Veg Vanguard: Trevor Kunk, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room
How a chef who finds himself on the cutting edge of vegetable cookery again and again transforms with simple technique.
November 21, 2016
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In the spirit of vegetables embracing the spotlight, we’re speaking with chefs who have long endorsed their star power.
The last time we saw Trevor Kunk, he fed us a hot dog.
Only, it wasn’t a hot dog: it was a carrot, masquerading brilliantly as a hot dog. It was — dare we say — meaty. Smoky. More savory than a beef frank. This surprised none of the chefs who sat around the table, who understood it as a perfect example of the ways produce has been commanding menus of late.
At the time, Kunk headed up the kitchen at Napa Valley stalwart PRESS, a steakhouse serving vineyard-gazers passing through the bucolic town of St. Helena. This pocket of Northern California typically traffics in comfort, not experimentation — but PRESS enjoyed an exclusive partnership with Rudd Farms, a 13-acre plot on nearby Mount Veeder. Kunk, fresh off a stint at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill New York, decided to move the farm’s produce center stage.
“If you have access to a farm that's fully functioning, why not use it to its full extent?” Kunk said last week, stepping out of an elevator in New York, the city to which he has recently returned. This time, it’s as Executive Chef at The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, a gastropub from April Bloomfield, whose own cookbooks mirror the shift: where once there was a pig slung over her shoulder, a beet now commands the cover.
“There is always a space for vegetables,” he continued. “At Blue Hill, it was something that we constantly worked on. When I went to PRESS, it was definitely something that was needed. It was difficult for guests who didn't eat meat to have that same fantastic experience.”
Kunk saw the divide as a kind of challenge, a quest to both elevate expectations for the diner and give vegetables the reception they merited. He would win them over with technique, he decided, create more with less. Dishes became driven by the treatment of one ingredient as a whole, instead of by the sum of its parts. How would he cut it? Score it? Season it? Would he, perhaps, braise a carrot and then cool it to room temperature, then grill it like a sausage?
“When I was at Blue Hill I was very lucky to go through some test trials of what's called honeynut squash, which we were getting it from Cornell. Because it was still a trial, it had no name, so we had things like '898 Squash' which was the plot of land that it was being grown on. Having that in house and watching the breeder develop and tweak it as we went was very exciting.”
He might have traded California’s lackadaisical seasons for harsher Eastern climes, but with it comes a reliance on one of the strongest networks of farmer’s markets in the country. Four days a week, Kunk spends time at the Union Square Farmer’s Market searching for the next product to reimagine.
In fact, the same honeynut squash he helped usher into the mainstream at Blue Hill now features on The Breslin’s menu in a tribute to elote, the Mexican street corn currently enjoying the unimpeachable popularity it deserves. The squash, after being scored and seasoned in what Kunk calls “magic butter” (you’re going to want to write this down: butter, honey, brown sugar, winter spices, choice element of heat), is roasted and braised. Pumpkin seeds, cilantro, bitter greens, queso, and a lime pickle mayo finish it off. The final product, seen above, was intended as a new side dish but once it sat in front of its creators, they knew it had to be moved up.
“Elote is that perfect food,” he said, a little dreamily. “It's acidic, it's spicy, it's creamy. It's all great things wrapped up in one.”
Excitement around vegetables might feel like a movement in the eyes of the American palate because we’ve historically focused on meat and potatoes, but Kunk doesn't think it has to be that way. “I think chefs can be partially responsible for it. It takes the guests actually going to those restaurants showcasing this well, then making that choice for themselves.”