September 26, 2012 9:48:36 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Patrons of the Front Door-Back Door restaurant have reasons to celebrate. First, far from closing Sept. 8 as had been originally announced, the doors of "the Door" -- one of downtown Columbus' most popular eateries since 1996 -- remain open. And second, even as departing owner and chef Sarah Labensky turns over the keys to new proprietors Jim Lewis and Steve McLemore, she has released a much-anticipated cookbook.
"Your Favorite Recipes from Front Door-Back Door" is on local shelves ($19.95) at the Front Door, Pizazz, and the Main Street Columbus office. Filled with more than 60 recipes (yes, even the famed chicken salad and tortilla soup), it is creating a buzz.
The recipes are, as nearly as possible, the formulas as prepared by the restaurant. Some are original creations of the establishment's owners; others are adapted from previously published sources.
Chef Labensky recently undertook the cookbook project after making the reluctant decision to close the business after six and one-half years at the helm.
The Murray, Ky., native and former attorney, who came to Columbus as founding director of Mississippi University for Women's Culinary Arts Institute, is ready to re-focus her career on academic writing for the culinary arts industry. (Her "On Cooking," a 1,000-plus page compendium frequently used as a textbook and reference book in the cooking world, is soon to be released in its sixth edition.)
But as one chapter re-opens, it seemed another would have to close.
"Making the decision to close was one of the hardest things I've ever done; there were lots of tears," said Labensky Monday at the restaurant. The Front Door was one of the anchors of downtown revitalization when Donna Sanson opened it 16 years ago in an old 1890s mercantile building at the corner of Main Street and Catfish Alley (Fourth Street South). Two years later, the adjacent building behind it was renovated and named the Back Door. Each dining area developed its own personality and flow.
Labensky became owner following Sanson's untimely death in 2005 and has enjoyed the loyal support of the community. In appreciation of that and in light of the intended closing, the chef set out to compile the cookbook as a parting gift to the restaurant's many devoted customers. "Your Favorite Recipes" was due off the press when Lewis and McLemore stepped in as buyers.
"It was a huge sigh of relief," said Labensky, "not only because the restaurant could stay open, but the staff retains their jobs."
Among those is long-time kitchen manager Mattie Hill, who came to work for Sanson in 1997.
"Mattie has been an inspiration and a friend. She knows every dish by heart ... it was to her I turned for information and history, as well as guidance on seasoning and portioning," Labensky said.
Taking a break after Monday's lunch crowd, Hill shared, "I was real sad when I thought it was going to close; it was like losing a part of me."
Happy now that "the Door" continues on, Hill acknowledged the favorite parts of her years there have been the people and the relaxed environment.
Appetizers to desserts
"Your Favorite Recipes" includes appetizers, soups, salads and dressings, sides, brunch items and desserts. In the short time it's been out, it has not been uncommon to see individuals snatch it up and immediately flip to a section to see if their personal favorites are included. They usually are.
In addition to chicken salad and tortilla soup, you'll find spinach artichoke dip, cheese biscuits and an award-winning wassail (Front Door took the 2008 trophy at Main Street Columbus' Wassailfest.).
There's the Back Door Bloody Mary, clam chowder and mushroom "quiche Lorraine" soup. Home cooks may want to try the poppy seed and honey mustard dressing, as well as praline French toast, creamy grits and Greek scrambler. The dessert section includes hits such as Donna's caramel almond delight, turtle fudge pie, bread pudding with bourbon sauce and peanut butter icebox pie.
About the chicken salad, Chef Labensky does note that "it's almost certain that yours will not taste just like the salad made in the restaurant."
That's for two reasons: the Front Door's seasoning chicken is cooked in and the mayonnaise.
The mayo is an "extra heavy duty" culinary type, made with a high percentage of eggs, and it is not available at grocery stores. The closest substitute is Hellman's Real Mayonnaise.
"Mayonnaise is an integral part of many dishes at the Front Door. It's the soul of the chicken and tuna salad; it gets slathered on several of the sandwiches and even appears in the spinach dip," the chef shared. "Seasoning is a matter of feel; it's something a good cook develops over time and is very difficult to quantify."
About soups, she points out that broth used in Front Door soups is broth left from cooking chicken for the chicken salad. Unlike canned stock or broth, it derives a wealth of flavor from seasonings used. Home cooks may want to fine-tune their own seasonings, guided by personal taste.
For Labensky, announcing the (now-averted) closing of the restaurant was heart-wrenching, but the response was ironically rewarding.
"People immediately began telling me how the Front Door had been a part of birthdays, baby showers, wedding showers and special moments in their lives; they let me know how much they would miss it." Fortunately, the community can now continue to visit "the Door."
Owning and operating the Front Door-Back Door has been a great joy and a labor of love, the chef said, as was compiling the cookbook.
Labensky may be stepping away from the commercial kitchen, but the culinary arts are in her lifeblood. She knew it even as a practicing attorney years ago, catering on the side.
"You have to follow your passion. At some point in your life it'll make itself so clear," she shared. Has she ever regretted leaving a law career for the wide world of foods?
"Not for a minute," she answered quickly, with a confident grin.
Makes one 9-inch pie
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 whole large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
One 9-inch graham cracker crust
(Source: "Your Favorite Recipes from the Front Door- Back Door")
CREAM OF POTATO SOUP
Makes about 2 quarts
1 stick (4 ounces) margarine
3/4 cup self-rising flour
3 cups homemade chicken broth
3 cups half and half
3/4 cup grate cheddar cheese
10 ounces frozen diced potatoes, thawed
2 tablespoons bacon grease
(Source: "Your Favorite Recipes from the Front Door-Back Door")
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.