I discovered earlier this year that if you google my name, one of the suggestions at the bottom of the page for “searches related to Julia Thiel” is “Julia Thiel bull’s balls.” It’s a hazard of the trade, I guess: for the past three years, I’ve been writing the Reader’s Key Ingredient column, a chef-to-chef challenge that has involved a plethora of odd ingredients. For our fifth installment, Phillip Foss (then of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck, now of El Ideas) challenged David Posey (Blackbird) to create a dish with bull’s balls.
A month ago we went back to Blackbird for our 100th installment, which coincided with Key Ingredient’s third anniversary. Thomas Raquel of Acadia had challenged Dana Cree, Blackbird’s pastry chef, to work with pine sap (which Cree said “looks like a tree took a poop”). As it happens, Cree was also in the kitchen for our first Key Ingredient challenge, with Grant Achatz, who had to make a dish with kluwak kupas—at the time, Cree was a pastry chef at Alinea. In between, Key Ingredient has played host to fish eyeballs, ghost peppers, lobster tomalley, huitlacoche, balut, bamboo worms, and rabbit lungs, among other ingredients.
Our first chef this year took a different approach. Matthew Kirkley of L2O had been challenged by Dave Beran (Next) to cook with warabi starch, and wasn’t particularly impressed with it. (“It’s so soft it comes off as kind of snotty. . . . [I]f I was ever coming up with a dish where I was like, boy, I really need this to be weird and runny, I know where to get it now.”) Kirkley decided that the ingredients were getting “out of control,” and challenged Ryan LaRoche of NoMi Kitchen with celery.
LaRoche, though, instead of being grateful, said he was disappointed that he didn’t get something he’d never worked with before. “I was kind of jealous,” he said. “I would love to have been challenged to think of a new way to use this new ingredient that I’d never seen in my life.” When it came time for him to pick his successor, he gave Lee Wolen (the Lobby at the Peninsula) durian, the famously stinky southeast Asian fruit.
Wolen, in a Key Ingredient first, created a dish without sampling his ingredient. He’d tried durian once, years earlier in Chinatown, and said that the experience was so bad that he never wanted to repeat it. He did eventually taste the custard he’d made with durian (though only after I tried it first and assured him that it wasn’t bad)—and even decided he liked it.
Durian isn’t for everyone. Neither are many of the other ingredients that have popped up over the years. But some of the ingredients that chefs have hated the most have also been some of the most pedestrian. Earlier this year Aaron Arnett (Davanti Enoteca) challenged Peter Coenen of the Gage with sun-dried tomatoes, which Coenen said “smell like old shoes and dirty feet” (Arnett dislikes them too).
Meanwhile, Andres Padilla of Topolobampo didn’t flinch when he was assigned cock’s combs, and John Asbaty of Panozzo’s took honeycomb tripe in stride. Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice was in his element with pig uterus, which he prepared two ways: the “right way” and the “wrong way.” One dish was stir-fried to highlight the texture of the uterus, and the other was deep-fried to downplay the texture. Conlon pointed out that aversion to certain textures is a cultural thing. “That texture, that crunchiness, that squeakiness—that’s pleasurable to some people,” he said. “We think of that as chewy. If we have all of our meat braised or ground up and soft and pureed—there’s no fun. This is very fun. Unless you think it’s gross, then it’s gross.”
Neither of the dishes was gross, which is a little surprising in light of a kitchen mishap that led to this exchange between Conlon and one of his chefs:
Conlon: “Nico, I might need you to scrub this pork uterus.”
Nico: “Scrub what?”
Conlon: “I burned the uterus. And it’s important. Take out the least burnt, and just kind of clip it off. Try to keep it intact as much as possible.”
Knowing that pork uterus isn’t considered weird in other countries may not convince readers that they want to cook with it. It certainly didn’t convince me—as good as Conlon’s dishes were, I won’t be attempting to make them at home. Even the Key Ingredient dishes that involve less off-putting ingredients aren’t likely to appeal to the home cook; most of them involve professional kitchen equipment, difficult or tedious cooking techniques, or all of the above.
Given the chance, chefs like to show off a little. Much as Peter Coenen hated sun-dried tomatoes, he used them five ways in his dish. And in the course of deciding what to do with their assigned ingredients, most chefs offer a glimpse into how they think about food. Dana Cree, for example, prefers a look to her creations that’s slightly unusual for high-end dining. “When I came to Blackbird, I had spent so many years making beautiful food, precious food, that I just didn’t want to make beautiful food again,” she said. She decided to stop cutting perfect squares and discarding edges. “Our aesthetic is ‘broken, shattered, torn, and dropped.'”
When Cree was working out the plating of her dish featuring pine sap, she had to determine how to present the dondurma (a sort of stretchy Turkish ice cream). Normally she’d just scoop the ice cream onto the dish—a departure from the traditional quenelle—but because of the dondurma’s stretchiness that wasn’t an option. Cree put it into a piping bag instead and squeezed a swirly line onto the plate. Then she stopped. “This is already not Blackbird enough . . . abort.” Instead, she used two spoons to deposit an organic-looking blob of ice cream onto a different plate.
Several minutes later, looking over at the abandoned plate with the graceful waves of ice cream melting on it, Cree said, “I hate that. I don’t want to look at it anymore. It’s embarrassing . . . like putting on an outfit and being like, dear god, I almost left the house in that.”