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Looking Back, Moving Forward

Chef Sean Brock reclaims lost ingredients and celebrates local foods at Husk in Charleston, S.C. His marinated cucumber and tomato salad features Charleston blue crab and fresh-from-the-garden radishes. Photo courtesy of husk. Drawing on classic recipes and heritage ingredients, a new breed of chefs reinvigorate regional-American cuisine

By Monica Kass Rogers

Jonathan Justus left the restaurant he was running in the south of France a few years back to champion local Midwestern cuisine near Kansas City, Mo., where his family’s roots go back 170 years. Working hard to build a small farm, run a local-food-focused restaurant called Justus Drugstore and unearth the foods that defined his region before industrialization homogenized it, Justus is a new breed of regional-American chef.

Tied to his own terroir, he is “very, very interested in foraging, finding the wild plants people used to rely on here for food, and then trying to bring them into modern cultivation. We use a lot of historical recipes for the dishes we create with these ingredients, but with very modern interpretations,”  notes Justus, who has a full-time botanist on staff to run the farm and research the seeds.

It’s an exciting time to “eat American.” Today’s chefs are applying top-level culinary training to American food in ever-more-casual digs. Using what they’ve learned, what’s been bred into them through familial heritage and what they’ve experienced culturally at home and in their travels, they are interpreting local ingredients and recipes to put a personal stamp on regional fare.

“American chefs today are much more introspective and research-oriented, going back to look at the history and food traditions of where they are living and where they are from,” says Amy Brandwein, executive chef of Casa Nonna in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a fusion of centuries, looking back into time and paying respect to ingredients and origins in order to refine and move forward what we are doing today,” adds chef Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Va.

“A lot of us are tipping our hats to the classics and looking into history for the future,” agrees Manuel Trevino, chef at Marble Lane in the Dream Downtown hotel in New York City.

Comforting home-kitchen foods that used to be considered too common or rustic for restaurants are now being served by chefs using the best possible ingredients and expert techniques, giving “common” a continuing upgrade.

“There used to be a notion that the comfort foods we like to eat weren’t for the fine-dining restaurant, that you had to focus on just foodie-type stuff. But today, there’s a classless, more egalitarian Americanization that’s not pretentious,” says chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta.

“There is no longer high art and low art, but at the same time, there are many more layers, more hands and more techniques being employed, which elevates what we are doing from home cooking,” he adds.

Chef Paul Fehribach of Chicago’s Big Jones, a coastal-Southern restaurant, calls the explosion of interest in house-cured meats, canning, pickling and wild-ingredient foraging “homesteading.” But, like Hopkins, it’s the combination of these old techniques with new kitchen chemistry that Fehribach finds most exciting.

“Old and new dancing together” is how he describes it. “The best example we have on our menu is a dish we make with boudin rouge [Cajun blood sausage].” The sausage  is being served this fall in an Asian pear, fennel and grape salad with a wild-fox-grape gel, which is set with Gellan F-150 gum and then pureed to make a smooth paste, he explains.

At Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins uses the ancient method for cooking hominy — soaking it in house-made potash overnight to dissolve the outer shell and then cooking for another five hours to tenderize — but combines that with new technique. Freezing the cooked hominy with liquid nitrogen turns it into a “beautiful, soft, fluffy powder that is especially easy to ‘pick up’ on the line.” Hopkins’ finished dish is spiced with hot chiles and served with veal sweetbreads.

Rufus Estes, a slave who became executive chef of Chicago’s Pullman Railroad Car Co., wrote a cookbook with a recipe for peanut soup. Chef Jose Andres’ rendition at America Eats includes crushed peanuts, peanut praline and mace. Photo courtesy of greg powers for america eats tavern. At Monarch in St. Louis, chef Josh Galliano has taken an old fashioned Southern standby, the shoulder blade-cut pork steak, plus elderberries he’s foraged, and applied modern technique.

“The usual way to treat a pork steak,” says Galliano, “is to grill it and then caramelize barbecue sauce on it. We’ve changed that up, using a specific breed of pig, the Duroc, and we de-bone the steaks. We rub them for 24 hours, then cold smoke and cool them down.

“Then we cook the pork steaks sous-vide for 24 hours so that on pick-up, each portion is grilled with our elderberry barbecue sauce and sliced like a steak. It is an improvement on the cooking technique that then combines the dish with a hyper-local product.”

Chef Hugh Acheson of Five & Ten, the National, Gosford Wine and Empire State South in Georgia, finds that while nose-to-tail eating has worked its way into the restaurant vernacular with meats, greens and seeds are still getting there. “These things were once thought pointless greenery, but you can eat a lot of them,” he notes. “Sweet potato greens, for example, are usually castaways, but they are delicious. Pickled nasturtium seed pods are another example; Southerners used to use them like capers.

“If we can take these things and put them on the plate, too, that helps offset the cost of the added restaurant staff necessary to do all these things,” says Acheson. “I think what’s fueling this is a mixture of greater respect for food history and the agrarian traditions of the South.”

Acheson has been researching two other items for his menus: Philpy, a very old Southern buttermilk-and-rice cake recipe — “like Johnnycake, but with more crisp toastiness” — and peanut flour, which he uses to make gnocchi.

Like Acheson, a growing number of chefs are bypassing standard regional dishes that have a “tourist food” taint to them, choosing instead to create pinnacle examples of locale-defining foods so old they are new again.

“People have a predisposed notion of what Cajun and Creole food should be, but it’s not entirely accurate,” says chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon in New Orleans. “We don’t serve blackened fish at all, for example. We shy away from those overdone classics and try to do older, more traditional foods in a new way.”

For example, Cochon has been serving deep-fried rabbit livers on toast with mint/parsley dressing, sherry vinegar and pepper jelly. “Rabbit livers are very traditional in the South and are in a lot of cookbooks, but nobody serves them in a restaurant,” says Stryjewski.

Soybeans are another fallen-out-of-favor product that Cochon has reclaimed: “We shell, blanch and serve them like English shell beans.”

For Fehribach at Big Jones, meeting Yankees’ expectations of Southern food proved challenging. “You know, the stereotypes they have from a vacation in the French Quarter or a vacation they once took in Atlanta — tourist Southern. We never met that, because it wasn’t what we were going for.”

Instead, Fehribach serves up things like Paneed Sweetbreads with Oyster Puree, a favorite of his revamped from Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1876) and an old “rice wafer” (precursor to waffles) recipe from The Receipts of Harriet Pinckney Horry (1770). “These old dishes still translate beautifully!” says Fehribach.

Near Lexington, Ky., chef Ouita Michel serves wild chestnut soup at her Holly Hill Inn restaurant, taken, virtually unaltered, from a local 1830 recipe. And in Virginia, Harrison Keevil is looking back at ham cures from the Jeffersonian era “to see what they did to bring out flavors that I can revisit today.”

Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, S.C., is another chef foraging to resurrect and cultivate “lost” ingredients to put back on people’s plates. Brock started cultivating ingredients that were indigenous to pre-Civil-War Charleston on a farm several years back and has run with that ever since at his restaurant. Benne seed, Sea Island red peas, Choppee okra, Reverend Taylor butter beans, James Island Red (Jimmy Red) corn and more are now regular features on the Husk menu.

Meanwhile, at Justus Drugstore, there are wild pennycress-stuffed local-duck-egg pasta tubes with turnip tops, local hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and locally raised Wagyu beef. There’s also four-bone country ribs (loin chops with backbones attached), soaked in a juniper-branch brine, some portions cooked sous-vide, the rest grilled and then plated with a sauce of distilled wild black locust flowers over quinoa with sautéed lamb’s quarters (a wild green).

Justus has learned that roasted wild persimmon seeds make an earthy spice that works well with his rabbit terrine, and sumac, which early settlers used to make into honey lemonade, is deliciously tart in a sorbet.

“When I first moved back here, I thought, there’s no defining regional cuisine,” Justus remembers. “It became my quest to discover what I could cook in Kansas City that didn’t have to come off a large-food-distributor’s truck. I’ve been amazed at how much is right here that we had yet to discover.”

Still, cautions Galliano of Monarch, in the move toward regional authenticity, “you do have to be careful that you don’t go so authentic with a dish or preparation that it becomes inaccessible to your guests.”

Galliano learned this serving Gumbo z’Herbes on Fridays during Lent. “I could easily have served a seafood gumbo for our Catholic patrons, but I wanted to prove to people that a vegetarian gumbo could be just as tasty and appropriate for that time of year. My mistake was trying to prove anything to anybody.” Unfamiliar with the gumbo, few ordered it.

In helping classic cuisines evolve, chefs are very much in tune with new waves of immigrant populations and the foods they bring with them to a given region. This means continually experimenting with how these newly introduced flavors work with existing regional food traditions.

Taking a page from the recipes that have come into Atlanta with Costa Rican immigrants, Hopkins of Eugene has been playing with a Latin spin on hominy. Paying attention to what the large Mexican population likes to eat in Kentucky, Holly Hill Inn chef Michel has stuffed Kentucky-style pulled pork into poblanos, rellenos and empanadas with beautiful results. And, like Bryan Caswell of Reef in Houston, who regularly celebrates the synergy of Southern foods and the Vietnamese larder, more chefs are adding Asian inflection to Southern dishes.

“I really like blending Asian with Southern,” says Big Jones’ Fehribach, “because I have a background in Asian cooking and because there are many common ingredients — rice, greens, pork, pickles, fermented foods, vinegar, sesame, beans and peas. I love taking an Asian dish and recreating it with heritage Southern ingredients, putting in Worcestershire and cider vinegar in place of soy and lime, Carolina Gold or Louisiana popcorn rice in place of jasmine or basmati, Sea Island benne in place of sesame — the results often can be stunning.”

At Smoke in Dallas, chef Tim Byres serves roasted cabrito with corn masa, accenting the “Tejano” flavors that help define Texas cuisine. Photo courtesy of smoke. REGIONAL REDEFINED
This stirring of the melting pot, along with the widespread adoption of local sourcing, has led to a much looser definition of just what constitutes “regional” cuisine. Some think regional simply means serving foods grown close to home; others think regional also connotes serving those ingredients in dishes and recipes that derive from the region.

“It’s both,” says chef Tim Byres of Smoke in Dallas. “It’s a ‘bloom where you are planted’ thing. At Smoke we try to stay regional by cooking with firewood and indigenous ingredients as well as embracing Mexican and Texas-Southern foodways.”

That results in winning dishes such as Byres’ Roasted Cabrito with Corn Masa, served with house-made cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) and goat’s milk sour cream and tomatillo salsa verde. “It’s barbecue as well as authentically Mexican, creating a ‘Tejano’ cultural flavor that is definitely Texan,” says Byres.

But everybody agrees that regional can’t be divorced from a chef’s personal heritage and background. “Regional cuisine can be as specific as Grandma’s neighborhood peach pie, or as broad as Southern shrimp ’n grits, as long as it has a story to tell and reflects the philosophy of the restaurant,” says Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville. “But using local products and serving regional cuisine are two totally different things.

“We use local products, and I am probably one of the most prolific users of Kentucky sorghum in the state, but I never claim to be a regional or even Southern chef. I am looking at Southern ingredients through my lens of being a Korean kid who grew up in Brooklyn and trained in New York and France. That’s what I bring to the local ingredients I find.”

Chef Mitch Prensky of Supper in Philadelphia echoes Lee’s perspec­tive. “I just happen to be a New York Jew with French culinary training who cooks with Southern inflection and California attitude in Philadelphia,” he laughs.

In fact, blending personal history with regional ingredients and a good sense of humor is what makes many new interpretations of regional food so interesting. “I am always marrying my ethnic roots to American Southern roots,” says Lee. Successes include his salad of edamame and boiled peanuts with corn, corn silk, popped sorghum seeds and tomato seeds with tahini dressing — “totally disparate ideas that come together in perfect harmony in one dish.”

At Prensky’s Supper, that may mean Duck & Waffles: pecan-sage waffles with crispy duck confit, peaches, maple bourbon jus and braised red cabbage. Or maybe a playful redux on Eastern European kasha varnishkes: canneloni with buckwheat groats and caramelized onions.

Similarly, chef David Katz of Meme in Philadelphia draws from his heritage (the name of the restaurant is a nod to his own meme, or grandmother, a caterer in the Moroccan-Jewish community in Montreal) and his childhood in Cape May, New Jersey. In addition to sourcing 85 percent of his fresh produce from that area, Katz tucks into the interesting Savannah-esque history of Cape May for the fried chicken he serves every Thursday.

“In Cape May, vacationing families traveled with their own cooks, many of whom had Southern heritage. So, in the fried chicken, that Southern influence is very apparent.” Riffing on that tradition, Katz’s fried chicken recipe — not battered, but dipped in seasoned flour and fried — is patterned very closely on the dinners he grew up eating in Cape May. In addition, he has been exploring the similarities between his favorite Mexican and Moroccan ingredients — cilantro, chickpeas, chiles, cinnamon — “there’s a lot of overlap.”

The storied history that other chefs draw from in revisiting regional recipe greats includes old landmarks and restaurants, with whimsy mixed in. Researching crab cakes and hoping to give them a New York flair, chef Trevino thought about the foods that were once served along the Coney Island boardwalk: potatoes, pretzels, sausages. As a result, the breading for his crab cakes includes crushed potato chips and pretzels, and the accompanying “Coney Island Tartar Sauce” has capers, shallots and boardwalk-brat-worthy brown mustard.

And then there is chef John Currence’s much-anticipated celebration of historic New Orleans restaurant recipes. Still several months from finish date, Currence (of the Oxford, Miss., City Grocery Restaurant Group) has been hard at work creating a 40-item menu that will reinterpret classics such as Trout Amandine, Veal Oscar and Oysters Rockefeller.

“I grew up having special-occasion dinners at restaurants like Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Arnaud’s, so they have a particularly fond place in my memory,” says Currence. But, as he went the professional chef path, “I always thought, ‘This would be so much better if it was made with the best, straight-from-the-source ingredients.’

“What if I had a relationship with the trout fisherman and could get trout minutes after he caught it? What if I could get pasture butter instead of commodity butter to brown it in? And what if I made that dish with local pecans instead of almonds?” Questions like these have inspired Currence to reexamine all elements of the Creole French traditions that bistros were built on 100-plus years ago.

“Somewhere along the line, a lot of restaurants started resting on the laurels of a few classic dishes that were proven winners and started cheapening the ingredients. I want to return them to their original glory, through the lens of 2011,” says Currence.

That all of this is happening is a very positive thing for America’s place in the global food picture.

“Back in 1987, everybody kept telling me that it was all about French or European food,” says Prensky. “But that’s all changed. Even back then, researching what New York food really meant and learning more about the foodways of the region I was in were what led me to be proud instead of ashamed of American cooking, and to start cooking what I loved.”


About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.