Whether they buy them or make them, a condiment is often a chef’s secret ingredient. Used as finishing sauces or as an integral component of recipes, they take dishes from everyday to outstanding. Here are top chefs’ favorite condiments and how they use them in delicious dishes you’ll want to order (and you may also want to put them in your pantry).
Clay Conley, Grato, West Palm Beach, Florida
Chef Clay Conley of Grato is a fan of Calabrian chili oil. According to Conley, “It has a great balance of smoky and salty flavors, and just the right amount of heat to complement many dishes.” Currently, it’s being used to add heat to a cool dish of tuna crudo with tomato water and cucumber. Make a reservation at Grato.
Jason Halverson, Stones Throw, San Francisco, California
Stones Throw has become known for creative dishes such as Puffed Potatoes and Eggs with Cauliflower Mousse, Chives, Crispy Chicken Skin, and Squid Ink Conchiglie with seafood, but the Da Burger is a classic that never comes off the menu. Chef Jason Halverson is an admitted condiment junkie, but when forced to choose one, he picks the Japanese product Kewpie Mayonnaise. Says Halverson, “Kewpie Mayonnaise is like mayo on crack. I like it because it’s so versatile. You can add it to coleslaw, sandwiches, sauces, etcetera. It’s a hidden go-to ingredient. It’s not so cloying as regular mayonnaise. It’s in the secret sauce on the burger but also used as a binder in the tater tots.” Make a reservation at Stones Throw.
Chris Santos, Vandal, New York, New York
Chef Chris Santos says, “I’m a huge connoisseur of heat. I always have 40 to 50 hot sauces on hand, but Midori Sriracha is my new favorite. It has such a unique taste, and it was exactly what we needed for the Hong Kong egg waffles.” It’s used in the Chicken Katsu and Hong Kong Egg Waffles at new restaurant and lounge Vandal on the Bowery in New York, which features street food from around the world. Make a reservation at Vandal.
Perry Hoffman, SHED, Healdsburg
Perry Hoffman chooses Kozlik mustard, a sweet and smoky mustard from Canada he found on the shelf in the SHED store and describes as more mild than Dijon or whole grain. Says Hoffman, “It’s salty sweet, spicy and it hits all of the flavor profiles. It’s the umami of mustards and I love it.” He likes it smothered on a roast chicken and as a base for a veggie dip. At the restaurant, it is used in the dressing for the mustard greens accompanying the Whole Poussin, which is served dramatically with head and feet attached. Make a reservation at SHED.
Edward Lee, Succotash, National Harbor, Washington, Maryland
According to chef Edward Lee of Succotash, just south of Washington D.C., Chung Jung One’s Gochujang Korean Chili Sauce — the next generation of the traditional fermented hot chili paste — gives foods a spicy and tangy flavor with a hint of sweetness. “It isn’t just spice for the sake of heat. It is nuanced and layered. It has sweetness and umami, lots of umami. It adds flavor and complexity,” says Lee, who mixes the sauce into the pimento cheese layer of his Tex-Mex-meets-the-South Pimento Fundido for a deep, tangy, spicy kick. Make a reservation at Succotash.
Jennifer Russo, The Market by Jennifer’s Restaurant + Bar, Phoenix, Arizona
Chef Jennifer Russo of The Market by Jennifer’s Restaurant + Bar might be considered a salt fanatic. She has almost 20 salts in house, everything from Hawaiian green salt (infused with bamboo) to a pungent mesquite salt which, she notes, has an amazing finish. Chef Russo says, “While some dishes are finished with a particular salt, others are left alone and my servers will offer a selection we’ve found that will pair well with your dish.” Prime Beef is served with Himalayan Pink Flake Salt because, according to Russo, “It has a clean flavor with a faint floral note that offsets the rich flavor of the meat. I find a flaky salt gives texture and crunch to a silky protein like steak. Salt finishes protein perfectly.” Make a reservation at The Market by Jennifer’s Restaurant + Bar.
Dustin Valette, Valette, Healdsburg, California
Another Healdsburg chef, Dustin Valette of Valette says of all the things he loves making, mustard is one of his favorites, noting that the mustard plant grows in Sonoma and is often visible throughout the vineyards. Says Valette, “It’s complex, delicious, and it adds great acidity and depth to most dishes. Today, we are making a spicy Togarashi Dijon-style mustard, pickled and crushed whole mustard seeds, and port wine-infused smooth mustard. We love serving it with charcuterie, also made in house, not only to offset the richness of the prosciutto, Salametti, Lomo, and headcheese but also because it adds great complexity to a simple dish. Make a reservation at Valette.
Ronnie Nasuti, Tiki’s Grill & Bar, Honolulu, Hawaii
From Tiki’s Grill & Bar in Waikiki, executive chef Ronnie Nasuti says his favorite condiment is the Fina’denne’ that he makes in house. It lends tartness, twang, spice, salt, and smokiness, and Nasuti considers it the best grilled meat dipping sauce around. Says Nasuti, “I tried this savory condiment back in the nineties when I first moved to Hawaii. I learned about it from the Chamorro (the indigenous people of Guam) living here in Hawaii. I became familiar with some of their national dishes and quickly realized this a staple. It’s served with almost every meal.” He notes it is spectacular with grilled meat, cutting through the fat and matching the charred flavor with its salty and sour attributes — much like the Japanese Ponzu sauce but with more aromatic qualities coming from the addition of onions, green onions, tomatoes, and chili peppers. Nasuti learned to make the sauce from a friend, and he uses smaller Hawaiian chili peppers, charring them with a butane lighter before chopping them up. At the restaurant, it’s served on the entree Pulehu New York Steak with red rice and fina’denne’. Make a reservation at Tikis Grill & Bar.
Tony Gemignani, Capo’s, San Francisco, California
World Pizza Cup champion Tony Gemignani has restaurants in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, but at Capo’s, the menu goes beyond pizza to encompass Italian-American classics, such as Chicken Vesuvio and Baked Mostaccioli. His condiment pick is giardiniera peppers. Says Gemignani, “I love giardiniera peppers – they’re mostly pickled peppers but with bits of cauliflower and celery. At Capo’s, we have an Italian beef sandwich with Calabrese sausage and the giardiniera of course. It adds great bite and is delicious!” Make a reservation at Capo’s.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.
Photo credits: Antoinette Bruno/StarChefs (Grato); Chris Hardy (Valette); Gary Knight (Succotash).