Photo by Jay Paul
Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, with Dallas Miller of The Daily Kitchen & Bar
As executive chef at The Daily Kitchen & Bar, Dallas Miller spends five days a week cooking the restaurant’s signature menu of health-conscious, environmentally friendly fare. He somehow manages to make “diet food” — whether paleo, gluten-free or simply organic — taste delicious, but he’ll be the first to admit that his personal and professional cooking preferences don’t always align. “I don’t eat like that,” he says. “I learned to cook in the French style. I’m all about cream and butter in my home cooking.”
Like many hard-working chefs, Miller’s biggest challenge is that most markets are closed both before and after his long shifts at the restaurant. And while he likes to use his days off to cook at home or taste what other local chefs are cooking up in their kitchens, he also spends them shopping for top-notch ingredients.
“I’m very list-oriented in my professional life, so when I’m not at work, I just go with the flow,” he says. Meaning that when he goes to Ellwood Thompson’s or a local butcher, he rarely has an idea of what he’s looking for.
“Typically, my first stop is Yellow Umbrella or Belmont Butchery for a protein— red meat or pork, whatever they’ve got going on there that looks really good,” he says. “For something simple like a steak, I might decide to make some au gratin potatoes with spinach from my backyard garden. I keep it simple.”
As for staples, he’s always sure to stock his pantry with his go-to ingredients: Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice, good Greek olive oil from Nick’s International Foods, European butter, and flour for making a weekly batch of homemade pasta. Besides that, it just depends which items speak to him in the market on any given day.
“I think shopping is based mostly on your skill level as a cook,” he says. “I see the ingredients, and I automatically start thinking of techniques and how I want to use them. Learning the basics of cooking will help shoppers in general.”
Tan A Supermarket, with the chefs of Fat Dragon, Foo Dog and Wild Ginger
The first thing Fat Dragon chef Jin Zhao grabs when he walks into Tan A Supermarket is a hefty bag of Thai chilies. The Chinese-born chef speaks very little English, but he smiles and says, “I like hot,” before reaching over to grab an extra bag.
While most of Fat Dragon’s food comes from distributors, Tan A is Zhao’s go-to destination when he needs to fill in the blanks — or when he’s planning something special for a staff meal. “I like making things that you can’t get anywhere else,” Zhao says through a translator. “I think about what other people can’t do, and I’ll make something special. I want feedback, but I can’t speak to the guests, so I depend on the staff to test new recipes.”
Employee meals allow Zhao to experiment with authentic Chinese ingredients and recipes that may or may not make it onto the regular menu — think crispy fried chicken feet and spicy tripe soup.
He tends to stick to the outer aisles of the store, stocking up on hard-to-find Asian produce like long beans and giant mushrooms, be they for himself or for the restaurant.
Chef Ken Liew of sister restaurants Foo Dog and Wild Ginger does the same, although he’s more likely to frequent the meat department for thick slabs of pork belly for bao sliders. He says he may pick up a whole fish to cook at home, depending on its freshness — he advises shoppers to check the clarity of its eyes.
Liew visits Tan A two or three times a week to shop for his favorite ingredients — like a curry sauce from his hometown of Penang, Malaysia — as well as new ones. “I like to see new products,” he says. “We’ll test it ourselves first to see if it’s good and then share it with our guests.”
Photo by Ash Daniel
St. Stephen’s Farmers Market with Mike Yavorsky of Belmont Food Shop
Mike Yavorsky of Belmont Food Shop hates spending money. “It’s not in my nature. I missed that spending gene,” the restaurant’s chef-owner says. “I guess I’m not American.”
But in the restaurant industry, you’ve got to spend money to make money — so Yavorsky makes a point of spending his money consciously. “We want to know where our money goes,” he says. “We try to frequent places that support the local community. How you spend your money dictates how you want your community to be in the next five to 10 years.”
That’s why the chef shops at local farmers markets and smaller, locally owned grocers whenever possible — even if it costs a bit more. It’s an approach that meshes well with his back-to-basics approach to cooking.
His favorite place to shop is the Farmers Market at St. Stephen’s, because he can pick out each item individually (below, right), knowing it just came out of the dirt a few days or even hours ago. “I tend to buy smaller things, like baby carrots and leeks,” he says. “I think baby vegetables look good on a plate. It’s not something we manipulate or alter in any way — we just cook it and present it. It helps me that I know the end result I’m looking for.” As the only person working in the kitchen most nights, he can artfully plan how each ingredient he picks out will look on a diner’s plate.
Things get challenging for Yavorsky in the winter months as local markets shut down for the season, but he embraces the shift. “You just have to be a lot more creative with what you’re purchasing,” he says. “I use the seasons to ground me and give me some parameters.”