Eater's GABF Tastemakers series continues today with Jensen Cummings, the chef/owner of Slotted Spoon. He's a supreme lover of beer, wine, cocktails and food. It's rare to see a chef working towards the level of Certified Cicerone, but for Cummings, it only further manifests his love of pairing his palate to perfection.
How did you get to where you are now? I am a 5th generation restaurateur. Flavor has always been a passion of mine and cooking was my way to explore and express that passion. I firmly believe that you must question everything you taste for better or worse. You must be your own barometer for what tastes good. In culinary school I remember my beverage class being riddled with rules of what tastes what way and what pairs well with what. I have an inherent problem with authority, so I naturally challenged all status quos and sought out my own truths through many, many, many adult beverages. I found some of those standards I was told to be true and others to be pure fiction.
What are some classic beer and food pairings you like to work with? I have very polarizing views on pairing. I like to KISS (keep it simple stupid) and/or I like to challenge the palate with the unexpected. I try to go into a pairing with eyes wide open, trust my instincts and let my imagination run wild once I taste what I am working with. Having a cooking background along side my Cicerone certification allows me to make choices a lot of others shy away from. I really like pairing raw fish with a vast array of beers from clean lagers to complex ales.
How do you explain pairings to your guests? I tell the story of the inspiration of the pairing connecting to potential dish to beer intersections, history or ironies. Next I talk the "who, what, where, when, why and how of flavor. Then, I tell my guests the rest is up to them.
What is your most memorable bar/food pairing experience? During GABF 2009 I launched a Beer v. Wine series. We held it in the basement at TAG Restaurant, where I was the Chef de Cuisine. We were only able to get a whopping 12 guests to attend. Fast-forward to today, our most recent Beer v. Wine dinner featured six different restaurants cooking and more than 100 guests!
What's your favorite beer and cheese pairing? Generally speaking, bleu cheese with a proper saison is a first-class flight to Flavortown. Specifically Roaring 40 blue cheese paired with Ann from Hill Farmstead Brewery is such a flawless balance of acidity and richness with just the right amount of funk
How have you seen the brewing/restaurant industry change in the past 10 years? Experimentation has been the cornerstone of the modern craft beer movement. Restaurants have really been a catalyst for giving the breweries opportunities to connect their craft with the food world. The relationship between breweries and restaurants will continue to galvanize the pairing world.
What's a favorite pairing that breaks all the rules and shouldn't work, but does? A big Flinstone-like hunk of steak paired with a Belgian Tripel. Dark beer has monopolized the steak world and because the Tripel is golden in color, there is a misconception that it could never stand up to red meat. Hogwash! Tripel has the alcohol and body to hold its own. The subtle citrus and spice notes are perfect to give depth of flavor; the smooth drinking character of a Tripel makes it very cleansing.
Where are the beer-friendly menus and the lists to match? One place stands out to me as doing both great food and great beer is Colt & Gray. Kevin Burke, Nelson Perkins, Kyle Foster and Jenna Hodges are a great team who have found that sweet spot. They don't have the biggest or even best beer list but every beer brings balance and purpose to their potential pairings. Their food isn't the most beer centric but every dish has what it takes to find a strong counterpart in a beer. Hats off to them.
What's one of your favorite beers this season to drop on the table/see on the menu? I am a big German beer fan— having grown up there it's hard to shake. I am seeing a lot more Berliner Weisse, a milder cousin to the sour beers flooding the market. Generally below 3 percent alcohol with a slight sour character, it is very drinkable and very versatile to pair.
Jensen Cummings [Photo: Adam Larkey]