[DOUBLE VISION]: a chef/bartender combo, highlighting each others’ favorite dishes, drinks, pairings and stories from behind the scenes.
Today we’re at Saison - Adam Hall in the kitchen, Chris Elford behind the bar.
Adam drinks: A shot of Fernet. It’s my reward after a long shift.
Chris eats: About three nights a week, I eat the sirloin burger medium rare, with goat cheese. Originally it was going to be a blend of meats, but they sent us a bunch of sirloin, so we tried it out. It’s super rich and amazing.
Adam’s favorite pairing: I don’t have a specific favorite pairing - one of my favorite things to cook at the moment, for this season, is rundown. I like pairings, but it’s really about what you enjoy. As long as you like the food and drink you’re consuming, that’s a good enough pairing for me.
Chris’ favorite pairing: from the beverage end, a lot of people are looking to have drinks and dinner, and I’m very conscious of the idea of bitterness waking your palate up. It’s not exactly a pairing, but I always suggest the hopped gin and tonic – we make the tonic, and each batch is made with a different hop varietal. There aren’t a lot of people who know about pairing food and cocktails, so sometimes you have to sneak it by them a bit.
(Hopped G&T with homemade hopped tonic, Pisco Sour with bitters stencil, Mezcal Mule.)
[B+B]: Adam, any inspirations you’ve taken from the bar?
Adam: For summer, the bar said they’re going to use a ton of mint – so I said, we are too! We put mint into the rub for the chicken, a couple sauces, a salad…
[B+B]: Chris, same question, inspiration from the kitchen? I remember the sweet potato milk drink that came from wanting to use the liquid that the sweet potatoes were cooked in.
Chris: Oh, yeah, the sweet potato milk drink was great, that was on the winter menu. On spring menu are some Latin American ingredients that I wasn’t familiar with – fresno chile peppers were something I hadn’t worked with. It’s in lots of food here, like the hot sauce. It has a really good flavor. The first thing I thought when I tasted our hot sauce was that it would go well with bourbon, it’s sweet and spicy. Cooking the fresno chiles down with honey and water and making a spiced drink called When Kentucky Burns – that’s something I never would have done otherwise, I would have used a more familiar pepper.
[B+B]: What’s your vision for the dining /drinking experience at Saison?
Adam: Not being pretentious – we want people of all sizes and shapes to come in and enjoy themselves. As long as you’re wearing shoes and shirt, you’re good.
(Oxtail sopes. Look at that pickled onion, levitating there like an angel’s halo.)
Chris: I think one of our big focuses is on paying attention to every little detail without drawing attention to it. Just doing it. We don’t want to be like, “Look what we did!” We try to give people the best experience, but we’re kind of shy about it. And then we have people apologize to us when they just want a shot and a beer. That’s okay! I’m happy! Same with the food - no need to apologize because you’re ‘just ordering a hamburger’. There’s nothing boring about this hamburger, you’re going to love it!
[B+B]: Talk a little bit about bar takeovers and guest bartending.
Chris: The idea behind guest bartending to me is synergy and community. First, for the guest, it gives them a new experience – every bartender has a different provenance, a different style. It gives the guest something to be excited about. Second, for the bartender, it allows you to go behind someone else’s bar and see how it’s set up – it sounds simple, but I’ve been behind 15 bars and learned something every time. The third thing, especially in a small market like Richmond, is that people need to see that bars who are doing craft cocktails aren’t in competition, they’re working towards the same goal. When I worked at Capital Ale House, I remember everyone who came in would ask for some kind of domestic light beer. And my struggle was to try to get them to order a craft beer, but that’s not an issue any more. That tide rose – a lot of people got excited. Although in Richmond, craft cocktails are probably about 15 yrs behind craft beer in public acceptance. But that’s what guest bartending is about, pushing forward. We don’t have any guests coming any time soon, but I’m going to a bar in Seattle next week and doing a bunch of Saison drinks. That kind of thing is important for Richmond – exporting a product. One thing that will help us realize that we’ve doing something well is exporting it somewhere else.
[B+B]: Recommendations that might make our lives a little more interesting?
Chris: Bitterness. For drinking, the national palate is turning away from sweetness. With beer, people are drinking IPAs. You also see it with Amaro, or Campari. It’s refreshing, it resets and cleanses the palate. It’s interesting and complex, something to be savored. You can’t just chug down a bitter drink. I’d say the best way to get into bitter ingredients is to pick up Bitters, the book by Brad Thomas Parsons; he won a James Beard award last year for it. It tells you how to make your own bitters and what to do with them.
Adam: Go to farmers’ markets, pick up things you’ve never seen and play with them. It’s just food. Supporting local producers helps make better food available for people and better lives for the farmers who’re growing it. The farmers we work with are really cool people; it’s nice having that relationship. They’ll tell you when something’s coming in that they think you’ll really like.
(An absolutely perfect steak.)
[B+B]: Last thoughts?
Chris: I think the coolest thing, from the bar side, about Richmond drinkers so far is that our business is 50% rare, nerdy craft beer and 50% craft cocktails, and the groups those two things draw mesh really well together. The type of person who enjoys craft drinks is interested in travel, people, culture. It’s a pleasure listening to those conversations.
Adam: It’s also really awesome to get off work and go ten steps to your own bar. I don’t need to go anywhere else.