Black Pepper Breaks Out

Black Pepper Breaks Out

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. ops

Q&A with Jake Lefenfeld

What aspects of pepper do you like the most, and how do you feel it factors into cocktail culture?

Pepper creates a deeper, savory flavor, which people want to see more of in cocktail culture. I see a lot of customers moving away from overtly sweet drinks, and seeking out more complexity and balance. I think most classically sweet drinks actually benefit from a dash of black pepper, since it adds a lot more depth to what often can be a one-dimensional cocktail. It adds a nice back bite of heat, but it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s very much a perfect accent, where it contributes enough notes in the background that makes the main flavors pop. A good pepper should add to what the chef or bartender is trying to express–not alter the dish.

What do you find to be the key to flavor balancing? How do you figure out where to start when developing a cocktail, and deciding where to go profile-wise?

The starting point is always the base spirit I want to work with: selecting the centerpiece, examining its unique characteristics, and building upon them in a way that is not only exciting, but also logical. I isolate the individual flavors that come together to make that spirit complex and seek out ingredients I feel with naturally highlight them, and also add some depth to bring certain notes forward. A lot of it is trial and error. Something that sounds crazy might actually balance well. You just have to be willing to fail and start all over again.

You use a number of surprising ingredients in your cocktails, such as butternut squash. How do you go about creating things like that?

Personally I benefit from Ben’s culinary experience–he’s not just the chef and my business partner, but also my brother. Bartenders who learn from the kitchen have an extra card to play in development. Seeking out not just ingredients, but methods and techniques that are traditionally used only in the kitchen opens up a whole new playing field behind the bar.

Customers still love the classics, but they’re also seeking out exciting new cocktails and expect innovation and surprises. They love trying cocktails that have unexpected flavors they never would have thought worked together until we show them they do! And that’s really our job, isn’t it?

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Tips from the Chef

Chef Espuma Tips

Making an Espuma

Espumas can be made with just about any vegetable or fruit that can be juiced, and the final product brings tons of great flavor to a drink along with a smooth, velvety texture. Experiment with flavors and adding different spices and herbs to balance the espuma flavor. Espumas are a great addition to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as being a finishing component in many savory and sweet dishes.

Black Pepper


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