The year of the eel
The year of the eel

A few weeks ago I was at the L&L Tavern having drinks with a couple of coworkers and watching one of them discuss politics on Channel 11 (in a segment that had been taped earlier). After the show ended, the bartender came over to chat. “I love the Reader,” he said. “But that column where people cook with yak phlegm? That’s terrible. It’s gotta go. No one wants to cook with that shit.” (I’m paraphrasing since I was laughing too hard at the time to breathe properly, much less take detailed notes.)

I introduced myself once he’d finished talking, of course, but since I was already running late for a play I didn’t get to find out whether I’d done anything else he hated. It’s the first time I’ve heard from someone who doesn’t like Key Ingredient, but most people I talk to find out I’m the author before they start commenting, which probably makes all the difference.

And it’s true that many people don’t want to cook with the ingredients featured in the series—often the participating chefs least of all. The original idea wasn’t to find the weirdest and most disgusting ingredients available, though: It was to create a challenge in which a chef would choose a specific ingredient for another chef to work with. That person would pick the next chef and the next ingredient, and so on. And those chefs have proven more creative in selecting ingredients than I ever could have been.

All this isn’t to abdicate responsibility, but to say that the chefs deserve the credit for whatever success Key Ingredient has seen since it launched two years ago (and I’m sorry to disappoint you, L&L bartender, but there are no immediate plans to cancel it). I could have exercised veto power over certain ingredients, I guess, but I’ve never been even slightly tempted. The weirdest challenges have often turned out to be not only the most fun, but also the most interesting.

For one thing, no matter how odd some of these ingredients may seem to the average Chicagoan, many of them are common in other countries and cultures. In 2011 we had balut (fertilized duck egg, a popular snack in the Philippines), bamboo worms (served fried as street food in Thailand), and natto (fermented soybeans common in Japan); this year there’s been huitlacoche (corn fungus, considered a delicacy in Mexico), chicken gizzards (available right here in Chicago at Harold’s Chicken Shack), dende oil (common in Brazilian and West African cuisine), and bee pollen (which herbalists believe will cure pretty much whatever ails you).

Recently I spent hours reading about the catch collagen in sea cucumbers, which allows the echinoderms to essentially liquefy or stiffen their bodies at will (whether sea cucumbers have free will, however, is a question for another day). While researching cattails, which can be eaten nearly all year round at different stages of development, I learned that one acre of cattails can produce about 32 tons of flour per year, and there are reports that the U.S. was making plans to start feeding soldiers with cattail flour when World War II ended. And earlier this year I became fascinated by ambergris, a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales that’s nearly as valuable as gold, despite the fact that it’s essentially whale vomit (or excrement—no one knows for sure).

Not all the ingredients have been unusual, and some of the most common ones have turned out to be the most challenging. Blair Herridge of Browntrout discovered that, despite his best efforts, it was pretty much impossible to make anything besides dessert with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Brandon Baltzley of Crux, who would have been comfortable with hydrocolloids or any number of other ingredients associated with molecular gastronomy, was bemused by flour. “I don’t fuck with flour that much,” he said. “Unless I’m making cookies. And I don’t make cookies.” (He also had the first-ever disappearing ingredient: a sheet of dehydrated cocoa nib consomme, cooling on the balcony of the 25th-floor apartment where Baltzley was cooking, blew away while unattended.)

Of course, it’s what the chefs do with the ingredients that matters most, and that’s where things tend to get interesting. Chris Curren of Stout Barrel House & Galley turned to his knowledge of chemistry to tame the heat of ghost peppers, some of the hottest chiles in the world. (“It’s one of those things you almost wish man hadn’t discovered, kind of like nuclear weapons,” he said.) Bryce Caron, formerly the pastry chef at Blackbird, incorporated Asian carp into a dessert of espresso sponge cake with turnip ice cream, then swore he’d never cook with the difficult-to-fillet fish again. And Ben Sheagren of the Hopleaf, tasked with the relatively mundane ingredient of coffee, experimented with using it to smoke cherries—which didn’t actually work out so well.

Chefs tend to have a keen sense for what their challengees will hate most, and several have taken advantage of that. John Anderes of Telegraph kicked off the year by assigning gold leaf to Erling Wu-Bower of the Publican, a restaurant that’s short on frills. Wu-Bower was pragmatic, noting that while gold is purely decorative, “chefs use tasteless things all the time—I’m guilty of it as well.” The sole purpose of a parsley garnish, for instance, is to be aesthetically pleasing. In an attempt to stay true to the style of the Publican, Wu-Bower used the gold leaf to adorn the most pedestrian dish he could think of: a fish fry.

Ryan Poli of Tavernita had the distinction of being the first (though probably not the last) participant to have to personally extinguish his ingredient: eels that arrived very much alive. And he was the second to have an escapee; one slithered out of its container onto the floor and briefly eluded rescue. Killing them made them less lively, but didn’t stop them from twitching for more than an hour. Like many of the chefs, Poli said he’d consider putting his Key Ingredient dish on the menu—but in this case, only if he could buy the eels already filleted. “How much can you take of coming in every morning knowing you have to kill four or five eel?” he asked. “It would really weigh on a man’s soul, I think.”

People often mention to me that something weird would make a good Key Ingredient. As I mentioned, picking the ingredients isn’t really my department, but I usually make a note of it in case a chef ever gets stuck and needs help (though it hasn’t happened yet). So L&L bartender, if you’re reading this, I’ve got a question for you: Any idea where I might find some yak phlegm?