The Evolution of a Dish: Adrienne Cheatham's Uni Spoonbread
Chef Adrienne Cheatham made a name for herself at Le Bernardin and Marcus Samuelsson Group before pursuing private cheffing and personal pop ups in 2017, when she made it to the "Top Chef" season 15 finale with a dish she'd been envisioning for years. We asked her to trace her signature spoonbread back to inception and walk us through her quick creative process on the show.
Tell us how it started.
It came when I was working at Le Bernardin, that was when I had the original idea for it. The CDC of Le Bernardin at the time asked me to make spoonbread for family meal one day. It’s something that I’ve had a lot but most people there have not had it. I was taking a look at the textures and the custard-y-ness of it and at the time we had a dish on the menu that was like a chawan mushi and it had various types of seafood on top of it. I thought why can’t this traditional egg custard be swapped out for a Southern custard-y textured dish instead?
That texture of it just stuck in my mind.
I was on the station that did the chawan mushi so it’s something that I was prepping and making everyday and I was like this is so similar in texture and the uni goes so well with king crab, sweet shrimp, etc. on top of the chawan mushi. I thought this would be so good with that because you get a tiny bit more texture from the cornmeal when you use really fine cornmeal not the gritty, large kind. It was just like this texture would be so great with the seafood.
Why did you wait until "Top Chef"?
I wasn’t sure that the spoonbread would be the right fit for Le Bernardin. It was a little too fine dining for the style of Red Rooster. I knew it was something that I wanted to own. Once you put a dish on the menu at a restaurant, it’s that exec chef’s dish.
I’ve heard other chefs that I’ve worked with back pocket a couple of their best ideas here and there so when they open their own place, they've saved something. That way we haven’t given everything that we have to all these restaurants that we work for. Or you do them in different ways and then you change it up when you open your own place. It’s always a consideration unless it’s a restaurant that you’re going to stay at forever or for a long time. I was there for 8 years so I didn’t think I was going to leave. I wanted to be the person who held the consistency everyday so I didn’t think about myself leaving I just knew it wasn’t the perfect fit for the menu and we might as well stick with the chawan mushi.
It was more of a fit for the show because at that point I was starting to explore Southern dishes through the lens of fine dining so that was a perfect opportunity to do that dish and it was the first time I did it all together. I’d thought about it, mulled it over, edited the dish all in my mind but never actually executed it.
The dish: Uni Spoonbread with Buttermilk Dashi
Spoonbread is something traditional and you see a lot of preparations with uni and dashi gelee in fine dining restaurants so it was really cool to bring those fine dining components to such a traditional Southern dish.
It’s slightly complicated: It’s kind of like cornbread but it’s more of a custard. It’s like a cross between a custard and a souffle so it can be kind of tricky to execute depending on if you separate and beat the egg whites. It’s one of those dishes that’s very humble, and people associate and think Southern cuisine is all stews and long cooking things but there’s a lot of inherent technique that goes into Southern food. The technique for spoonbread is actually the same as a souffle, you can do it differently to simplify it and make it more foolproof, but the traditional way it’s done is just like a souffle with a base — instead of like a chocolate, broccoli or cheddar base, you’re using a base of essentially cornmeal cooked to fold in the egg whites and fortify it with the egg yolks to make the custard. It can be really tricky, you have to get it right and make sure you have the right leavening so it doesn’t collapse afterward.
Because I love it and because the texture is also very creamy. It goes really well with custardy dishes because it has such a similar quality to it in terms of texture and then you get to play with other textural components by the things that you add to it. The uni and the spoonbread have a very similar texture.
What's the technique for the dashi?
You make a traditional dashi and then after straining it from steeping, you let it reduce down a little bit. Sometimes, like for "Top Chef," I use the traditional dashi ingredients but instead of reducing it I add a little hon dashi, which is dashi granules that you can get at H Mart orJapanese specialty stores. It’s like an instant dashi so I use that to fortify the flavor, or depending on what I’m doing it for, I’ll reduce it to concentrate the dashi and then mount it with a little bit of buttermilk.
And for the sauce, first you have to sweat the shallots in garlic before building the dashi on top of that. So it’s not a traditional dashi in the way that it’s just the bonito and kombu, it does have other aromatics in it. I’ve done different dashi base sauces so I knew what would work and what wouldn’t work without having to go through the actual testing of it.
Do you have time to iterate on "Top Chef"?
On "Top Chef," you don’t have time to iterate those things, it was just writing it out in my notebook, each component, each step that needed to be executed and prepped.
I made it all live. I knew that once I had the spoonbread and the uni, it needed some acid. I didn’t get to iterate while I was on the show cooking, but I knew it needed acid while I was writing the dish out for the prep schedule. As I’m writing it out, I’m going through the flavors and textures in my mind and there was no acidic component. Buttermilk doesn’t bring a lot of acid to it. I decided to do a ponzu vinaigrette, something citrusy, a little bright to add that dimension of flavor that it really needs. The next component was caviar, and I had thought Iberico ham about several times. I knew that needed to be a component of it. Iberico ham brunois, lightly warm just to render the fat a little bit and then folded in with black pepper and thinly sliced chives. And then right before you assemble the dish, you fold in a little bit of caviar. That gives a little more texture also, brininess, unctuous fattiness from the Iberico, and the caviar brings the depth of flavor that it needs. Those are two of the unseen components that play a huge role in the dish.
I put the tuile on top that’ll give it that crunch and the other texture that it really needs to contrast with the creaminess. It needs something crunchy to really keep your mouth excited so I knew I was going to do the cornmeal tuile on top, but the ponzu is something that I added that I hadn’t really thought about doing before. In my mind, I was going to put the uni right on top of the spoonbread, but then after writing out the dish and drawing pictures, I knew there needed to be some acidic component.
Is that your process?
I’m very visual and tactile. I used to joke when I worked with Marcus Samuelsson, if I was doing an offsite or traveling with him for demos or TV shows, he’d ask if I had everything that we needed, and I’m like, 'Chef, my checklist has checklists.' I have to write everything out because that’s how you don’t miss something. I need to see each component of a dish written out.
If shallots are supposed to get sweated in butter and I have to plan on the butter — order butter and bring butter with me for this event — if that flavor is an integral component, you need to have thought through that.
I write out each literal component. I draw a picture of the dish and the main components then I write the other components and the prep list associated with those.
Has the dish evolved since the show?
The only thing I think I’ve done is play with the proportions, like instead of a whole tuile covering the entire dish, maybe doing a half of a tuile or cutting back the amount of sauce or making the sauce a little bit thicker so it has some more body to cling to everything a little bit better so it doesn’t pool at the bottom. When you scoop through the uni and the spoonbread, you get the ponzu and the caviar and Iberico. You get the sauce. It doesn’t just soak into the spoonbread and run off the spoon. It coats it a little bit. That’s the only thing and that was literally based on comments from Tom and Padma at the show. Tom said, "I'm surprised you haven’t done this before because this dish is like a signature dish. Nothing needs to be changed about it. It has all the components."
I don’t want to overthink a good thing and change it just for the sake of changing it. And there are always ways to improve things so I’m always on the lookout for that like, what’s going to be the thing that could really set this off? So I’ll play with it, but if it doesn’t make it better than I just keep it the way it is.
Sometimes chefs do that, we overthink things and we get tired of doing something the exact same way so we want to change it but that doesn’t necessarily mean the change is always the best thing for the dish.
How do you approach iterating?
I try to approach it like I’m experiencing it as a diner. As chefs, we look at stuff in a completely different way than a guest sitting at at able looks at it. Even the way that it’s walked to the table by a waiter from the way we plated it in the kitchen — a garnish might fly off, sauce might splash around. So many things happen when a dish is leaving the kitchen and going to the dining room that I try to set myself up for seeing all that and seeing how the changes come out.
I try to experience it like a diner eating it for the first time and wipe my mind clear of all the stuff that I’ve put into it in terms of prep and technique. Here’s a guest at the table, they don’t care about the technique. They might, but that’s pretty rare. What they really care about is: How does it taste, what are the textures, is it interesting? Is it delicious? So when I’m iterating I’m like, this is good, but what would really set it off? Or is there something setting it off that I need to amplify that’s already here? You always check through the things: Does it have texture, a balance between acid, sweetness, saltiness, umami? Are all those notes being hit and are they being hit at the level that they should? Do I need to intensify the flavor of this? Do I need to reduce this more? Do I need to sear this harder so it has a crust on it?
What do you look for when sourcing things like uni and caviar?
You’re always looking for freshness and quality. Depending on how you’re plating, you’re looking for uniformity and color so for this dish I definitely need uniform size and pieces of uni. For something like uni spoonbread, I’m looking for the top trays that they sell, or I’m looking for fresh uni from Hokkaido because of the size and the flavor and the texture are my favorite for this dish, but if I can find a good Maine uni, I’m looking for that, too. Uniformity in size and consistency in flavor are really, really important and of course freshness is number one always.
How has transitioning from restaurants to a private client affected sourcing ingredients like that?
In some ways it’s the same as in restaurants but in other ways it’s a little different. When my private client has large dinners, I can place the order with my normal purveyors that I used in restaurants. So the relationships that you have with your purveyors from restaurants is incredibly important. What I didn’t realize at first is I’m keeping these relationships thinking okay, he’s going to have a dinner for 25 people. On a regular Tuesday, I’m not going to buy 10 pounds of halibut, but if he’s having a big dinner with a lot of people, I can order that and justify that cost, which at a restaurant you can do everyday or every other day, but commercial purveyors have a minimum order that you’re not going to meet doing private work.
But if you have a good relationship, what I found out is that a lot of them sell to specialty markets. They may not sell everything they have that they bring to Le Bernardin, but there is a certain list of types of seafood that this market on the UES buys or truffles that this specialty grocery store buys during the season every year. So if you don’t meet the minimum order with your purveyor, they’ll tell you the retailer and they’ll make sure that that person sets it aside. So you develop the relationships with your purveyors and you also develop them doing private work with the buyers at the specialty grocery stores. You’re getting staples and basics at Whole Foods or good quality, niche, smaller grocery stores, but for the cool stuff that you want, you develop the relationship with the purchaser for produce or the purchaser for fish, and they’ll get you the special orders. You’re paying retail cost but you can get those ingredients that you normally can't get outside of a restaurant setting.
How do you stay inspired with a single client?
I got very lucky with my private client. He was a long-time regular at Le Bernardin. I know what he likes and am familiar with his preferences and preferred flavor profile, but he also likes to try new stuff all the time. He doesn’t want me to make the same things over and over. He’s like whatever you want to do: If there’s a piece of equipment you need to buy, if there’s a class you want to take, if there’s a restaurant you want to go to, do it, check it out. I’m very lucky I have a dining budget because that’s how you stay inspired and you see what’s going on in the industry, by going out to eat and checking out new restaurants.
So if he’s had a great meal at Brooklyn Fare, I have to be able to experience that so I can see what kind of techniques and what kind of things are happening so I can cook in that vein. If he says this coming Wednesday I’m having three people over for dinner and I want to do an eight-course tasting menu in a modern style like Brooklyn Fare, I have to be able to go eat at Brooklyn Fare so I know what he’s talking about. I’m not going to replicate the dishes, but I’m going to cook in that style.
I can stage at a restaurant if I want to see some new techniques and learn how to execute techniques that I’ve never worked with. There’s a lot of freedom in that way because I work Monday through Friday with my private client so if I want to stage at a restaurant on Saturday, I’m free. And he travels so if he’s going out of town I can do a R&D trip somewhere or stage at a restaurant, talk with the chefs, it’s really cool. I get a lot of opportunity for inspiration and time to research it.
Where have you staged?
Usually when I’m doing a pop up somewhere I’ll spend a day hanging out with the kitchen there seeing what they do, learning their dishes and their styles, learning new things from them. I staged at EMP a long time ago. I staged at Next in Chicago, Grant Achatz's restaurant. The chef at the time there, Jenner, invited me for a two-day stage. I helped with some prep but it was really just to like be in the kitchen. I got to do some cool stuff. He’s like have the menu first and then let me know specifically what techniques. I’m in the kitchen and when they’re firing the dishes before service, they’re firing one of everything so I was able to try it and pinpoint, like tomorrow I can dig in on this station that executed these dishes.
What was Blue Hill residency like?
That was the coolest thing in my career. That was an unparalleled experience. You think you’re going to do one thing but then you meet the staff, you walk the farm, you meet the farmers, all those things are so amazing. I’ve never had that experience working at restaurants in the city. Literally on a farm, I would start my day walking the field or checking out the greenhouse and it was really cool. The harmony between everything like the dishware and what it’s made of, not just like, 'Oh, I’m going to order this specialty bowl because I have a dish in mind that needs a cool shape or would be fun to do this.' No, it’s like, 'We’re doing a pork dish and we’re using plates that are made out of carbonized pork bones.' To get to that level is something that I never thought I would be able to experience. It really opened up my mind to a whole new way.
In restaurants, a lot of times they tell you to pull up and look at the bigger picture. Don’t just get so focused on your station or task at hand, and Blue Hill was one of those places where you’re literally bird’s eye view because they have such excellent staff to execute and collaborate with. So I’m thinking of a dish in one way and then talking with the CDC, sous chefs and line cooks and finding out what some of their favorite dishes on previous menus are. And I’m like, 'Oh, that would be a really cool technique to add to the green tomato dish. Instead of frying the green tomato, let’s slice them super thin on a deli slicer and lightly marinate them.'
Initially I was going to do a 1/2-inch thick green tomato with the center punched out like a thin doughnut, dusted in fine corn meal and given a quick quick shallow pan fry on two sides to get a little crust on it. And then we were going to arrange the dried tomatoes, raw marinated and pickled tomatoes, and strawberries on top of that doughnut with the sauce poured in the center. Then after hearing about that cool thinly sliced tomato, I’m like, 'That is a great way to start the menu.' Start it lighter and then build to more cooked and heavier preparations.
Everything about that was amazing. It really was the collaboration because even with pop ups, it’s usually me and my sous chef or a couple cooks executing but to have that many people focused on executing, you can really focus on developing and doing the iterations and progressing things and moving them forward. That was the coolest.
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