Paul Adams is the executive chef at Black Walnut, a restaurant themed around “primitive modern” in Saugatuck, Mich. Along with Max Van Wieren, chef de cuisine, and chef Kane Stricker, he creates intriguing, complex flavors, like his smashed potatoes, smoked, fried and served with chile butter, and his hangar steak served with a charred leek mostarda. Wieren and Adams have worked together for years, both drawing on their upbringing in a predominantly Latino community. Adams married into an Asian family, which has further influenced his menu development. Here, he shares his insights around flavor.
What are a few rules you live by when it comes to menu/flavor development?
When Max, Kane and I work on our menu we dedicate time working together as a team, going over what we currently like and what we remember from our past life that brings us back to childhood memories that brought joy or pain to us— combining our past with our present and bringing that to life on our porcelain canvas.
We have to like it. If it’s on our menu it must have meaning. If it doesn’t have meaning to us then what’s the point? We challenge ourselves daily to push outside the box, approaching food with our punk rock street-kid mentality.
What’s an example of how you’ve created a successful dish through the strategic use of flavor?
I feel like all food is a revision of the food we’ve tasted and enjoyed in the past, and we try to recreate it with our own interpretation of what we remember about it. A current dish on our menu is the pheasant. I remember eating it as a child; the memory of the sweet meat and my sticky fingers still fills my mind to this day. We decided to add that to the menu paired with roasted grapes, lemon ashes and chèvre.
What flavors are important to you, or are a go-to for you?
We love fire—live-fire cooking is one of our favorite things to do because it showcases primitive flavors. It’s how we used to cook and my God, it’s good! How did we forget how cooking over wood fire is so good? Combine that with modern techniques such as sous vide and you’ve got a winner. Simply use primitive methods with a modern interpretation: Sous vide a rack of pork for a few hours and finish it over the smoke of wood fire with some veggies over the coals and onions in the embers.
What are some flavors/ingredients that you’re playing around with currently?
Jerk seasoning. Our friend from Grand Royal in Jamaica has been sharing some of his jerk secrets, and it’s been a lot of fun crossing cultures and sharing recipes.
What trends are you seeing in the foodservice industry that are interesting or inspiring to your work?
I’m seeing a movement toward taking a step back, going to the fundamental roots of cooking and being a chef. As we step back, we’re looking forward into reconstructing these dishes into refined modern takes—that’s the artistry of all of this. It’s about blending cultures and foods together, rediscovering new/old methods and interpreting them for a modern society.
What’s your go-to after-shift meal or snack?
Pork tacos. Most family meals after work are pork tacos!