Most super-acclaimed chefs are known for a signature cuisine — Mario Batali is the king of Italian, Eric Ripert is the master of French fish preparation and Alice Waters is the mother of American local cuisine. Outside of Iron Chef stadium or an episode of Top Chef Masters, it’s rare that diners have the fortune, and potentially the entertaining experience, of seeing (and tasting) the work of chefs thrown out of their comfort zone.
This Sunday, nine of New York’s most talented chefs took on the challenge, as part of a benefit for the future Museum of Food and Drink, hosted at Del Posto. Each chef was assigned a course concept that would intentionally push them to think out of the box and away from their chosen cuisine. “Every course is different. Some are serious and some are sort of jokey and some are ridiculous” said Brooks Headley, head pastry chef at Del Posto, who prepared the meal’s last course. “Everyone’s excited to see what will happen with this lunch!” he told us last week.
Wylie Dufresne, a master of molecular gastronomy and modernist cooking was asked to create Cave Man Food, while Nils Noren of the French Culinary Institute took on the challenge of re-imagining the terrible food trend of Fad Diets. Innovative Asian chef David Chang, of Momofuku, had to conceive of a dish that represented American Food circa 1491, prompting him to say: “It’s sad, we know more about what dinosaurs ate than native American food,” recalled Dave Arnold, who organized the event and is the main force behind the museum.
Perhaps one of the most surprising elements of the meal — which included a course of Shriveled Meats, or salami, and was kicked off with a dish by Chang whose menus are filled with shellfish and pork — was that it ended on a Jewish dish made with matzo.
The final of three desserts was an elegant dish comprised of a small ball of sheep’s milk ricotta gelato encrusted with crushed caramelized matzo and served aside a baby artichoke that was lightly salted and dipped in a honey glaze. Arnold asked Headley to make a dish inspired by food of the Roman Jewish ghetto after he recently learned that part of his Italian catholic family was originally Jewish and from Spain. His family fled during the Inquisition and converted to Christianity.
Arnold expected Headley to make a classic Roman chestnut dessert. But Headley, who has a flair for incorporating vegetables into desserts thought otherwise. “One of the first things I thought of was fried artichokes done in the roman style,” said Headley. Carciofi alla Guidia, or artichokes in the Jewish style, deliciously cooked in oil. It “is the most famous of all Italian Jewish foods,” writes Edda Servi Machlin, in “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews.” The non-Jewish Headley, going a step further, also wanted to incorporate the culinary theme of Passover into the dish. The result was a rather savory dessert, he explained. “Many of the components are sweet and salty at the same time. It has a bit of tang to it.”
The inspiration for many of the courses, while imaginative, may also be jumping off points for areas of the museum, Arnold said. He hopes to have the museum up and running in Manhattan in about five years. Will Jewish food play a role? We’ll await hungrily to see.