Editor’s Note: This is the first of what I hope will be semi-regular food critiques/review contributions by my good friend, Richard Boykin. I hope you enjoy what he’s shared!
As a child, I was never an adventurous eater. I wouldn’t touch seafood; I’d avoid strange cheeses. But as I grew up and spent time in other countries and eating became a social event among my friends, I started to experiment more willingly. Sometimes I’d do it to be polite. Other times I was just so hungry, I figured I’d try a little bit of something new. Eventually I started to realize that the taste of a dish was more important than how I felt about the ingredients. I found out last week that this is the concept behind Duke University’s month-long program applying the concept of “subnature” to the culinary world.
Subnature was initially applied to architecture—the idea that marginalized spaces and materials should not be rejected, but embraced. This concept was brought to food by the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, a project born out of the world famous Restaurant NOMA. Duke partnered with the Nordic Food Lab when they decided to do a program on Subnature and Culinary Cuisine, which concluded with the Carolina Chefs Dinner at the Cotton Room—a beautifully renovated former cotton warehouse in Durham’s downtown Golden Belt development.
While I found the menu somewhat intimidating, that concern was easily overcome by the list of chefs involved in the project. Five of the Triangle’s most talented men and women had signed on to take part in the event.
Upon checking in, I was directed to a table near the front of the room. The tables were decorated with centerpieces of dirt from a local community garden project and had jars in which we could deposit scraps for later composting (none of the jars at our table were ever used). Most people were mingling and enjoying a variety of subnature hors d’oeuvres, including kimchi pears, blood sausage with apple butter, and peach ginger beer. The hors d’oeuvres offered a hint of what was to come: a surprising combination of flavors that somehow worked quite well together, usually be blending something sharp and salty with something sweet and gentle.
As the dinner began, we were treated to some short introductory lectures, including an interesting look at subnature food in history, centered around the different views of seafood in Greece. But what was most enlightening to me was the overview of the Nordic Food Lab’s philosophy on reclaiming subnature foods by making them delicious, presented by Josh Evans, the lead researcher at the NFL. He talked about overcoming perceptions of foods as being disgusting, dirty, or even unsafe by looking at them in a different way—one person’s rotten was another’s fermented. He challenged us all to enjoy the deliciousness of the dinner and put aside any apprehensions over the ingredients or how they were prepared. And so we threw ourselves into the meal, finding (at least at my table) that dishes that might be intimidating on paper were often beautiful on the plate and amazing on the palate.
First Course: Air-Dried Beef Heart Sausage, Fermented Green Peach Bits, Field Hay Infused Ricotta, Rugbrod Crumbs, Hops in Honey, Weeds
This course was created by Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough and was presented scattered across the plate, giving us a chance to try each component individually before bringing them together. The beef heart sausage was particularly exceptional, rich and mild, allowing the deeper iron flavor of the heart to come out. The other parts revolved around contrasting sweet and bitter, which meant they were rarely tasty alone (the peach bits especially), but worked wonderfully well together.
Second Course: Red Beet, Long Needle Pine, Tobacco, Chrysanthemum, with Preserved Summer Berries
Steven Greene is the new chef at the Umstead, a local landmark known for its food and luxurious spa. He put this dish together to showcase local ingredients, taking beets and cooking them, then dehydrating them and rehydrating them with a mix of their own juices and vinegar made from local pine needles. This concentrated the beets’ flavor and gave it a new dimension while also creating a wonderfully dense flesh on the beet itself. Over the beets was a ground mixture of tobacco and mushrooms that resembled soil and had an earthy taste. Pickled sorghum seeds and a little preserved elderberries, blueberries and blackberries were included with the chrysanthemum petals. A toasted sorghum bread chip and a bit of lardo finished off the dish.
To someone who still has a bit of an aversion to seafood, this dish was intimidating, especially since it included so many parts of the fish. Additionally, this dish was provided by the chefs of Chapel Hill’s ONE, Daniel Ryan and Kim Floresca. Up to this point, I had only had their foie gras lollipops at the Taste Event last spring. I’m now looking forward to a trip to ONE in the near future. This dish worked wonderfully. The fish was smoked in the Subnature Smokehouse, constructed on Duke’s campus for this program. The sturgeon was in a crust made from its heart, seaweed, and umami and sat in the soured cream. The roe and fermented onions ringed the meat and a bit of marrow and collagen was spooned over it as it was served. The fish was wonderful, with the crust and soured cream creating a nice balance in both texture and taste. The lacto fermented onions and saltwort were a burst of flavor that slid over the taste of the fish then pulled back like a wave.
While this dish was the least descriptive, Matt Kelley of Vin Rouge and Mateo spent several hours roasting squab in the parking lot during the afternoon leading up to the event. Our table quickly realized that the best way to get the meat off the small birds was by using our fingers. This also led to some necessary finger-licking when we discovered how wonderfully rich the sauce was over them. Despite appearing light and thin, the sauce was a rich, sweet mix of juices from the birds and a variety of other flavors, most notably small, finely chopped mushrooms.
Fifth Course: Cherry Pit Clabber, Ume Cheries, Pickled Shiso, Coffee-Sesame Dirt
In her introduction to the final dish, Lantern’s chef, Andrea Ruesling proudly announced that she had used garbage to make the dish, referring to the coffee grounds that were mixed with sesame seeds to form the dirt at the corners of the plate. The cherry pits had been ground and mixed with soured milk to make a wonderful clabber. The cherries were also included, scattered across the plate, adding fruit bursts that mingled nicely with the mix of coffee and sesame. The shiso leaf went especially well with the cherries and clabber. As she spoke, Chef Ruesling told the story of making the dish by emphasizing the theme of the dinner—taking things that would otherwise be thrown out (soured milk, cherry pits, coffee grounds) and turning them into something delicious. While the other dishes had certainly done this to some degree, in no dish was is as clearly presented as this one.
While I am by no means an expert when it comes to wine, I have to add that the pairings that went with the dinners were superbly chosen by Noel Sherr of Cave Taureau Wines in downtown Durham. Not only was each wine a wonderful compliment to its dish, but Mr. Sherr presented the background of each one, emphasizing that the wines themselves were, to some degree, subnature as well, from the salt white that was made by the sea to the grapes that were made stronger due to the fungus that grew on them.
The Triangle is rich in talented chefs and drawing one or two of them together for a dinner is a treat, as is an event like Taste or Terra Vita, where we get to sample bites from some of the area’s great talent. But to have the chance to bring together five great chefs under a single unusual and challenging theme was a chance to really see each of them shine and enjoy each other’s company. Not only was the food incredible and beautifully presented, but everyone there learned something about the nature of the food we eat and the food that we reject, opening up a wider understanding of what is delicious.
Richard Boykin is a history teacher and amateur food critic from Rougemont, NC and is a graduate of Duke University. He has lived in the Triangle for nearly 20 years and also serves on the board of directors for The Conservators Center. You can find him at weekend Food Truck Rodeos throughout Raleigh and Durham or wherever the best chefs are serving something new. Follow Rich @triangleflavor.