In the First Post of a New Recurring Feature, the Chef of Perilla and Kin Shop Shares his Favorite Ingredients, and Why They Make the Cut…
Harold Dieterle and I are in the early, kicking-it-around-in-coffee-shops stage of conceiving a book project that we hope to write together in the near future. (Read a little about our backstory here). Originally, Harold wanted to do a book about Thai food, but we recently decided to write a more general cookbook putting forth the style of food he serves up at Perilla, which draws on American, Thai, Italian, and other influences… in other words, his own personal brand of that thing we desperately need a new name for: contemporary American cuisine.
The challenge at this stage of the process is coming up with what I refer to as the “bridge” between what home cooks do and what chefs do. One exercise I use to help get to the core of what a chef is all about on the plate is to ask him or her to name ten favorite ingredients and explain the choices. (Writing this post, it occurred to me that this is a revealing thing to do with any chef, so I’ll be sharing more Toqueland Ten interviews soon, and indefinitely.)
Herewith, the inaugural list, from Harold Dieterle:
1. SALT. Hadn’t heard this one before, and at Number 1, no less. Of course, salt might be the most important ingredient, but a favorite? Not only does Harold appreciate salt (“It’s what it all starts with,” he said.), but he enjoys using different salts for different purposes: Kosher salt on meat; fine sea salt on roasted fish; coarse sea salt on raw fish, and so on. He also has a special fondness for the ceremony of presenting whole roasted fish in a salt crust to a table of guests, and the cracking and portioning that follows.
2. CRAB. “When I was a kid on Long Island, we used to go crabbing,” says Harold. “On vacation, my parents would pick out restaurants based on which ones had crab on the menu. They always made me order from the kids’ menu in our hometown, but on vacation, they insisted I treat myself to the adult crab dishes. There’s just not another protein that makes me so happy.” His favorite varieties, in order of preference: (i) King, (ii) Dungeness, (iii) A tie: Blue and Snow, (iv) Stone, and (v) Peekytoe.
3. MOZZARELLA CHEESE. Harold hails from a half-Italian, half-German household where mozzarella cheese was omnipresent. Accordingly, he’s not a mozzarella snob: “Fresh, buffalo, burrata, shredded Polly-O on lasagna—they all have their place,” he insists. “It’s another childhood thing. I grew up eating a lot of American-style pizzas. My family made a lot of it, and one of the first things I ever made as a kid was an English muffin with mozzarella and sauce, in the toaster.”
4. BLUEBERRIES. One last childhood souvenir: “My favorite fruit. We had a bush in our backyard and there were so many berries that we couldn’t eat them all, so we froze them and had blueberries all year. We made muffins and buckle and, when I got older and began having house parties when my mom was out of town, I started putting the frozen blueberries in cocktails.” But the true source of Harold’s nostalgia may have been the last one he named: “One of my first moves to get girls to have sleepovers was by making them blueberry pancakes in the morning.”
5. DUCK. “I love its versatility. You can have a breast of duck cooked medium rare and it’s delicious, and have it well-done and crispy, like Peking duck, and it’s equally delicious. And I love what you can do with the fat; only pork fat comes close.” (Case in point: the duck fat popcorn available at the bar at Perilla.)
6. DOVER SOLE. “To me, it’s the epitome of celebration food. I only have it once or twice a year, like when my wife and I go out to BLT Fish for our annual holiday dinner.” N.B.: He doesn’t serve Dover sole at Perilla or Kin Shop, a nod to the realities of commerce. “It’s hard to make money on it,” he says. “It’s expensive.”
7. BARBECUE. More a category than an ingredient, it nonetheless makes the list because Harold’s wife, who grew up in Atlanta, turned him on to the real thing during visits home. “I’m a ribs guys, or a beef-brisket guy; I’m not a huge pulled-pork guy. I like the meat to pull away from the bone, but not fall off. I like my barbecue cooked low and slow, with a tomato-based sauce, and maybe a little vinegar.” Like Dover sole, Harold doesn’t serve barbecue in his restaurants: “It’s just an eating thing.”
8. SUNCHOKES. “I just love the flavor. Raw, roasted, pureed. It’s sweet and artichoke-y. It’s also the only vegetable I know other than mushrooms that is meaty.”
9. NUTS. In order of preference: (i) A tie: Marcona almonds and hazelnuts, (ii) regular almonds, (iii) pecans, (iv) cashews, (v) pine nuts, (vi) peanuts. “I like them in salads. I need that protein to fill me up.”
10. RIB EYE. “My favorite steak cut. I’m happy to have a whole-roasted rib eye, prime-rib style, or a charred, grilled rib with butter on top. I also like it plain or with a little jus on top. I’m not a big fan of sauces like Bordelaise.”
There’s a lot there to be examined and followed up on. But the thing that struck me immediately was that there were no Thai ingredients, nor any Asian ingredients at all, with the arguable exception of duck. Two weeks ago we were going to write a Thai book. Harold’s love of Thai food is undeniable. So where are the Thai ingredients? What does it say about his creative process that they are omnipresent in his food, but not on this list?
Is it because ingredients like kaffir lime leaves (that they would have been Number 11, he says, but this list doesn’t go to 11), fish sauce, and lime juice are crucial to his cooking, even at Perilla, but rather than standing alone, they are used in harmony with other elements to create background music to the proteins that make up about half the list? Or is it simply that dishes begin with proteins for him, and the rest flows from there, rather than vice versa?
We’ll try to get to the bottom of all that next time we connect, and then see how the findings might dictate the structure and information that will shape our book and its contents.
We have more questions than answers right now, but moments like these are where cookbooks come from.