3 April 2017
Food is a tool with multiple uses. (Like a kitchen knife – which you can use to accomplish everything from smashing garlic, to deboning a fish, to performing a fine julienne, to opening a can… carefully… if you find yourself in a pinch.)
Going far beyond our physical needs, sharing a meal feeds our desire for connection, stimulation, play, and excitement, brings us closer as a community, and has the potential to change our perspectives and worldview.
Food is also self-expression. Chef’s and home cooks alike are helping to advance a shared narrative every time they put flame to food, whether that narrative is rooted in a specific culture, their personal upbringing, or just a momentary “taste” is really up to them.
In this light, the impact of food and culinary culture go far beyond the kitchen and dining table. Food becomes a mechanism for communication, storytelling, and art. It becomes a tool by which we situate ourselves in a unique historical moment, specific culture, and community.
So, then, how might we better understand this “tool” in the greater context of identity? This is the question E.A.T. set out to answer in Roanoke, VA on April 3rd, 2017.
E.A.T. held Fusions at the metal working studio of one of Roanoke’s local artists, Dave Wertz (Ametalsoul Studio), reapplying the literal “fusion” of his artistic pursuits in our culinary context. In addition to the fusing of metal and glass, repurposing and reclamation of materials is a common theme as one glances around the studio.
From vintage car parts, to the gears of forgotten industrial equipment, Dave finds and reshapes the materials of eras gone by into new and beautiful works of art.
Surrounded by heavy machinery, soaked in the history of a building that was used for wartime industrial production during WWII, guests entered the space out of the (unanticipated) rain to discover a dining table set in the middle of what, from the outside, looks like no more than a forgotten factory.
Jeff Farmer (Executive Chef, Fotunato, Roanoke, VA), put together a menu fusing his culinary upbringing in the American South, Louisiana to be exact, with the culinary traditions of the Middle East. Chef Farmer took the flavors of his childhood (with a couple exceptions), and juxtaposed them against staple dishes of the seven countries originally included in the 2017 Travel Ban, over a seven course dining exploration.
Chef Farmer underscored the intention of his menu, emphasizing that the culinary field is a level playing ground, and that when it comes to the development and progression of world cuisine, all are welcome at the metaphorical “table.” Hybridity is a natural part of evolution, and food is a tool used to bring people together around a common pleasure and physical necessity – sharing a meal.
Iraq + South Carolina
Iraqi-style hummus with boiled peanuts and benne seed oil
After taking a few moments to check out the heavy machinery and beautiful sculpture work that was placed throughout our space, we kicked off our meal with an Iraqi-style hummus made with boiled peanuts and benne seed oil. Substituting the traditional chickpeas with the popular southern snack, boiled peanuts, Chef Farmer presented a twist on a Middle Eastern staple that has been gaining serious traction across the globe in recent years.
This dish was as beautiful as it was delicious, the edible nasturtium flowers adding a visual delicacy to a dish that sung with notes of roasted peanuts and dried earth, all wrapped in the creamy embrace of the purée.
Somalia + Mexico
Lamb Head Tamale with Basbaas Cagaar
Following the opening amuse bouche; Chef Farmer brought Middle Eastern flavors to Mesoamerica, using basbaas cagaar (a Somali green chili condiment that accompanies many dishes, similar to the way that salt and pepper are found at dinner tables throughout the West) to augment his Lamb’s Head Tamale.
Tamales have a culinary history dating back between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE, where they were a part of Aztec and Mayan diets, and even the diets of Olmecan and Toltecan predecessors. Chef Farmer’s use of basbaas cagaar was similar to the way that salsa verde might have been used in a more “traditional” preparation of the tamale. The green chili sauce was mild, and slow-burning. The heat expanded as the tamale was enjoyed, and washed over the palate, the savory and sweet nuances of the sauce becoming more apparent as the flavor intensified.
Yemen + America (nationally)
Yemeni Potato Salad with Spiced Yogurt
First coming to the Americas from Germany with waves of European immigrants during the 19th century, potato salad has a long history of mutation across cultures; so it provides a great platform to further explore the hybridity of culture and cuisine. Chef Farmer took this dish back across the Atlantic, and further still all the way to Yemen with his version of the popular side dish.
Instead of using mayonnaise, as is common practice with most potato salad, Chef Farmer substituted yogurt, which he flavored with with hawaij, a Yemeni spice mixture that can be used in everything from curry-style dishes to barbecue.
Using yogurt instead of mayonnaise made the dish playfully tangy and bright, and also kept it lighter than most potato salads one might find in the United States.
Libya + Louisiana (The Bayou)
Fried Catfish Mbatan Kawali
“In the tradition of soul food,” has got to be one of the most inviting six-word descriptions of a dish that’s ever escaped mans’ lips. For this course, Chef Farmer flipped the Libyan dish, Mbatan Kawali, on its head.
Usually, Mbatan Kawali, is made by stuffing potatoes with spices and minced meat. Chef Farmer, instead, stuffed catfish with a spice and potato mixture, which he then dredged and crusted in a spiced cornmeal mixture, and lightly fried. Doing so, he maintained the basic technique in which Mbatan Kawali is usually prepared, while infusing a bit of his own Louisiana background with the catfish.
Syria + Louisiana (Creole Cuisine)
Creole cuisine is a culinary tradition that blends French, Spanish, West African, Native American, Haitian, German, Italian, and Irish influences… so, why not pepper in some Syrian and Middle Eastern dimensions to boot!
For this course, Chef Farmer used a spice mix including cumin, allspice, black pepper, sumac, and nutmeg to add a heavy aromatic component to his kufta, a ground lamb and rice mixture, which he then formed into sausages in the style of boudin, a popular French, Belgian, and Creole dish. The aroma that steamed out of the sausage when cut into was stew-like, almost like a gumbo or étouffée. This dish was as enticing to smell as it was to eat.
Iran + Louisiana (French Quarter – New Orleans)
Going from Creole to Cajun cuisine, and taking us from Syria to Iran, Chef Farmer next blended two stews that each has a distinct place in their respective cultures.
In the left corner, from the French and Spanish fusion of New Orleanais cuisine, we have, Jambalaya! (Raucous cheers, parade noises).
And on the right, from Iranian/Persian culinary traditions that have been steeping and simmering for millennia, we have, Bademjan! (Swooning, much applause).
The smokiness of Andouille sausage infused itself throughout the dish in a deliciously fragrant haze. From the bademjan, stewed tomatoes and eggplant provided the backbone to the dish, replacing the “trinity” of celery, onions, and bell pepper that would usually be used in a jambalaya. The unexpected acidic tingle of strategically used sour grapes cut through the smoky and creamy elements of the dish, creating a refreshing burst that contrasted beautifully with the earthy, spice-centric palate of the stew.
Sudan + The American Southwest
Basboosa Cornbread Cake
Our final course of the evening was a cornbread “take” on a traditional Sudanese dessert commonly made with sorghum-syrup-soaked semolina cake. With a similar flavor profile to baklava, it was a perfectly sweet end to an outstanding evening.
As the meal came to a close, the sound of rain on the old warehouse roof faded into the evening alongside the clarinet sounds of Sidney Bechet, whose music was the sonic backdrop to our evening of culinary exploration.
Thank you to Jeff Farmer, whose creativity and talent made our evening one to remember.
Visit him at Fortunato, and taste for yourself the man’s skills!
Get behind the scenes and into the kitchen by checking out their Instagram
Keep up with Jeff and the rest of Fortunato’s team on Facebook.
If you have a special occasion coming up, or just want to spend a nice night out, there are few better places to do so in Roanoke than Fortunato.
And of course, thank you to Dave Wertz, without whose hospitality Fusions would have been impossible. If you can, try to see his beautiful artwork around the galleries in Roanoke, or anywhere else for that matter (Dave’s 3-dimensional fine art can be found from Georgia to Utah). And if you’re so inclined, maybe even consider adding a piece or two to your own personal collection!