Durian custard with foie gras, gingerbread, and marmalade
Durian custard with foie gras, gingerbread, and marmalade Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Lee Wolen (the Lobby at the Peninsula)
The Challenger: Ryan LaRoche (NoMi Kitchen)
The Ingredient: Durian

A few years ago in Chinatown, Lee Wolen tried durian. “To me it tastes like the worst cheese that’s maybe two years overripe,” he said. He disliked it so much he decided he’d never eat it again—and being challenged to work with it for Key Ingredient didn’t change that.

“I didn’t taste it,” he said. “I had everyone else taste it for me.” When I asked how he could make a dish without tasting the main ingredient, Wolen responded, “I have two sous chefs, and I trust them. They can taste it. Normally we don’t do that, but for this ingredient, we did.”

Grown in southeast Asia, where it’s often referred to as the “king of fruits,” durian is infamous for its overpowering smell. Ryan LaRoche, who chose the ingredient for Wolen, compared it to rotten onions, gym socks, and a hockey locker room (and he’s a fan). The fruit’s stench has even gotten it banned from public places in some parts of Asia.

To figure out what to do with the durian, Wolen asked around, particularly among the Asian staff at the Peninsula. Custard was the go-to preparation, he said, so that’s what he made.

“I’m not a professional,” he said, slicing open the durian. “You basically make some incisions in the bottom. It’s pretty soft under the spikes—but be careful, the spikes are supersharp.” Just as he said this, Wolen nicked his finger on one of the hard spikes, inadvertently proving his point.

Once opened, the fruit didn’t smell particularly unpleasant—the odor wasn’t even very strong. “It doesn’t smell that bad to me either,” Wolen said after I pointed this out. “Maybe it’s a good one.” He scooped out the soft, custardy flesh and put it into a blender with milk, eggs, sugar, and salt, then poured the mixture out into bowls and steamed it.

Wolen served the custard with ground gingerbread, foie gras layered with gingerbread, orange marmalade, and cilantro, reasoning that the fresh herb went well with Asian ingredients, and gingerbread had similar flavors to five-spice powder.

It looked lovely, but Wolen was still reluctant to eat it, and only agreed on the condition that videographer Mike Gebert and I try it first. “For every bite you take, I’ll maybe taste a bite,” he said. Once it was all assembled, he handed me a spoon. “Ladies first,” he said.

I dug in, and the custard tasted perfectly pleasant: sweet, creamy, and fruity, with a slight funk. Even the straight durian was pretty good. “Andrew Zimmern would be proud of you,” Wolen said before taking up a spoon himself.

He pronounced it “not bad,” noting that it was better than what he had in Chinatown. He won’t put it on the menu, though—no one would order it. “It was fun, but I don’t think I’ll use it again.”

Who’s next:

Gaetano Nardulli of Barrington’s Near Restaurant, working with Buddha’s hand. It’s a variety of citron that Wolen describes as similar to a lemon in scent and flavor, but without the juice. He’s never worked with it, but says, “I’ve smelled it, and it smells really good.”

Durian custard

50 grams durian
300 grams heavy cream
125 grams whole milk
50 grams sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
10 grams salt

Place all ingredients in the blender and puree on high until mixture is fully blended. Strain through a chinois and reserve. Pour the mixture into bowls, 125 grams per bowl. Cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees in a water bath for about 30 to 35 minutes or until just set.


½ cup sugar
½ cup butter
1 egg
1 cup molasses
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan. In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg, and mix in the molasses. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Once the cake has cooled break apart in small pieces and let dry out overnight. Grind in spice grinder for a fine powder.

Orange marmalade

200 grams diced orange rind, no pith
100 grams orange juice
100 grams water
100 grams sugar
20 grams glucose
1 teaspoon salt

Place orange rind in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Drain and repeat three times with fresh water. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a boil and reduce until sticky, add oranges and cook for five minutes and chill.

Foie gras

1 kilo foie gras, veins removed
10 grams salt
2 grams salt
2 grams ground white pepper
2 tablespoons madeira
1 tablespoon brandy

In a Kitchenaid combine all ingredients, chill and let marinate overnight. The following day whip to a mayonnaiselike consistency in the Kitchenaid. Roll thin and sprinkle with gingerbread. Roll into a log with plastic wrap and chill.

To plate: add a slice of foie gras, a few crumbles of gingerbread, a little orange marmalade, and microcilantro to each bowl of durian custard.