Just like musicians do covers of a favorite song, chefs occasionally take a little more than just inspiration from the cooking of a colleague and make what amounts to a "cover" version of a favorite dish.
In our new series "Cover Dishes," we'll be talking to chefs about the dishes they've covered, what made the original so compelling and how they put their own spin on it.
Chris Shepherd, the James Beard award-winning chef and co-owner of Houston restaurant Underbelly, is not the least bit shy about giving credit to those who've influenced him. The walls of his restaurant are lined with portraits of his suppliers; the folder in which diners receive their checks is a catalog of other Houston restaurants he loves.
Soon, though, Shepherd will use the menu at Underbelly's wine bar to make the objects of his affection crystal clear. Starting October 16, he'll offer cover versions of some of his favorite dishes from around the country, including interpretations of the poutine from Hog & Hominy in Memphis, Sean Brock's Nashville Hot Chicken, and the fried-pork tamales with comeback sauce served at John Currence's City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Highlighting the provenance of each dish, Shepherd says, gives the crew at Underbelly a way of saying to customers, "This is something that we like to eat, and we thought you might like to try it as well."
"It has to show respect to the original dish. We don't want to bastardize anything," explains Shepherd, adding that his plan was met with enthusiasm when it was presented to each of the chefs whose dishes would be covered.
Shepherd loved the smoked tuna dip at Ryan Prewitt, Stephen Stryjewski and Donald Link's restaurant, Pêche, in New Orleans enough to give its own slot on the menu. "We did three days in New Orleans not long ago and we went [to Pêche] every day," says Shepherd. "The food is incredible, and it's easy to eat there, but more than anything it's honest food."
Oddly, it was Prewitt's decision to include workaday Saltines on the side that most impressed Shepherd. "You sit back as a chef and start racking your brain, thinking, We can make lavash, or maybe our own version of Ritz crackers. But Prewitt said no to all that and consciously decided, 'We have to put Saltines on it. There's no other way.' It's what makes that dish perfect. That takes balls."
Shepherd's version (see the recipe) stays close to the original. While Prewitt uses smoked tuna, Shepherd goes for snapper, or golden tile, mostly because that's what his suppliers bring in. For a little heat, Shepherd opts for Korean chile flakes, an appropriate choice given the Houston-global point of view he brings to his cooking at Underbelly.
Some things, however, won't be touched: There will still be Saltines on the side.
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