By Kris Kitto - 03/11/09 04:54 PM EDT
In other words, it is a defining component of his or her career.
Around Washington, chefs tout suckling pig, fried spinach, white sausage and other unique foods as their most prized dishes. For many of these chefs, the foods were born from life experiences, researched in world travels, sampled in far-and-wide tastings and tweaked in test kitchens.
There’s only so much a chef can do to make a signature dish, though. As Hank’s Oyster Bar chef-owner Jamie Leeds puts it, “You can’t really force a signature dish.”
If all the elements are right — if the dish is distinct, and if diners like it — “it takes on a life of its own,” she says.
But until it does, chefs continue to perfect one or two foods they think represent who they are and what they do.
A new ceviche and an old sandwich
BLT Steak Chef de Cuisine Victor Albisu says a signature dish comes down to two things.
“First of all, it has to be good,” he says. “Second of all, it has to have something to do with you and you alone.”
Albisu explains two dishes he thinks best signify his approach to cooking: a carpaccio-style, Latin American-influenced ceviche and a foie gras club sandwich.
How would the chef describe himself? He is a club sandwich-loving son of a Peruvian mother and a Cuban father.
“I’ve been eating and making ceviche since before my age was in double digits,” Albisu says.
But between his youth and now, the chef trained in France and took a liking to Mediterranean flavors and cooking styles.
Now, his ceviche is made up of thinly sliced yellowtail with Meyer lemon juice, Peruvian yellow pepper, a sweet-potato emulsion and pulverized black olives.
“I like to connect Latin America to its European origins in my cooking,” he says.
Despite his international roots, Albisu grew up in the The signature dish Washington area and calls the club sandwich one of his favorites, second only to the Cuban sandwich.
When he experimented with a foie gras appetizer, the club sandwich immediately came to mind.
“Sometimes foie gras is not approachable to people,” Albisu says. He sees his foie gras club sandwich — foie gras, pancetta, pea shoots and tomato-ginger marmalade layered between three pieces of brioche — as more accessible.
“It’s a way of getting [to] the kind of bread-and-butter American palate,” he says.
“I can’t keep it in house,” Albisu says of the dish’s popularity.
Fried spinach — but it’s light
One thing Rasika Executive Chef Vikram Sunderam remembers about the fried foods of his native Mumbai is that they were often very heavy.
But the comments he hears daily about his Palak Chaat fried spinach appetizer are more likely to include the words “It’s so light,” he says.
Sunderam says he always wants to stay true to Indian flavors and cooking methods but also tries to bring a freshness to his foods at Rasika.
While working in London, Sunderam experimented with battering spinach very lightly and frying it — something he hadn’t seen before. He wanted to make something light and crispy, and he knew spinach crisps when fried.
“My primary concern when frying … was: Will the spinach leaves hold their shape? Or will they shrivel?” he says.
When he introduced the dish at Rasika, it became a signature within a month, he says.
“When I first started off here, I don’t think any restaurants had the dish,” he says. “It was something different that nobody had ever tried, I guess, and they were amazed with the dish.”
Asian food from an upstate New Yorker
At Wolfgang Puck’s The Source, Executive Chef Scott Drewno describes his signature suckling pig appetizer as a refinement of traditional Chinese cooking. He, too, had to experience refined Asian cooking before taking a liking to it.
“I’m originally from upstate New York,” he says. “It’s great, but it’s homogeneous. I didn’t grow up eating ginger.”
It wasn’t until Drewno moved to Las Vegas that he tasted Asian food beyond “Chinese to-go food” — and he fell in love with it.
“I eat it every chance I get,” he says.
Drewno took about two months to execute an appetizer involving suckling pig, a traditional Chinese food. He bounced ideas off of his Wolfgang Puck colleagues and experimented by cooking about 20 suckling pigs before getting his appetizer right. (Among the difficulties was figuring out how to remove the pig from the duck fat in which it was cooking without getting burned or ruining the meat.)
He’s passionate about the dish, not only because of its Asian inspiration but also because he uses nearly the entire pig when cooking, leaving almost nothing to waste.
“I think it’s a really great representation of what we do at The Source,” Drewno says.
One popular sausage
Marcel’s chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier has tried to take his boudin blanc, or white sausage, off the menu, but he can’t.
“People get upset,” he says.
The restaurant has served the dish for 10 years, and though Wiedmaier says he is sick of it, he still talks about the sausage with the verve of someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in its perfection.
The sausage evolved from a mousse he used to make early in his career. (“Going way back,” he says. “Back to the early 1980s.”) It took 30 minutes to whip by hand, and was made of foie gras, pheasant and chicken.
On his own, Wiedmaier added a few ingredients and made the mousse into a sausage.
He says diners like it because it surprises them.
“It’s very, very light,” Wiedmaier says. “You think of sausage as being heavy. It’s very silky and light.”
Meat and two
Leeds introduced braised molasses short ribs as part of her “Meat and Two” special at Hank’s Oyster Bar after tinkering with the sweet ingredient to complement the beef cut.
She tried to flavor the ribs first with honey and then with maple syrup, but ultimately decided on molasses.
“It has a deeper, richer flavor,” she says.
Leeds uses her “Meats and Two” — which pairs a meat dish with two sides — as a way to offer a non-seafood option on her mostly seafood menu. She settled on the short ribs because she prefers cooking with non-prime cuts of meat.
“We actually had to offer [the molasses-braised short ribs] two nights because it was so popular,” she says.
At her new restaurant, the pub-inspired CommonWealth, she has found that her scotch eggs have taken off. She hard-boils a farm-fresh egg, wraps it in house-made sausage, rolls it in breadcrumbs, fries it, and serves it with three dipping sauces. She found inspiration in traditional British pub fare but added her own flair by choosing higher-quality and handmade ingredients.
As Leeds sees it, a chef’s signature dish doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s really about experimenting and doing a lot of research and just kind of gathering information,” she says.