Seasonality: Talking With Chefs Maggie Whelan & Lucas Rosenbrook

Seasonality: Talking With Chefs Maggie Whelan & Lucas Rosenbrook

Saturday, August 27th, 2016

S E A S O N A L I T Y:  T A L K I N G  W I T H  C H E F S  M A G G I E  W H E L A N  & L U C A S  R O S E N B R O O K

Maggie Whelan and Lucas Rosenbrook (Sous Chef and Chef de Cuisine of Restaurant Alma, respectively), are refreshingly down-to-earth about food. They wax on about cucumbers instead of complicated gastronomy, holding a deep respect for the natural state of things that come from the earth. Both humble and easy to laugh, Maggie and Lucas sat down with the Alma blog this week to chat about seasonal cooking – what it is, what it means to them, how it plays into Alma, and who makes it all possible.

AB: So let’s start with the basics – what exactly is seasonality? It’s a buzz-word you hear a lot these days, in restaurants and in the food world in general.

LR: Seasonality is using what you can source from local and regional communities. In Minnesota, it’s kind of difficult, because our true “season” for produce is only four or five months out of the year. So we get very excited for springtime and everything that comes with it: ramps, morels, and foraged greens. We’ll get farmed lettuce, radishes…

MW: And asparagus! Asparagus was huge for us this year. We got it from a local guy -

LR: We got over 1200 pounds of asparagus!

MW: We had it all over the menu, it’s from this man named Scott who grows it. We got so excited about it. It was beauty.

The cool thing about seasonal cooking is that we can take advantage of things that we only get in Summer, and preserve them to use in the Winter. So it’s still local stuff: stuff like tomatoes that come from Twin Organics, or Riverbend Farms, that we roast and mill – and then we use them in tomato sauce all winter long.

LR: Last year, our preserved tomatoes nearly got us through the whole winter.

MW: You get everyone into it. We all compete to see who can roast more tomatoes. As long as they bring them to us, we can take care of them.

AB: What are some other examples of seasonality at Alma?

LR: We’ve, in the past year or two, developed a menu that has interchangeable ingredients. So we have a crepe that started off as a “spring greens buckwheat crepe”, and by the end of the year it was a “summer vegetable buckwheat crepe”, because those nettles and asparagus go out of season. We can have the same dish with different seasonal ingredients. Some people say they like the spring one better and some people say they like the summer one better. That’s something, moving forward, that I’m looking for. Looking for a main dish – like a crepe – starting from point A and three months down the road it’s a completely different dish.

AB: That’s really interesting – can you talk more about like “evolution” of a dish?

LR: So when a dish comes on the menu, we try to keep it as simple as possible: for example, two main elements. For example, a main: fish, and some type of a seasonal vegetable. We had this striped bass dish that started off with braised beans and peppers. When it first came on – of the eight ingredients, three of them were local. As the dish evolved and the season became more fruitful, by the end, we had local peppers, local beans, local cherry tomatoes – everything was local.

MW: As the order lists come out from the farmers, it’s really fun seeing what else we can make local on a dish. It’s a nice challenge. How many components on the menu can we source from here?

LR: It begins with me and Alex [Roberts, Executive Chef/Owner] talking about an idea. I’m a nerd, and whenever he’s around, I make him try the food. He’s got one of those minds where he can pick out exactly what the dish needs or he’ll say: “it’s a great direction, but let’s take a left here instead of a right”. It’s very rare that we have to take something off a dish, because we start so basic.

MW: And that lends itself very easily to putting more seasonal elements in as they present themselves. It allows a sense of flexibility for the changing seasons and what they offer.

LR: We started out a pork belly dish with fava beans in it, and ended up putting zucchini in it. What we found out was the zucchini worked even better than the fava beans, and we also realized that –

MW: Zucchini and Clams! They taste so amazing together.

LR: Exactly. Zucchini and clams. It taught us something watching the different vegetables change the dish and letting the flavors talk to us. It wasn’t intentional.

MW: Now we will always know that zucchini and clams are something that we can go back to.

AB: Can you talk about Alma’s relationships with local farmers?

MW: I had the opportunity this year to be in charge of the farm order, and I learned how to order produce and even proteins. Lucas and Matt [Sprague, Chef de Cuisine of Café Alma] taught me. We all [the Chefs] get the farmer emails and discuss it during the week, and then it’s on me to actually sit on the computer and map out what a week and a half of vegetables look like from different farmers.

LR: In years past, we would really focus on one or two farms. That worked really well and was very streamlined, but it makes the availability a little smaller than it could be. The last two years we went from three farms to more like six or seven.

MW: Last summer we had nine at one time! It was a little crazy and so fun! But we’ve always ordered from Greg Reynolds at Riverbend farms. Alex started working with him back in the day. Greg has always had a presence in our kitchen. He brings us the tomatoes we like!

LR: When Greg came in a couple of weeks ago, it was pretty awesome listening to him and Alex talk about how before the farm-to-table movement (when Alex was cooking in New York), you would go to the farmers’ market to get your vegetables. You wouldn’t necessarily have farms come to your restaurant. In Minneapolis, you had early adopters like Brenda [Langton, of Café Brenda/Spoonriver] and Lucia [Watson, of Lucia’s]. When they were doing it, it was considered a very progressive thing. Alex started working with Greg shortly after opening in the late 90’s, and we’ve continued to work with him. At that point [when Alex opened Alma], Greg was a young farmer. Now he’s starting to evolve his farm into less of a place for production, and more of a seed-saving and educational project.

This year, we worked a lot with Twin Organics –

MW: And he’s [Jacob Helling] one of Greg Reynolds’ protégés.  

LR: It’s really cool sort of carrying the torch, continuing to use the seeds that Greg gave to Twin Organics. It’s the same seeds. It’s essentially the same produce we’ve had since Alma opened.

MW: We started this year getting greens from him [Jacob Helling of Twin Organics], which turned into squash, and eggplant. We put an eggplant side dish on the menu just to get his fabulous eggplant in. That’s really fun – getting samples of things, being creative with them, and showcasing the variety in our side dishes. It turns into a really fun game: I think in week-and-a-half increments, figuring out what the kitchen needs, ordering enough so everything comes in on the right day but nothing ever goes bad. It’s strategy. Just like you do when you grocery shop at home – figuring out how much lettuce your family is going to eat before it goes bad in the fridge. We do that too. Just on a larger scale.

AB: What other produce farms does Alma work with, in addition to Riverbend and Twin Organics?

MW: Heartbeet farm was a big one this year. We worked with Dragsmith and Hidden Streams as well. They were all so great to us.

AB: Going forward, what’s the goal for Alma in terms of seasonality and locality in the future?

MW: I would like to see to streamline our ordering to order everything for the restaurant and café together, and support the local farmers even more. Ordering in larger quantities, and being more creative with our winter vegetables. Being able to preserve and get through the winter in more creative ways.

LR: That’ll be the biggest thing, I think. Having the expanded space to do more preserves and storing of food. If that’s making sausages or mostardas, or doing vinegars or sauerkraut. Next year, I hope to get an ingredient forecast where we can say “in August, let’s order all the cabbage and make sauerkraut”, so in November, we have house-made sauerkraut for the whole season.

MW: I want to be able to spend more time trying to source as intentionally as possible. As much as we can get from the farmers, we’re going to get. It’s so rewarding. Hopefully we’ll also get to do more farm field trips. It’s so fun when us cooks can see all those rows of eggplant lined up.

LR: We want to preserve what we’ve been doing for so long. Nothing is going to change where all of a sudden Alma is a modernist restaurant. We want to do what we do even better. The food will evolve naturally and hopefully, speak for itself.

AB: How can people who don’t work in a restaurant – people with home kitchens – cook the way Alma cooks? What can they do to replicate the seasonality and locality Alma practices?

MW: You can get a lot of the same stuff that we get from Riverbend at the co-ops. I know Greg supplies Seward and the Wedge. That’s the stuff we use, available to everyone. I think it’s really cool that people are more and more interested in it these days. When you eat at Restaurants, you can find out what you like and what interests you. Then you can go pick out those things that excite you at markets: whether that’s tomatoes or peppers or corn. The way things are displayed at farmer’s markets is so beautiful – it’s like a jewelry case.

LR: I think learned the most about seasonality and what to do with things by having a garden. If you grow tomatoes and cucumbers – it’s fun to grow it, but once it’s ready, you need to have a plan for it. You think: well, I can only eat so many cucumbers in my salad. At some point, you have to either give them away, or pickle them to preserve them. Same with tomatoes. You can only eat so many caprese salads.

MW: I don’t know – I haven’t found my caprese limit yet.

LR: Seeing what truly happens here, in Minnesota? That happens in a garden. Having a plan ready to preserve something and making a project out of it.

MW: Enough people have learned stuff these days that you can sort of ask around when you have questions. This is only my second year having a vegetable garden. You mention that you’re doing potatoes for the first time and three people come to talk to you with three different methods. It’s crowd-sourcing your information. Everyone has their favorite market, their favorite book on preserving. Bringing it up and asking questions is the way to find things out.

LR: I talked with Alex a while back about how our food comes to the plate at Alma. What it is – essentially – is a collection of really good cooking techniques that harmoniously bring separate ingredients together. With the food at Alma, the individual cooking techniques we use aren’t too involved. But being able to bring four techniques together in just right way, at just the right time...is. For example: we have a crispy poached egg dish featuring rajas, arugula and smoked mushrooms. So that starts with poblano peppers: peeling them, roasting them, then simmering them with sweet onions, marjoram and crème fraiche – just for the sauce. There’s smoked mushrooms: Portobello mushrooms need to be cleaned, smoked, roasted, and sliced. Then poached eggs that are trimmed, breaded, and fried at the last moment. It’s three elements that, if done at home, would take half a day. It’s pretty involved. As you master each element, like rajas, they become building blocks for future dishes. For example, rajas is great with scrambled eggs and corn tortillas and also great with grilled steak. By latching onto one or two cooking techniques, you can also apply them to different foods too. If you have a marinade you like on zucchini – try it on a different vegetable! Use it on eggplant, or butternut squash. That’s how you learn to cook intuitively.

The eggs and rajas dish. 

It’s been interesting working for Alex for so long, because people learn the “Alma way” of doing things. If you say “roast mushrooms” in the Alma kitchen, you could pick anyone to do it and they would all come out exactly the same. There’s technique, and a new cook here will have to learn how to do that. But that’s what defines a restaurant – each one has its own language. Food language.