Awhile back, I was trying to set up a series of dinners featuring talented line cooks in St. Louis, but it kept falling through, so I gave up. Luckily, Ryan McDonald and Corey Smale of Good Fortune did not.
I had the pleasure of eating at the first Young Blood dinner, featuring chef Alex Herman (Louie, Pastaria, Porano, Niche), and I can honestly tell you that it was one of the best pop-up dinners I’ve been to. He and Ryan teamed up to create a “French as Shit” menu that was classic, modern, and totally out there all at once. Afterwards, I sat down with young Alex to talk about the meal.
How did you decide on French food?
I went to Ryan’s house to come up with a solid plan for what we were doing. I had writer’s block, a brain fart—I don’t know what we should do. At first I wanted to make it like Niche, but then I thought about Italian food, but then again, I cook Italian food all day. Ryan goes, “wouldn’t it be cool to just do French food?”
I was like, “yes, French as shit!”
You haven’t worked at a French restaurant before, have you?
I staged at Brasserie once…
I’ve never done French food. Even in culinary school, I made a paté once. I’d never done a lot of the stuff on the Young Blood menu. That’s the direction I took it: it was all stuff I wanted to learn how to do. I wanted to learn how to make a liver mousse, how to sear duck properly—all the French stuff Ryan knows and I don’t.
I figured that this dinner series would sort of be a test run for the restaurant you want to open in the future, but it sounds like you just picked a cuisine you knew nothing about. You took this dinner as a challenge.
I wanted to push the envelope for myself. [Louie’s chef] Sean Turner gave me a bunch of French cookbooks. I was really inspired inspired by Pierre Gagnaire. I love him; he’s so meticulous and detailed. With the French, there are no shortcuts.
“French as shit” doesn’t mean just French dishes. You do French as shit techniques. Like the leek fondant on the duck dish—you take leeks, cut them into little pieces, and then stand them all up in a little pot and sear the bottom, then flip them over one by one, and so on. That is French as shit.
So how far in advance did you figure out the menu?
Uh, some of the dishes were finalized five minutes before they were in front of the diners. Others were decided that first night, like the Egg Arpège. I messed up on that dish, too—we were going to do chicken jus ‘caviar’ but I messed up on the ratio of agar. Two hours before the dinner, I was freaking out. Ryan showed me a technique to create a chicken fat powder, so we did that instead.
Even worse…just before dinner, they had cleaned all the stemware. I set up the Robot Coupe near it to make the chicken powder, and after I finished it, everything was going great until I accidentally created a dust cloud of tapioca maltodextrin that landed all over me and the glasses. Ryan said, “hey, look at me” and took a photo which he titled “Welcome to Young Blood!” This was like 45 minutes before service, so we had to clean all the glasses again, but Ryan kept me calm-ish. He pulled me aside, handed me a shot of whiskey, and said, “we’re going to do this.”
Besides that disaster, how’d the dinner go?
I felt good about the menu. Ryan and I prepped together on most of the projects; he made a liver mousse and showed me how to do it. We seasoned the dishes together. We did most of the menu together and he really helped me understand the how and why.
Ryan really ran a lot of it; without him there, it would have been a lot more chaotic. He was like my cushion to fall back on, but it felt different for me too. I learned a lot about what I can do and can’t do. How I need to improve. It was eye opening. I had so many cooks helping that at one point I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Almost like a real executive chef.
What was your favorite dish of the night?
The Egg Arpège and the dessert.
That dessert was pretty wild.
Ryan said I needed to use offal in the meal, and he jokingly said I could do a liver ice cream—I was all in, though. I like to use savory components as dessert. Gerard Craft inspired me with a green tomato tart tatin he did. Ultimately, I decided to use both sweetbreads and liver. It was the first dish I knew was going to be really good. I knew it would work.
Who would you like to see featured in future Young Blood dinners?
My fiancée Morgan for sure! I think Tristan and Victoria here at Good Fortune would be great, so would Tim Tancock, Matt Macek, Jane Chatham, Brandon Panosh, Nick Wegman, Mike McManus—pretty much any of the young cooks at Vicia or Louie.
Bearnaise custard, chicken skin, consommé, sherry
Fat Cured Beets
Goat creme fraiche, MO caviar, chives
Brown butter rouge, fines herbes, parisienne gnocchi, squash
Chanterelles, nebrodini bianco, creamed corn, wild greens
Duck a l’orange
Breast, confit, leek fondant, potato, duck jus
Liver ice cream, black garlic, charred sweetbreads, blueberry granita