Eating in the Moment

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Dustin Ronspies pulls you into the moment with Northwest produce and a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY MATT MORNICK

When Dustin Ronspies talks — let alone laughs — the sound comes from a deep place. From his diaphragm, of course, but also from his history, which is as nonlinear and unconventional as the chef himself.

Dustin has been a standout in Seattle’s food scene, not least for what he does with seasonal local produce: like a latter-day Salvador Dali, he crafts whole narratives by pairing Northwest produce and unorthodox techniques in a single dish — turning one thing into another without waste and — more often than many of his peers — without repetition.

Everything Dustin creates begins with seasonal ingredients, still dripping with saltwater or caked in dirt, and ends with dishes cooked to perfection, meticulously plated as works of art. But the Clearwater, Florida-born chef never intended to have a career in food.

At 13, he started as a dishwasher, until he found his way on the line at Outback Steakhouse. After six years in a large corporate restaurant’s rigmarole, he swore he would never cook again.

Next, Dustin took a delivery job at a small mom-and-pop restaurant. One day, the cook stopped showing up for work. Dustin took over the kitchen, and with his brother, Derek Ronspies — now chef/owner of Le Petit Cochon — joining him, the chef rediscovered his love for cooking food.

Dustin graduated top of class from the Florida Culinary Institute. He worked in Beaune, France, then for a billionaire as a private chef and, in a roundabout way, for Francis Ford Coppola on his private yacht. Very little was routine during this period except for refining his palate and honing his technique. Dustin landed in Seattle, where, nearly 10 years ago, he opened Art of the Table.

In 2014, Dustin was a semifinalist for the James Beard Chef award. In April this year, he relocated and reopened Art of the Table in its new space at 3801 Stone Way N., a block from its previous location.

When asked what elevates his menu come July, Dustin smiles and says one word: dashi. “The broth is subtle, almost mild, yet it is an elegant vehicle for the flavors of summer.” I knew dashi was a Japanese broth and that some of Seattle’s chefs, like Dustin, made it central to their cooking. Other than that, I knew little about this mysterious ingredient.

According to the 2009 out-of-print book Dashi and Umami, dashi is the all-purpose stock and seasoning widely used in traditional Japanese cuisine. Dashi’s two ingredients — kombu seaweed and dried, fermented bonito (a tuna-like fish known as katsuobushi) — are both high in flavor compounds called glutamates, which are experienced by our palates as umami. Foods like dried anchovies, Parmigiano-Reggiano, walnuts, roasted meats, and mushrooms are rich in glutamates.

With dashi, however, the result is a delicate umami flavor with the essence of the sea. At Art of the Table, Dustin includes mushroom scraps in his dashi. “We cook with mushrooms regularly and, as a result, have scraps. Nothing gets thrown away. Dashi proved an excellent means to use mushroom scraps. They add a layer of earthiness to the broth.”

This time of year, Dustin prepares halibut with dashi, summer vegetables, and curry oil. Ingredients include dashi, baby bok choy, shitake mushrooms, curried pickled turnips (aka curnips), browned butter, caramelized radishes, green onions, and curry oil served in a bowl.

“If cooked properly, fish is incomparably moist and tender. But if you put fish in a broth like dashi, the flavors heighten. This is one of the strengths of Japanese cuisine – the subtle ingredients yield well-designed flavors.”

The Art of the Table’s menu is based on what is local, fresh, and available. “Ingredients drive the menu,” Dustin explains. “I don’t drive the menu. We start with what is coming out of our farmers’ fields and what our fishermen caught at this moment.”

Dustin smiles. “One of the best parts of July is eating within the moment. You can’t go wrong with a bowl of fresh halibut and summer vegetables in a light dashi broth. These ingredients peak this time of year and are wonderfully delicious.”

Dustin recommends pairing this dish with a dry Riesling from Wichmann Dundee Estate in Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Art of the Table
3801 Stone Way N.
206-282-0942 • artofthetable.net

Halibut with Summer Vegetables, Dashi & Curry Oil

Serves 4 | 1.5 hours active cooking time

For Fish

1 pound halibut, cut into 4 pieces
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons butter

For Vegetables

6 baby carrots, halved length-wise
5 Tokyo Market turnips, quartered
12 snap peas
12 small shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
20 French Breakfast radishes, whole
4 baby bok choy, halved
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cilantro leaves

For Curry Oil

1/2 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon of curry spice

For Dashi

1 ounce Bonito flakes
4-inch piece kombu
1/2 shallot, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1-inch piece ginger, thinly sliced
1 quart water
1 tablespoon tamari
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

Recipe

For the curry oil, mix canola oil and curry spice in a small sauce pan with a pinch of salt. Place pan on low heat for five minutes. Set aside to infuse.

For the dashi, combine bonito, kombu, shallot, garlic, and ginger with the water in a medium pot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 1 hour. Strain through fine mesh sieve. Add tamari and rice wine vinegar. Season with salt to taste.

The vegetables can all be cooked ahead of time and set aside until ready to serve. Start a 4-quart pot of heavily salted water over high heat. Bring to a boil. The water should taste salty, like the ocean. Individually cook the carrots, turnips, and snap peas until just tender, and shock in an ice-water bath.

Sauté the shiitake mushrooms over high heat in 2 tablespoons canola oil, and season with salt and pepper. Remove from pan to a plate. Drop heat to medium. Put 2 tablespoons of butter into pan and cook until butter starts to brown. Add radishes. Cook until lightly caramelized and tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan to a plate. Wipe out pan with a paper towel and place back on medium heat. Cook bok choy, cut side down, over medium-high heat in 1 tablespoon of canola oil for 3 minutes. Turn over bok choy and pour 1 ounce water into pan and steam until evaporated. Remove from pan to a plate.

Bring the dish together

The mushrooms, radishes, and bok choy can be served at room temperature or slightly warmed. Quickly sauté the turnips, carrots, and snap peas over medium-high heat in 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Remove from pan and keep warm.

In a cast-iron skillet or sauté pan large enough to hold the halibut with room in between pieces, heat 2 tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add halibut and lightly sear for 1 minute. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan, turn heat to low-medium, and baste the halibut, being careful not to move the fish pieces.

Baste often for approximately 5 minutes. The fish should be at a medium doneness. Do not flip the fish. While basting the fish, divide all the vegetables into 4 large bowls. Ladle 5 ounces or 10 tablespoons of dashi into the bowls. The dashi can be served room temperature or heated, your choice.

Drizzle curry oil onto dashi around vegetables. Garnish the dashi with scallion and cilantro. Flip fish and immediately remove from pan to dashi bowl. Enjoy with 3 friends and a glass of Trisaetum Dry Riesling.


West Coast photojournalist Matt Mornick specializes in photographing food, people, and travel. His portfolio is available at mornick.com

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