“I am done with farmers’ markets. The farmers are all offering the same stuff, and all of the chefs are buying the same stuff.” This provocative remark from San Francisco-based chef Mark Liberman typified the restless creative energy shown by the presenting chefs at the most recent Worlds of Flavor conference held this past April at The Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, Calif. Entitled “On Fire: Culture, Passion and Invention,” the conference featured a host of chefs from the United States, Europe and South America who are in the vanguard of their respective cuisines.
Throughout the event, the growing influence of these young, energetic and unquiet culinary minds was consistently on display, not only in taking their foods and flavors to new places, but innovating a wide range of disciplines, including team stewardship, fiscal sustainability, idea sharing, product sourcing and by-product utilization.
New Directions in New Southern Cuisine
The foods of the southern United States may be the country’s favorite regional fare, and the rise of New Southern cooking over the past decade has only served to increase its popularity. Chefs continue to refine and elevate this cuisine in restaurants across the country, and several of the most recognized chefs were on hand to share their latest concepts.
Tanya Holland, executive chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Calif., describes her cooking as “modern, Creole-based soul food,” which she says “is more refined than Cajun, with a focus on presentation, the blending of traditional and unique ingredients, and lots of butter and cream.” Holland demonstrated and served her version of Shrimp and Grits, featuring a singular Creole sauce based on Hefeweizen beer and Worcestershire sauce, and Andouille gougères, light and airy pastry puffs generously studded with bits of Cajun sausage.
Sarah Simmons, founder and chef of Birds & Bubbles in New York, spoke about the virtues of benne, the South Carolina-grown variant of the sesame seed. “The flavor is much more rich and complex than sesame seeds, with strong grassy and floral notes,” says Simmons. She calls benne her favorite “secret weapon” in the kitchen, heavily toasting and grinding them into her chicken pot pie filling, resulting in a flavor her dining guests “crave, but cannot pinpoint.” That craveability was evident in her Benne Seed Tartlets, pastry shells filled with a creamy benne seed curd and topped with slices of pickled green strawberries.
Chefs Sam and Cody Carroll, the husband-and-wife team behind restaurant Sac-a-Lait in New Orleans, prepared two of their signature dishes: Alligator Fritters with Mashed Mirliton, the Louisiana-grown squash given a uniquely delicate texture by whipping together equal parts dehydrated and ground Mirliton powder and freshly boiled flesh; and Lost Fish, a “pain perdu”-inspired dish of flounder fried in French toast batter, served in a pool of étouffée sauce with mashed potato quenelles and finished with a cayenne pepper sabayon.
Chef Tim Rattray is redefining Texas-style barbecue at his San Antonio restaurant The Granary, where he developed a process for capturing the drippings from smoking meat. The technique produces two intensely flavored ingredients: a “barbecue butter” made from the rendered fat that is spread on thick slices of housemade buttermilk bread and griddled for his signature Texas Toast, and a highly concentrated barbecue liquid that is used to flavor a variety of marinades, sauces and broths.
One such broth is the barbecue shoyu used in his Brisket Ramen, a cleverly mashed-up Southern noodle bowl featuring brown ale ramen, slices of smoked beef brisket “char siu,” a soft egg, barbecued shallots and crisply fried collard green “nori.” The dish was one of the crowd favorites at the conference.
The chefs provided strong evidence of the mainstream potential that New Southern dishes with unique ingredient and flavor combinations present for commercial menus. It is interesting to note that no fried chicken dishes were presented during these sessions; the chefs seemingly chose to focus on the many other aspects of Southern cooking that are ripe for innovation.
Fermenting & Pickling: Changing the Game
Judging by the menus and dishes served at the conference, two cooking techniques that the presenting chefs seem to have universally embraced are pickling and fermenting. The message heard repeatedly during many of the demonstrations and tastings regarded how the chefs were plying the complex and umami-rich flavors of pickled and fermented ingredients to increase levels of craveability.
Of course, the chefs were not content to simply apply the techniques as they have in the past, instead using experimentation and ingenuity to create new varieties of preserved ingredients of superior quality and flavor.
During a session entitled “Restaurants That Enchant Diners,” Matthew Lightner, chef of the wildly popular new restaurant Ninebark in Napa, Calif., stated that “pickles are too often taken for granted on menus and placed there as an afterthought.” So as he developed the menu for the new restaurant, Lightner focused on creating “phenomenal pickles using the best vegetables I can find.” The resulting dish has become the restaurant’s signature, a carefully composed array of pickled root vegetables, brassicas, legumes, peppers, grapes and mushrooms, each prepared in its own specific brine, and flavored with a broad array of herbs, spices, sugars, alliums and acids.
“Fermenting has changed my game,” says Stuart Brioza, chef/owner of the James Beard Award-winning restaurants State Bird Provisions and The Progress in San Francisco. “My goal is to go deep–very deep on flavor—and fermenting has gone a long way in helping me achieve that.” Brioza prepared a variety of dishes featuring fermented ingredients including: Grilled Abalone with Fermented Celtuce and Nori Butter; and Smoked Duck Breast with Umeboshi (fermented Japanese plum), Rosemary and Shiso. But most revealing was his demonstration of how he utilizes all of the elements from the fermentation process.
Calling it “The Three Stages of Fermented Kohlrabi,” Brioza starts by fermenting the shredded bulb in a brine flavored with turmeric, garlic, thyme and dill. Once complete, he separates the brine from the “sludge” at the bottom of the container. The brine is whipped with egg yolk to create an emulsion that is used as a dressing, and the “sludge” is dehydrated into a powder that the chef uses as a finishing seasoning called “sour salt.”
Delicious iced beverages made with the Korean fermented fruit vinegar known as micho were served throughout the conference. Micho is made from a variety of fruits including pomegranate, persimmon, raspberry, blueberry and lemon, and is allowed to ferment for up to a year. The vinegar is blended with water to create a tart and refreshing drink. With the growing number of consumers seeking natural sources of probiotics, micho may have the potential to become the next kombucha.
Lauded chef, restaurateur and author Edward Lee is an energetic promoter of the highly popular fermented Korean chile paste gochujang, but believes that it is largely misunderstood as an ingredient. “Gochujang is not a hot sauce, it’s a pantry ingredient,” he says. And so Lee devoted his entire menu and presentations to demonstrating its versatility, preparing and serving dishes such as Cold Matcha Noodles with Gochujang Dipping Sauce, Beef Ribeye with Gochujang Butter, Gochujang Pork Belly and Eel with White BBQ Sauce, and Gochujang Gazpacho with Dried Chile and Blossoms.
Pickling and fermenting are not difficult techniques, and with a modicum of care can be incorporated into most any kitchen’s mise en place. Their ability to enhance dishes with compelling new flavors ensures a strong return on the effort.
Dishes featuring pickled and fermented ingredients were an easy find at the conference. Highlights included:
- Pimentón and Anchovy Spanish Kimchee—Jonah Miller, Huertas, New York
- Whey Pickled Cucumbers with Wild Grains and Avocado Crema—Annie Pettry, Decca, Louisville, Ky.
- Herring Butter on Grilled Bread with Pickled Spring Garlic, Mustard Seeds and Borage—Renee Erickson, Sea Creatures Group, Seattle, Wash.
- Carolina White Shrimp Escabeche —Mike Lata, Fig & The Ordinary, Charleston, S.C.
- Pickled Sea Bream with Spinach, Strawberries and “Escalivada” Cream —Sergio Andreu, La Pepita, Barcelona, Spain
- Smoked Pastrami with Sauerkraut Aïoli—Tim Rattray, The Granary, San Antonio, Texas NEW_PAGE
Practical Foraging: The Taming of the Plant
A growing number of chefs in the United States are discovering that foraging for wild plants, which recently gained fame during the rise of New Nordic cuisine, is an ideal way to expand their kitchen’s larder with an array of unique flavoring ingredients.During a session entitled “California Flavors for the 21st Century,” several chefs addressed the opportunities that foraging presents.
Sarah and Evan Rich of Rich Table in San Francisco began picking the wild fennel that grows in abundance in their area, and continue to expand the number of plants they seek. One foraged ingredient that has become a mainstay in their kitchen is Douglas fir, which they incorporated into their dish of Smoked Whitefish Cannoli with Sesame and Douglas Fir. “There are so many uses for Douglas fir,” says Evan Rich. “We dry the needles and powder them, but we also use them fresh in both the kitchen and the bar area for cocktail preparations, and we sometimes add them to our wood chips when smoking.”
Yet another San Francisco chef, Matthew Accarrino of SPQR, has his own ideas regarding what may be foraged, and has created a unique path for accessing wild ingredients that he calls “wild cropping.” “One of the downsides of foraging is that the plants you seek may not be around,” he says. So Accarrino leased a few acres of a nearby farm and is taking entire foraged plants and replanting them. “By essentially domesticating these wild growths, I know the plants will be there when I need them.” The wild plants he is now farming include sorrel, lovage, nettles, onion flowers and Angelica, whose tiny buds Accarrino pickles and serves as “Angelica capers.”
Another practice Accarrino is adopting is “green cropping,” which involves walking through tree orchards collecting fallen green fruits and nuts. Two of his preferred ingredients are green almonds, which he ferments for use in relish and pesto, and tiny green peaches that have yet to develop a pit, which he sometimes pickles, but also shaves when fresh to serve as a tart flavoring element.
While the conference discussion was limited to foraging in California, the opportunity exists nationwide. Access to almond orchards may not be available to chefs in most of the country, but any region where stone-fruit trees grow would offer some chances at green cropping. Additionally, books and field guides on foraging have been written for virtually every region of the country.
Elevating traditional dishes via the creative addition of unexpected ingredients was a recurring theme of both the demonstrations and the tastings. This was certainly true of the unique ceviche treatments served at the conference, which bore little resemblance to the typical dish of fish or shellfish marinated with lime juice, onion and chiles.
“We are taking ceviche in new directions by using traditional Mexican ingredients and flavors,” says Diego Galicia, chef/owner of Mixtli in
San Antonio. His avant-garde presentation of Hamachi Ceviche validated the claim, the marinated tuna layered with avocado and jicama, bathed in a vanilla and tamarind sauce and accompanied by a “finishing capsule” of concentrated watermelon juice.
Fellow San Antonio chef Johnny Hernandez (La Gloria, El Machito, Frutería) would not be outdone, serving a dazzling Ceviche Tropical composed of marinated shrimp and crab tossed with mango and pineapple in a passionfruit and coconut milk sauce.
A variety of Ecuadorian ceviches, some simple, some complex, were served during the conference. Norman Brandt, executive chef of Pikaia Lodge in the Galapagos Islands, prepared a Sea Bass Ceviche marinated in lime juice, sugar, onion and large-leaf cilantro topped with a crunchy crumble of fried plantain “chifle.” New Jersey-based chef Maricel Presilla presented an elaborate “Jipijapa Style” Shrimp Ceviche marinated in a habanero- lime relish, served in a pool of fresh tomato sauce and finished with a dollop of freshly ground peanut butter.
Adolfo Garcia, chef/owner of La Boca and Primitivo restaurants in New Orleans, continued the innovation with a “New Style” Panamanian Ceviche combining poached shrimp and avocado in a fresh turmeric and lime dressing topped with shredded pork cracklings.
The rapid growth in the popularity of poke suggests that dining consumers are opening up to dishes featuring raw or marinated seafood. The next-wave ceviches served at the conference showed that the fresh and bright flavors of the classic dish enhanced with richly flavored ingredients and sauces could produce an irresistible menu combination. NEW_PAGE
The Veg-Centric Influence
In steadily growing numbers, chefs are placing vegetable-centric dishes on their menus. Veg-centric positions produce squarely in the center of the plate, but differs from vegetarian and vegan cuisine in that meat or seafood-based proteins are incorporated into the dish to enhance its depth, complexity and umami.
Numerous veg-centric dishes were found throughout the conference tasting sessions. Mexico-based chef Gabriela Ruiz served a delicate Kabocha Squash Carpaccio, sliced paper-thin and drizzled with anchovy aïoli. Anchovy was also the protein of choice in Artichokes à la Grecque, by chef Jody Williams of Buvette in New York; the cleaned and peeled bulbs were coated with a rich anchovy, garlic and mint pesto and braised.
Chef Chris Jaeckle of New York’s All’onda presented a multi-layered eggplant terrine garnished with roasted freshwater eel and drizzled with a thick, soy-based unagi sauce.
In a kitchen workshop focusing on vegetables as “The Ultimate Canvas for Creativity,” Napa, Calif.-based chef Trevor Kunk prepared his signature Little Gem Nachos, lettuce cups filled with a jam made from roasted lettuce trimmings, capers, pickles and mustard, and finished with generous shavings of bottarga.
Annie Pettry, chef of the vegetable-focused restaurant Decca in Louisville, Ky., served a craveable dish of Charred Beets garnished with dollops of crème fraîche made from coconut milk and cream, and topped with a crunchy coconut and cocoa nib sprinkle.
The clear audience favorite, however, was Matthew Lightner’s Barbecued Shallots with Crispy Squid in Roast Chicken Juice, a quintessential vegetable-centric treatment and distinct example of how chefs are reconsidering the role that proteins play on the plate.
Whether seeking healthier menu options or new and unique flavor combinations, it has become clear that dining consumers will choose more vegetable-based dishes in restaurants if they possess the same levels of craveability as meat and seafood offerings. And the diverse range of global ingredients used in the above examples points to the sizable opportunity for all chefs and operators to incorporate vegetable-centric dishes into their menu development.