Blood and Bones: Chefs and the Third Plate

by Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno, Will Blunt, and Aliza Eliazarov
January 2015

Restaurant

“I knew immediately I wanted to work with them,” says Brooklyn Chef Elise Kornack. “They were beautiful!” Cowpeas. Kornack is talking about cowpeas. The chef and owner of 12-seat Take Root came across the cowpeas in question at the market and took them back to her one-woman kitchen in Carroll Gardens for a bath in lobster stock, then nestled them next to lightly pickled and charred cabbage, and crowned them with yarrow greens. “This dish appears simple, but there’s a complexity of flavor and texture that unfolds as you eat it,” says Kornack. “It’s the study of simplicity that most represents my self expression as a chef.”

This dish that exalts the humblest of ingredients is also one expression of the third plate mentality: an approach to cooking crystallized in Dan Barber’s magnum opus of the same name.

“The great cuisines of the world were conceived along with their places. They celebrate diversity—grains, legumes, vegetables, spices and smatterings of all cuts of meat—a kind of abundance rooted in what the land can readily provide,” says Barber. “That’s something that has been lost, for the most part—and, in America, it never really existed. But it was the inspiration behind The Third Plate. How do we create a food culture that encourages the diversity and health of our farms, and our landscapes? Can we imagine a way of eating that not only supports good agriculture, but also acts as its engine for improvement?” 

A manual for how to be a conscious chef in the 21st century, The Third Plate espouses the philosophy of serving the whole farm (or sea, depending on geography), down to the weeds and bones, not necessarily with a meat or vegetable focus. Balance and context are key. Whether or not chefs have picked up a copy of Barber’s 450-page manifesto, the third plate has been making its way onto their menus.

“Many of the best chefs in the world—and especially New York—are turning away from large, center cuts of protein and the luxury ingredients of the past (foie gras, lobster),” says Barber, “and instead, celebrating ingredients that are specific to one place and time. I’d like to think we’re moving closer to a true Hudson Valley cuisine. That’s our challenge.” 

Kornack’s handsome cowpeas luxuriate in a fortified lobster stock (made from lobster exoskeletons) with an intense depth and funk. The salty caramel notes are reminiscent of fish sauce. The yarrow greens, which Kornack sources from a farmer friend out on Snug Harbor, Staten Island, are also known as carpenter’s weed or staunchweed, and add a bitter component to the dish.

“I’ve always arranged my menus around what’s in season,” Kornack says. “But when I work closely with farmers and foragers, as I do now, I’m able to highlight ingredients, not only the ones that are intentionally planted, but the ones that are wild or were once considered less desirable. This approach to sourcing ingredients has transformed the way I cook.”

Besides the idealism of the third plate, the philosophy also has a built in practicality that can affect a restaurant’s bottom line. “Serving the whole farm has dropped food cost for me,” says Kornack. “I’m more excited and more willing to spend money on an ingredient I’m less familiar with than one I am familiar with. The investment is greater than the price of the ingredient. I’m able to study the ingredient and better understand the regional wildlife, and support the farmers who dedicate themselves to bringing these ingredients to us.”

At Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns he’s using the ingredients of beets, scraps of pork and beef, and pig's blood to make beetfurters. “We grill them over charcoal made from carbonized pig bones,” he’s says, “and serve them on whole-wheat buns made from wheat we mill in our kitchen, bred by a wheat breeder for better flavor and nutrition. That’s a tasty Third Plate dish.” 

For 2014 Rising Star Chef Ian Boden, the third plate arrived at his restaurant in the form of ungainly okra and pruning detritus. “I got a couple pounds of okra from a farmer that were completely overgrown and was asked if I could do something with it,” he says. “We started messing around with pickling the seeds. The same sort of thing happened with the leaves. A farmer asked if I could do anything with the okra leaves they’d pruned. The first thought was to use them as a raw garnish. The flavor was spot on but the texture was pretty unpleasant. One of my cooks suggested that we fry them. They lost all of their slimy texture and tasted just like fried okra.”

At Boden’s restaurant The Shack in rural Staunton, Virginia, his adventures in okra culminated in a dish that exemplifies the third plate: blistered okra, pickled okra seeds, fried okra leaves, finger lime, and schmaltz aïoli—made with fat rendered from chicken skins. Fat that in many other kitchens would’ve ended up in the trim bin and, ultimately, the dumpster. “I never really think of it as a reflection of the ‘third plate,’” Boden says. “I always want to put out the best food I can, that represents me as a person and as a chef. If anything, it’s about the French chefs I worked with as a kid who’d go through the trash and yell at us for the shit we trashed during prep. They’d have us use scraps from the stockpot for staff meal. It’s also out of respect for what our farmers and producers do. They spend a lot more time and energy on growing and raising our products than we do cooking them. It’s more of a homage to the farmer than anything else.”

Even though product like pruned okra leaves are gratis, the budgetary savings are a moot point at The Shack. “For me and my price point,” says Boden, “it doesn’t really do much [for my bottom line]. Anytime I get ‘un-useable’ stuff for free or deeply discounted ‘seconds,’ I usually spend the money saved on something different, so it’s net zero.” For Boden, the benefit and reward is self expression. “This dish is a perfect meld of my Eastern European Jewish heritage, my French training, and my Southern home. It encapsulates who I am, where I’ve been, and where I am now.”

Along the lines of okra leaves, chicken fat, and staunchweed, New York City Chef Thomas Allan believes in showing “an appreciation for ingredients that are usually afterthoughts; taking a simple vegetable like cauliflower and making it feel as luxurious as foie gras or truffles,” he says. Allan does this at The Modern with crab carcasses. He cooks cauliflower in crab butter and garnishes it with almonds and tarragon. “We use a variety of crabs depending on the season: Blue crab in summer, King crab in winter. The technique of utilizing the shells and putting them into one of the most important parts of the dish just made sense, immediately,” says Allan. “We essentially rethought every aspect of this classic combination, but changed our approach to achieve the flavors we know and love, like infusing the crab shells into the butter and then using that butter to cook the cauliflower. It changes the flavor and texture of the cauliflower and brings the vegetable to an entire new level of quality and taste. The best techniques and recipes are things that are byproducts of ingredients.”

Allan sees the third plate mentality materialize in his kitchen in other forms as well. “We take the ends of the beef fat and render it to a golden oil. Then take the trimmings and hard rinds of Parmesan and infuse the two together. This leaves us with a very funky, umami beef fat that we use to break our beef sauce—all made from things that usually end up in the trash or compost. This allows us to achieve more from less. At the end of the day, restaurants are still businesses, and putting less in the garbage means putting more money back into your establishment.”

But it’s not about the money for Allan. “This dish is one of my favorites. Not only for the satisfaction of eating it, but for the production behind it. Teaching someone how to bring out the best in simple ingredients is one of the reasons why we love to work in the restaurant industry.”