At Prospect in Fort Greene, chef Kyle McClelland likes taking classic, familiar dishes and infusing them with a little fun, an element of surprise, by giving them his own modernist twist. We stopped by to chat with Kyle and try one of his favorites – a butternut squash soup poured over charred espresso marshmallows and root beer cream with toasted hazelnuts.
So Kyle, what should we try today?
One of the dishes that I think really captures the kind of food we like to do here is our butternut squash soup with espresso marshmallows, toasted hazelnuts, and root beer cream. It’s just an appetizer, but I think it’ll give you a pretty good sense of what we’re all about – the kind of food we like to do.
Tell us about it.
Our kitchen crew here, we’ve all worked in fine dining restaurants. What we all wanted to do at Prospect was to use the cooking techniques that we’ve been trained in working in that world, but to have some fun with it and do it in a little bit more of a laid back way.
This soup is a good example. We start with the root beer whipped cream, espresso marshmallows and toasted hazelnuts. We melt and char them in the broiler, and then we pour the butternut soup over the top. It sounds like it’s going to be very sweet, but that charred, caramelized flavor you get from the roasted marshmallow and root beer cream balances the sweetness in the dish in a pretty interesting way. It gives it a lot of complexity.
To make it, we start with our butternut velouté. We start it with a white vegetable stock – just onions, leeks, and celery, simmered in water and reduced until you have a nice base of flavor. We sauté the butternut squash with a little garlic. Some carrot too. Then we pour the stock into the pot over butternut squash and carrots. We add some fresh herbs – thyme and bay leaf – and let them steep in the soup for a while. Then we take the herbs out and blend it. It’s very simple. It’s earthy and savory and sweet at the same time, and the fresh herbs brighten it up.
For the root beer cream, we pour root beer into a pot and heat it to reduce it. Those ginger, sasparilla, anise and warm spice flavors in the root beer get really concentrated and as the sugar cooks, it takes on that brown, caramel flavor. When it’s really cooked down, we add some cream and we foam it, so it’s basically a root beer flavored whipped cream.
Our pastry chef Annika makes the espresso marshmallows. She starts with ground espresso beans, sugar, water and corn syrup. You mix those together and bring them up to a boil. She uses agar agar, which is made with seaweed, instead of gelatin. You mix the agar agar with water and let it sit for a few minutes until it thickens. You pour the hot espresso and sugar syrup into the agar agar and aerate it by whipping it and it just puffs up into a light, pillowy marshmallow. Once it’s cooled, we coat them with some powdered sugar and more espresso. So we start with espresso and finish with espresso. The bitterness of the espresso balances out the sweetness of the marshmallow.
For the hazelnuts, we toast them and candy them. We make a simple syrup with sugar and water, and we toss the toasted nuts in the syrup, bake them, then crush them up.
Then we put the root beer cream and the hazelnuts in a pan with the marshmallows on top, and we put them under a really hot broiler for just a minute. The marshmallows melt and caramelize and burn a little, like they do when you roast them over a campfire for s’mores. You might expect the whipped root beer cream to just fall and melt in the heat, but since there’s so much sugar in it from the root beer, it actually does the opposite. It browns really nicely as the sugar caramelizes, and it actually sizzles and bubbles. And the hazelnuts take on even more of a crunch.
Those all go into a bowl and the butternut veloute goes over the top. So it’s not just a butternut squash soup. It’s got a lot of different flavors and textures going on, and when it comes together it’s something a little surprising and really fun to eat.
That roasted, slightly burnt, slightly charred flavor from the marshmallow is a really interesting flavor. It’s uncommon, you don’t encounter it a lot, but it’s something you recognize instantly if you’ve ever roasted a marshmallow over a campfire. It adds a lot of depth to the sweetness. The espresso in the marshmallows gets toasted a little too, and that toasted bitterness of the ground coffee beans adds a whole other angle to the dish too. The root beer cream caramelizes and foams and brings those concentrated, earthy, roasted, herbal anise flavors into play. The hazelnuts bring crunch and a toasty, nutty, slightly bitter flavor. The butternut soup itself is really velvety and smooth, with those savory, and sweet and earthy flavors that work so well together.
There are a lot of sugars in the dish, but the overall effect isn’t a blast of overwhelming sweetness at all. By caramelizing and charring the root beer cream and the espresso marshmallow, you create some very kind of deep and complex layers of flavor that can really surprise people when they encounter them in a soup, but are still familiar.
This dish for me is all about being a kid. When I was thinking of things we could do to make a butternut squash soup a little more interesting, I kept thinking of things I liked as a kid, like root beer floats and making s’mores around a campfire. I don’t know why, but that’s just where it wanted to go, so we went with it, and we’re really happy about it. It’s a dish that seems really simple, but it’s not. This is what we like to do here – have some fun with classic dishes that are usually familiar and simple, and add our own modern twist.
And what about you Kyle? How did you end up here, doing this?
I grew up on Cape Cod. Both my parents really loved to cook. They were both really interested in art and sculpture and things like that, so that rubbed off on me a little bit. I took a lot of art classes and really loved it, but when I realized how hard it is to make a living as an artist I thought I’d like to cook.
My family moved to New Hampshire, and I went to high school there. I got my first job in a kitchen when I was fifteen years old, at a really nice place called the Bedford Village Inn. I worked as a prep cook there throughout high school and I really loved it. I knew that was what I wanted to do for a living.
So after high school I came to New York to go to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute. Now it’s called the International Culinary Institute. I wasn’t interested in going to one of the bigger culinary schools and spending years in school and getting a bachelor’s degree in culinary science and all that. I just wanted to be in restaurant kitchens as much as I could. That’s where you learn the most, the fastest, and if that’s what you’re after, New York is the place to be.
I really liked that program. They had a lot of old school French chefs teaching, and they were really hard on you, and that was the whole point. They yelled at us a lot and embedded things in our brains and made us understand them. I remember on the day we learned to make French omelettes, I made like eighty omelettes back to back to back until I got it right, getting yelled at the whole time. I feel like that’s the way I like to learn. Just keep doing it until you get it right and move on to the next thing.
The great thing about being in school in New York, is I got to stage at all these great restaurants. I worked for a week in one kitchen, another week in another, and that’s just a great way to learn.
After I graduated I went back to Boston. It was close to home and I love Boston. It’s a great city. I ended up working at some great places there. I liked to keep moving. I’d stay at each place for a year and learn everything I could and then move on to the next place to learn more from someone else.
One New Year’s Eve I went to a place called Ten Tables to eat. It’s gone on to be a real success, but this was right when they opened. It was literally ten tables around an open kitchen. The chef brought the dishes out to each table himself. I thought right away, “I like this – this is so cool. This is what I want.” A little while later, I was browsing through some job listings and I saw that Ten Tables was looking for an executive chef, and I applied and actually got the job. It was awesome.
A little while later, a chef I had worked for at another place called The Federalist got a job as executive chef at a place called The Wauwinet on Nantucket. It’s a Relais and Chateaux hotel and restaurant all the way out at the northeast end of the island, next to a big nature reserve called Great Point. It was spectacular. Absolutely beautiful. Like paradise. He asked me to join him there as his sous chef. I didn’t want to leave Ten Tables, but I was like, “How can I not do this?”
I was there for four years. I just couldn’t leave. It was such a great lifestyle and experience. While I was there, I met Steven, one of my partners here at Prospect, and Vinny, who’s now my chef de cuisine. We all lived together and became really good friends. We always talked about opening our own place together some day.
After four years there it was just time to move on. We all parted ways. I ended up getting a job as executive chef at a place called Caviar Russe in midtown Manhattan, and I brought Vinny in as my sous chef. We were there for a couple of years, and then it felt like it was time to try to put together our own thing. We put together a plan, and talked to a bunch of people, and it kind of just came into place, really.
It’s been great. We’re all friends here. We all live in the neighborhood. We’ve all worked hard for a lot of years, and it’s really awesome to finally have a chance to make our own food our way, and to have some fun doing it. That’s why we call it Prospect. People always ask if the name has something to do with Prospect Park. It doesn’t. It’s about having our own place for the first time and the possibility that comes with that. It’s our chance to do our own thing our way.
Prospect is located at 773 Fulton Street, between South Portland and South Oxford, in Fort Greene.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.