Cooking with the grossest foods imaginable wasn’t the original premise of our long-running food feature Key Ingredient—that’s just how it worked out. The idea was that we’d ask a chef to create a dish with a certain ingredient, then that person would pick another ingredient and chef to pass on the challenge to, and it would go from there. And so it did, for 177 episodes, beginning in 2010 with Grant Achatz of Alinea and ending (next month) with Joe Frillman of Daisies. The series ran exponentially longer than either videographer Michael Gebert or I had expected, and after I left the Reader this summer, it seemed like it had reached a natural ending point.
I’ve been continually impressed with how much creativity and effort chefs put into developing dishes that will never end up on their menus—and just as impressed with how much they’ve enjoyed picking difficult ingredients for their friends and colleagues. Not all the ingredients have been weird or obscure, but with very few exceptions, every chef tried to make the job of their challengee as difficult as possible. So in honor of our many participants, here, at the close of Key Ingredient, are a few awards.
Chef with the most hatred for an ingredient
This was a tough category because a lot of chefs really, really hated the ingredients they were assigned to work with, but Michael Carlson was the most vocal about it. He compared Jeppson’s Malort to “bum feet and earwax” and suggested urinal cakes as an appropriate pairing. He wasn’t very happy with Paula Haney for giving him the ingredient, either: “I think it was a rough one. I think I’d rather her give me herpes or something.”
Most hands-off approach to a dish
Wolen had tried durian once before he was challenged with it for Key Ingredient, and he hated it so much he decided he’d never eat it again. “To me it tastes like the worst cheese that’s maybe two years overripe,” he said. And he stuck to his guns, coming up with a recipe for a durian custard that he never once tasted during the creation process (he made his sous chefs taste it instead).
Subido grew up in the Philippines eating balut—but she lost her taste for the fertilized duck eggs after trying one that was a little too mature, and at the time she was challenged, she hadn’t eaten it in 15 years. Still, she gamely came up with a recipe for breaded and fried balut (a variation on a Scotch egg), only to gag slightly when we made her try it on camera.
This is the question I got most about Key Ingredient, and it’s hard to answer because it’s so subjective—but for me, natto (fermented soybeans) was the ingredient I’ll never touch again. I just couldn’t get past its mucilaginousness. As Enyart said, “It’s a texture that won’t quite go away.”
Slimiest ingredient (tie)
“It just gets really slimy,” Diaz said. “And then the more you chew it, the slimier it becomes in your mouth, so it’s just like your mouth keeps filling up with slime.” He added later: “The more you touch it—it was just like slime.”
“You either love sea cucumber or you hate it,” Matthias Merges said during his shoot. He used a pair of chopsticks to poke at one, imported live from a Tokyo fish market, and it moved a little in response. When he pulled the chopsticks away, thick strings of brown slime came away with them. Merges compares their texture to chicken cartilage, crunchy and a little slimy, warning that it’s not for everyone. “It’s a very primitive kind of taste and texture,” he said.
Most spontaneous dish
When Iliana Regan participated in Key Ingredient she was running an underground supper club in her apartment, so her refrigerator was better stocked than most. Still, as far as I know she’s the only chef who did no planning of her dish before the day of the shoot (it turned out to be dried lime panna cotta with marble rye crunch). “I did not do any research. I did not look it up. I didn’t even think about it until today,” she said. “I was like, what am I going to make? So then I looked in my refrigerator and freezer and just pulled out some stuff and was like, yup, this is going to be it.”
Eels are typically sold live, and the ones Poli got for his challenge were particularly lively. One escaped its container and slithered to the floor, proving difficult to retrieve (the phrase “slippery as an eel” exists for a reason). Even after Poli killed one it kept squirming. “We had to hold it down while we took the bones out, and then after that it stopped moving,” he said. “And then when we were putting the skewers through, it was still twitching.” Poli did like the flavor but said he’d only cook with eel in the future if he could buy them filleted. “How much can you take of coming in every morning knowing you have to kill four or five eel?” he asked. “It would really weigh on a man’s soul, I think.”
The full package award
The world’s largest burrowing clam is notoriously phallic in appearance; Schor called it “probably the strangest animal that exists on the planet . . . the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, I swear to god.” She never revealed whether it was just a coincidence that she chose to challenge Lee Kuebler of Libertyville’s Milwalky Trace to create a dish with goat testicles.
Challenged to create a dish with black cardamom, Kim embraced the darkness, creating a seriously spooky dish just before Halloween. “I’m thinking it’s going to look kind of like a wicked, stark black landscape,” she said. “Like black hills of the cake, and the curly weeds of the carrots coming out, kind of like a dark forest. And then painted buttermilk puree on the bottom, because you need to balance those dark flavors with something light and acidic and kind of ghostly looking. . . . I was also thinking it’s perfect before Halloween. I want something creepy.”
Many of the dishes were beautifully presented, with swooshes and dots and artfully arranged garnishes. But it just doesn’t get better than a fried chicken foot sticking out of a hot dog. “They have this sort of human element because they have little fingernails on them, so they look like shriveled-up, deformed hands,” Sohn said. v