In the South, the Kentucky Derby is more than just harbinger of spring, or a boozy celebration of the beauty of little men flying in packs on the backs of horses – it’s a cultural cornerstone along the lines of say, Christmas, or the Superbowl.
Curious about any culinary traditions associated with the run for the roses, we met with Rob Newton, Arkansan, and chef/owner of Seersucker, his restaurant in Carroll Gardens, to find out what he’s got in store for Derby day and to take a deeper-than-expected dive into the meaning of Southern cuisine.
So Rob, let’s start with the Derby. What’s Derby Day all about in the South?
In the South, the Kentucky Derby is a major thing. It coincides with the arrival of spring. And it’s the official beginning of seersucker season. All the seersucker suits come out of the closet on Derby Day and they go back in on Labor Day.
Everybody either has a party or goes to a party on Derby day. It’s a good excuse to have a good time, to get together and drink some bourbon. It’s a really big deal. Being a strictly Southern restaurant, it only made sense to do our own version of a Kentucky Derby party here.
What will you be serving? Are there any traditional Derby day foods in the South? Drinks?
The whole idea here at Seersucker is that we try to stay within the canon of Southern food, and specifically the Southern cuisine you’ll find in in the area covering Arkansas, where I’m from, down to Louisiana, across to northern Florida, and up to Virginia and Kentucky on the northern end.
I confine what we do here to things you’d find in that geographical area, but that’s not really so confining at all. There are a ton of different traditions you can explore within that area, which is great because it really lets you be creative as a chef.
I should mention that I do not do barbeque at all here, because barbeque is a whole other thing. You can’t dabble in it – you have to be all-in on barbeque.
So Derby day is an opportunity to invite people in to celebrate the great tradition of this horse race by celebrating the great tradition of Southern cuisine. And to get your seersucker on, kick back, and have some juleps.
I’m going to use the Derby as an opportunity to really focus in specifically on Kentucky cuisine.
So you can really narrow it down to Kentucky?
Oh yeah. We’re going to have our fried chicken, because you have to have fried chicken. We’re also going to do Kentucky burgoo, a really thick, viscous stew that may or may not have once been based on squirrel or possum meat, but today is more associated with fowl. We’re doing one with the dark meat from a turkey.
We’re going to take the white meat from the turkey to make Kentucky hot browns. Hot Browns are a Louisville classic – an icon in Kentucky cuisine. It’s an open-faced turkey sandwich that was supposedly invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. It’s typically served on toasted white bread with slices of turkey topped with a Mornay sauce – a Mornay is a Bechamel with cheese added to it. So we’re going to do that, but we’re going to do it on one of our biscuits instead of on white bread, and we’ll throw it in the broiler to brown it.
We’re going to do some nice local asparagus with a Benedectine sauce, which is based on a dip named after Benedict’s restaurant in Louisville. We make our Benedictine sauce with cream cheese, cucumber and a little sour cream and it goes really nicely with the asparagus.
I’ve got half a pig coming in today, so we’re going to have some roast pig over grits as well.
We’re doing burgers with grass-fed black angus from upstate New York, which is the beef we always use here. Not exactly a Kentucky staple, but we’re thinking of giving it a Southern twist by offering it with our housemade pimento cheese as a cheese burger.
And we’re doing a whole bunch of other things like mac ‘n cheese, collards, biscuits…but that’s the gist of it.
What’s the deal with pimento cheese? As a Northerner I feel like that’s something we only started seeing with any regularity really recently around here.
Pimento cheese is like a greatest hits album of fatty deliciousness. You find it everywhere in the South. You can buy it in gas stations in little tubs. It’s awesome. It’s basically cheese and mayonnaise blended with a little bit of heat and a little bit of lemon juice.
When we make it here, we make our own mayo, we use a really nice local cheese, and we use locally-grown peppers when they’re in season. It’s cheesey, mayonnaise, a little salty and a little hot. It melts really well. At Smith Canteen down the street we do a grilled cheese sandwich with country ham and pimento cheese. I mean, that’s some Southern shit right there! It does not get any more Southern than that!
The origins of pimento cheese? I wish I could give you a hundred workd verse on that, but I don’t know. It’s just there. It’s part of the landscape.
What about drinks?
Juleps! What else?
So Southern cuisine has been enjoying a sort of renaissance, right? To most New Yorkers, until very, very recently Southern food meant fried chicken…
Well that’s just it, isn’t it? There’s just so much more to it, and I’m doing everything I can to open people’s eyes to that – to give them some exposure to some of that Southern culinary richness.
The South is really the original garden of America. Long before people even knew California was out there, they were growing rice, beans, vegetables, fruit, pigs…and then there’s the whole bounty of the rivers and the sea. And within the South, there are so many different regional cuisines to explore.
It’s analogous to the way people thought of Italian food before people like Mario Batali came along. In the 80s and 90s, nobody knew the difference between northern Italian and southern Italian food. Now you do. Now you know Emilia Romagna, in the north, is the land of tortellini en brood and risotto, and that Campania, further south, is known more for polenta and pastas and more peasant-driven foods. You don’t get risotto in southern Italy, you get it in northern Italy, and now there’s much more consciousness of that.
And the same is true for the South. Hopefully one day people will have an understanding of the regional specificity of Southern cuisine. There’s just so much variety and richness there, and Southern food is really the first true ‘American’ cuisine.
So you talk about Southern cuisine as a whole, and about all this regional specificity and specialization out there. Are there some core elements at the root of it that tie them all together?
At its base, Southern cuisine is a combination of English, French Huguenot and Native American cuisines. Later on, you had a lot of African and Creole influences come in and play an important role. And over time different areas within the South developed their own traditions and ways of doing things.
Any examples of some of those different regional types?
Well in and around Charleston, South Carolina, you have a lot of low country and Gullah influences. The Gullahs are descendants of slaves. They have their own language and they live in the low country and on the sea islands off the Carolinas and Georgia. The traditional cuisine of that area is heavily influenced by African cuisine because of the Gullahs and their ancestors.
I use an heirloom strain of benne seeds that are grown on Sea Island. It’s an heirloom strain that’s been traced back to some of the earliest strains they can find, brought over by African slaves in the 1700s. Benne seeds are sesame seeds, but these particular ones have a very different flavor than the kind you typically get. But that’s a prime example of the African influence. We tend to think of sesame as something associated with Asian cooking, but it’s African. Okra too. Peanuts are something we think of as being synonymous with the South. They’re African. They’re not even a nut. They’re a legume that grows underground.
Country hams – cured and sometimes smoked hams – are a whole other kind of Southern tradition. I have two different kinds of country hams from Virginia here. A ham from Kentucky and a country ham from the Ozarks. They’re all totally different. They have completely different flavor profiles. Some of that is due to regional traditions of curing and smoking, and some of it is because different people cure their hams for different effects. One of the hams I use, Surryano, is made from Berkshire hogs and it’s aged and smoked over four hundred days. It’s a totally badass ham. The ham that I use with our collard greens is from the Ozarks. It’s only aged for nine months, so it’s softer in texture and in flavor. And I like to use my Kentucky ham in braises or with mushrooms. It’s more like a prosciutto. They all have their different unique characteristics.
So when you give more attention and respect to the traditions of specific places, you start to really see that richness…
I think the seeds of this way of thinking about food here were planted by Alice Waters and people like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, who way back in the 80s started to focus on American food for the first time, and to kind of elevate American food to a higher place, a higher level. They started to kind of define an American cuisine for the first time.
And I think where we are now is a kind of culmination of the work they started. Now we’re a legitimate culinary force in the world, and that allows us to start looking more closely at our own regional cuisines. When you start looking at regional cuisines here in America, you see how important Southern cuisine is in American cooking as a whole.
Look, Europeans brought pigs to American in the 1500s. They landed in Virginia and Florida with their pigs, and they met up with the Native Americans living there. The Native Americans had never seen pigs. The Europeans had never seen corn, or Jerusalem artichokes, or any of this crazy awesome stuff that was native to here. And it all came together in the South, in this climate that allowed these cuisines to thrive and merge and take on other influences in all kinds of ways. It’s a beautiful, rich, very, very versatile cuisine.
I mentioned pigs and corn. To me that represents the heart of American cuisine – the pigs from Europe and the Native American corn. I honor that exchange of old world foods and new world foods that happened five hundred years ago. I honor that here by using pork and corn together. Anytime I have a pork dish on the menu, it is served in the company of corn. That’s really the beginning of Southern food, and the beginning of American food. When it started we still wouldn’t be a country for close to three hundred years, but it was going on. That’s how it started.
So in the winter I serve hominy with beans topped with pork belly. When it’s nice out I have fresh corn, but I always have pork and corn together on the menu to honor that.
Has it always been all about Southern food for you?
No. You know, Danny Meyer is somebody I admire a great deal and have had the pleasure to work for. I usually have a copy of his book ‘Setting the Table’ with me. In the book he talks about this phenomenon of young cooks who do or don’t go to culinary school, always trying to get as far away as possible from what they know best. I’m from Arkansas and Mississippi. I went to Le Cirque to work for Sottha Kuhn, a Cambodian chef who was trained in France. I worked for Joel Robuchon and was Daniel Boulud’s sous-chef. I was at Ducasse. All I wanted to do was Cambodian French food. I wanted to get as far away from biscuits and gravy as I could. I learned how to cook Indian food at Tabla, Swedish food with all its clean lines and deliciousness with Marcus Samuelsson…
I was so into it all, and then at some point you just return to your roots. You come back to, “Shit, I come from the Ozarks!” It’s a gorgeous place with lots of tradition. My dad grew up on a farm where they raised and killed their own hogs every winter and had a smokehouse and made country hams and bacon. My grandfather ran the corn mill in town, and everyone would bring their corn in to him to have it ground up. We always had a garden and were growing all kinds of stuff. My parents had me out in the garden at ten years old. Trust me, you do not want to be in a freaking garden when you’re ten years old. But that’s what communities are made of. Those were the traditions that I was exposed to as a kid, that shaped my life, and that I spent all this time running away from.
You know, French chefs came to New York in the 50’s and 60’s and did French food because they were French. They made their food, and we all started trying to make their food.
How could I live without collard greens and my mom’s gravy? I gotta have those things. It’s my existence. Once you make that circle and finally start to be interested in your own roots, you’re like, “How could I not explore where I’m from? I’m from there. It is who I am.”
Last question – are you going to bring a TV in here so people can watch the Derby?
We’re doing it on the radio. We’re going to have a radio up on the bar. I know. Very controversial. Lot of people want TV. Understandable. It’s a visual spectacle. But I think it’ll be great on the radio.
It’s my restaurant and I don’t want to have a TV in my restaurant, so we’re doing it on the radio. I want people to have a julep and some food, and have a conversation and talk about the food or about whatever they’re going to do after they leave here. Once a TV comes on people just stare at it. The conversation stops. I don’t want that.
Seersucker is located at 329 Smith Street, between President and Carroll, in Carroll Gardens. They’ll be celebrating Derby day from 4pm to close on Saturday. Reserve a table here.