A Tarantino film and alien-like sea creatures inspire Veritas chefs Josh Dalton, Aaron Hager and Colt Stover to create new plates
Sometimes French fries are just French fries. But often, there's a story behind a menu item that reveals something about the chef who created the dish. With that in mind, we decided to ask four local chefs — Matthew Heaggans at The Rossi, Sangeeta Lakhani at The Table, Carnell Willoughby at Willowbeez Soulveg and Josh Dalton at Veritas Tavern — about their creative processes and the inspirations behind some menu items. In so doing, we learned that a culinary muse can take the form of a Tarantino movie, a bottle of plum vinegar or an aunt's cabbage recipe.
So here's an inside look into the minds and test kitchens of four local chefs, beginning with Veritas chef/owner Josh Dalton, who, on a Tuesday afternoon in early March, sits at a high, small table next to fellow chefs Aaron Hager and Colt Stover in the front room of his tiny Delaware restaurant. Cookbooks and laptops clutter the tabletop as Dalton peruses a weekly emailed list of product offerings from supplier Mikuni Wild Harvest in Seattle.
Veritas, consistently named one of the top restaurants in Central Ohio since it opened in 2012, is known for its artfully plated, inventive dishes that make for an unparalleled dining experience. The care that goes into the presentation and composition of each plate at Veritas makes it so that you almost feel bad eating it, like a toddler scribbling on an artist's just-completed canvas. Any guilt is assuaged, however, once you realize the food is as delicious as it is beautiful.
At Veritas, you'll find the usual hallmarks of modern American cuisine, but a steak is never just a steak. Recently, the menu featured Japanese wagyu beef of the highest grade (A5), which Veritas gets for $100 a pound (USDA prime New York strip, Dalton said, goes for about $14 per pound), served with chanterelle mushrooms and black garlic. Veritas also used the wagyu in its “A5 Butter,” made from the beef's rendered fat and served with potato bread.
Dalton changes the menu at his whim, and his whim is fast and furious. In conversation, Dalton never stays on one subject for long.
“He'll be in the middle of a sentence — ‘You guys need to do…' — and he won't even say ‘this,'” said Hager, 25. “He'll just trail off, and he's out the door.”
Packages arrive constantly at Veritas and 1808 American Bistro, the more traditional restaurant next door that Dalton opened in 2009. Left alone with his computer, some whiskey and Amazon Prime, Dalton will go on shopping sprees. On a recent night, he ordered a bulletproof backpack, a towel warmer, a fish tank and shoes.
“I'm notorious for buying shit when I'm drunk,” said Dalton, 34. “No one gets more excited about packages than me.” Sure enough, while sitting in the dining area, a package arrives with two fish aged and dried using a Japanese method that transforms the fish into something resembling petrified wood, which is then grated to make Katsuobushi (Dalton ordered a grater, too). The housemade flakes become umami zest.
“It's a fun toy to have,” Dalton said. “We may use it for the barnacles.”
Gooseneck barnacles are one of the proposed additions to a new Veritas tasting menu, which usually feature eight to 12 courses and range in price from week to week.
“Business-wise, it doesn't always make sense as far as what we order,” Dalton said. “We don't talk about food cost very often here. I feel like it's counterproductive to creativity. If you tell [Stover and Hager] to stay within a certain guideline, then at some point you stop them from using the product. And I'd rather come up with a dish, figure out how much it is, then say, ‘All right, well, we have to charge $105 this time or $90 this time or $75 this time,' depending on the ingredients, rather than saying, ‘This is your budget and you have to stay in here.'”
The barnacles are $30 a pound from Mikuni, and they look utterly bizarre — like a cluster of dinosaur toes. Inside each toe-like barnacle is a briny piece of meat that Dalton alternately describes as looking like “an elephant snout” and “a really strange alien penis.”
“They're scary looking, but they actually taste like a really fresh seawater clam,” Dalton said. “I really wanna show the uniqueness and craziness of them, so as we clean them we'll probably save the shells and put them in a bed of seaweed and shells so they see this bowl of sea things, and then once you taste the pasta and taste the barnacle water... . It's just a unique product that I don't think anyone in Central Ohio is bringing in. Or is even willing to bring in.”
Talk turns to another idea Dalton is excited about. “For some reason I was watching ‘Inglourious Basterds,'” Dalton said, referring to the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film about fictional plots to assassinate Nazi leaders. “There's that scene where they eat that strudel, and I don't know why — I think it's … the way they present it — but I would love to do our style of a strudel.”
Dalton finds the scene on YouTube, and the three chefs watch as a Nazi official orders strudel. The camera zooms in as a server spoons a dollop of cream on top of the pastry.
“I like the way they serve it. At Veritas Downtown, I know one dish I want to serve with a white glove,” Dalton said, referencing his restaurant's eventual relocation Downtown, expected to happen in late summer or early fall. “But the idea is that, if we can do some kind of crunchy, multi-layered [pastry], whipped cream and then some kind of berry. I know Mikuni has the Arctic wild blueberries. At that point, we could add in maple, different things. We can make it our own.”
“Pulling inspiration from the most gruesome movies,” said Stover, 23, the only chef among the three who went to culinary school. Hager came from Wendy's.
On Wednesday, Hager and Stover hit the kitchen, prepping ingredients for menu items and fine-tuning the strudel, which, by Thursday, is everything Dalton imagined — a delectable puff pastry topped with creme fraiche, organic blueberries and candied lemon zest. “The blueberries are just barely cooked because they were so nice we didn't wanna manipulate them too much,” Stover said.
The barnacles, on the other hand, are a bust. Veritas won't have more than a one-pound test batch in time for the weekend, so Dalton has decided to replace them with razor clams — slender, tube-shaped sea creatures that look, perhaps, more edible than the barnacles but no less alien.
But then a rep from Mikuni calls Dalton's cell phone. “I'm hoping you're calling with good news that I'm getting razor clams,” Dalton nervously says. “You're telling me that they're not coming in?”
The rep goes on to explain that Mikuni sources its razor clams from a certain Native American tribe that has digging rights, and whether or not the supplier can overnight a shipment of clams will depend on whether tribe harvesters go for a dig the following morning. Sometimes they sleep in. Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate.
To recap: The weekend menu of a small, chef-run restaurant in Delaware, Ohio hinges on West Coast weather and the sleeping habits of a Native American tribe thousands of miles away.
Before the weekend, Dalton sends a photo of a long, slender creature with a brown shell in his hand. “Look what showed up,” he texts, and on that weekend's tasting menu, alongside the blueberry strudel, Japanese wagyu and other plates, Veritas serves razor clams on a half shell with housemade XO sauce and "sea foam" (a mixture of water, katsuobushi, edible kelp and emulsifiers), all presented on a bed of sea shells and edible “dirt” made from potatoes, burnt bread and vegetables.
“It gets a little frustrating, because we released a picture of the barnacles [on Instagram], but once you get these beautiful razor clams, you can't be mad,” he said. “But the creative process, for me, is a lot about talking. Sometimes we talk about food, and sometimes we don't talk about it at all. Hopefully it sparks something.”