Key Ingredient turns 50 (episodes) | Bleader

Key Ingredient turns 50 (episodes)

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Chicken sausage with chicken foot from Doug Sohn
  • Julia Thiel
  • Chicken sausage with chicken foot from Doug Sohn
This week’s Key Ingredient (in which Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe cooks with gjetost) is our 50th—a fact I probably wouldn’t even have realized if our videographer, Michael Gebert, hadn’t mentioned it at the shoot a couple weeks ago. It sounded about right—we launched just over a year ago, and have run Key Ingredient weekly since then with very few exceptions—but suddenly, it also sounded like a lot.

When the Reader started Key Ingredient last December, we thought it would have a finite life span. While we didn’t have a set period in mind, running it for about year seemed reasonable. At some point we’d surely run out of chefs or ingredients or both, or the whole thing would start to become repetitive.

But a year and (excuse a moment of self-congratulation) one James Beard award later, it’s still going strong. I realize I’m biased, but it’s never felt stale to me—and lest you think I’m patting myself and Michael Gebert on the back, I don’t think we deserve the credit for its continued success. That’s entirely due to the participating chefs, who’ve surprised me each week with their creativity, skill, and humor.

The truth is that none of us who worked to launch this feature had any idea what to expect, or even whether chefs would want to participate. Luckily almost everyone has, starting with Grant Achatz, who fit us in during what he said was the busiest time of his life (I believed him—he was finishing up his memoir, launching Aviary and Next, and had just gotten back from a trip to LA when we did his shoot).

Pollocks Cod, John des Rosiers's dish for Key Ingredient
  • Julia Thiel
  • "Pollock's Cod," John des Rosiers's Key Ingredient dish

I also had no idea how much fun chefs would have with the challenges, both in creating their own dishes and coming up with ingredients to make things as difficult as possible for the next chef. Curtis Duffy (then of Avenues, now opening Grace) chose geraniums for John des Rosiers of Inovasi; des Rosiers tweeted, "Geraniums in december? @curtisduffy you're an ass! No worries. Found a blooming plant at the dry cleaners across from inovasi! It's on!!" Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate challenged Mark Steuer of the Bedford with bananas (he hates 'em); Michael Carlson of Schwa picked fresh blood for Shawn McClain, executive chef of the vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra, who brought in cooking equipment from home for the challenge. (Carlson wasn't the biggest fan of his own ingredient, Malort.)

And plenty of chefs have rebelled against the attempts of their challengers to force them into a direction they’d rather not take. Greg Biggers (Cafe des Architectes) said that he picked azuki bean paste for Jared van Camp because all the Old Town Social (and now Nellcote) chef does is charcuterie; van Camp used it to cure bacon. Mark Steuer heard that Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) hated making pastries, and chose confectioner’s sugar as her ingredient—Izard made steak. Most recently, in an installment that won’t come out until January, Erling Wu Bower (the Publican) chose Asian carp for pastry chef Bryce Caron of Blackbird. Caron, unfazed, served the fish on top of cake and ice cream.

By far the most common questions I get about the series is whether we have to try all the gross stuff that the chefs make. Yes and no—we do try all of it (though we don't really have to, I guess)—but most of it is actually pretty good. A lot of the chefs have informed us that they’re never planning to go near their assigned ingredient again. I can't blame them, but they've all done an impressive job of making odd foods palatable.

Should Have Been Gross But Wasn’t (I realize that I’m applying my own cultural standards to this category, and that in many cultures these foods are eaten regularly):
Fish eyeballs, Cary Taylor of the Southern: seeing him carve those suckers out of a grouper head is one of the grossest things I’ve seen in a while, and watching (and hearing) him squeeze them into the soup made me wince a little, but the soup he made was pretty tasty.
Chicken feet, Doug Sohn of Hot Doug’s: Sohn peeled the skin off the feet and deep-fried bits of it, and it was delicious.
Fresh blood, Shawn McClain: I’ve never been a fan of blood sausage before, but I liked the one McClain made.
Rabbit lungs, Jeffrey Hedin of Leopold: There’s something about eating random bits of animals that just seems unappealing. It didn't seem to bother Hedin, though, who made a terrine with the lungs.
Duck tongues, Jason Vincent of Nightwood: Like many other chefs in the series, Vincent said a lot of terrible things about duck tongues but made them taste good (deep-frying nearly always works).
Bamboo worms, Luke Creagan of Pops for Champagne: Again, deep-frying was the key here. And someone actually went to Pops and ordered the dish Creagan made after seeing it in the Reader.
Cod milt, Duncan Biddulph of Rootstock: This one wins the prize in my book for least appealing-sounding but most appealing in reality. It’s essentially cod semen, but blanched and then fried, it was really good.

Pretty gross:
Bull’s balls, David Posey of Blackbird: I’m sure it was mostly psychological, but I just couldn’t quite stomach this one. Posey and Gebert weren’t exactly digging in after the first bite, either.
Natto, Brian Enyart (then of Topolobampo): This is entirely a personal preference, but between the sliminess and the smell natto was one of my least favorite ingredients. Gebert had no problem with it, though.
Balut, Kristine Subido of Wave: This is the only ingredient we’ve had that actually made the chef gag—Subido couldn’t really handle the fertilized duck eggs (despite having grown up eating them), and neither could I. Again, the iron-stomached Michael Gebert was pretty much fine with it, and found the part with the baby bird easier to get down than the extremely eggy-tasting yolk.

Duck-tongue sandwich from Jason Vincent

Recently, Jason Hammel challenged John Anderes of Telegraph with ash (the episode hasn't yet been published). I thought we'd finally come across an ingredient that just wasn't going to be good, or at least wouldn't add much to the dish. I mean, who wants to eat ashes? I've never been a big fan of ash-coated goat cheese, for example. Anderes came up with a dish of venison loin with spaetzle that was absolutely delicious, a little smoky and a little, well, ashy. Like licking an ashtray, but in a good way.

Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia may have summed it up best. No one hated their ingredient more than Zimmerman hated the lamb fat he was given. After all his talk about how terrible the ingredient was, I was surprised that the lamb fat powder he made was actually good. When I said as much, Zimmerman deadpanned, “Well, that’s what I do, you know?”

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