Main Course

Dessert Chefs Take on Dinner

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If you’re a highly-trained chef, you might expect to work your way up from cook to sous to one day opening your own restaurant. But what about pastry chefs, those meticulous Merlins of the dessert course?  As an article in next month’s Wine Enthusiast reports, they too are now striking out on their own, creating full menus – from savory soup to sweet nuts — and often blurring the lines between entrees and desserts.

Chef Jordan Kahn started out in pastry at Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry (the youngest person ever to work in that kitchen), and is now head chef and co-founder of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills. Rico visited him to taste what happens when sweet chefs take control of the kitchen.

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Rico Gagliano: So why’s this trend happening, do you think?

Jordan Khan: You know… it’s a good question, I’m not sure.  definitely, you know, back in like I would say 2006?  Maybe 2007, there were three or four restaurants opening in New York that were all dessert-focused restaurants – and they just disappeared.  And dessert-only restaurants stopped opening in places.

Rico Gagliano: It doesn’t surprise me, I mean there’s only so much dessert a fellow wants to eat at once.

Jordan Khan: There’s only so much dessert you can eat, and it’s very tricky from a…  You can only charge so much for a dessert. Nobody’s gonna pay $40 for a single plate of dessert, you know? It doesn’t matter if you’re putting truffles in it, still nobody gives a s—, you know? So a lot of people quickly realized that it wasn’t a viable, sustainable business practice.  That maybe it needed to be supplemented with other things.

Rico Gagliano: So the lesson was, if you’re a dessert chef and you want to open a restaurant, you’d better have a savory menu.

Jordan Khan: Exactly. But I knew I always wanted my own restaurant and to be in charge of everything.  And to see you know, how I could meld the two.  And that’s what we try to do here.

There are pastry techniques all over the menu. And it’s funny, because I don’t even notice them anymore.  Coming up with a savory dish and coming up with a dessert is effectively the same.

Rico Gagliano: Now that’s interesting though.  Because whenever I talk to home cooks, there’s a very sharp line between people who love pastry cooking and people who hate it.  Vehemently hate it! They’ll say, “I can’t understand, it’s more like chemistry or math.” How do you do you, in your mind — it’s almost like being bilingual. How does that fit together? They seem very different.

Jordan Khan: They’re very different depending on what perspective you’re coming from.  But our savory food is not different than our pastry. Our savory dishes are very thought-out, they have a lot of processes, a lot of techniques. Some things take you know, three or four days to make. And it’s not because it takes that long to cook, it needs that long to dehydrate and then to rehydrate, and then to crystallize or to freeze or to whatever it is.

Rico Gagliano: You’ve injected the insane precision of pastry cooking into savory cooking.

Jordan Khan: Right, exactly. We’ve really combined them into one cuisine, and some dishes have more sugar than others I guess.

Rico Gagliano: All right, I’m curious to see this. I looked at the menu and almost every single dish has something… a word that I would have only seen on a dessert menu. “Meringue,” “lemon curd,” or something. They’re showing up in entrees. So what are you gonna let me taste here?

Jordan Khan: I was thinking last night on the drive home, I was like, “What should we send him?” And I thought about our new trout roe dish.  Because it has an ice on it — like a frozen shaved ice — made of snap peas.  And then we freeze it in a little disc.

Rico Gagliano: So it’s a dessert process using savory ingredients.

Jordan Khan: Exactly. And we serve it with trout roe… and lemon curd… and granola… and a meringue —

Rico Gagliano: Are you… where does that come from?!! That is just the most…

Jordan Khan: You know, I thought about that also after last night. Like, “He’s gonna ask me how I came up with this.”  And… I don’t have an answer for you. It just comes. You know, this makes a lot of sense to me, so this is what we’re gonna do.

Rico Gagliano: All right, let’s taste this. I have no idea what this is gonna be like.

Jordan Khan: You got it.

Rico Gagliano: Wow, look at this! This is the last thing that I expected this to look like. It actually looks like… well I get the visual pun on this: It actually looks like a fish bowl. Is that intentional?

Jordan Khan: It’s not intentional actually! Things in globes always remind me of terrariums, so I think it adds a little more surrealist component to the food.

Rico Gagliano: It’s definitely surrealist. It’s kind of a globe-shaped bowl, and I guess this is the ice at the very top that I’m looking at, that’s sort of covering the top of the bowl?birch topview

Jordan Khan: Correct.

Rico Gagliano: All right, so how would you suggest I eat this? I’m given only a spoon to eat this.

Jordan Khan: You take the back of your spoon, just press it in the top, and the ice will fall inside the bowl, and you kind of eat from the bottom to the top.

Rico Gagliano: So I kind of scoop up the layers into one mouthful?

Jordan Khan: Exactly.

Rico Gagliano: This is definitely not a banana split that we’re looking at here – or your typical fish dish either.

Jordan Khan: So I’ll explain the layers. At the very bottom is brook trout roe, and then on top of that is a savory lemon curd made with Meyer lemon juice.   Raw snap peas.  Pickled baby onions.  Sunflower seed granola.  The white powder on top is a meringue made from dried wild chamomile flowers… and then some young pea shoots.

Rico Gagliano: I’ve never seen anything like this. So I just crack it?

Jordan Khan: Yeah, just push through the top. You don’t have to use a lot of force.

Rico Gagliano: You’re right. It breaks like… brittle old cardboard or something like that.  Although I have a feeling it’s gonna taste a lot different! So then… and then I kind of crunch it up?

Jordan Khan: Yeah, you kind of beat it up just a little bit, put your spoon all the way at the bottom, and then come up. It’s almost like eating a trifle.

Rico Gagliano: Okay, and now it looks kind of… I would not know what to call this. It does have a cereal-y aspect to it, because it’s got the granola in there. It has a salad aspect to it, because there’s a lot of green shoots in here…

[tastes it]

This is blowing my mind. It’s really amazing, because it’s all of the things I just said.  I’m definitely getting the dessert quality of it, from the lemon curd…

Jordan Khan: But it’s not sweet.

Rico Gagliano: No, it really isn’t.

Jordan Khan: There’s natural sweetness from the snap peas, but there’s no added sugar to this dish. It has the same components as a trout roe and pea salad, but more playful than just having a salad.  And it’s got some strangely comforting and familiar aspects to it — I guess, like you said, from being like eating cereal out of a bowl — so it kind of plays with your brain a little bit.

Rico Gagliano: A little bit! And the ice, which is now melting, almost forms a creamy kind of salad dressing in a way.

Jordan Khan: Yeah, actually. That’s a good point.

Rico Gagliano: The most upscale ranch dressing you’ve ever had. I bet you didn’t expect anybody to say that!

Jordan Khan: We’ll take the compliment. I’m from the South, so ranch is a big deal to us.