Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Your restaurant Henrietta Red has intersected a vegetable-forward menu with an extensive raw bar. Share with us your inspiration behind this style of menu and how you are able to execute it successfully.
When I went to school in New Orleans and then lived in New York for 8 years, I enjoyed going to restaurants with raw bars. The more I learned about oysters specifically, the more fascinating I found them – the varieties available, the ways they are grown, and the advancements happening to make the processes more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Oysters are incredibly sensitive to their environment. Their flavor is determined by factors including seasonality, water temperature and salinity. Their shape can be affected by the movement of the bodies of water where they grow. These factors can be manipulated by growers to yield oysters that are unique or appealing to consumers in certain ways. There is an interesting community of growers that shares information so openly and we’re excited to sell their oysters. Our restaurant has around 15 varieties, from all three coasts, at any given time but they're all distinctly different. The raw bar in our restaurant has a social aspect to it but the oysters themselves are the most important part of the program.
The rest of our menu has a seasonal focus. We use local produce whenever possible, as well as regional seafood and local proteins. We try to keep meats away from the center-of-the-plate. We're by no means vegetarian but we're trying to appeal to a broader base.
How do you determine which techniques to utilize for maximum freshness of flavors when working on your raw bar menu and what role do spices/seasonings play?
Freshness of flavors is so important when working with raw ingredients. They can be delicate so it's important to heighten them without overwhelming them. When we use seasonings and spices, there's a certain subtlety that we strive for. Spices are wonderful but they can also be overpowering, it’s about finding the right balance.
Technique-wise, one thing we do a fair amount of is curing raw fish with salt and sugar. We add herbs and spices as well to impart some flavor. However, when served raw, the flavor of the fish is already fairly heightened without needing to add too many different elements to the presentation.
Share with us the role that spices and seasonings play in the creation of your raw bar items.
It depends on the dish. It's nice to use warming spices on colder dishes, like our carrot salad with its cumin-yogurt dressing, because they give them a counter-point without being super spicy or literally warm.
What are the biggest flavor challenges you face when working with raw ingredients?
I don't find raw ingredients particularly challenging – they're more fun for me than hot dishes, especially oysters and shellfish. The way we source them, they're so good as is, they can speak for themselves. We more-so look for ways to complement them than to manipulate them or amplify them.
What are Chef Julia Sullivan’s signature raw dishes?
Our dishes change seasonally but the snapper crudo is definitely a top seller that guests enjoy and come back for. We also have a caviar dish that is very popular. It is made with paddlefish caviar grown and harvested in Tennessee. We serve it with crackers, sour cream and a dressing made from herbs, vinegar and olive oil.
Which menu are you seeking to elevate to the next level?
Our kitchen is still fairly young so we try to be experimental and play with new ingredients, sharing information between one another. Some days, we make a lot of progress and change the menu, other days we just go through the motions.
I personally want to see the menu continue to grow and evolve. I'd also love to continue to bring in new products. There are so many wonderful oyster growers out there doing great things and the industry is only getting more interesting. I want to continue to connect with people about oysters and fish we could use in crudo-type preparations.