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 series Cover Dishes, we talk to chefs about the dishes they've covered, what makes the original so compelling and how they put their own spin on it.
Erik Niel, the chef and owner of Easy Bistro in Chattanooga, Tennessee, discovered the wonders of strawberry shortcake when he was a little boy growing up in Mandeville, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans—not far from where the legendary Commander's Palace serves up one of the great, pure expressions of the dish.
But that's not where Niel first tasted strawberry shortcake. Rather, it was at the annual Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula, a tiny town north of Lake Pontchartrain. "I was only five or six, and I remember asking my mom if we could go back the next day—can we go get that again?" he says.
"I believe they grow some of the best strawberries in the United States [in Ponchatoula]," Commander's Palace's executive chef, Tory McPhail, says. The dish at Commander's is simplicity personified—those local strawberries are macerated with sugar and spooned, along with a generous helping of chantilly cream, into split, just-baked biscuits.
It looms as big in the hearts of Commander's regulars as the legendary turtle soup; for some, even larger. McPhail says, "We'll have people call for reservations, and before they give their name, they'll ask if we have the strawberry shortcake on the menu. And if we have to say, 'No, sorry, strawberry season is still a couple more weeks away,' they'll say, 'OK, well, we'll call back when they're ready.'"
"Commander's is such a large force," Niel says, that "if you had anything to do with Louisiana and food, it permeated everything and everywhere." And so, when Niel opened Easy Bistro in 2008, he felt the force and found himself working from the Commander's Palace cookbook—literally. "Our first run with this was doing just the sweet biscuits from Commander's, but over the years, we tweaked it."
One of Niel's key adaptations—one that can prove useful in countless ways—is adding a dash of rosewater to the macerating strawberries. Rose is such a complementary flavor that it can redeem even what Niel calls "government strawberries," those less-than-perfect specimens that populate grocery stores rather than farmstand shelves.
The biscuits, too, evolved over time, with the addition of dark chocolate chips and buttermilk, which help offset the sweet-tart strawberries (see the recipe).
The dish is on its way to becoming as loved in Chattanooga as the original is in New Orleans. As Niel puts it, "It seems to have the right amount of whimsy, while paying homage to where it came from."
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