Haven’t been to Harlem recently? Then go. The area is experiencing a gastronomic revival, and it offers an enticing alternative to more common grub grounds around New York City.
On Sunday, Oct. 27, a collection of restaurants and culinary companies from the uptown neighborhood collaborated to create an eating event for the ages: The Harlem Food Festival. The extravaganza was orchestrated in a large, segmented lot on the corner of West 117th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and featured a live band rocking eclectic world music, along with food trucks, representatives from restaurants, and other local vendors slinging their wares.
Among them were Lido (an Italian restaurant and bar dishing out roasted veal meatballs from James Beard Award-winning executive chef Serena Bass), Silvana (home of gluten-free falafels), Les Ambassades (known for its African/French/American fusion cuisine with a focus on Senegalese specialties), Melba’s (which came in second for best slogan with its "born, bred, and buttered in Harlem" line), and newcomer Savann, a Mediterranean spot that sampled out a selection of dips and spreads. The Luke’s Lobster truck was parked at the gate and served up the restaurant’s famously fat rolls filled with juicy Maine crustacean meat, and Parantha Alley (which can be found at both Smorgasburg spots in Brooklyn) made its whole-wheat roti to order with cucumber raita, cilantro chutney, and pickled mango on the side.
Jack’s Chedbred, makers of multiple flavors of outrageous cornbread (most of which is spiked with delicious cheeses), not only took (unofficial) first prize for best slogan ("Cheesy & Corny Since 2012"), but also won over The Daily Meal with its scrumptious craft cornbread. Owner Jack Sorock is a former attorney who traded a snazzy office and chilly courtrooms for a steamy commercial kitchen and booths both Brooklyn Smorgasburgs (at least temporarily while he searches for the perfect storefront location). In the spirit of cheesiness and corniness, let’s just say Jack’s Chedbred so rocks. The maple-bacon variety contains Vermont maple syrup, chunks of bacon, and a super-sharp New York Cheddar; the roasted jalapeño is loaded with dry Monterey Jack and fiery flamed chiles; and the honey sea salt reigns supreme in flavor with its brown butter crumble crown.
Also on hand was Riley/Land Gourmet Pantry, which is also working its way from pop-up to full-fledged Harlem storefront shop in the near future. The collection of wares available from this boutique culinary company are carefully curated by its proprietor, Joseph Riley Land, who gained his expertise in selecting extraordinary products through years of managing a Williams-Sonoma. You’ll be amazed by the array of artisanal eats in Land’s edible arsenal, from sweets like rosemary pear spread, chai spice nut butter, and small-batch crabapple jelly to surprising savories like fennel blood orange tapenade, skillet bacon jam, and Carolina Creole simmering sauce, and he’s constantly taste-testing and adding more obscure offerings to his line. Riley/Land also carries T-shirts, linens, and functional art, including handmade kitchen rugs and wooden utensils.
The event wouldn’t be possible if not for organizations like Experience Harlem, Corbin Hill Farm/Food Project (which helps bring fresh produce from local farms into Harlem), and The Harlem Garage (a co-working space for Harlem businesses), and they plan on producing similar shindigs in the future to further highlight Harlem’s culinary happenings.
A Culinary Comeback – The Hunter Culinary Association Returns
What happens when four gun chefs with a raft of experience and talent from Sydney and the Hunter Valley go head-to-head after a year on the ropes?
The annual Food Fight is the signature event organised by the Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) and this year marks a triumphant return as the industry reunites after missing the 2020 edition due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This year’s line-up promises to be as impressive as ever, with the chefs tasked with creating a standout dish to take out the prestigious title. Each chef will prepare one lunch course, which will be matched with a premium Hunter Valley wine. Guests will vote for their preferred dish at the conclusion of the lunch.
The chefs involved in the 2021 Food Fight are Mitchell Beswick (Muse Restaurant), Alex Prichard (Icebergs Dining Room and Bar), Sam Alexander (Yellow Billy Restaurant) and Andrew Wandless (Una Más – Coogee Pavilion).
HCA Chairman Gus Maher said the 11th annual Food Fight makes a welcome return to the Hunter’s culinary event calendar, and will once again be hosted by the inimitable duo Colin Fassnidge and Matt Kemp, who are long-time supporters of the Hunter Culinary Association.
“This year marks an exciting return of our beloved signature event and we are thrilled to be back in action, especially after such a difficult year for our region and the hospitality industry at-large in 2020,” Mr Maher said. “Each of these talented chefs have earned their stripes at some of the world’s most prestigious Michelin-starred and hatted restaurants, so guests will be dining at an incredibly high standard.
“The Food Fight and its signature auction raises money for a range of apprentice support and mentoring opportunities, including the Brett Graham Scholarship, which is a long term partnership between the HCA and TAFE NSW.”
The key objectives of the HCA are to provide scholarship opportunities to develop the careers of young and aspiring chefs and apprentices, and to raise the profile of the Hunter region’s rich culinary scene. The Food Fight attracts large industry support but is also open for members of the public to attend and immerse themselves in this special gastronomic experience.
Date: Monday 28 June 2021
Location: Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, Pokolbin
Cost: $175 for HCA members, $195 for non-members and $90 for apprentice chefs
Bookings: [email protected]
More info: www.hunterculinary.com.au
Andrew Wandless – Una Más – The Coogee Pavilion
Australian-born and hailing from Penrith in New South Wales, Andrew started his career at the age of 19, holding apprenticeships at restaurants within the Bayfield Hotels Group, including the historic Newport Arms Hotel in Sydney. He moved to London in 2009, where he began working as Commis Chef under Gary Rhodes at his city-based modern-British venue, Rhodes 24.
Andrew went on to work at some of London’s most feted restaurants, including Mayfair’s two Michelin-starred Hibiscus and two Michelin-starred, The Ledbury. In the same year, The Ledbury placed 14th in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking.
Andrew worked at acclaimed Clapham venue The Dairy, before taking on a role as Junior Sous Chef at Fera at Claridge’s under award-winning chef Simon Rogan. Working for such outstanding culinary experts has allowed Andrew to develop his own approach to technique and flavour.
Andrew joined Texture in 2014, as Head Chef and worked closely with owner and Chef Patron Aggi Sverrisson to lead a team, manage service, maintain Michelin-starred standards and develop exciting new dishes that celebrate both flavour and texture.
After returning to Australia, he moved to Adelaide, then joined Merivale for the Head Chef role at Una Más, one of the latest additions to the middle floor of Coogee Pavilion.
Mitchell Beswick – Muse Restaurant
Mitchell started his career at the age of 15 at a family-owned Spanish restaurant, Pimento, in Sydney’s Paddington. There he learnt the basics of food preparation and kitchen etiquette. Keen to learn more, he moved on to Nick’s Seafood restaurant in Darling Harbour, where he spent three years learning about the preparation of fresh seafood in a very fast paced, highly demanding kitchen, doing 600 covers a service.
Travelling to Far North Queensland at Salsa Bar and Grill Port Douglas, his eyes were opened to a wide range of culinary flavours and from-scratch cooking.
From there he headed back to Sydney to work at the two-hatted Longrain Restaurant, which honed his skills on the balance of Thai flavours and precision knife work. Moving on to work at Ravesis Bondi, and then running a small café and restaurant in Berowra.
Mitchell worked at Qualia Resort on Hamilton Island, before relocating to the Hunter Valley, and held the role of Sous Chef of the two-hatted Rock Restaurant in Pokolbin. He then took a role as Head Chef of Leaves and Fishes and Black Creek Farm for three years. Fast forward to 2021 and Mitchell has been Head Chef of the award-winning two-hatted Muse Restaurant in the Hunter Valley for the past six years.
Alex Prichard – Icebergs Dining Room & Bar
At the young age of 15, he left his hometown of Kurrajong, NSW to begin his apprenticeship and work with some of the best chefs in the world. He is a lover of native produce and celebrates small growers and producers honing on in the importance of origin. Alex is currently Head Chef of the iconic Icebergs Dining Room & Bar.
Sam Alexander – Yellow Billy Restaurant
After starting locally at Nightingale Wines in his hometown of Broke and progressing to The Golden Door Health Retreat in the Hunter Valley, Sam notched up time at two hatted Fins of Byron Bay with seafood legend Steve Snow. Heading back to the Hunter, Sam worked under Robert Molines at Bistro Molines.
A move to Sydney saw him work with Robert Marchetti within the Icebergs Group and finally with the late Jeremy Strode of Bistrode CBD (Merivale Group). After moving to Newcastle, he found his niche at Reserve, cooking bistro classics on the char-grill with his inimitable Mediterranean influences.
The lure of the open fire was too hard to resist and in 2018 he opened his first restaurant Yellow Billy in the Hunter Valley with great friend and wine guru, Patrick Hester. Focusing on the nose-to-tail and kitchen garden philosophy, Sam is able to source the best local produce in the Hunter region using farmers and growers to complement the restaurant-grown produce. The signature style employs an open fire pit to cook whole animals ensuring no wastage while dishes pay homage to his Middle Eastern and Mediterranean background.
HUNTER CULINARY ASSOCIATION
Established in 2006, the Hunter Culinary Association is a not-for-profit association guided by a group of industry professionals who volunteer their time to support and promote the region and give back to the industry they are so passionate about.
As a region, the Hunter is a culinary destination offering diverse and abundant dining experiences ranging from quality cafes to two-hatted restaurants, which proudly showcase passionate and talented industry professionals, regionally sourced produce and award-winning wines from some of its highly regarded wineries.
The Hunter Culinary Association continues to grow and establish new opportunities for its members, fostering the region’s talent through initiatives including the Brett Graham Scholarship, the First Creek Front of House Scholarship, the Hunter Culinary Association Apprentice Scholarship, the Encouragement Awards, Front of House Workshops and produce tours.
It works together with key stakeholders to guide and empower the young talent of the region and assist them in developing their culinary skills through mentoring and guidance.
Harlem’s culinary history, documented
Alvin Starks gestured broadly as he spoke. He was standing in a gallery space in Harlem at the Schomburg Center, a research unit of the New York Public Library. Starks is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Schomburg, the leading research facility devoted to black culture. “The Schomburg is trying to take its material… and put it out,” he said, turning his palms outward and extending his arms, with a wide smile. “That’s a huge goal for us.” Nearby, a group of schoolchildren took in the current exhibition, neatly demonstrating the value of communicating what the Schomburg has to offer, whether it is physically held in the stacks or in the minds of its top-shelf curators.
For Starks, Harlem on My Plate, a delicious documentary co-produced by Sonia Armstead and Rochelle Brown, is a perfect embodiment of a project that is fulfilling that goal of showcasing the Schomburg’s resources. With the help of Citi, which is also providing crucial funding for an ambitious renovation of the Schomburg Center, Armstead and Brown drew heavily on the resources of the Schomburg to take a deep dive into the culinary past and present of Harlem, a neighborhood at the heart of black life in America. For Starks, the way the film connects food culture and the research center is fitting. He noted that Arturo Schomburg himself, the scholar who gave the institution its name, collected cookbooks and viewed chefs as every bit the artists that writers and painters are—“the poets and the cooks were one” to him, Starks said.
Commandeering a conference room for an intensive eight-week residency of a kind, the filmmakers and the company they founded, Powerhouse Productions, fully tapped into the expertise and knowledge of the center’s staff. The librarians took a lot of pleasure, Starks noted, in doing what they do best: sharing information. They pulled catalogs and archival boxes and maps and gave their hard-earned advice. Armstead and Brown were already deeply experienced in film productions related to food but still found themselves learning new things at every turn. “We were really being educated along the way,” Armstead said.
When the co-producers leafed through the Schomburg’s midcentury menus from the Cotton Club, boxer Joe Louis’s Bar & Restaurant, and other iconic Harlem spots, they felt the thrill of literally touching history. (They were surprised to find pages devoted to Chinese food—at about a dollar a dish.) Schomburg materials that supply crucial texture to the film also include black and white photographs of significant eateries and nightclubs, since departed, and archival footage of Harlem and its restaurants of yore. Collectively they show, as Armstead pointed out, that “going out to eat was an experience,” a significant moment to savor and celebrate.
The Powerhouse team journeyed outside the walls of the Schomburg as well, running with an idea and taking it beyond what anyone at Citi or the Schomburg had envisioned. They filmed in restaurants and on the neighborhood streets and interviewed culinary luminaries of the past and present.
They were capturing Harlem at an opportune moment, with the area in the midst of a boom. Melba Wilson, former employee of the iconic Sylvia’s and now owner of Melba’s, says in the film, “Harlem’s always been a jewel, it’s always been a diamond. Now, everyone else is seeing it.”
But culinary culture reflects much more than economic growth. “Food is birth, and it’s death—it’s everything,” Armstead said. Clearly infected with her enthusiasm, Starks chimed in: “Food is part of people’s collective memory.”
With Harlem on My Plate, Armstead and Brown are not only tapping into that collective memory but documenting it for the future. They found one of several historical goldmines in the form of white-haired Geraldine Griffin, proprietor of the now-defunct Adele’s Kitchen, a soul food go-to for generations. As she recounts in the film, when Harlem fell on hard times, her restaurant would advise customers, “No drugs. This is a food place. I sell chicken, not drugs.” Griffin was deeply grateful to the filmmakers for documenting an establishment and an era that could have slipped into obscurity without an effort to give it new life. “I could die tomorrow,” she told them, touchingly, “and people would know my story.”
At a recent intimate preview screening put on by Citi and Powerhouse, Brown introduced the film with a smile. “We’re good at this. We know how to tell a story. I’m 45 now and we’ve been doing this a while—I can say that.”
The reaction of the crowd to the movie, right from the start, put to rest any doubt that Brown was speaking the truth. Footage of dishes both traditional and inventive produced widespread murmurs of appreciation and appetite, and the remarks of those interviewed brought the crowd alive. Rep. Charlie Rangel, who has served as Harlem’s US Congressman for a quarter century, scored the biggest laugh when he impishly expressed the joys of champagne and chitlins.
Alvin Starks said of the Schomburg, “Harlem on My Plate really made us look internally. It led to a lot of self-discovery.” The project has been such a success, he felt, that the staff began to think about how else they could showcase the work of the center for generations to come.
The trailer for Harlem on My Plate, from Powerhouse Productions.
Harlem on My Plate is now hitting the festival circuit, where audiences in other cities are recognizing that it really tells a national story. The life of the film is only just beginning it will be held in perpetuity at the Schomburg Center. At the preview screening, scholars and artists and library users from across the spectrum experienced the film themselves, just as future viewers will. Surely some minds were wondering what else might be accomplished with the resources of the Schomburg Center as it moves into a new era, with financial assistance from Citi. As the lights came up to vigorous applause, a sense of possibility rippled through the crowd.
Read more about how innovative financing is driving progress here.
This article was produced on behalf of Citi by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.
“The CSA Cookbook,” Recipes For Community Cooking
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs from Harlem to Harare have connected farms to consumers and made people more in tune with where their food comes from, but still leave many stumped beyond the conventional uses for their produce. How many times has a CSA share arrived with things you’ve never seen before or not known what to do with?
The CSA Cookbook will help you cook your way through a CSA box (or farmers’ market or backyard bounty) with 105 seasonal recipes that utilize every edible part of the plant, from leaves and flowers to stems and seeds.Think of it as a nose-to-tail approach—for vegetables!
With innovative ideas for preparing the lesser-known but no-less-delicious parts of plants, tips for using the odds and ends of vegetables, and easy preservation techniques, Linda Ly helps you get from farm to table without a fuss. Chapters include tomatoes and peppers, leafy greens, peas and beans, bulbs and stems, roots and tubers, melons and gourds, and flowers and herbs. You’ll find globally-inspired, vegetable-focused recipes that turn a single plant into several meals—take squash, for instance. This year-round vegetable brings a variety of tastes and textures to the table: Sicilian Squash Shoot Soup, Squash Blossom and Roasted Poblano Tacos, Autumn Acorn Squash Stuffed with Kale, Cranberries, and Walnuts, and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds.
If you grow your own food at home, you might be surprised to learn you can eat the leaves from your pepper plants, or pickle the seed pods from your radishes.
The CSA Cookbook aims to inspire curiosity in the garden and creativity in the kitchen. You’ll look at vegetables in a whole new way and think twice before you discard your kitchen “scraps”!
The internet’s favorite baker shows us how to improvise with confidence.
Claire Saffitz is a breakout video star of the home cooking internet, but deep down, she might not love video all that much. Perhaps this—a total lack of thirst and a humble indifference for the format—is the secret to her incredible rise from Bon Appétit Test Kitchen worker bee to the magazine’s senior food editor to the host of “Gourmet Makes,” the insanely popular series on said magazine’s YouTube channel that re-creates well-known grocery store items like Cadbury Creme Eggs, Cheetos, and Twizzlers in a home kitchen. The episodes, running 15-45 minutes, are mostly upbeat, straight-faced cooking demos, but with a wink at the (mostly male) food-science wonkery—and tired food TV in general. This endearing combination of cooking wit and mild snark, rolled up like a Little Debbie Honey Bun, has made Saffitz a star and a go-to voice for all things dessert.
So it’s fitting that all of this has culminated in a debut cookbook like Dessert Person, which has been several years—and several pounds of sugar—in the making, and which syncs up more with Saffitz the scholar. Cookbooks are important to the Harvard and McGill–educated New Yorker, and in this long and lively conversation from mid-September, we talk about some of her favorites, as well as what drove her to perfect an English muffin recipe that she believes all of her nearly 1 million Instagram followers need to make. We talk about the turbulent events at Bon Appétit this summer, her own status at the publication, and why her next book will have a lot more gelatin in it.
You are about to put out a cookbook!
Yeah [laughs]. It’s very exciting. It’s been such a long time in the making, and then, all of a sudden, I wake up, and it’s like a month away. So, in some ways, it snuck up on me, which is crazy because I’ve been planning it for so long, but here we are. I’m very excited.
You put the work in, and I think it shows. Your readers will really appreciate that. And, I have to ask—there are a lot of baking books, and there are a lot of good baking books. It’s not like there are a lack of those. So, when you started writing, what were you setting out to do that was different?
This very much is a baking book. I would certainly characterize it that way. And the title is “Dessert Person,” but it is not literally a book of all desserts. I’m very quick to point out that there is a whole chapter on savory baking. So, when I signed the contract and I started to talk to my editor about what kind of book I was going to write, I knew it was going to be baking. And I really wanted the book to be, in many ways, about how creative and all-encompassing and even improvisational baking could be, because—and I say this in the introduction—I wanted this book to be an explicit defense of baking. Because, as a baker, I feel like I encounter anti-baking bias a lot from people who like food and like to cook but don’t like to bake, and who somehow find it to be a lesser art than cooking.
It’s like cooking gets to be improvisational and creative, and you have high heat, and you can kind of make it up as you go along, and baking is rigid and exacting and—of course there are rules there are rules in baking, and you have to follow a certain process. But I really wanted the book to be about how abundant and beautiful and fun and expressive baking could be. So that was my mission statement, and part of putting the savory chapter in was explaining that baking can be dinner. Baking can be snacks. Baking can be, you know, not just dessert. Even though I love dessert, and I’m a dessert person, and that’s how I identify.
I fully agree with you when you say that people think savory is creative and baking is science—and I disagree with that sentiment, so thank you for saying that. But tell me—give me just an example of an improvisational baking recipe.
I mean, for me, inspiration comes from the market and from produce. And another similarity to me between baking and cooking is that baking is seasonal. You know, people are used to the idea of seasonal cooking, but baking isn’t just brownies and chocolate chip cookies—which, by the way, still have a season, too, because cocoa is a plant-based product. These things that we often think of as pantry ingredients, they’re still plant-based. I talk about that with flour. There’s still a seasonality to all baking ingredients, but particularly produce, and the desserts I like best are fruit-forward desserts. So, for me, improvisational baking is about going to the farmers’ market, seeing that “Oh my God, Italian plums are in season”—which they are right now I was at the farmers’ market in my neighborhood this morning—
Which neighborhood are you in?
I’m on the Upper West Side. There’s one every Friday morning at 97th Street, so it’s a couple blocks away from me. I was there this morning, and I love this time of the year so much, and I saw a huge crate of gorgeous-looking Italian plums, and I bought a pound of them, and I took them home. Plums to me are enhanced when they’re baked. It not only intensifies the flavor, but it intensifies the tartness, which I love, because I love sour flavors. So, that’s what inspires me, and it’s like, “Okay, so I have some rolled oats at home, I have some butter, I always have cinnamon, I can bake a crumble.” So that’s what I mean by improvisational. I can be driven by the ingredient and by the time of year, and baking can allow that. It’s just that you have to sort of understand how to combine flavors and some foundational techniques, and that’s why I have that foundations chapter.
I encounter anti-baking bias a lot from people who like food and like to cook but don’t like to bake, and who somehow find it to be a lesser art than cooking.
You attended Harvard and studied humanities. How much was food in your world when you were attending university? Were you working in restaurants, were you baking, cooking? Or did that come later?
It came later. In my undergraduate years, food was not at the center of what I was doing at all. Certainly, writing was at the center of what I was doing, and that was the significant experience that I gained at that time in my life, that I benefit from now. And I’ve always loved to write. But at Harvard, it’s most common for students to live on campus all four years, and so there’s no kitchens, and no one is cooking—it’s unlike other undergraduate experiences where people live off-campus and they’re cooking for themselves and have a kitchen. We didn’t have that we ate in the dining halls, you know, all four years.
I grew up in St. Louis, but around the same time that I started college, my parents moved to the Boston area. So I could still take a 20-minute car ride and go home to their house and cook when I wanted to, and I did that occasionally. But it was just not at all at the fore of what I was doing. That came really after college, when I did move into an apartment on my own, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was like, “How the hell am I going to use this humanities degree?”
Always the question with humanities.
Right. And it just became true that the one and only thing I wanted to do was cook.
And you studied French culinary history, is that correct?
That was post–culinary school. Around age 24, I had been out of college for a couple years, and I was like, “This cooking thing is not a phase. This is just all I want to do.” In hindsight, it was the culmination and the intersection of everything I love to do. Because I could incorporate writing—although, at that point, I wasn’t totally aware that food media was a thing.
Yeah. Thank God. You came in with an open mind.
I came from an educational background where, if you wanted to be a lawyer or work in finance or go to med school, there was lots of support. If you wanted to do something artistic, not so much. I decided that I should go to culinary school sooner rather than later, because I figured that the older I got, the harder it would be. And I decided, after looking at some programs in New York and seeing how incredibly expensive they were, on culinary school in Paris—because, you know, the movie Julie & Julia had come out, and I was so enraptured with this idea of living in France.
I started to explore schools in France, and I found a much less expensive, English-based international program at a school in Paris, so I moved to Paris for a year. And I had a job as a busser in a restaurant after high school, but I had never cooked professionally, and that program included a required externship in a restaurant—which was appealing to me. I was like, “I really feel like I should get some restaurant experience.” So I did my culinary program, which was about eight months, and four months in a restaurant. I did not enjoy working in a restaurant—I enjoyed the work itself, but I hated the pace of the schedule.
The Apple Concord Grape Crumble from Dessert Person.
And there’s gotta be some element of machismo in the kitchen. Was there anything like that, that was really off-putting to you? Someone who’s very cultured and worldly, and you were just like “this is not fucking right”?
I mean, I had wonderful cooks that I worked with. I liked the people a lot, but what I really chafed against was the hierarchy. In France, you get that classical brigade system, with the hierarchy, and I really did not like that. And I also felt like I did not respond to the kind of feedback that was entrenched in that culture, which was negative feedback. It was like, I’m someone that is very type A—I’m very hard on myself, and I am my own worst critic—so it’s like, I don’t need someone else to yell at me if I mess up. I know when I messed up, you know? You’re just sort of irritating me at that point. And I hated the idea that I didn’t feel that I could be very analytical. I was just like a machine.
Yeah, they were like, “Do this, robot person.”
Yeah. Pick these herbs—and I also ended up doing all the pastry for that restaurant, so I felt like I did not sign up for this amount of responsibility. I was actually okay with being a machine in that amount of time, but then I realized that this was more than I had bargained for. I wouldn’t trade it for anything I learned so much. But I was just like, “This isn’t for me.”
And so, while I was in culinary school, I was applying to graduate programs. And I knew I could study this thing called food history. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, and I got into a program at McGill, and I went there because there’s a professor there named Brian Cowan who does some really interesting cultural studies and intellectual history around food. I loved living in France, I was like, “I can study all this,” which was great—and then halfway through that program, I was like, “I love this, I love learning about this, I love reading old cookbooks, it’s so rewarding and intellectually stimulating,” but it was the opposite end of the spectrum from working at a restaurant. I needed something a little more in the middle, where I could cook and write and think.
Enter food media!
Right, exactly. I was like, “Oh my God! There’s food magazines, I wonder if I could work at one of those.”
Take me back to that first restaurant in Paris. What was the first dessert pastry that you got on the menu during your time there. Do you remember?
The restaurant was Spring, which has since closed. But it’s a Daniel Rose restaurant—
Yeah, of course! A very famous place, dang! And an American!
Yeah. An American in Paris doing classical French food. I was there, and the pastry chef working was sort of part-time, so she didn’t work service she did a lot of pastry prep and kind of set everyone else up for dessert service in the evenings. And there were parts of her job that were a little redundant, and so I think she decided to leave, and then Daniel was sort of like, “You like pastry . . .” And that was very true, I had told him I really liked doing pastry—and he was like, “You’re gonna take over that prep role.”
And the desserts at Spring were very interesting. They were not at all composed. It was really a series of sweet bites it was its own kind of service. It would be things like a mini pavlova with beautiful macerated strawberries and crème fleurette driven down from Normandy the day before with pure vanilla—just the absolute superlative ingredients, featured very beautifully, but in the least fussy way possible. It could be a little quenelle of olive oil ganache, with beautiful olive oil drizzled on it. Or there was this recipe that I had to make that I probably got wrong 50 percent of the time. It was an Alain Ducasse recipe for a toasted almond chocolate caramel. That would be minardies at the end of the meal. I was always doing these individual, very simple preparations and then putting them out as a series of courses.
Wow. What a crazy responsibility for a very well-regarded restaurant. You had the keys!
I would get there at 9:00 in the morning, start my prep, then I would work lunch service, and then I would clean up from lunch, do more prep in the afternoon, set up for dinner service, work dinner service. I would do what he called aperitif courses, the amuse. And then I would switch to dessert, and would run dessert service, and then go home at like 1 a.m.
Switching gears—and this is important I want to know. We’ve written about this a lot, but can you just remind people about why it’s important to buy a $20 digital scale? Because I think people need to be continually reminded. Your recipes are probably better with a digital scale, right?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, I was very careful, and from the beginning, I had intended to provide, of course, volume measurements—because that’s how everyone works, and sometimes I still work that way. But to provide metric and standard measurements for every ingredient—that mattered, in a sense. Like, I don’t need to give [metric weight] for a teaspoon of vanilla extract, because a little more or a little less makes no difference. But for every functional ingredient, I thought it was so important. It is certainly an efficient and accurate way to work, and overall, it’s just much more seamless, especially for bread making. Anytime you’re really measuring flour for anything, weighing it is so much better—and it’s amazing to see the variations in weight by volume like, my cup of flour is always 130 grams, for the most part. But it could be 25 percent more or less, depending.
Yeah, people are packing things down like crazy it’s just a natural tendency.
Yes. I think people are scooping flour in a measuring cup inside of the bag the flour comes in, which is just going to lead you to a very, very dense cup of flour. And so, in the book, I talk about how you should bring the flour home, put it into a container with a tight-fitting lid, scoop it into the cup, and then level it. All of these things really matter, and so that’s what I mean when I say that baking has rules and principles that you have to follow, but other than that, it’s not that scary. You just kind of have to know these things. And using a scale is a big part of that. It’s just to set yourself up for success.
Yeah, and they’re not expensive. They’re very, very affordable.
What was your biggest recipe conquest in the book? The recipe you set out to articulate, and it just did not work several times. The thing that you just felt like, at the end of it, we dialed it in, but it was a war getting there.
I mean, [my editor] Raquel was incredibly—I don’t want to say “permissive,” because that’s the wrong connotation. But she gave me incredible freedom to write the book that I wanted to write, and I got my first physical copy in the mail a week ago, and I was looking at it, having not seen it now for several months, and I was like, “Wow—I really wrote the book I wanted to write.” It felt like there was nothing mediated between what I set out to do and what the final product was. And that’s a big reflection of Raquel and her editing. But there were several recipes that she encouraged me to cut. And she was 100 percent right about it. I had a lot of much more savory recipes that she was like, “I just don’t quite think these go.” I had a lamb pot pie with olive oil pastry, and I had a sort of braised chicken under biscuits that was like a chicken pot pie. I ended up cutting things that were sort of free-standing recipes and that didn’t, to me, seem to fit in this world that was “Dessert Person.”
And I want to ask you about the English muffins. Raquel told me that was probably the one recipe that you worked on [the most]. She said that you were very, very stoked about doing English muffins. So, for me, I’m like, Bays makes some pretty good English muffins! I’m into industrial English muffins, so I’m not necessarily inclined to make them myself. But tell me why I want to make yours, because it makes sense that you should probably make English muffins.
Yes. So, I’m with you—a Thomas’ English muffin is a pretty tasty thing.
Yeah, it’s a better brand than Bays. I prefer Thomas’ as well.
Okay. But after you make homemade English muffins, you are going to open up a pack of Thomas’ English muffins, and you’re going to smell kind of a funky smell it’s going to smell a little bit off, a little bit chemical, and then you’re going to realize that the fresh version of this thing is ten times better. It is hard to convince people that they should be making they own English muffin when there is a perfectly serviceable option that comes out of a bag. But I hope that people find recipes like that to be just sort of a fun project—and, actually, that might be the one recipe in the book that is not technically baked. It is griddled on a stovetop.
Oh, that makes sense! Some people don’t want to turn on their ovens, you know? For a variety of reasons.
Right, right. And I had previously done an English muffin recipe at Bon Appétit that was good, but I was like, “These can be better, and I can get more nooks and crannies.” So that was a recipe that I just had so much fun working on. I could kind of pull in knowledge from other recipes, it was like, “I know that in order to get that really open, whole structure to get those nooks and crannies, you want a wetter dough.” So it was almost like I was moving that recipe further down the spectrum toward crumpets, which is really a batter, and I came up with what I think is a cool, relatively easy technique for really impressive English muffins that come out miraculously well, and that look eerily like the stuff out of the package.
Yeah, and that’s the key, because I think if you don’t get that right look, it’s like, “Okay, this is not an English muffin.” Those crevices inside are super important.
Yeah. I think it’s one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t even know you could make this.” But they’re just really fun, you know? So I do hope people try them.
What’s book two?
I told Raquel I would have a table of contents to her like two months ago, you know? It’s been a weird summer, but book two is going to be, I think, the inverse of the first book. I’m really thinking of it as book two of a set of two, I guess. So, book one is all baking but not all dessert. Book two is going to be all dessert but not all baking. The first book has my favorite kinds of desserts, but it also totally ignores huge categories of other desserts that I still love, like frozen desserts, chilled desserts, desserts that are made on the stovetop. The second book is going to focus on the core concept of simplicity. Because book number one has some simple recipes, but it has some really complicated recipes, too.
Will Jell-O make an appearance? I know it’s making a comeback, as some people say.
Yeah! There are some kinds of gelled or jelly desserts that I really like, but it’s going to be less in the vein of 1970s Americana, and more in the vein of Taiwanese jelly kind of things.
Yeah, good. I appreciate that you’re not totally leaning into that trend.
It’s more like panna cottas and puddings and mousses, and stuff like that—which sounds complicated, and it can be, but it can also be so simple.
Do you have a savory book in you, too? Are you interested in that kind of world as well? I mean, not just as a diner, but as an educator and author.
Yeah. I mean, absolutely, and I look at myself first and foremost as a baker, but that does not define me. For years and years and years, I primarily did savory recipe development at Bon Appétit, and it’s like, I don’t just love sweets, I love all food. I just have a particular affinity for sweets.
Who do you look up to in pastry? Who are some of the industry members you really admire?
Many. I have long idolized Claudia Fleming, and her book is just such a north star for me in my career. Her style really embodies what I aspire to as a developer. There’s a real soulful quality to her cooking and her recipes. And same with Lindsey Shere and the whole history of Chez Panisse desserts that book is so formative to me. Same ideas—it’s so driven by the seasons, and it’s rooted in a kind of European sensibility, but it’s also very American. And it isn’t limited by that. So those are two major ones. I’m looking over here at my cookbooks . . .
What else? Oh, and then there’s lots of bread bakers who really—I’m a bread baker hobbyist, but not by profession, so I’m a good home bread baker, but the pros are doing things that I can’t even imagine from my kitchen. People like Richard Hart, who is doing the most incredible-looking pastry and bread at Hart Bageri. The titans of the industry, I think.
The Flourless Chocolate Cake.
And in terms of Bon Appétit stuff, have you met the new editor in chief, Dawn Davis, and are you involved in BA stuff right now? And I know you said it’s been an interesting summer going forward, a lot of folks have left for various reasons. What’s your role there?
The summer’s been very challenging, but I think it’s been very necessary. And I have a lot of hope for the future of the brand. I’ve never met Dawn—a friend of mine is a former colleague of hers, and I’ve heard from other people in the industry that she is phenomenal. And I sincerely hope, on the editorial side, that I get to work with her and Sonia Chopra, who is a recent hire there. I’ve spoken to her a couple times. I don’t have a formal relationship with Condé Nast, neither with video nor with editorial. My video contract ended this past May. [Note: See Claire’s Instagram post from October 7, after this interview was conducted, that addresses her relationship with Condé Nast and Bon Appétit.] I’m taking some time right now to figure out what I want to do going forward, and I have the book coming out, and I’m starting the second book—and video was never for me and never my raison d’être in food.
You’re great at it, and I hope you do more of it. I mean it! You’re really great.
Thank you! I’ve found video can be really fun, which is something I discovered by doing it, and it also can afford me the opportunity to do the kinds of things that I love to do, like continue to write. I think that there are many reasons to be very hopeful for the future of the brand I think having new leadership come in is going to be huge, and I’m really excited to see what kind of changes are made. And I do hope to continue some kind of relationship with the magazine, and with the brand, because I have a lot of loyalty toward it that’s where I came up, and I think that this past summer pointed out some extremely salient and important flaws, and weaknesses, and serious shortcomings. And I do think they’re being addressed in important ways, and I feel like I’m a little bit in the same position as readers—as a longtime fan of the brand, I want to see that change. So I’m really in a wait-and-see kind of place.
Well, you have a lot of fans, and they want you to do more of your video series. They really do. But you’re saying maybe not, because you’ve got a lot of other things going on, and you clearly are an academic at heart, an instructor at heart, which I respect I admire that you do both.
Thanks. Yeah, I think going forward, I would look at video as an opportunity to do more of those things that I really like, like the research and the learning. And video is a vehicle for that, so that’s the extent to which I would pursue it in the future, and that’s really how I want to orient myself in that space. Gourmet Makes is so fun, and I love doing it, because I love the crew, and the environment was so fun, but I never woke up in the morning being like, “I can’t wait to reverse engineer Skittles.”
I mean, what about Rolos?
For me, video is a great means to have an incredible opportunity to learn, because I always look at my job as an editor as being a translator—to take professional knowledge from chefs and other food professionals and translate it for a popular audience. And that’s what I want to keep doing I think I’m always going to think like an editor in that way.
Democratizing food is really important to me, personally, and you’ve done that with your series. Because snobbery is the death of food media. And, along with many other things, snobbery is one of the worst parts.
Absolutely. And I hope that one of the things people saw in the Bon Appétit video was that everybody in the kitchen has their opinion, and likes what they like, and we kind of squabble over it, but I like to think that we’re not snobs. We’re opinionated, but I love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. There’s just no place for snobbery, I think.
I agree. And are you a pumpkin, tree, or egg person—for seasonal Reese’s?
None of the above! Classic only!
Classic only! Okay. We’re entering the pumpkin season, which I think is the best, personally.
I truly didn’t even know that was a thing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
FOUR RECIPES WE LOVE FROM DESSERT PERSON
Flourless Chocolate Wave Cake
Claire openly admits to not really loving the overpowering rich and cloying nature of this popular cake, but this light version—which is also dairy-free—is her flourless magnum opus.
Apple and Concord Grape Crumble Pie
This pie is pure fall and early winter. It’s a unique flavor combination and a great way to use up the apples and grapes from the farmers’ market. The buckwheat crumble on top is a nice upgrade.
Buckwheat Blueberry Pancake
While the book is titled “Dessert Person,” the definition of dessert stretches beyond the classic cakes, pies, and cookies. This is a hearty pancake that the author calls “pancake adjacent.” The texture isn’t fluffy but rich and custardy, similar to the French clafoutis.
Classic English Muffins
Surprise! You can make your own English muffins. So, okay, this isn’t a classic dessert, but it’s a recipe the author worked on for months, and we really believe that there is nothing like a homemade version of the package of Thomas’ you have in your fridge.
MORE BOOKS TO BUY, READ, AND COOK FROM
Last week we talked to Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage about their newest vegetable-centric book, Ottolenghi Flavor.
In Coconut & Sambal, Lara Lee invites us into the Indonesian kitchen and teaches us that there’s a whole world of sambals out there.
In The Flavor Equation, Nik Sharma explains some of the science behind flavor, and why factors like memory and aroma affect the way we experience food. Check out some of his previous writing for TASTE here.
Chaat, by Maneet Chauhan, proves that chaat is much more than just a snack.
Dinner Parties, Dining Spaces
Cleopatra Zuli also felt the need to create an experience that reflected aspects of her identity as “a black, androgynous, genderqueer person.” Ms. Zuli, 32, was raised by a queer mother and her gay brother, and she grew up immersed in vibrant dinner parties “reflective of our multifaceted African diaspora community.”
Inspired by the memory of these meals and, later, stumbling upon research illuminating the queer-friendly parties thrown by A’Lelia Walker at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Ms. Zuli started BLK Palate in December 2017. The production company and collective, co-founded by Travis Young and Kendra Clarke, engineers dining events designed to honor and empower the black queer community through food and conversation.
BLK Palate is among a crop of reimagined dinner parties geared toward the L.G.B.T.Q. community in and around New York City. JaynesBeard — a private monthly supper club at city residences founded by Sabrina Chen, 39, and Alana McMillan, 32 — encompasses everything from cocktail parties to seated, plated meals by chefs such as Kristen Kish.
Big Gay Supper Club beckons guests out of the city to Megan Jo Collum and Jess Emrich’s property in New Milford, Conn., for homespun barbecues, potlucks and performances. And Babetown, a roving party for queer women, as well as trans and nonbinary people, sold out its first dinner in September 2016 in 48 hours. It is run by Alex Koones, 29, whom Ms. Alpern, of Queer Soup Night, credits with being one of the first to ignite the current dinner party craze.
On a recent Monday night, Ms. Alpern could be found greeting Bill Clark and Libby Willis at their monthly “queer industry night,” Family Meal. As owners of the self-described “very, very gay” MeMe’s Diner in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Mr. Clark, 30, and Ms. Willis, 27, have become linchpins of the L.G.B.T.Q.-centric New York food community since opening in November 2017 (Cuties, a rainbow-fronted coffee shop with a community tab program and monthly “Queers, Coffee & Donuts” sidewalk cookouts, is a hub for those in Los Angeles).
“We’re big fans of MeMe’s,” said Jarry’s Mr. Volger. “That was one of the first times we saw articulated what it meant to be sort of a queer restaurant.”
Mr. Volger, too, was at MeMe’s Diner’s party, and as the room began to swell and guests began to double-fist vegan peanut soft serve and Rainbow Kiss cocktails, the elusive concept of a “queer restaurant” began to crystallize. It wasn’t about a particular type of cuisine (despite the rainbow sprinkles dusting the ice cream). It wasn’t about symbology or décor. It was about the people in the room: industry insiders and outsiders who had largely felt, at one point or another, marginalized by a world that they had begun to reclaim, meal by meal.
“If you essentially don’t have a seat at the table,” Lalito’s Mr. Gonzalez said, “just build your own table.”
Alexander Smalls, Harlem Chef, Restaurateur, Gives '30s-Era Jazz Club Minton's Playhouse New Life
Don't call chef Alexander Smalls' relaunch of one-time Harlem hotspot Minton's Playhouse a comeback. Call it a revival.
That's how the South Carolina-bred restaurateur refers to his return to the New York City restaurant scene. "The food is how I made my reputation -- what I call southern revival cooking with low-country notes," Smalls said of his latest project.
In addition to reviving Minton's, formerly known as the 1930s/1940's jazz mecca Minton's Playhouse, Smalls is opening another Harlem eatery, The Cecil, which shares a kitchen and is named after the hotel where Minton's once thrived. (Both projects are in partnership with media mogul Richard Parsons and his wife, Laura.)
Like the establishments Smalls is bringing back, his reputation precedes him.
"My first restaurant in New York, Café Beulah, introduced New Yorkers to my version of low-country cooking, which is the food of Charleston, the Gullah Islands, Savannah, that part of the world where you had a fusion of French Creole, African and the far east," Smalls said. "The food was a lot of game, a lot of seafood, but it has a regional character all its own. My idea was the bring that north . and I’m continuing the story."
The menu at Minton's will be rooted in Small's low-country heritage but more refined, he said, describing the restaurant's four-course, white linen, jacket-required service. He also intends to offer a 5 p.m. seating to cater to theater-goers.
It's all a far cry from the watering hole Minton's once was. And while this is Harlem, and Smalls' menus do nod to his Southern roots, don't even think about calling it soul food.
"We are miles away from soul food," Smalls said. He prides himself on a well-known aversion to the term when it's used in reference to his cuisine.
"I feel that oftentimes this expression is used for people of color who cook, and it's limiting when you have spent yourself in culinary school and traveled the world and people always want to bring it back to an ethnic posture. . If I had made Italian food, somebody would [call it] 'Italian with soul,'" he joked, recalling a national TV appearance where he had to defend his position alongside Harlem soul food queen Sylvia Woods.
Instead, Smalls says he's stepped outside his own conventions, celebrating the foodways of the African diaspora on The Cecil's menu with "vibrant, flavorful, full-personality dishes" like beef suya served with papaya and mango and a Skuna Bay salmon roll wrapped in rice skin with azuki beans and African rice.
The restaurant's signature (and perhaps most outstanding) dish, however, is a crispy, cinnamon-scented guinea hen. Drawing once more on his extensive knowledge of African-inspired cuisine, Smalls explained how the bird, a mix between a duck and a chicken, has been marinated in a cinnamon brine.
Or it's simply "what some people would call fried chicken," he said.
Check out another of Smalls' menu offerings below.
Black Benne Seed Ahi Tuna
2 pieces sushi grade tuna
1 cup benne seeds
I clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 piece ginger, finely chopped
1 shallot, sliced
2 bok choy
2 pieces Chinese pork sausage, cut into matchsticks
For Tuna: Season, salt, and roll tuna around in benne seeds. Once coated, sear in a hot pan with 4 teaspoons of oil. In a separate pan, toast garlic, ginger and shallot. Add Chinese sausage and bok choy.
1 piece sliced shallot
1 cup grape seed oil
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 cup yuzu
1 tsp fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
For Vinaigrette: Slice shallots and sauté in grape seed oil. Toast turmeric for 2 minutes. Once turmeric is toasted, add in yuzu. Season with salt and pepper add in cilantro to taste. Serve room temperature over tuna.
The Cecil opens Monday, Sept. 23 at 210 West 118th Street in New York. Minton's, at 206 West 118th Street, is slated to reopen its doors next month.
A New Charlotte Food Fest Celebrates Black Chefs
With COVID restrictions finally easing, star-packed food festivals are beginning to return to the scene. But a new festival planned for this fall in Charlotte aims to bring a different focus than the big gatherings: celebrating Black chefs.
While Black chefs have long been an integral part of Charlotte’s food scene, they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. That began to change in 2016, when a group of Black chefs in Charlotte put on a pop-up dinner, Soul Food Sessions, designed to showcase the city’s Black cooking talent and garner the chefs more visibility. The dinners became semi-regular events, and they eventually expanded to a three-city tour that took them to Washington, Baltimore, and Charleston. For the chefs, it was a vital means of exposure.
Most of the instigators of the first Soul Food Sessions have gone on to success and even national recognition. Despite opening the same week that North Carolina instituted pandemic restrictions, Greg and Subrina Collier’s new restaurant, Leah & Louise, was named one of the country’s best new restaurants and has been featured in the New York Times. Chefs Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams have parked their food truck, What the Fries, and opened a brick-and-mortar location. Chef Michael Bowling has opened his own new restaurant, Hot Box Next Level Kitchen.photo: Peter Taylor
Now the Colliers are the organizers of the Black Food & Wine Festival, planned for October 22–24 at Charlotte’s Camp North End, a 76-acre redevelopment project that is the site for Leah & Louise and other food businesses, such as Free Range Brewing, Babe & Butcher, and the bakery Wentworth & Fenn.
“We noticed a huge void in the festival scene including Black chefs, Black food, and Black culture,” says Subrina Collier, a 2020 fellow in the James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership project. “Rather than telling other festivals to include us more, we decided to stop asking and create our own.”
The lineup currently features Black chefs from across the South and beyond, including Todd Richards of Atlanta, Ashleigh Shanti of Asheville, Duane Nutter of Mobile, and “Top Chef” alumni Tiffany Derry of Dallas, Chris Scott of New York, and Keith Rhodes of Wilmington, with more names expected to sign on. Charlotte stars will be there too: the Colliers, Bowling, Barnes, and Williams from the original Soul Food Sessions dinners, along with Lindsey Williams, the owner of Davidson Wine Co., and Whitney Thomas, chef de cuisine at the Grand Bohemian hotel.
Plans for the three-day event include a first-day family-friendly Chuckwagon Carnival with food trucks and entertainment, ending that night with the multicourse Black Stork Chefs Dinner. The second day, called the Cotton Club Festival, brings tasting tents and chef demonstrations, followed by the Harlem Nights Chefs Dinner, featuring seven chefs. The final day will wrap things up with the Savoy Jazz Brunch, combining multiple chef stations with live music.
The Harlem connection is intentional: The Colliers say the Harlem Renaissance, the Black cultural revival in the 1920s and ‘30s, inspired the idea for the festival. “Back then, there was a burst of creativity and cultural appreciation born out of Prohibition,” Greg says. “Now, one hundred or so years later, Black creativity has been unappreciated and unnoticed for a while. We want to shine that spotlight bright.”photo: Courtesy of Duane Nutter
Chef Chris Shepherd's first cookbook celebrates Houston's multi-cultural tapestry
Chef Chris Shepherd shops in his favorite H Mart store for the gochujang sauce he prizes. From "Cook Like a Local," written by Shepherd and co-author Kaitlyn Goalen.
Julie Soefer / Julie Soefer Show More Show Less
“Cook Like a Local” by Houston chef Chris Shepherd with Kaitlyn Goalen
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Chef Chris Shepherd at Saigon Pagolac, a Vietnamese restaurant in Asiatown, with owner Jacklyn Pham, whose father Long Pham opened the restaurant in 1989. From Shepherd's new cookbook, "Cook Like a Local," written with co-author Kaitlyn Goalen.
Julie Soefer / Julie Soefer Show More Show Less
Eggplant with Spicy Bean Paste from "Cook Like a Local," by James Beard Award-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd and co-author Kaitlyn Goalen.
Julie Soefer / Julie Soefer Show More Show Less
Roasted and fried okra (Masala Bhindi) with masala spice mix from "Cook Like a Local," by James Beard Award-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd and co-author Kaitlyn Goalen.
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Papaya Salad from "Cook Like a Local," by James Beard Award-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd and co-author Kaitlyn Goalen.
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James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd has written his first cookbook, "Cook Like a Local," with co-author Kaitlyn Goalen.
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Even before he created a restaurant concept that shook Houston like a seismic clap, Chris Shepherd was scratching at the city&rsquos culinary underbelly.
Not everyone was comfortable with the notion.
When he and his chef buddies descended on unsuspecting Indian and Vietnamese restaurants in Asiatown or Korean restaurants in Spring Branch, they were sometimes met with cockeyed glances and eyebrows arched in suspicion. Shepherd remembers the Thai restaurant off Long Point that wouldn&rsquot serve him a homestyle dish of sour fermented sausage dressed in cilantro and peanuts with a splash of fish sauce.
&ldquoIt&rsquos not for you, it&rsquos for the Thai,&rdquo Shepherd recalls the owner telling him, perhaps fearing it would go to waste when it was returned as not to the liking of a white man&rsquos palate.
He was shot down a few times. Then one day the owner of Vieng Thai finally relented and served him the dish called yum nhean. &ldquoIt was delicious,&rdquo Shepherd said. &ldquoI told him, &lsquoNow I want everything else I&rsquom not supposed to have.&rsquo&rdquo
By Chris Shepherd and Kaitlyn Goalen
Underbelly, the game-changer restaurant Shepherd opened in 2012, was born from those deep dives into the neighborhoods where the city&rsquos immigrant communities live, work and dine. With Underbelly, Shepherd was intent on telling a fresh story of how Houston ate &mdash the flavors and foodways of the city that might well be the country&rsquos most ethnically diverse. The restaurant brought international attention to Houston it made Shepherd a culinary superstar.
Today Underbelly is gone, but it lives on as a philosophy that continues to guide the James Beard Award-winning chef in his endeavors both professional and personal. And that pioneer spirit is evident in Shepherd&rsquos first cookbook, out next week.
&ldquoCook Like a Local,&rdquo written with cookbook author Kaitlyn Goalen, is a Houston-proud road map to the Korean, Vietnamese, Indian and Mexican flavors that inspired Shepherd&rsquos journey as a chef. And changed his life.
Throughout the book, Shepherd references an upbringing that never suggested he would become a champion for the vast culinary riches that immigrant cultures have brought to Houston. A product of a middle-class family in Nebraska and Oklahoma, Shepherd had a boyhood colored by good &ldquoAmerican food&rdquo he continues to enjoy. His training as a chef focused on Euro-centric foods and techniques.
But curiosity got the best of him. In Tulsa, he learned about the wonders of soy sauce and Japanese curry while working in a sushi restaurant. In Houston, he was introduced to the spice and flavor contributions of dried and fresh chile peppers by Mexican-American line cooks. And that curiosity about local flavors was fed by those excursions he and friends took to neighborhoods outside the Loop.
In &ldquoCook Like a Local,&rdquo Shepherd is quick to point out that this process shouldn&rsquot be called discovery. He wasn&rsquot discovering anything that wasn&rsquot already part of Houston&rsquos fabric. He was learning. &ldquoI started going out as much as I could manage,&rdquo he writes, &ldquoand I started asking a lot of questions.&rdquo
He became a familiar face enjoying the spring rolls and banh xeo at Saigon Pagolac. The whole roasted goats on spits at El Hidalguense. Thai papaya salad at Asia Market. The chile and peppercorn fireworks at Mala Sichuan Bistro. Masala-flavored dishes from London Sizzler. Banh mi at Cali Sandwich. Korean fried chicken from H Mart. Rice cakes from Kong Ju Rice Bakery. Viet-Cajun crawfish at Crawfish and Noodles. And pho, curry, kimchi, tamales and tacos anywhere he could get them.
All of this &mdash the people, flavors and stories &mdash pepper the cookbook. And all of them helped inform the chef that the 46-year-old Shepherd is today.
Most of the 120 recipes in &ldquoCook Like a Local&rdquo come from the Underbelly playbook. Though Shepherd retired the restaurant in March 2018 to make way for his new Georgia James steakhouse, his younger, spunkier torchbearer UB Preserv continues the how-Houston-eats immersion.
The cookbook is broken into six chapters dedicated to integral ingredients of the unique H-town melting pot, at least according to Shepherd: fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices and corn. Each of those ingredients has much to teach us, Shepherd said.
&ldquoIt&rsquos about talking to people, about listening and understanding why,&rdquo he said. &ldquoAnd, just as important, celebrating that.&rdquo
Though he makes his Houston culinary odyssey sound easy &mdash he was hungry, so he fed himself what the city had to offer &mdash he understands that his brand of &ldquodiscovery&rdquo isn&rsquot for everyone. He knew that his Inner Loop customers might not take those first steps to Asiatown on their own. So he gave them a nudge via the Underbelly menu. &ldquoI&rsquoll give you a taste, then you need to go out and take the next step,&rdquo he said. &ldquoHere is what fish sauce tastes like. Now go out and find it.&rdquo
Are there still global foods left for him to learn about in Houston? Tons, Shepherd says, especially in the Nigerian and Ghanese communities.