“My duck and waffle dish is an ode to my upbringing. I grew up in an urban environment and I have French culinary training,” says chef Timon Balloo of Miami’s Sugarcane Raw Bar & Grill. “It’s a play on chicken and waffles but we use a French confited duck leg, a beautiful fried duck egg and an herb-and-mustard seed maple sauce. That’s all on top of a buttermilk waffle. It’s a whimsical dish—crispy, salty and sweet. I’m a fat boy at heart, and this is fat boy food.”
The recipe for the country loaf at Tartine Bakery has barely changed since Chad Robertson first opened the bakery in 2002. Since then he has only tweaked one thing: the flour. “I’m using a little bit higher-extraction flour than I was before,” Robertson says. “Higher extraction means a higher percentage of the grain. We originally used a blend of white and whole-grain flours, but I’m excited about this type 85 flour. At about 85 percent extraction, it’s the best of both worlds: more whole-grain flavor, without so much bran to weigh it down.” Here, Robertson shares his simple method to make an exquisite loaf of bread.
Top Chef champion Michael Voltaggio’s signature egg yolk gnocchi at ink developed out of a happy accident. “When we were washing a sauce of egg yolk puree off a spatula, it came of in chunks and was 'cooked' by the hot water,” he says. They now make vibrant gnocchi with just three ingredients: egg yolks, salt and olive oil—pushed through a pastry bag into hot water. The key is in the cooking. Voltaggio undercooks them so the inside stays incredibly gooey.
Growing up in Ireland, chef Cathal Armstrong didn’t eat corned beef. “That’s really an American-Irish dish,” he says. But his mother did make an incredible pork belly dish that he's turned into a cult classic at his flagship, Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA. “It was inspired by what my mother called ‘boiling bacon’—basically pure pork belly that was boiled rather than pan-fried,” Armstrong says. “When we were opening Restaurant Eve, pork belly was becoming a popular thing and we experimented with it—dry curing, brining, dry roasting and braising. What we came up with is as close to a perfect piece of meat as I believe I can create.” Armstrong brines the belly for a whole week, then braises the meat until it's ultra-tender. The belly is finished in the pan so it gets fantastically crisp on the edges. “The accompaniments change fairly often, but the pork belly is a staple on the menu.”
When former Philadelphia Eagle Winston Justice walked into Kevin Sbraga’s Sbraga restaurant, the Top Chef alum created something off-the-cuff. “I knew he was into food so I wanted to make him something new and different,” Sbraga says. “I had some small foie gras pieces that weren’t big enough to sear, so I thought I’d try to make a soup with them, and garnish the soup with rose petals. Now I can’t take it off the menu.” To make the foie gras soup, Sbraga first creates a paste from lemongrass, ginger, shallots, garlic and Thai chiles, then fries it to give it color. After deglazing the pan with brandy, he adds honey, chicken stock, cream and kaffir lime leaves and lets it simmer for half an hour. Then comes the main attraction: whole lobes of foie gras. He blends the whole mix, strains it and seasons it with salt and lime juice. “ That’s the soup,” Sbraga says. “But the special part I think is the relish of pickled red onions, raw white onions, rose petals, mint and cumin, moistened with a little grapeseed oil. Put it all together and it’s ridiculous.”
Every month, chef Scott Conant’s restaurants sell nearly 10,000 orders of his spaghetti with tomato and basil. Conant attributes the dish’s massive popularity to its classic simplicity. “It always goes back to the same thing—the old da Vinci quote: ‘Simplicity is the ultimate luxury,’” he says. “Nowadays, no matter what else I put down in front of people, they always tell me that simple spaghetti was the best part of their meal. I definitely think it’s the sum of its parts: we use all fresh tomatoes whenever possible, we use very little canned, if any. We use quite a bit of olive oil, which we infuse with garlic and basil and crushed red pepper, almost like a tea. Then we strain out those ingredients and put the oil directly inside the tomatoes. We only cook the tomatoes for 45 minutes. The fresh pasta that we use has a little semolina inside so that texture is another very important component.” He finishes the pasta with butter, fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, basil, and more of the infused oil. “All of those are little things,” Conant says. “But when you put them all together in balance, that’s the key.”
An old Brooklyn classic, Blackout Cake is an ultra chocolaty, custardy, cake-crumb-coated dessert with somewhat mythic status. Gale Gand created a version upon request for a client's 70th birthday and now it's become one of her most obsessed-over signatures. "I said, 'Well, I’ve never had it, but I have friends who grew up in New York, and they’ve had it,'" Gand says. "So I did some research, made it, and ran it by my friends and their parents to get feedback, and then I tweaked it. Then I did that again and again until I finally—apparently—got it exactly right. So now I get all these calls—it's like a drug deal—and people say, 'I hear you do Blackout Cake.' I say, 'Where’d you hear that? How do you know that?' If you Google blackout cake, my name pops up."
At San Francisco’s Aziza, chef Mourad Lahlou serves beautifully reinvented Moroccan dishes like his much-loved Duck Confit Basteeya. “A classic bastilla is pretty much a potpie: a meat stew topped with sweetened and spiced ground almonds, all covered in flaky warka dough (a lot like phyllo),” Lahlou explains. “I've always found it one-dimensional and too sweet, when there should be a balance of sweet and savory.” At Aziza, Lahlou makes his version with confited duck legs, which are cured overnight in ras el hanout (a blend of North African spices) then slow-cooked in duck fat. “We mix the tender confited meat with caramelized onions and raisins, and then wrap them in phyllo, with toasted almonds ground up with cinnamon and orange blossom water. It comes to the plate in a warm, tidy phyllo package, with all the aromas locked inside, so it looks like a present.” Served with a tart verjus crème fraîche, the dish comes with seasonal vegetables like roasted turnips in fall. “Every bite has a little surprise,” Lahlou says. “It's savory, moist, tender. It has crunch. It has everything that you would want in a dish.”
Chef Grant Achatz masterminded his famous Black Truffle Explosion (ravioli filled with liquified black truffle) while pulling apart chilled duck confit at The French Laundry in Napa. “The natural gelatin from the skin and bones had formed what was basically a duck consommé. I looked at it and had one of those pivotal moments. I rolled off a piece of pasta to make ravioli and put a little chunk of the duck gelée inside, tossed it in the water, and when it came out the filling had liquefied. When I was trying out for the job at Trio I tried the technique again [this time using a filling of] black truffle juice set with gelatin. That’s essentially what got me the job.” Today at his groundbreaking Chicago flagship Alinea, the dish is still served. “It does that thing that all iconic signature dishes should do: It combines elements of surprise with elements of comfort.”
Portland empire builder Vitaly Paley of Paley's Place, Imperial and Portland Penny Diner makes a crave-worthy signature dish that doesn't even require cooking: Wagyu beef tartare. “We take Wagyu from Snake River Farms, a culotte, which we chop by hand. We mix it with some chiles, a little bit of olive oil, mustard, Tabasco and Worcestershire—as traditional as can be,” he says. “And then, as though tartare weren’t rich enough, we top it with a duck egg yolk.” The tartare is served with classic accompaniments: chopped parsley and sweet onion, capers and grilled black rye made locally by Ken’s Artisan Bakery. “We encourage people to mix it all up, spread it on the still-warm grilled bread. Steak tartare and a martini? Life is good.”