The Q&A Hole
The Food Issue serving
We run this question-and-answer feature – the Q&A Hole – every week or so online, asking topically relevant or totally random questions of people in town or across the country. Now we're serving up a special edition of five questions for the Food Issue, featuring answers from a tiny array of local culinary professionals. (A shorter cut of this piece ran in the print issue – call it the tapas version to this online buffet.) Bon appetit!
What's probably the single best meal you've ever had?
Ned Elliott, executive chef at Foreign & Domestic: Dinner at Les Cocottes in Paris, or just eating in the Boqueria in Barcelona.
Jodi Elliott, pastry chef of Foreign & Domestic: There's no such thing for me. An amazing meal is about not only the food but the experience, the people or person you're with, the time of year, the location, etc. That's what makes eating out such a treat and special occasion – no matter how casual or fancy. It's my absolute favorite thing to do! Sharing a meal with someone is not only intimate but interesting – you can really learn a lot about a person while "breaking bread." Most of my memories involve food! Favorites include: my Mom's beef stroganoff and chicken-fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy ... my first baguette in Paris ... fish and chips done proper in London ... the broccoli dish at the French Laundry circa 2004 ... the bread and ricotta at Peasant in NYC ... pancakes that Billie (my daughter) and I made together ... the list goes on forever!
Sonya Coté, executive chef at Hillside Farmacy and the new Eden East at Springdale Farm: The single most best meal would have to be Thanksgiving Day, 1980. The first and only time I spent the day with my first-generation Sicilian family in Salem, Massachusetts. We had lasagna, jellyfish aspic with shrimp, antipasti, and tiramisu. Till this day, I always make lasagna for Thanksgiving.
Kristine Kittrell, executive chef at Mulberry: There's a goat farm/restaurant in the Luberon region of Provence called Le Castelas. It was a slow-food enthusiast's dream. They only do a prix fixe and just about every component of the meal was produced there, including the Rose. Lunch consisted of many goat cheeses of various ages and styles: creamy, chalky, herbed, etc., accompanied with honey and goat coppa and wild boar salami. The second course was greens from the hillside garden dressed with honey vinegar and olive oil, followed by rabbit civet and finally a chestnut custard and a pear tart. The food was simple and perfect, the ambience enhanced by the proprietor's endless glass of pastis and a herd of goats.
Erica Beneke, executive chef at Max's Wine Dive: The single best meal I've ever had was probably lunch at Eleven Madison Park. I was on a four-day culinary adventure with two other chefs and this meal just absolutely blew us away. We ended up sitting for close to four hours, indulged in something insane like 24 courses, with wine pairings. I wish that I could do it justice with words, but I don't think I can.
Hank Cathey, producer of Fusebox Festival's Digestible Feats: This is tricky. I have a cluster of great meals that I'd have a hard time choosing between. Though I was dressed extremely casually, they allowed me in for lunch at Meurice across from the Louvre, and it was as fine a meal as I could imagine. I once had dinner at Blackbird in Chicago that amazed me course after course. My meals at both WD~50 and Dirt Candy in NYC were extraordinary and mind-opening. Sonya Coté once made a birthday meal for me that included a flaming Chartreuse marrowbone for dessert. My dear friend Marty makes eggs à la goldenrod every year for my birthday breakfast. And how do I choose between the many glorious meals of Italy? My story of any of these meals could have me going on for paragraphs.
Laura Thoms, freelance caterer: While I could give you a list of the most exquisitely, carefully prepared true works of art – of meals prepared by genius chefs at Uchiko, or Jaleo – or the time Franklin Barbecue catered a party in my backyard in their early days – meals where we just ate tiny bites of perfection for hours on end – the single best "meal" I have ever had was in 2002, when I still worked as a chef instructor at the Central Market cooking school, and my roommate in an East Austin bungalow was Tim Graham, a Central Market wine expert and one of the best chefs I've known. For Easter we had a Last Supper party – people had to bring whatever they would want to eat for their last meal, no more than two courses, and bring enough to share with four people. All our chef and restaurant and wine friends came, broke out some amazing bottles, and the food ranged from fried chicken and red velvet cake, to prime rib and oysters Rockefeller. Tim's dessert was Woodford Reserve-soaked Rice Krispie treats. I made a biryani with chicken thighs – because for my last meal I wanted the exhilarating pop of crunching into whole spices like cardamom and Thai chiles. For dessert I made chocolate truffles, plated on a strawberry Champagne reduction – because, Champagne. That party started off as a joke ... but, man, it had everything imaginable you might want to eat and drink, as well as the other components of a perfect meal: great friends, starlight, and laughter.
Karen Jane DeWitt, executive chef at Scissortail Savories & Sweets: Without a doubt, the single best meal I've ever had was at Jubilee in NYC back in 2008. I had just become pescatarian after seven years as a strict vegetarian, but the only fish they had on the menu was some lobster dish that I didn't want. Maybe it was the romantic flicker of the candlelight or the red wine, but I impulsively ordered the rack of lamb. There was not a single vegetable on that plate – just lamb and the richest mashed potatoes I've ever eaten. Tears of joy welled up in my eyes with every bite! I never looked back; I have been a meat eater ever since.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten, and did you like it?
Ned Elliott: My mom once brought back chocolate covered grasshoppers and bumblebees from Mexico and I liked them. The bumblebees were better because they didn't squirt.
Jodi Elliott, pastry chef at Foreign & Domestic: I'm a pretty picky eater – shhhh! Only a few people know that! – so weird for me are liver, oysters, brains, etc. Many things we've had on the menu at Foreign and Domestic! I trust Ned, though – he has the ability to make most anything delicious! The venison heart tartare, for example, is really amazing.
Sonya Coté: Weirdest thing I've eaten was a bag full of mullet gizzards – and they were delicious! I've been searching for them ever since. We prepped them like a chicken gizzard, pan-fried in butter and shallot.
Kristine Kittrell: Ant eggs in Mexico City. Delicious.
Erica Beneke: I don't know that I've eaten anything superweird. In college, I tried squirrel and bear, neither of which were especially delicious. I also had raw venison heart once during a hunting trip; apparently, it's some sort of tradition. I had some chocolate-covered grasshoppers, too... which were pretty tasty.
Hank Cathey: What's weird? There are very few parts of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, geese, and goats that I haven't eaten, but that's not weird; that's just meat. Probably the weirdest thing I've ever eaten was a Twinkie, and no, I didn't like it very much at all.
Laura Thoms: As a catering chef and cooking-class chef instructor, I've seen a lot of show cooking. So much fois gras. So much black truffle. I have eaten kangaroo (gross) and every kind of creature and plant from the sea (all delicious). The thing I would be least likely to put in my mouth was prepared by impeccable chef Jean-Luc Salles of Jean-Luc's Bistro: veal carpaccio. Only a European chef would present something so un-PC and also questionable because of the uncooked factor. The palest pink shimmer of forbidden and wrong. Though I was totally grossed out thinking about it – with olive oil, fresh herbs, shaved Parmesan, salt and pepper – if I stopped thinking about it – it was heaven.
Karen Jane DeWitt: I think any food can be weird if you think about it hard enough. Eggs? Weird! Cow's milk? Weird! But the most unconventional food I've eaten is crickets. They were done up like sour-cream-and-onion chips – very dry and crispy. They didn't blow me away, but they had some serious potential. My guess is that someday we'll be eating bugs on everything.
What's your favorite meal to prepare for friends?
Ned Elliott: Roasted chicken.
Jodi Elliott: Veggie lasagna – many of my friends are vegetarians.
Sonya Coté: Always some kind of greens. That would be the most constant. For my people, I usually grill produce that is in season, so it's always changing.
Kristine Kittrell: Cassoulet. I make it once a year for all of our friends who can't make it to our Thanksgiving dinner (which is a seven-course production and also one of my favorites). The closest we get to turkey is the consommé my husband, Casey, patiently prepares.
Erica Beneke: My favorite meal to prepare for friends is probably lamb curry. It's pretty much my go-to. It's low-key, so I can spend time with my friends rather than just hiding in the kitchen, but it's also delicious. It's also the first nonvegetarian meal that my stepmom ever tried. I like to believe that it is what made her convert to being a meat eater.
Hank Cathey: Breakfast! I love to pour hollandaise over anything, and there's a breakfast salad with poached eggs and a warm bacon-grease vinaigrette that I love to make. Are there two sweeter words than "bacon garnish"?
Laura Thoms: My go-to easy delicious dinner-party show-stopper comes from Paris: tomates farci. Go to Whole Foods and buy their merguez sausage – it's the best in town I've found so far. Take it out of the casing and stuff it inside a mostly hollowed big beefsteak tomato. Drizzle a little olive oil/butter in a baking pan. Put it in the oven at 400 until the tomato is totally blackened on top and falling apart and the meat is cooked all the way through – like 30-45 minutes. (Put the fan on because the olive oil will smoke a little.) Often I serve it with a lentil pilaf with all the pan juices poured over... but for this question I'm going to list my other #1 party food: mashed potatoes. I've worked in a lot of restaurants that have had dill mashed potatoes, and cheddar cheese bacon mashed potatoes, and goat cheese chive mashed potatoes, and here is what I learned: You don't really need all that other stuff. It makes too many flavors competing on the plate and hides the potato, tastes like a big plate of starchy cheese. You can use a beautiful Yukon Gold or creamy fingerling potato – I use a simple red C potato, skin on. Make sure the potato is not old: Look for firmness and smooth, shiny skin. Then I add French butter, the most local fresh from a farm heavy cream I can find – lots and lots of cream and butter. Then generous salt and pepper. No garlic, no sour cream. Ask anyone. These potatoes rule. My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother Ione would be proud.
Karen Jane DeWitt: As an advocate of pie for every meal, I'm huge on savory pies. If I can get an entire meal into a single piecrust, I feel like I've done my job. One of my favorites is a nice, brothy sausage-and-kale mixture topped with garlic mashed potatoes and Gruyere cheese. One slice and you're done! But, of course, I wouldn't judge anybody for eating two slices.
What's a trendy food or ingredient that you're pretty much sick of by now?
Ned Elliott: Gels.
Jodi Elliott: Cake Balls. I think they're an unfortunate trend that give cake a bad name!
Sonya Coté: Well, since pork belly has pretty much become a staple on everyone's menu and is no longer a "trend"... I was getting sick of Shisito peppers last summer, but can't wait for them again this year. And, even though it's super trendy, I have to say it's hard to get sick of ramen. So: paninis, I'm sick of paninis.
Kristine Kittrell: The word "slider" makes me cringe a little bit.
Erica Beneke: Can we please be done with the bacon-on-everything trend?! I love bacon, as pretty much everyone does. Do I need it in my ice cream, in my chocolate bars, wrapped around apple slices, in a Bloody Mary? Nope.
Hank Cathey: I've been tired of chipotle for years now. It's fine, but is it really good on everything, Austin?
Laura Thoms: I want to say pork belly/bacon – but I can never really be mad at either of my true loves. I know I'm going to be very unpopular, but I have to choose gluten-free anything. I love that there are so many options, all the exploration of alternative grains, and that people are becoming more educated about what they put in their bodies. Unfortunately, gluten-free has become the Atkins diet of 2013, this horrible buzzword that lessens the seriousness of the issue. Celiac disease is a real and very severe problem for many people. Even if your problem with wheat is not as severe as celiac's, I still respect your decision to eliminate wheat from your diet just like I respect your decision to eliminate meat or dairy or fried foods. Chefs are creative people and we care about food, so providing a suitable workaround is actually an interesting challenge.... So know what you can and can't eat, ask politely for a wheat alternative or if there is any soy or flours used in the sauce or just skip questionable things entirely because there's often a 50% chance that your server actually doesn't know if the sauce is thickened with flour or if the corn tortilla was processed in a wheat environment. And don't ask for things that vary wildly from the listed preparation to make gluten-free – unless you've called 24 hours in advance to see if the chef can accommodate. And please oh please oh please stop lecturing me about your gluten intolerance. Unless you're my good friend or it will kill you, I do not want to know anything about your health issues, bathroom problems, energy levels, or clear skin. I mean, I'm happy for you, but I don't need all this information or to be converted. I do not want to borrow your copy of Wheat Belly. ... I firmly believe that dietary choices should be discreet matters, and this overzealous vilification of wheat is a bit too noisy and long-winded to me. I don't want gluten-free to go away, I just want people to stop testifying about it all the time. You are not my nutritionist; I am just trying to prepare your food. Saying "no wheat" is enough. I got it. (Confession: I love delicious gluten-free things just like I love fake meat like seitan and chorizo TVP. Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free Pop Tart, be mine 4 ever – you are so delicious.)
Karen Jane DeWitt: This seems like a good time for a confession: I am a fake foodie. I indiscriminately enjoy everything! I hear people talking smack about bacon a lot these days, but these are probably the same people who threw away all their Nickelback CDs when they achieved mainstream success, am I right? In my opinion, nobody has any business judging others for their preferences. People eat and drink for so many reasons besides just hunger: comfort, tradition, stimulation, location, time of day, and on and on. People should eat and drink what they like– as often as they like – even if it's not cool. Sure, I encourage people to try new things. Go ahead and try that microbrew IPA! But if Miller Lite is your thing? Go for it! Drink it proudly, I say.
What's an ingredient that you think is sadly underused in the current culinary scene?
Ned Elliott: Kidney and liver.
Jodi Elliott: Vinegar, especially in desserts. It adds a depth and complexity to sweets, and there are so many varieties out there – it's definitely a secret weapon!
Sonya Coté: Sorrel, radicchio, bitter greens in general.
Kristine Kittrell: I don't understand why the American market does not use the roe on scallops. It is delicious and never seen here. And horse. It's like a cow and a deer had a love child, yet we don't use it.
Erica Beneke: It makes me so happy that more and more people are cooking in the nose-to-tail style; I only wish that more would apply that concept to all ingredients, not just animals. Things like carrot tops, beet stems and greens, cilantro and dill flowers, broccoli stalks, corn cobs – I hate to see them thrown away.
Hank Cathey: Non-proteins. The template of center-protein-with-vegetables-as-garnish is ubiquitous, and we rarely see our best chefs working with vegetables in the same way we see them working with meats. I love meat, but it would be great to see entrées that range outside of the meat-and-two-veg format.
Laura Thoms: Tarragon. I don't like black licorice, but I do love star anise and Pernod. And while tarragon is related in its anise flavor, it's the lightest, greenest kiss of springtime. You can keep your hollandaise sauce, I'll choose bernaise any day of the week.
Karen Jane DeWitt: I had some pretty amazing beet ice cream the other day at Lick. It was nice and earthy and not too rich. Beets in everything! Beets for president!