9 Ingredients Chefs Are Obsessed With

© Quentin Bacon
By F&W Editors Posted February 25, 2015

While the world at large is still obsessed with bacon, kale and all things avocado, chefs have moved on to fixate on other foods. Here, nine of today's chef obsessions.

While the world at large is still obsessed with bacon, kale and all things avocado, chefs have moved on to fixate on other foods. Here, nine of today's chef obsessions.

Green Szechuan Peppercorns
“Danny Bowien has them at Mission Chinese, but I don’t know where he gets them,” says chef Daniel Wright of Cincinnati’s Senate Pub and Abigail Street. “I can’t find them. I’ve been trying to find them ever since I ate there. He made a dish called Tingly Chicken. For some reason, it stings your tongue and makes you think you’re having this allergic reaction. You’re almost scared while you’re eating—but you can’t stop. If you drink, it makes it worse, so the only way to get your tongue to stop tingling is to eat more.”

Locally Sourced Salt
“I’ve been talking to a woman behind a new company called J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, out near Charleston, West Virginia, who just sent me an email out of the blue saying she was working on solar-brined salts,” says chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. “I jumped in the car the next day to see what she was doing. She’s in the next town over from outside of Charleston. Believe it or not, the town’s called Malden, spelled with an E, not an O. Starting in the early 1800s, it was a big salt-producing region. They had salt brine wells at 4.2 percent salinity—much salter than seawater. In the old days, they would boil it and evaporate it, put the salt on the river and send it downstream to Cincinnati and Nashville. By the early 1900s, it was dying out. Her family still owns the land, and she decided to bring it back. She’s doing it with solar evaporation, basically in a greenhouse, not cutting down whole forests like they used to.”

Green Strawberries
“They’re underripe, and the texture is really firm. They’re almost hard like an apple and really, really tart,” says chef Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago. “A green strawberry lends itself to many applications. When you add heat to ripe strawberries, they turn to mush. With the green, they don’t. We pickle them and put them in green strawberry jam we serve with squab. They’re farmed, local strawberries from Michigan. The purveyors kept saying, ‘But they’re green!’ But they’re used to my requests now, and we have such long relationships that they’ll do things for me.”

“I’ve been obsessed with liver lately, served any way I can get it,” says chef Charles Phan of San Francisco’s Slanted Door. “My favorite is the liver served at Serpentine. It’s spicy chicken liver with bourbon, and it’s so good that when I go with my friend, we don’t share. We each get our own bowl.”

“In the workplace, I can never get enough of violet,” says Washington, DC, pastry chef Chris Ford. “It’s such a beautiful flavor. I love floral notes in desserts, but many people associate them with soaps or old-lady perfume. But when used correctly, it’s a beautiful vehicle for balance. I buy candied violets from France, but you can candy them yourself. I love to use either fragments or flower petals. They’re crunchy, too, so they can add texture as well as flavor. I’ve used them in ice creams, on top of macarons, on plated desserts, éclairs. With éclairs, you could sprinkle some on top for a burst of flavor; or for a more subtle approach, you could do a violet glaze by steeping them in the glaze. It also gives it a nice purplish-blueish hue.”

Lamb Heart
“I love lamb, and the heart is the ultimate cut,” says chef Russ Johnson of Ludivine in Oklahoma City. “It has a little more gaminess than normal lamb, but it’s also clean, it’s hard to describe. It’s lamb but more iron-y, more intense. There’s a lot of knife work involved, a lot of trimming because it’s got so much membrane and connective tissue. But it’s perfect for sausage because that all gets ground up. The ratio of fat to meat is almost that of a shoulder.”

“It makes almost anything tasty,” Chicago chef Andrew Zimmerman says of the fermented Korean chile paste. “I had to do a five-ingredient dish for an event, and water counted, as did salt. It was brutal. So I did a stew of smoked pig’s tongues and potatoes, water, gochujang and ginger. The gochujang carried the day. It’s fermented, so it has layers of flavors beyond that hot chile taste.”

Fried Brussels Sprouts Leaves
“We use those on a lot of dishes because of their earthy flavor,” says Boston chef Lydia Shire. “If you take the leaves off individually and deep-fry them, they are so good, so light and delicious, not like boiled brussels sprouts with their stinky smell. Just fry them, strain them, salt them; they taste so good on pieces of fish, cod, whatever.”

“I have a huge crush on berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend,” says Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley. “I was in love with it long before I was even a professional cook. In DC in the early '90s, the Ethiopian markets in Adams Morgan sold awesome spice blends. It’s got a curry thing going on and something specifically its own. You can use a lot to make it taste like itself, or you can use a tiny pinch to give you this underlying mystery flavor. It gives a haunting backnote to sweet things like tomatoes and caramel.”

Related: Best New Chefs' Spring Obsessions
Chefs' Favorite Chinese Restaurants in the U.S.
Chefs' Favorite Cocktails

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