For this year’s Reader Key Ingredient Cook-Off, we asked some of Chicago’s top chefs to create a dish to honor a person who influenced their cooking. The exercise stirred many kitchen memories.
Chef: Benjamin Lustbader
Dish: Black-and-white bread with asparagus salad
Mentor: Michel Richard, who was the chef and owner of Citronelle in Washington, D.C. (Richard passed away last year at the age of 68)
“I’d been working for a couple years [when I started at Citronelle], but I didn’t know anything. It was a really unique kitchen because it was French, high intensity, you ran from the moment you clocked in to the moment you finished. In retrospect, I realize how much was going on there that went way over my head. [Richard was] legitimately a genius. His food is clever and interesting and whimsical and beautiful.
“I took a couple of things I remembered from my time there. There was a lot of playing with squid ink for the aesthetic, the blackness of it. They made a squid ink brioche when I was there, so I made a black-and-white bread: two breads, one of which has been dyed black with squid ink. I turned that into a crouton. We used to make a green bean salad; it’s asparagus season here, so I made a version of that with asparagus, and a Calabrian chile gelee—perfectly cubed gelees were really big when I was at Citronelle.
“My chef de cuisine and sous chef—they’d be over your shoulder, pointing out how shitty your dice was. And even yesterday, as I’m dicing this gelee, I’m like, that’s not very good. As a young cook, you take those things to heart. v