With my recent interest in family history and subsequent travel to the Baltic republic of Lithuania, I’ve been lucky to both learn more about the traditional cuisine there, and to share that discovery with others. Just a few weeks ago, at the request of the Lithuanian Embassy in the U.S., I was offered an opportunity to flex my culinary muscles in new ways by preparing multi-course dinners for two events in Philadelphia marking Lithuania’s current presidency of the European Union.
The first evening was hosted by Top Chef alum Kevin Sbraga at his eponymous restaurant, where I took over the kitchen for the day to execute a progression of six courses. I had a blast working with Chef Sbraga’s team—which included a former ICE student! Among the 50-plus guests who attended the event were a handful of dignitaries, including the Lithuanian ambassador and his staff, as well as the Minister of Culture and the director of the modern art museum in Vilnius. As a pastry chef, I was a little concerned not only with my savory skills, but I was also a bit nervous serving my interpretations of traditional dishes to the natives. Thanks, of course, to the team at Sbraga, the menu was a hit!
I began the tasting menu with my version of borscht, the classic beet soup usually served cold, but occasionally as a hot dish as well. I slightly deconstructed the original to highlight the different textures of its ingredients, all arranged in a small glass over a beet panna cotta. Next I tackled herring, a staple all over the Baltic region, and paired the fish with pickled carrot and parsnip, warm potato, and charred pearl onions. A huge success was my version of cepeliniai – or ‘zeppelin’ – a potato dumpling stuffed with ground pork; usually a quite heavy dish served in large portions, I lightened it slightly in order to make room for the remaining courses!
After a main course of duck—cooked sous vide and served with components inspired Lithuania’s diverse agricultural bounty—came two desserts. I took advantage of the season to create a fried poppy seed beignet paired with cranberry, and an apple confit finished with an ice cream made from Lithuanian beer.
The second night in Philadelphia was a reprise of that menu but for a much smaller crowd at COOK, a great little cooking school just off Rittenhouse Square. Similar to the format of the professional development classes I teach at ICE, an intimate group of twelve guests were seated at a counter surrounding a state-of-the-art kitchen where I demonstrated a detailed preparation of each dish. I love this format, because it offers casual two-way dialog and a chance to discuss the inspiration behind the menu in depth.
Taking on this challenge was rewarding in the sense that I met a lot of great people, but it also provided an opportunity to expand my own culinary knowledge and skill set while—hopefully—introducing a new style of cuisine to those who attended. The next chapter in this journey will take place in February, when I’ll be traveling back to Lithuania (as well as neighboring Latvia and Estonia) to meet with chefs there and to conduct a series of demonstrations, this time at the invitation of the American Embassy in Vilnius. I look forward to sharing that experience as well!