If it’s not in season, it’s not on Aksel Theilkuhl’s menu.
The 30-year-old executive chef of Washington Market Tavern (41 Murray St.), which opens tonight, goes by an “extremely seasonal” ethos for his American menu. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Florida sun, Theilkuhl came by the farm-to-table philosophy like many other chefs – by working in a small Brooklyn kitchen – and built his vendor relationships through farmers markets.
Shareable plates and updated tavern classics will bear a sophisticated touch — the product of following Laurent Tourondel through the kitchens of BLT as it expanded on the East Coast and Chicago, learning the techniques of French cooking along the way.
We chatted with Theilkuhl to find out what he has in store for Tribeca.
Always changing: “[The menu will] have four major transitions, but even in-between that there’ll be a few dishes that change throughout the weeks and maybe even every couple of days. Maybe for two or three weeks we might have this particular vegetable available to us from whichever farm, and then they might not have it anymore. Then they might approach us with something new, and then we’ll make adjustments to the menu based on that.”
Keep it simple: “If we’re gonna poach a carrot, [the staff] spend an entire day just talking about the correct way to do it to get that perfect — carrot’s cooked all the way through, we’ve allowed all the sugars to come out so it can be at its optimum flavor. I think that a lot of chefs go wrong sometimes because they tend to overcloud some of their dishes and their food instead of focusing on cooking the product right.”
Cooking with a theme: “We’re getting beautiful spring carrots from Blooming Hill Farm. We’re doing an entire dish driven just on carrots, then the carrots are finding their way into a few other dishes — a halibut dish, even to make our stock. We definitely use a lot of product in as many places as we can.”
Learning in the House of Mouse: “I was pretty much still technically in culinary school. The chef that worked [at California Grill], he was very market-driven and he kinda started to show me what the importance is of sourcing; that at the end of the day what we do is a craft and an art, but it all starts with the product. So that’s what really started to stem the mentality of, ‘We’re not changing the world, we’re just taking a beautiful product and putting it on display.’ ”
Summer lovin’: “Morel mushrooms are like the pride and joy for me for the summer and spring, a big highlight on our menu. We actually have an entire dish just based on morels. Probably one of my favorite ingredients in general, as well as spring garlic, fava beans and all the shell beans.”
Don’t miss the cauliflower popcorn: “If you can think of a chicharron, it has the same texture. It’s very light and airy but it’s super crispy; basically it’s a process using tapioca starch. We take raw cauliflower and tapioca starch and then in a process of hydrating then dehydrating we create this sheet we are able to fry and it puffs up. Then we take more cauliflower and we incorporate it with butter and some cream to create this very smooth dipping butter for it.”
When he dines out: “I think The NoMad is one of the better restaurants. I’m a big fan of Daniel Humm so if I can have the time and the money, a dinner at Eleven Madison Park. We recently went with the owner Eric Schwimmer and some of the team here to Paul Liebrandt’s new restaurant out in Brooklyn, The Elm. We had a good experience there.”