There are thousands of vegetables that people just don't know how to cook or eat or what to do with. I realized that there really is this moment in time where we can take all these vegetables, rethink what we do with them, and start having fun with them.
When I was starting to think about opening my own restaurant, there were so many meat, chicken and seafood restaurants, but no restaurant dedicated to veggies, especially for center of plate. I decided to put my money where my mouth is. It was time we rethought how we serve vegetables, and how we get people to enjoy vegetables.
Is there a plain way that you serve that so people really realize that this is the prize?
When you get a really fresh onion, it is delicious to use as part of crudite, but in general we caramelize it or serve it in salads. We actually have a chocolate onion tart so we do serve it in a dessert too.
What inspires your approach to picking ingredients and developing a dish?
We like big flavor, but plate identification is also a big deal here. People might not know how we got to it on the plate but they totally understand that that it started as a regular carrot. People sometimes come here saying, “Wow, I don’t like carrots.” I want to hear them to walk away saying, “Oh my goodness, I never knew a carrot could taste this way.”
Speaking of carrots - your menu is really quite normal.
It is. We don’t choose luxury vegetables. We don’t have heirloom vegetables in the restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but frankly, I can’t afford them.
Farmer’s markets can support less than one percent of restaurants. Markets and organic can be really costly. I do use a forager in the spring through fall, but the bulk of my food comes from main suppliers; you can get it all from a supermarket. I think this says to people, “Hey, you can eat this too. You can make this.” I really want others to understand that what we’re doing with vegetables, they can do with vegetables.
Do spices play into your cooking philosophy?
They actually play a pretty big role. Honestly, vegetables can be a little boring if you don’t play with them. I tend to skew more towards the lighter spices like cumin or coriander, which bring out the flavor of vegetables more. There are hundreds of vegetables, and hundreds of spices, and infinite possibilities of what you can do with the two. We like to use spices as that added bonus flavor.
How do you use them in your kitchen?
I first focus on the flavor of the vegetable, and complement the flavor with herbs and spices, rather than covering it up. I try not to use too much in one dish, and I’ll focus on one or two spices – I don’t want to overload the food’s natural flavor. For me, it’s really about creating unique combinations that accentuate the dish while remaining true to the main ingredient.
And with our featured spice being turmeric, how are you using that?
Most people still use it as a color. I don’t understand that because it’s such a good flavor. I actually really like it. It’s one of those backbone spices. You don’t want to have it hit you in the face with all of its flavor, but you want to know it’s there because it really adds so much to a dish. Turmeric is citrusy, it’s earthy, it’s gingery. So the layers it brings to basically anything is pretty amazing.
So what’s different about your approach to technique?
We really focus on how many different textures we can get into a plate. We want to layer as many different textures of vegetables as possible. Vegetables really have a uni-texture. Think again about that carrot again—it’s the same texture all the way through, versus something like a piece of meat that is fatty, chewy, there’s muscle, there’s fiber, there’s gristle—there’s so many different textures that there’s a party happening in your mouth.
We’ve got to figure out how to do that with a vegetable because we want that same kind of satisfaction that you would get from eating a piece of meat. So we roast it, we dehydrate it, we spiralize it, we turn it into ribbons, we juice it, and we layer all those flavors and textures on top of each other so you get a more satisfying bite. Also, every time we change the way a vegetable looks, we change its texture and its flavor. We can get that crispiness, and that gluttonous desire for fried.
What are the simplest techniques for changing the texture of vegetables?
The tools to change the texture are easy to find and cheap. A peeler will totally change the texture of the vegetable. We do use a spiralizer quite a bit, and then your oven is actually the best thing to change the texture of a vegetable. All those different temperatures will change the textures of a vegetable. We’ve all been taught to roast at 375 degrees, but cooking at much lower and much higher temperatures can benefit the flavor and texture as well.
What else do you use to bring more flavor and indulgence?
We use dairy. Dairy brings a lot to the cooking process, making things taste better. It adds that fatty flavor to the plate. Overall, the number one technique that we rely on is smoking. It’s such a comforting flavor. People associate it with some great piece of meat they’ve had, or chicken. The more that we can apply that to a vegetable, the more that people want to eat it. People don’t realize that smoking is something they crave, until they’ve had a smoked vegetable dish.
I see even your drinks have a vegetable component.
Veggies are in all of the drinks. It’s an easy way to start people off. The color provides eye appeal, making the drinks very pretty. It also gives a drink a natural sweetness, so I don’t have to add a lot of sugar. It goes a long way in changing the way people think about vegetables, and make them wonder why they’ve never seen this before.
Black Pepper Breaks out with La Cuchara's Jake Lefenfeld
Jacob Lefenfeld is co-owner and bar manager of Baltimore’s Basque-inspired La Cuchara. Rated “Best Bar Program” in the city by The Baltimore Sun, Lefenfeld is used to pushing the boundaries and leading beverage innovation. His approach to beverage development incorporates flavor-forward techniques from the back of house, especially in using spices and herbs in his drinks. In collaboration with McCormick Chef and culinary mixologist Gabby Quintana, Lefenfeld discusses the nuances of black pepper flavor and his winning approach to cocktail development. On fire at La CucharaGet to know Black PepperChef Bio