Arguably the most compelling part about dining at James Beard’s historic townhouse in New York City’s West Village is experiencing the constantly evolving snapshot of what’s happening in restaurants around the country. Over 250 nights per year, celebrated chefs from coast to coast take the stage in our kitchen, preparing one-night-only menus that showcase their signature culinary style. This month, we'll be tasting spring turn to summer with chefs from Oakland, Charleston, Miami, Denver, Honolulu, New York City (of course), and just across the Hudson in New Jersey. The menus reveal what we all know—chefs love spring ingredients (asparagus salad! lacto-fermented ramp sabayon!)—and what we all want to eat right now: strawberries, greens, lamb, and local fish in all forms. We asked JBF director of house programming Izabela Wojcik to fill us in on the tasty trends she's seeing this month.
Izabela Wojcik: I don’t know if I’d call it fusion. Maybe fusion 2.0? I think chefs are really inspired by bold flavors, by the heritage and history of certain dishes, by mining their own heritage even, and by the late spring/summer seasonal bounty. They feel empowered to borrow and riff on those dishes and techniques and create dishes that fuse that seasonal bounty with those stories.
Pickles are everywhere: pickled ramp butter, pickled heirloom tomatoes, and pickled pineberries—which we also saw on a Beard House menu in May. Almost every menu has some kind of pickle component, and there's a lot of smoking and fermenting going on as well. Is this something that's been on the rise for a while?
IW: Pickling is a critical preserving skill, allowing chefs to extend the seasonality and availability of certain ingredients, and pickled foods deliver a pop of acid to balance the flavors and textures of a dish, so it’s also a critical culinary skill. And there is endless variation on what can be pickled, so chefs can express their culinary creativity. And it also connects chefs to the idea of hand crafting, of heritage, of recipes passed through generations, of rituals of the farm, of preserving the summer bounty to stock the larder for winter, and so forth. But mostly we're seeing this because pickled and fermented things are so tasty!
There are some pretty adventurous menu items on the menu this June: veal brains meuniere, lamb heart tartare, pig's head tortellini, pressed pig ears, and mangalitsa collar confit. Is it the chefs who are becoming more adventurous, or the diners? Or do you think this has to do with the growing enthusiasm for nose-to-tail cooking and eating?
IW: Chefs have always been adventurous! I think it’s the diners who have come around. Economically, chefs have to use all parts of animals and lesser-known parts, but I think it’s also a badge of honor for chefs to have a preparation for a unique/trendy ingredient. And chefs get bored easily; they need to be challenged creatively and culinarily. As for diners, the more accustomed they become to seeing these ingredients, the more comfortable and commonplace they will become.
Let's talk dessert. In addition to light finishes like strawberry soup and berry pavlova, we're also seeing a lot of nostalgia—a couple of updated egg creams (miniature egg cream with butterscotch-filled doughnut and a chocolate egg cream with maple custard, bacon, and Oreos), a Hawaiian Twix, and some straight-up indulgences like chocolate budino and peanut butter mousse with nutella ice cream. Are there any trends you're seeing in desserts these days at the Beard House?
IW: What I absolutely love about desserts this time of year is the plethora of fruits and berries (although chocolate and peanut butter never go out of style or season!) and the endless creative ways they are presented. Desserts tend to be elaborate and intricate, but I think you’ve identified some of those rising trends, like nostalgia for classic desserts, and variations on the Brooklyn egg cream, which speaks to a renewed interest in Jewish cookery.