Fried smelt with harissa aioli, crudites, and gold leaf
Fried smelt with harissa aioli, crudites, and gold leaf Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Erling Wu-Bower (The Publican)

The Challenger: John Anderes (Telegraph Wine Bar)

The Ingredient: Gold leaf

Gold is tasteless, odorless, and completely lacking in nutritional value. Unless you happen to believe that the elixir of life (said to contain gold) really exists or that colloidal metals have the health benefits often claimed of them, there’s not much reason to ingest it. That hasn’t stopped people from doing so for at least the last several millennia, of course; Egyptians are said to have eaten gold powder, and the superrich still like to consume gold for some reason.

“It is completely a decorative thing,” Erling Wu-Bower says of gold leaf. “I know it’s used by super-upscale restaurants. It’s used by Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin to garnish raw oysters. He’ll do a Kumamoto oyster in gelee and put some gold or silver leaf over it. I think it certainly makes a dish feel more luxurious.”

Chef Erling Wu-Bower of the Publican
Chef Erling Wu-Bower of the PublicanCredit: Julia Thiel

Of course, as Wu-Bower points out, “chefs use tasteless things all the time—I’m guilty of it as well.” A parsley garnish, for instance, only improves a dish’s aesthetics. “It’s not as expensive as gold, but same concept, right?”

Though he’s not really criticizing—”making food look good is very important”—Wu-Bower still isn’t sold on gold, at least not for the Publican. “I think you should garnish with what you have in front of you, what’s in season, what’s local, what’s edible—not metallic.” Le Bernardin, on the other hand? “Eric Ripert is the chef that I respect most on earth, so he can use gold leaf whenever he wants to.”

In the spirit of staying true to the kind of food typically served at the Publican, Wu-Bower put gold on one of the most pedestrian dishes imaginable: a fish fry. He used smelt, a small fish that can be caught in the Great Lakes, and decided to mix the gold leaf into the dredge for the fish. “The hope is that as everything else browns on the fish, the gold will stay golden and the fish will be gilded. If that doesn’t work, we’re just going to put more gold leaf over the top of the fish.”

The only other gold leaf Wu-Bower had ever ingested was in Goldschlager—Swiss schnapps with gold flakes. It was his freshman year of college. “It tastes like cinnamon, and we use cinnamon in our harissa here, so we’re going to put [Goldschlager] in some harissa mayo for our fish fry.” (Harissa is a spiced North African hot pepper paste.)

Credit: Julia Thiel

After adding a little Goldschlager to the harissa aioli, Wu-Bower strained the rest of the schnapps through a sieve in an attempt to catch the gold flakes—which immediately got stuck in the mesh. “Surprisingly, this is not working,” he said drily, trying to scrape gold out of the sieve.

Then he started adding gold to the breading for the smelt, which consisted of crushed salt-and-vinegar potato chips, Wondra flour, and cayenne pepper. The soft, paper-thin gold stuck to his fingers and he had to wipe them on his apron to get it off. “What I’m thinking about right now is how much I want to kill John Anderes,” he said. He finally got the hang of it, more or less, using a knife to transport the gold to the flour mixture, though it still had a tendency to clump. (When he wrote up the recipe, Wu-Bower included these instructions: “Do not touch the gold leaf with your fingers! It will stick like the dickens!”)

Wu-Bower also added gold leaf to the aioli, which he plated with the fried, gilded fish along with crudites: purple cauliflower, turnips, radishes, celery, and roasted beets, drizzled with a little olive oil and lemon juice. To finish the dish, he scattered a few more bits of gold leaf on top. “It’s the most expensive fish fry you’ve ever seen,” he said. “I think it looks pretty cool.

“I will not use gold leaf again, however.”

YouTube video

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Who’s Next:

Bryce Caron, the pastry chef at Blackbird, working with Asian carp. “These river carp have cage bones that run right through the middle of their fillets, so it’s impossible to get any type of yield from them whatsoever,” Wu-Bower said. “And they taste like crap. So good luck to him.”

Gilded smelt fry with crudités and Goldschlager-harissa aioli

Serves 4

Smelt fry

8 oz cleaned, headless lake smelt (your local fishmonger should carry this)

1 cup buttermilk

2 qts canola oil

1 booklet of gold leaf


1 snack-size bag of salt and vinegar potato chips

½ cup Wondra flour

1 t cayenne pepper

7-8 sheets of gold leaf

Harissa aioli

¼ cup Hellman’s aioli

2 T harissa (available at upscale delis)

1 t Goldschlager (shake well so you get as much gold as possible)

3-4 sheets gold leaf

Salt and pepper to taste


1 small cucumber, seeded and cut into biased ¾ inch slices

1 medium turnip, cut into thin slices

3 English breakfast radishes cut into halves

5-6 small pieces of raw cauliflower

Juice of one lemon

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

About an hour before you eat:

Do a shot of Goldschlager. After you have finished your shot, take the bag of chips and place it in a food processor, then pulse until the chips have reached the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. In a metal bowl, combine the chips with the Wondra and the cayenne pepper and mix well. Using the tip of a paring knife, place the sheets of gold leaf into the mixture. Do not touch the gold leaf with your fingers! It will stick like the Dickens!

Now brine the smelt. Mix a half liter of cold water and 20 grams of salt together until the salt dissolves completely. Put the smelt into the brine and place them in the refrigerator for one hour, then remove and place on a dry paper towel.

In a small metal bowl combine the mayo, harissa, Goldschlager, and the gold leaf; whisk together and set aside.

While the smelt are brining:

Do another shot of Goldschlager, then prepare the crudités. Cut all of the vegetables, place in a metal bowl, and set aside.

Just before you serve:

Do yet another shot of Goldschlager. Take the canola oil and put it in a large cast-iron pan. Make sure that the oil is at least one inch deep. Heat the oil to 350 degrees (test using a candy thermometer).

While the oil is coming up to temp, pour the buttermilk into to a bowl. Place the smelt in the buttermilk and stir gently. Using a strainer, drain the buttermilk from the smelt, and immediately place the smelt into the dredge. Make sure that the dredge fully and evenly coats the smelt; then, take the smelt and put them in the oil. Do another shot of Goldschlager.

If you can still see straight, fry the smelt until they are golden brown. Remove them from the oil and place then on a dry paper towel.

Smear the harissa aioli onto a large platter. Lightly dress the crudités with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. Place the fried smelt over the aioli and arrange the crudités over the smelt. Take a few more sheets of gold leaf and garnish the veggies and the fish. Serve immediately with a chilled shot of Goldschlager.

Go directly to bed. Let your guests enjoy all of your hard work. You’ve had a busy day.