NEW YORK (Reuters) - Whether it’s wild flowers or weeds on his patio, American chef Brian Lewis is on a quest to find new ingredients and has included them in some of the meals at his elm restaurant, which opened earlier this year.
Before launching the eatery in New Canaan, Connecticut in March, the 45-year-old classically trained chef worked at actor Richard Gere’s restaurant, The Farmhouse at The Bedford Post in New York state, where he received critical acclaim.
Lewis, who grew up just north of New York City, spoke to Reuters about his new restaurant, his choice of career and favorite ingredients.
Q: Describe your culinary approach for elm.
A: “My food is rooted in tradition and inspired by the seasons. I’m an American chef who draws inspiration from French and Italian cooking. I also have a strong influence from modern Spanish cooking, modern techniques, as well as age-old techniques whether it’s salting, curing, preserving, confitting ... We are always looking for new ingredients — that is what drives me the most.”
Q: What new ingredients are you experimenting with now?
A: “A lot of wild herbs and wild lettuces. Even in backyards, there are wild Italian strawberries. My quest now is finding things like purslane, which is a weed growing in the cracks in my patio. It’s fabulous and I snip it. I clean it and pair that with heirloom tomato hearts and sheep’s milk curd. Wild forage, flowers and greens are the favorite of the moment. These radish, broccoli and watermelon flowers are beautiful. It’s just not from an aesthetic point of view, they are peppery and the delicious flavors that come from them are really unique.”
Q: What has been the diners’ response to elm so far?
A: “I feel like we are really connected with them on a visceral level. They are really connected with where we are coming from. First of all, the food is delicious. There is also a comfort from the experience of the restaurant. I’ve always said we want world-class food and service and wine and we want small-town charm.”
Q: Why did you choose a career as a chef?
A: “I always had an abundance of energy. I was an athlete when I was a young boy. I had a bit of injury with my knee, which set me on the sidelines for the season. I found my new sport in the kitchen. I peeked into this French restaurant when I was a young boy. I asked: ‘Hey, could I work here for free?’ I started washing dishes. It was a really classic French brigade system. I was 14 years old when it happened. I never looked back.”
Q: What are your go-to ingredients in your kitchen?
A: “I love sea urchins and use (them) in many different guises. There is such an umami quality to them. I use ice wine vinegar quite a lot. It has a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. I pair that with almond oil and shallots that pickle in the vinegar. They make a fabulous vinaigrette.”
English Pea Sacchetti (Serves 8)
English Pea Filling:
2 cups shelled fresh English peas blanched in salted water
1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
1/4 cup hot water from the pea blanching
kosher salt, to taste
Place all ingredients in a vita mix blender and puree until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Egg Pasta Dough
2 cups 00 (double-zero grade) flour. (High-quality all-purpose flour may be used as substitute)
1-1/2 cups semolina flour
2 whole eggs (preferably organic farm eggs)
12 egg yolks
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1. Place the flour in the bowl of a mixer, fitted with a hook attachment. Combine the whole eggs, egg yolk and olive oil in a small bowl. With the mixer on low speed, add the egg mixture slowly, allowing the flour to absorb the eggs and form a soft dough.
2. Remove from the bowl and turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough for 5 minutes, to develop the gluten and elasticity (structure) of the dough. The pasta dough should have a smooth feel and bright yellow color. Cover with plastic film or a clean kitchen towel for 30-45 minutes to allow the dough to rest before rolling and cutting.
3. Begin to make the sacchetti; first cut the dough in half and roll each half into 10-inch (25-cm) by 5-inch sheets, about ½ inch thick. Using either a hand crank or electric pasta machine, lightly dust the pasta sheets with flour and roll through the machine, starting at the highest number (usually 10) and work your way down to number 2, rolling through each number setting along the way. This will yield a smooth and well developed and structured dough.
4. Using a fluted, 2-inch square cookie cutter, cut as many portions of the dough as possible, transfer the dough to a cookie sheet and cover with a dusting of flour and a clean kitchen towel.
5. Prepare the sacchetti; lay 10 pasta squares out on a lightly floured work surface and put 1 teaspoon of the English pea filling in the center of each pasta square. Dot a bit of water on one side of each square and now bring each corner of the square to a center point, creating a seal with four distinct edges. Repeat until all of the pasta is filled.
6. Transfer to a cookie tray, lightly dusted with flour and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
Lemon Brown Butter:
8 ounces unsalted butter
2 lemons, halved
1 cup pea shoots
In a medium-size saucepan, place the butter over medium heat and cook until the butter begins to bubble and the milk solids start to brown. Once the butter solids begin to brown, stir with a whisk. Once the butter solids have taken on a nutty aroma and are evenly browned, add the lemon juice, pea shoots and kosher salt to taste.
Cook the sacchetti in salted boiling water for 4-5 minutes, remove from the water and toss with the lemon brown butter and pea shoots. Plate in a warm serving bowl and sprinkle with parmigiano reggiano.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Dale Hudson