I have a coworker who will never understand buying a ticket for five course meal. Especially when that meal includes uncooked cured meat, pickled cauliflower, and brandy cocktails with rosewater. He looks confused when I bring up Boudin Noir and spits out a chunk of his bologna sandwich when I describe how this specific sausage is made.
For those who cleave to steak ‘n’ potato or hamburger fare, the food that Altered Eats has prepared for the pre-concert dinner for When Swing Was King at the Renaissance Theatre may seem foreign or even just plain weird. But if you can get past the initial shock of the seemingly odd ingredients you will see that the Altered Eats team has crafted a menu that celebrates different attributes of many foreign cultures but also comes from your backyard. The result is a meal that tastes like nothing you’ve had before but also tastes a lot like home.
In a line through the mezzanine in the Renaissance Theatre tables are decked in white cloth , ornamented with flowers, set with cutlery and already filling with the 44 eager guests. It’s the first event for this new Altered Eats team which now consists of Anne Massie (Founder/Owner of Altered Eats Fine Street Food), Rasul Welch (A Moveable Feast Supper Club), and Nick Copley (Lionheart Medicinal Gardens). While all the dishes being served tonight are collaborative projects, they are designed each by one of these three chefs.
A collaboration between Rus and Nick begins the feast. These are platters of charcuterie and crudités, pickled cauliflower with hints of curry, a briny sauerkraut, cured duck and bacon, and of course Boudin Noir, or blood sausage. The composition is delivered by white-clad waiters, volunteers with manners evoking a style and display of this original work. As we dig in Rus speaks about the inspiration of this food, much of which I am spending too much attention eating to fully grasp what he is trying to say. The gist, is that this food is all local. The Crudités have been fresh-picked and pickled by Rus and Nick, the meats are from local farms owned by friends of Rus.
This personal backstory is continued with the Dholka, a chickpea “cornbread” with sputtered sesame. Rus speaks of origins. His father, from Louisiana, made cornbread and his mother, from India made the same dish, only from chickpeas. It is damp and heavy in the center with crisp edges. The toasted coconut plays sweet notes around the edges of the fermented chickpea creation.
As this dish settles, Rus, ever the flashy showman who wants to give the crowd a little more than they expected, delivers an improvisation not listed on the menu. It is Chilé stew of chicken and smoked pork braised in beer and spices. There is a kick followed by a slight savory sweetness.
I am fortunate to be sitting next to a vegetarian who has a similar surprise dish which Rus assures her is not chicken. It is chicken of the woods mushroom. It feels and tastes similar to chicken but, before cooking, is a football sized fungus. This vegetarian dish is seasoned with an Indian bent toward coconut milk and curry. It finishes with with a citrus zing.
Anne Massie’s creation comes next with roasted root vegetables. Whereas the first three dishes were primarily Rus’ inspiration and all leaned toward his Indian heritage, Anne’s dish is inextricably Latin. Beets, carrots, onion, and potato are in a pile in the center of the plate and surrounded by puddles of dark chocolate molé and an avocado cilantro sauce. Anne speaks a little on her dish expressing an understanding of the Latin notes, attempting to assuage the skeptics of the chocolate/veggie melange. While the molé enriches the flavors and seems to combine them into one solid taste, the cilantro hits a high note at the end that cleans the palate and makes me hungry for more.
Then, just as I’m scraping my plate, the hen and morel is brought out. This dish, again, is primarily a Rus production. There is chicken and morel mushroom. There are blanched peanuts that snap like a well-cooked bean. There is a blue corn and wood ash. This dish takes me back to crunching leaves through a woodland floor. It is something, though most likely taking inspiration from many different culturally-specific places, that has definite roots in the midwest. It is deliciously deciduous, flavors that stay for a bright season after each bite only to fall away again leaving only that heavy taste of fauna.
Finally, we have arrived back home, to this earth, these local gardens, the duck farm just outside of town where the eggs for the dessert were obtained. This final piece is a triptych, a series of three soli from each of the chefs. On the plate is Nick Copley’s creation, a syrup of hibiscus, slightly tart and berry-rich, is sweetened by pear and melts into Rus’ creation, a sort of dulce de leche. This rich and creamy sweet custard is made richer by the duck eggs, apparently a large part of the dish’s inspiration. Finally, Anne’s contribution juts out of the top as dry dark chocolate bark embedded with the crunch of popcorn. There is the slight citrus of candied lemon zest.
When talking about food or wine people often use the words “well-balanced”. This doesn’t mean flavors are muted or overwhelmed by other stronger flavors, but, rather, that each flavor/texture profile is in such harmony that they seem to be playing the same note. This is similar to an orchestra tuning to A-440: when the note is hit, fifty instruments sound like one.
Well-balanced, in this case, is the perfect word to describe this dessert. It is a difficult for three chefs to concoct, much less pull off a collaboration. It takes not only the design and prep-work, but also a concordance that transcends mere shared direction. This dish is, in itself, the proof of concordance in the kitchen and the convergence of Anne, Nick, and Rus as like-minded chefs.
To wrap up the meal, Nick Copley has concocted another delicious drink. I say another because I have had the great opportunity to taste quite a few of his infused cocktails and wines in the past and none of them has fallen short of perfection. Nick explains that Damiana is an aphrodisiac from Mexico. I catch almond on the nose with that boozy brandy sting. A lady nearby states that it tastes like a yoga class. I assume this comment comes from the rosewater and other floral notes rather than the dry alcohol of the brandy. A bitter chocolate hits the tongue followed by strong alcohol flavor and vanilla at the end. Several degrees of floral notes pervade throughout, and to one not used to such a bouquet, they become intoxicating. For me, the rosewater compliments the chocolate and merges into the vanilla deliciously, especially when paired with the aforementioned desert.
As I drink the last drops I imagine what these three chefs will do next. It truly is a dream team of exquisite entrepreneurs who not only care about food, but where it comes from. As I move into the theater and begin to hear the orchestra perform swing hits from nearly a century ago, I think of collaboration, how the drummer reads the stand-up bass, how the clarinettist solos for a while and cedes to the orchestra at-large. I think about the different upbringings, the different cultures and musical stylings personal to each member of the orchestra, yet brought together on this stage by a mutual love of music. Yes, maybe some are more experienced than others. Yes. Maybe some have that je ne sais quoi that sets them apart, but the fact is, they are all here together, pulling off a masterpiece.
These chefs mirror this image and more. Each coming from their particular expertise they have found a common ground on which to perform. In this small city in Ohio, they have brought Latin, Indian, Southern and Midwestern America, French and various other flavors into harmony. What they have proved more than anything is that with effort, so many differences can be used to create something that we can all enjoy. Considering that all the ingredients that seemed so foreign were gleaned and assembled in our fair city it is hard to argue that these flavors, inspired by other people, are not also inherently our own.
For a review of the concert, see what Llalan has written HERE