A line cook is rolling out fresh rigatoni. Bucatini is twirled with creamy sea urchin. It's dinner prep in the kitchen of All'Onda, a gorgeous restaurant in New York City, and everything seems so very . . . Italian.
But at a tiny station right next to the fryer, chef Chris Jaeckle is hunched over a big pot, stirring flecks of seafood, soppressata and olive oil into a rich, chunky condiment you'd be more likely to find at a dinky hole-in-the-wall Cantonese noodle shop.
Once dubbed the "caviar of the East," XO sauce is the creation of Hong Kong chefs in the 80s looking to make a condiment that had the same cache as flashy XO brandy (although there's no brandy in the sauce). What they came up with is a hot, oily mix of prized, pricey dried fish (shrimp! scallops! abalone!), rehydrated and tossed with sweet Chinese sausage, garlic, chiles and oil over high heat.
"What I love about XO sauce is the funky, seafood-y feel to it," Jaeckle says with a laugh. "I go down to Chinatown once a week to buy the dried shrimp and scallops, because I know if we dried them ourselves, we'd never get that same terroir—that dirty-water Chinatown authenticity."
Sawyer's affection, on the other hand, stems from a slight obsession with beef jerky. "I was doing a carbonara with beef jerky sofrito, and from there, it became a new love affair for XO."
The jerky takes the place of Chinese sausage in Sawyer's XO, which is made with abalone dried in-house, chiles, roasted garlic and a bit of vinegar. He drizzles the XO over scallops and oysters.
Jaeckle experimented with razor clams and soppressata before landing on the shrimp and scallop XO sauce (see the recipe) he uses at All'Onda.
At the restaurant, he uses the sauce on his hand-rolled agnolotti bundles, but this noodle shop standby would be at home with any grilled, white-flesh fish or mixed into a simple bowl of noodles.
"I kept thinking, 'How can I make something I love?'" Jaeckle says. "So, now I've got these two authentic things coming together—traditional Chinese dried fish and imported soppressata—and it's something that's us now."