Would you eat eight courses of English peas?
“No single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the meal,” reads the description of the tasting menu at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. The idea is that each bite is a singular, wondrous surprise, never repeated, always leaving you wanting more. But if a tasting menu repeated the same ingredient in every course, could each bite still be a wondrous surprise? The answer, it turns out, is yes. The one-ingredient tasting menu has emerged as a new way for chefs across the country to flex creativity and skill, while minimizing waste in their kitchens.
In April, Lacroix restaurant in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Hotel announced it would switch up its classic tasting menu, with executive chef Jon Cichon and his team preparing six courses around one in-season ingredient. The new format kicked off with asparagus, and included the spring vegetable in foam form atop halibut in one course, as dry rub ash on lamb in another, and, the chef’s favorite, as white asparagus ice cream. “It wasn’t about making a savory dessert,” says Cichon. “You think of white asparagus as being bitter, but once you cook it in milk, and add a little sugar, and vanilla, it takes on a whole new flavor profile.”
The new approach was a way for Cichon to create focus for the 15-year old Lacroix, and to impart a fresh sensibility to a restaurant with a reputation for being traditional. “When we switched to the single ingredient, it was a way for us to mix it up,” he says. “We always changed, maybe a dish a week. There was no rhyme or reason. But this way, with a brand new menu about every thirty days, it was a way for us to keep it fresh and avoid monotony.”
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Aaron Meneghelli, executive chef of FARM restaurant at the Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa Valley, was also struck with the same notion. Three months ago, Meneghelli redesigned his five-course tasting menu to incorporate one single ingredient in each dish, though his team is switching that ingredient once every two weeks. Pulling from the resort’s new on-site culinary garden, and from local farms, the stars so far have included cherries, beets, white apricots, and corn. For a spring menu highlighting English peas, there was an English pea panna cotta with poached Maine lobster, lemon curd, and vanilla oil. Peas became a glaze for a prime New York strip steak, were crushed over fish, and were churned into a green pea gelato with white chocolate ganache and cocoa streusel.
Similarly operating a restaurant inside a hotel with a strong reputation and the expectations to match, Meneghelli’s change sprung from the desire to try something different. “I feel like the trend has been, in the last five years or so, less is more,” he says. “This was a simpler approach, to make it more interesting in the kitchen, and is also something we can do to challenge us.”
According to the chef, the change was also the natural next step after the practice of maintaining a low-waste kitchen by using every part of an ingredient. “I've always tried to use the plant as much as I can,” he says.
For Cichon, too, reducing waste was an added bonus of the one-ingredient tasting menu. “Sometimes you’re so all over the place, and you end up wasting product,” he says. “This allows us to really commit to an ingredient.”
Finding an ingredient to commit to and properly show off has been, perhaps, a little easier with the bounty of in-season produce available this spring and summer. So are the chefs nervous about the winter?
“Not really,” says Cichon. “In November, I know we’re going to do mushrooms. It’s not an easy one, but they're certainly abundant, and there are certainly lots of varieties.” Lacroix might also do a one-week spinoff truffle menu, and come winter, the chef is already thinking about all the ways a potato can be transformed, even if there aren’t a profusion of potato varieties. For Meneghelli, the winter dilemma revolves around the dessert course, especially if seasonal produce like celery root or sunchokes are chosen, though he doesn’t seem that worried. “Our pastry chef [Jerome Maure] is crazy talented,” he says. “I enjoy watching that challenge take place.”
Both chefs say the reaction has been positive from their guests. “The one thing we were worried about was making it redundant,” says Cichon. “But it’s so subtle in a lot of ways, those people might not even know. The server speaks to it if they want to hear about it, but if they don’t, that’s ok. Just enjoy your dinner.”