Travis Weiss, executive chef at Mad Fox Brewery, said that he works the opposite way of a lot of other chefs when creating new dishes for the Falls Church restaurant. Whereas many chefs conceive a dish in their heads, then go fetch the ingredients needed for that dish, Weiss lets the ingredients inspire the recipes he creates, he said.
Another thing that sets Weiss’ creative process apart from other chefs, at least locally, is the ingredient he tries to center many of his dishes around: beer.
“One of my main ingredients comes from that room right there,” Weiss said, pointing to Mad Fox’s brew room. “And I try to use beer in as many of my dishes as possible. So when my dishes start to come to life or take shape, it’s based on what beers are coming out.
“For this time of year we’re doing an Irish stout called St. James Irish Stout and we’re doing an Irish red, and so I’m using those to cook with. The beer is my biggest influence.”
Mad Fox’s beer menu changes weekly, gradually marking the changing seasons, but Weiss, along with a few other restaurants in Falls Church, has seasonal menu changes coming up. The News-Press spoke to the executive chefs at three different restaurants in the city to see what goes into creating a new menu to help bring in a new season.
Bertrand Chemel, recently hired as the corporate chef at Pizzeria Orso and executive chef at Orso’s sister restaurant, 2941, said that he is focused on using local ingredients in the dishes he creates for both restaurants.
Right now, the restaurants he oversees are importing ingredients from the West Coast, but he said that he plans to visit the Falls Church farmers’ market when he gets back.
“I’m going to go the Falls Church market on Saturday and see what they have,” Chemel said.
“The idea is to feature new dishes from the farmers’ market every weekend. During the summer, spring and fall, we’ll go to the market every weekend and we’ll see what they have and then we’ll create a dish or two for the weekend featuring local ingredients.”
The idea of using locally- or regionally-sourced ingredients is nothing new. All of the chefs who spoke to the News-Press about their creative process said that they strive to use local ingredients. Chris Lefbom, owner of Dogwood Tavern, said that some of the ingredients used in the Virginia southern dishes at his restaurant are locally-sourced and others are imported.
But Mad Fox takes it a step further. According to Weiss, the restaurant makes nearly everything they serve from scratch, except for their bread, which they get from Lyon Bakery in Washington, D.C.
When it comes sourcing, Weiss listed a few regional distributors that Mad Fox gets their ingredients from.
He said they get their beef from 1855 and their eggs from from Saunder’s Eggs – both distributors based out of Pennsylvania. He said that he’s planning a pork belly dinner soon at the restaurant, and that the restaurant is going to get the pork from Polyface Farms in Swoope, Va.
“I try to stay as local as possible,” Weiss said. “Sometimes that’s hard, based on the weather and based on the season.”
Weather or Not
Because all of these chefs are trying to use local farmers for the ingredients in their menus, they are also dependent on the weather, which dictates what and when ingredients are available. For example, a lot of chefs, including Mad Fox’s Weiss, have been using ramps in dishes more frequently in recent years.
But the availability of ramps this year has been delayed because of the record-breaking low temperatures recently, the amount of snow this region has gotten and how long the winter has lasted. Weiss offered this problem as an example of how the weather impacts the roll out of a spring menu.
“Ramps are a big ingredient for the spring time,” Weiss said. “But because of the cold weather – usually ramps would be hitting right around now – they’re not really springing yet. They’ll probably be ready in about three or four weeks. Because it’s been so cold and because of the snow, they never had a chance to sprout. So it can definitely push your menu back.”
Chemel, who apprenticed as a chef in his native France, agreed that weather impacts when the availability of spring menu ingredients. “I’m waiting for the ramps to come, which should be pretty soon when it starts to get a little bit warmer,” he said.
Although Chemel said that he’s waiting on the ramps to be ready for harvest, 2941 rolled out its spring 2015 menu this week. The menu at Pizzeria Orso will be changed over the next few weeks, Chemel told the News-Press from Los Angeles, where he’s working on getting certified as a professional pizzaiolo.
“As the weather gives us the ingredients, we’ll start changing the menu,” Chemel said. Although late March marks the beginning of spring on the calendar every year, that doesn’t mean that “Mother Nature” will provide spring ingredients, he said.
“So we also don’t want to rush to use spring ingredients, when they’re not high quality product,” he said. “I mean here in California, it’s 85 to 95 degrees, but when I left [Falls Church] it was in the 30s, and we were still cleaning the snow away.”
The Creative Process
Much like Weiss, Will Sullivan, who was recently hired as the executive chef at Dogwood Tavern, as well as Lefbom’s three Arlington County restaurants, starts the menu creation process with ingredients.
“I start with ingredients and what I think would work together,” said Sullivan, a Falls Church native. “And then I put some stuff down on paper and get the protein and vegetables that I think work well together and obviously a sauce to tie all together.”
Like many creative processes, there’s an ethereal aspect to how Sullivan, and other chefs, create recipes. “I can’t exactly explain the full process,” Sullivan said.
“It kind of just, over the years, you know all the experience and all the food I’ve seen, I’ve just learned what works together and what doesn’t and come up with new flavor profiles that you think would be good and that the customers would enjoy and what would make diners happy in general.”
And the process at every restaurant is unique. For example, Weiss’ menu creation process at Mad Fox is beer-centric.
“Whereas the food is the star at a lot of different restaurants, our food is great, but the beer is the star,” Weiss said.
“I help support the beer and the beer supports me. But I use the beer as an ingredient, not just something that you pair along with a dish. I put beer in everything I make.”
This differs from the process at Dogwood Tavern, a restaurant that specializes in Virginia southern dishes. Lefbom said that they are currently looking to change the signature burger menu at Dogwood. The process goes as follows:
“We’ll tell Will that we want to change our signature burgers, for instance, and he’ll come up with a couple that are different than what we have and he makes them, lets us try them. And if we like them, we’ll add those to the menu.”
Sullivan, who’s in the process of rolling out menu changes at all of Lefbom’s restaurants, said that he plans to bring some contemporary Southern dishes to Dogwood’s menu.
Because he’s currently working on the menus at the Arlington restaurants – Ragtime in Courthouse, William Jeffrey’s Tavern on Columbia Pike and Rhodeside Grill just east of Courthouse – he’ll be working on rolling out a new menu at Dogwood in the late Spring/early Summer.
“Also, with the patio opening up, we’ll try to make things fresh and nice and change up a couple salads,” Sullivan said. “We also talked about doing some oyster roasts on the roof deck, coming up in the summer.”
He said he is planning on using ingredients like English peas, Spring onions and, perhaps, some different potatoes. Lefbom added that Dogwood, where they do two seasonal menu changes a year, will switch to some lighter offerings for the spring and summer time.
“For instance, we have chili on the menu right now,” Lefbom said. “We’ll probably take the chili off the menu and put on a lighter soup. If it’s 90 degrees out, chili doesn’t seem like the best option.”