The Heath's Chef R.L. King Blends British Fare and Theatrics
London-based production company Punchdrunk (Sleep No More) opened The Heath at the McKittrick Hotel this November, bringing the immersive theatre experience to a restaurant setting and, in the process, equipping executive chef R.L. King with terms like "cue" and "understudy" -- phrases that would soon become as commonly used as "fire" and "sous chef." King likes the new lexicon. "Being able to work with the sound, lighting, props, designers, performers, choreographers -- it's been the experience of a lifetime," he says. "Not many chefs get an opportunity to do something like this." The South Carolina native developed a greenmarket-driven approach rooted in classic techniques (thanks to sharing kitchen space with chefs Frank Lee and R.J. Cooper), a style that informs The Heath's menu of elevated English dishes -- from fry-ups to Sunday-style roasts. In the interview that follows, King chats about his new culinary freedom, his newfound love for British fare, and why he leaves his ego at the kitchen door.
How would you describe the process of creating a menu for Punchdrunk? It was amazing. It was so freeing to not have to stay within the confines of one stove, one genre, and one style and to really push the envelope and think outside of the box. They gave me this wide spectrum of "1930s and 1940s old New York," but with "English and Scottish [influences]." That was trying. It required a lot of thought and research through cookbooks and websites to figure out how to fit something into such a broad spectrum. It took me six to eight weeks to really come up with a menu and to figure out how to work my style into elevated English fare and how to incorporate the techniques that I know will keep everything fresh and exciting. Typically, you think of English fare as being heavy, cooked for a long time, and wintry. So I spent time thinking about how to incorporate farm fresh, market-driven, and regional purveyors and producers into the mix.
Has developing this menu shifted your outlook on British fare? For sure. I did a lot of research on Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Tom Aikens, and other big-time chefs from the UK. I watched a lot of their YouTube videos of them showing how to do their fish or meat pies, and they would say on the screen, "typically we [in the UK] do this terribly." For example, the fish pie is one of the most [disliked] dishes, and it usually doesn't have a lot of fish in it. Heston Blumenthal said it's one of the most overcooked and hammered dishes -- then he shows you how to do it in his style to make it fresh. So it has definitely opened my eyes to the fact that you can make these kinds of dishes great with the right techniques and time.
What has been your approach to updating these classic British dishes? It's all about the technique. For the beef and ale pie, we make a stock, then the braise, and we braise boneless short ribs. When we put the actual pie together, though, everything else is cooked separately. The carrots are roasted separately, the tomatoes are cooked separately, the black trumpet mushrooms are cooked separately. We put pickled pearl onions in there, as well. When we put the pies together, we put each ingredient in, then we pour the beef broth and braised short ribs into the pie and cover it with pastry. I think that type of technique enhances the dish because you're really tasting each ingredient.
How will the menu change when it (finally, if ever) warms up? As the seasons change, the menu will definitely change. We'll stick to pies, but we'll lighten them up. Instead of beef and ale, we'll do rabbit or duck. Right now we have persimmon salad on the menu, but we'll change that to reflect the new vegetables -- tomatoes, corn, and all of the things that will start coming in.
How have your past experiences informed the menu at The Heath? I learned about classic French techniques and the fundamentals of the cuisine from my training in South Carolina and working with Frank Lee -- that is where a lot of the braises come from for the beef pies and veloutés for the fish pies. I learned a great consommé technique from my work at Vidalia with R.J. Cooper. My background definitely ties into the menu. For the longest time I was cooking in fresh, almost South American styles with chimichurris and oils and vinegars instead of reductions and creams and butters -- but now I'm using more of that because of the style of the British fare. I try to keep the menu true to the cuisine while also lightening it up a little bit.
When you were creating the Heath's menu, were you conscious about fitting into the theatrical concept of the restaurant? It was more about adapting. Not compromising in quality or integrity, but compromising in understanding that I'm just a piece in the cause, I'm just a part of the wheel, I'm just a part of this big machine. Once you understand that, it's freeing. It's like, alright, let's just go crazy.
Do you ever think that guests might leave The Heath thinking about the interactive theatrical aspects of the restaurant -- and not about the food? I don't, because I believe in what I put on the plate. I built the menu around the show. It's like building a menu around a wine for a wine dinner. Going into it, it was this is what we are, and this is what we're putting on the plate. It's about leaving ego out of it and just cooking with the love for the ingredients and what the restaurant is.
How would you describe the menu at Gallow Green, McKittrick Hotel's rooftop restaurant? The menu is English garden fare, with a big focus on market ingredients, herbs, and vegetables. The menu is definitely lighter with larger, shareable items, like oysters, charcuterie, and cheeses -- things that you want to eat as a group in somebody's backyard or on somebody's terrace. Folks can start there and then move down to the Heath -- or vice versa. There will be so many things that people will be able to do once we have everything up and running.
What has surprised you most about this experience, so far? I'm totally surprised by the response we've been getting from people who come in to eat. People are really digging what we're putting on the plate. And I'm especially surprised by the amount of great comments we're getting from people from the UK.
What has been your favorite part about this entire process? [Most chefs] work so long to become a chef, find your style and cuisine, and then you usually stick with that for the rest of your career. In working with Punchdrunk, I was like, "Alright, I'm doing something I've never done before, and I'm going to do it in my style with my techniques." Also, I've enjoyed the creative process -- from the brainstorming to the concept to the doing -- and pulling it all together.
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