competing, your whole day is focused on ‘don’t eff up what I’m doing’.”
It’s essential to add here that Chef Ed’s self-admonition to not “eff up what I’m doing” was said with a hearty laugh and evident self-deprecation.
It’s also important to mention Chef Ed McFarland’s roots, as they inform his lobster repertoire. The chef grew up in an American-Italian household in Brooklyn and Staten Island and got his feet wet as a teenager working in red sauce Italian restaurants and pizzerias, so it’s only natural to find such dishes as Lobster Ravioli and Lobster Meatballs on the menu at Ed’s Lobster Bar. The former is all lobster, no filler, inside ravioli, while the latter is featured every Sunday in Ed’s Sunday sauce.
After chatting with Chef Ed McFarland I now know that the temptations of outlier warm weather need not have any bearing on my craving for the delicious shellfish. Whether it’s 40 degrees or 70, the lobster authority himself gave the go-ahead on year-round enjoyment, so who am I to argue with him? The temptress that is spring can flash her culinary wiles elsewhere.
Do you eat lobster year-round? What’s your favorite lobster preparation?