I am all about cooking at home, but a large part of my inspiration and pleasure in food comes from going to restaurants. Living in New York City, there are a plethora of options to select from and, when I do dine out, I like to eat at restaurants that have a similar philosophy about food as I do. Little Park is one of those places. Chef and owner Andrew Carmellini's Tribeca establishment is rooted in seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. Organic produce and heirloom grains are gathered daily from the greenmarket, and meat and seafood are purveyed from sustainable farmers, ranchers, and fisherman. I had the opportunity to spend the day with Little Park's Chef de Cuisine, Min Kong, to learn about the process to plate of a few of the restaurants veg-centric dishes.
We started at the Union Square Greenmarket one cold morning in January. Despite the freezing temperature, Chef Kong was on a mission to source today's menu from what the local purveyors had on hand. Since Little Park's menu is based on seasonal produce, Kong's focus was primarily on dark hearty greens, root vegetables, and heirloom grains. Although the winter bounty is much slimmer than summer's, Kong was able to find vibrant purple kale, mini purple cabbage, yellow carrots, and red amaranth microgreens to add depth and volume to her beautiful creations at the restaurant.
Chef Kong carefully selects her ingredients with a discerning eye. When looking over mountains of carrots, she advised me to avoid carrots with growing fronds on the sides. She indicated that this may be a sign of sugar production, which could lead to a starchier vegetable. Relationships with farmers are also essential to Little Park as evidenced by the in-depth conversation Kong had regarding heirloom grits with the local grain purveyor. Following our wintery pilgrimage, we headed to the restaurant where I got to chat further with Kong about her processes, as well as observe her bringing the greenmarket bounty into fruition.
Miranda Hammer: How would you describe the food that you create at Little Park?
Min Kong: People like to talk about Little Park being very veggie-centric, which I think is the perfect way to describe the food. It is very vegetable forward, but general enough that it gives us a lot of flexibility in what we do. We are not necessarily vegetarian or vegan. We try to showcase vegetables that are in season and present them in ways that other restaurants are not.
MH: What inspired you to become a chef?
MK: I tried other options first, and I was never really enthusiastic about any of them. I was looking for something that I truly loved, had a genuine interest in, and that I could fully commit to. When I was coming up with options I thought, well I love food, I love cooking, and that's kind of where it started.
MH: Since Little Park is such a seasonally focused restaurant driven by whatever is available, how do you adjust your cooking techniques and philosophy with the seasons?
MK: We have to be very flexible, depending on what is available. When things are available, generally that is when they are the best. I base my cooking on what I see at the market since that is a good barometer of what is truly happening. If there are products at the market that are really good, then I lean on those. When those phase out, we start to phase them off the menu. We try to keep the menu upbeat and vibrant.
MH: How would you recommend that the home cook stay inspired during the winter months?
MK: I would recommend that people try and be a little more adventurous with the methods that they use. I know that the ingredient list is short and less interesting than in the summer, but it's fun to experiment with the applications that you may not otherwise explore. For example, with the kohlrabi dish, the way we process it makes it more intriguing as opposed to how people generally use kohlrabi. We cut it in a different way and treat it like a salad, and I think that can keep things from getting boring and dull. Also, using different flavorings and spices is a key way to keep winter cooking interesting and satisfying. Experimenting with different spices that you have never tried before on different vegetables can be an easy way to keep things fresh and compelling.
MH: I completely agree. My "go to" spice is typically za'atar. It always seems to elevate whatever vegetable I am roasting up.
MK: The carrot dish we created today uses dukkah, which is a nut and spice blend. I thought that would be a unique way to present carrots.
MH: What are your home pantry essentials? Are you ever able to cook a meal at home?
MK: The name of the game at my house is quick and easy. I don't have anything too involved other than the staples - milk, cereal, sliced cheese, eggs, and bread. These are things that are easy to prepare, but are still totally satisfying. Scrambled eggs for dinner, great and easy, or a pint of ice cream before bed, also great.
MH: What's your favorite dish on the menu right now or an item that you were sad to say goodbye to at the end of the season?
MK: I really like the tilefish dish that we have on the menu right now. We make a toasted rice dashi for it, which is pretty special. We also roast baby bok choy to order and use fermented bok choy as part of the garnish. The tilefish is local and sustainable. We decided to keep the scales on the fish which sounds a little weird but, when you cook it over high heat, the scales crisp up almost like puffed rice. As a whole, I think it is a really interesting dish. A dish that I will be sad to see go is the tuna carpaccio. It has been on our menu for a while. People love tuna and it is visually beautiful.
MH: What are the five ingredients that you cannot live without either at the restaurant or at home?
MK: Potatoes/potato chips, rice, salt, olive oil, and garlic.
MH: You are up at the greenmarket early in the morning and probably don't finish dinner service until 11pm or 12pm most nights. How do you find time to decompress, unwind, or rebalance?
MK: Typically before I head out for the night, I take a minute and talk to the managers and the staff about how the night went. What did we do well? What could we do better? I try and put it all into perspective. This helps me wrap it up, put it to bed, and walk into the next day fresh. I also like to have time in the morning to myself where I don't have to get up and go straight to work. I like to relax a little bit, have some coffee, listen to music, or not do anything. I think its important to have some time in the morning and not to just get up and go to work right away.
MH: Can you tell me a little bit about the dishes we are seeing today?
MK: We are making a kohlrabi salad and then roasted carrots. The kohlrabi is raw, vegetarian, and cut into ribbons. It is then tossed with red kale, trevisano, and hazelnuts and dressed in a roasted garlic vinaigrette. I am excited about this dish! I think kohlrabi is one of those vegetables that people don't really know what to do with since it looks kinda of weird. I wanted to showcase an accessible way to utilize it. For the carrot dish, we roast the carrots whole. They are then glazed in buckwheat honey, topped with dukkah, and served with a roasted carrot puree, a sauce made from carrot juice, and then topped with a salad of raw carrots.
Thank you, Chef Kong and Little Park for this intimate peek behind the scenes. Want to try your hand at Little Park's kohlrabi salad? Check out the recipe below!
Kohlrabi with pears, Hazelnuts, and Roasted Garlic dressing
- 4 cups kohlrabi, peeled and ribboned using a Japanese mandolin or spiralizer (about 3 medium sized kohlrabi)
- 1 head red kale, stems removed, finely chopped
- 1 head trevisano, finely chopped
- 1 pear, thinly sliced
- 4 tbsps hemp seeds
- 1 cup raw hazelnuts
- 1/4 cup hazelnut oil
- 1/2 cup + 3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
- salt to taste
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Toss hazelnuts with three tbsps of olive oil and salt. Transfer to a parchment-lined sheet tray and toast in the oven for approximately 25 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant. Cool to room temperature.
- Transfer hazelnuts to a food processor and blend together with the hazelnut oil and remaining olive oil. Season with a pinch of salt.
Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp Dijon Mustard
- 1 tbsp honey
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup sherry vinegar
- 1/4 cup hazelnut oil
- salt to taste
- To make the garlic oil, cover garlic cloves with olive oil in a small pan and simmer gently until tender and golden brown.
- Transfer garlic cloves to a blender. Add mustard, honey, and vinegars, blend to combine. With the motor running, stream in the hazelnut oil and the olive oil used to simmer the garlic until the dressing is emulsified. Season with a pinch of salt.
- 1/4 cup butter
- 2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup raw hazelnuts
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 1 sprig of thyme
- salt to taste
- In a sauté pan, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. When foamy and melted, add hazelnuts, salt and herbs.
- Toast until golden brown and fragrant. Drain the hazelnuts, reserving the whole herbs. Chop hazelnuts into small pieces.
For the salad
- In a large bowl, toss kohlrabi ribbons, kale, trevisano, and toasted hazelnuts with the half of the roasted garlic vinaigrette. Season with a pinch of salt and black pepper.
- To serve, spread 1 tbsp of hazelnut butter over the bottom of each shallow bowl or plate.
- Evenly distribute the kohlrabi mixture to each plate. Garnish with pear slices, hemp seeds, and reserved herb sprigs.
All photos shot by Zach of Maggie Marguerite Studios.