Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Root of Thanksgiving

Phillip Lopez of Root plating his version of Thanksgiving dinner. 

When it opened in 2011, Root became the talk of New Orleans. Reactions were mixed, but mainly positive. The negative views mostly centered on something to the effect of "Are they cooking or performing science experiments?" Originally, I found myself in the confused side of the equation. It wasn't Root's fault. We'd just returned from a week long sojourn through Barcelona, the land of milk and honey foams. Nothing was matching the cooking, techniques, and flavors we'd encountered in Catalonia.

Two years in, and Root is in my Top Five fine dining restaurants in the city. However, it isn't because of anything they do with immersion circulators or dehydrators. Cooking and the military have always been two areas where technology has seemingly huge impacts, but rarely noticeable differences. Sure, it may be a fighter jet or a drone dropping a bomb instead of a platoon of soldiers in a trench lobbing grenades, but warfare is still warfare. Similarly, cooking is still cooking and the cooking at Root is some of the most fundamentally sound in the city. 

Consider Chef Phillip Lopez's charcuterie selections which resurrect old French classics like ballotines and rillettes with the flavors of Morocco. Or the way he combines fiercely cooked and pickled vegetables into a salad that is neither light nor heavy. His chicken wings arrive with a sweet tea brine and miniature biscuits perfumed with a miso butterscotch and lathered with sweet potato sorghum butter in a sublime example of the interplay between salty and sweet. I could go on about his duck heart salad, or the marrow bones, or the desserts, but I'll stop there. Service is polished and ruthlessly efficient like the pit crew of a NASCAR team. An excellent wine and spirits list is overseen by Max Ortiz, who co-owns the joint with Lopez. 

Lopez began his food education in New Orleans as the youngest in a large family. His dad was in the military and at age six he found himself living in Germany, traveling on the weekends with his mom to explore and eat his way around Europe. His family moved back to Virginia as he approached his teenage years. Lopez wanted a bike. His dad told him get a job. He started washing dishes and hasn't left the kitchen. In February of 2004, his mentor suggested he go cook in New Orleans for John Besh. After his stage ended, he and his fellow stagiares were leaving the kitchen when a sous pulled him aside and said, "When can you start?"

Lopez started at August on the garde manger station. He fell in love with a fellow cook. Then Katrina hit. He ended up in Houston, San Antonio, and DC, where he got a job at Michel Richard's Citronelle as a pastry chef. After a few weeks, Richard told him, "I could see you leading this kitchen one day." As flattering as it was, his girlfriend was in New York working at DB Bistro. And so, he packed up and moved to New York, getting an AM sous chef position at Gramercy Tavern. Things were going well, FEMA money was used to buy the girlfriend presents, and opportunities abounded. 

"Right after Christmas, my girlfriend broke up with me. I was all alone in New York City and I wanted to get get out of there. I picked up the phone and called the one person I knew would answer. And at two  in the morning John (Besh) answered. In a few hours, I had all of my worldly possessions packed into a Volkswagen Golf. I drove 22 hours straight to a job with John," Lopez says. 

Lopez soon became Besh's "bulldog" and was tasked with running Besh's offsite cooking camps that were feeding first responders. He'd go on to help reopen Besh Steakhouse, build the farm at La Provence, open Luke, and develop the concept at American Sector. While working for Besh he was able to travel to France, but Spain held his attention. "I got chosen to go to to Barcelona and learn the techniques of so called modern cuisine in an immersion program with the staff of El Bulli. I fly over there, show up, and it turns out the class had been canceled due to the recession," said Lopez. 

El Bulli had closed for the 2007 season. Perhaps they felt pity or astonishment that this American had showed up regardless, but Juli Solier, Albert Adria, and other aide de camps of Ferran Adria found work for him anyway. Lopez helped pack up the restaurant in Roses and set up the workshop in Barcelona. Under their tutelage, Lopez learned the most important lesson in his culinary life. "They took out a lobster, a truffle, and a peach and set it on the counter. They asked me to rank the ingredients. So I put the lobster, then the truffle, then the peach. They said, 'no.' So I put truffle, lobster, and peach. 'No,'" says Lopez. 

The chefs then moved the ingredients into order: the peach, the lobster, and the truffle were all ranked the same. The lesson was to forget about the price of the ingredient. "The goal of cooking is to take the peach and make it just as valuable as a lobster or a truffle" says Lopez,.  

After working together at Restaurant August and Rambla, Lopez and Ortiz opened Root on November 11, 2011. The fury of opening a restaurant and the relentless pace of the first weeks found them exhausted come Thanksgiving 2011. They closed for the day, but invited their families to the restaurant for a Thanksgiving feast. "Growing up, Thanksgiving was always a big thing no matter where we were all living. My siblings and I would play football in the yard and dad would smoke cigars on the back porch after the meal," says Lopez. 

I ask Lopez to create his version of a Thanksgiving meal and in it you can see many of the elements of his culinary odyssey. There is a straightforward roulade - a boned out turkey stuffed with black truffles, rolled and poached, and then wrapped in turkey skin. It sits next to f a cornbread puree, a contemporary compromise between stuffing and mashed potatoes. The flavors of apple pie are reimagined as a broth for preserved cranberries. While Brussels sprouts get charred and caramelized, their heady aroma softening and turning sweet. A smoked duck carcass and that quintessential southern breakfast sauce, red eye gravy, mingle with fantastic results. Smoked pecans and mustard greens are ground into a pesto, proving the old adage that you should always eat your vegetables. The whole dish is topped with basil buds, wild dill, petit mustard greens, a drizzle of Peruvian olive oil, and shaved truffle. 

In case you were wondering, it was delicious. This year at Thanksgiving, Root will once again close. Lopez and Ortiz will invite over their friends and family. They will cook a few turkeys ("one is always vanilla brined and roasted, one fried," says Lopez), pour some wines, and relish a day with loved ones. "We chose the name Root, because it means inception or beginning," says Lopez. 

See also: Thanksgiving