CINCINNATI -- There is a certain irony that the reigning champion of Park & Vine’s vegan chili contest should be the executive chef at a Corryville restaurant called Meatball Kitchen.
But when you see how Jason Louda makes food, you learn he’s not bound by any particular ingredient. For him, it’s all about developing flavors with solid cooking techniques.
Born in Cincinnati and raised in Colerain Township, Louda was a latchkey kid who knew he’d one day cook for a living. His mother nurtured his passion, gracefully enduring his kitchen experiments.
“As the oldest (of four siblings), my job was to have dinner on the table when she got home,” he said.
After finishing high school, Louda joined the Navy for four years before moving on to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After graduation, he did a few stints at restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern in New York before returning to Cincinnati.
Louda has been the culinary maestro at Meatball Kitchen since it opened two years ago. I finally made it to his kitchen to watch him work with this season’s ingredients. He’d hinted he’d be paying homage to root cellar staples.
The first thing I noticed in his kitchen was his textbook mise en place (organization of ingredients and tools). Clearly, this chef doesn’t play when it comes to getting things done.
“I’m making potato dumpling soup today,” he said.
My attention turned to the bouquet of leafy greens on the table. “This is tatsoi,” Louda explained. “It’s similar to bok choy, but smaller and more tender. It’s actually a little sweet.”
There were also a couple of watermelon radishes and a small cluster of maitake mushrooms on the cutting board. “We get them through Ohio Valley Food Connection,” he said, referring to the fresh ingredients.
“What’s in the bowl?” I asked, pointing to what looked like yellow rice. “These are German Butterball potatoes that I put through a ricer,” Louda replied. The potatoes are known for their rich and butter-like flavor.
Then it was on to the potato dumplings. He added self-rising flour, cornstarch, eggs, green onion, chopped fennel fronds, kosher salt and black pepper. As he dug into the potato mixture with his gloved hand, he said, “Knead these together, and you get a nice dough.” Louda advises letting the dough rest for an hour to help the flour hydrate and bind evenly.
In true get-it-done fashion, Louda brought out a pan of formed potato dumpling balls from the low boy (undercounter refrigerator). “I made these about an hour ago,” he announced, with a grin.
He walked the dumplings over to the stove and gently dropped them in a pot of salted boiling water. “They’re going to cook for about 13 to 15 minutes,” he said.
Louda moved on to the other components of the dish. “We’re going to sear the mushrooms in chili butter and smoked chicken fat,” he said.
This moment marked the unleashing of his flavor-building arsenal.
The chili butter is built from beurre noisette – butter that’s been browned to develop a hazelnut flavor – and infused with red chili pepper. Together with the smoked chicken fat, the maitake mushrooms soaked up this trifecta of nutty, peppery and smoky flavors that would later pay dividends in the dish.
But Louda wasn’t done yet. “I’m going to dry-char the tatsoi,” he said. This controlled burning (charring) of the greens immediately gave them depth.
Louda began to assemble the dish, starting with cabbage that’s been braised in miso (fermented soy bean paste), rice vinegar and butter. The seared mushrooms went on next, then the potato dumplings.
Then came the magic liquid: smoked chicken stock, pumped up with miso, konbu (seaweed) and turnips. This stock oozed umami (savory flavor).
Pickled daikon followed. Then came the pickled fennel, bourbon smoked sea salt and chili flakes. In case you’re wondering, Louda makes his own pickles – something he attributes to his Appalachian heritage. “I grew up learning pickling and fermenting,” he said.
Louda finished with charred tatsoi leaves and sliced half-moon watermelon radish. Tasting was next.
A sweet vinegary waft from the pickles hit me, followed by a smoky wave from the charred tatsoi and smoked chicken stock. And this was before I even took my first bite.
After a brief pause to admire the colorful dish, I dug in. The potato dumplings were fluffy and readily fell apart at the gentlest coaxing. It can be tricky to get the potato texture right – many rookies end up with dense and gummy dumplings.
The mushrooms and stock ramped up the savory factor, and the mellow braised cabbage contrasted nicely with the punchy and crisp daikon and fennel pickles. The dish was hearty, comforting and light.
Aside from the smoked chicken stock and fat (which Louda could easily substitute), there wasn’t a single piece of meat in this dish. Yet it was uber flavorful.
While Louda is a self-professed carnivore, he doesn’t believe in using meat as a crutch to make food tasty. If you could look past the irony, it’s no wonder Meatball Kitchen is quite a favorite amongst vegetarians.
The drier the potatoes are, the fluffier the dumplings. Boil the potatoes skin-on, and peel after they’re cooked. Put them through the ricer and allow them to sit in a sheet tray to cool, uncovered. For best results, do this the day before and let the mashed potato dry out in the refrigerator overnight.
Louda adores David Chang, the New York chef of Momofuku fame. Perhaps he feels a kindred spirit with him. “He’s got a problem with authority,” Louda said. “He breaks all rules and comes up with good stuff.” Louda paused and added, “I really don’t like people telling me that these are the rules.”
“How Chefs Roll” takes you inside the kitchens of local chefs to see how they roll with seasonal flavors, their favorite ingredients and how they prepare them for their restaurants. Grace Yek is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.