In many ways, today’s drinking and dining scenes can be succinctly summed up in one phrase: “Everything old is new again.” We’re seeing a resurgence of classic cocktails like the Negroni and French 75, a newfound appreciation for vintage entertaining styles like the “fondue party,” and, of course, a trend of modernizing old-school restaurant dishes to make them more appealing to contemporary diners.
So, which “retro” dishes currently feel like top contenders for a 21st-century reboot? We asked a group of 10 chefs for their favorite old-timey meals (and what they’d do to revitalize them).
A canned cooked pork item that became popular during World War II, Spam still features prominently in the cuisine of Hawaii, where it’s used in dishes like the sushi-inspired Spam Musubi, and many chefs familiar with Spam’s importance in Hawaiian cooking want to see this flashback protein appear more frequently on mainland menus.
One such chef is M. Dana Mule of Hula’s Modern Tiki in Scottsdale and Phoenix, AZ, who tells us that “the crispy, salty nature of Spam makes it the perfect replacement, and upgrade, for the traditional ham in a Benedict. I firmly believe that once you try Spam Benedict, you’ll crave it in your sleep. Normal, run-of-the-mill Benedicts will lose their luster, and you’ll do anything to seek it out, in an attempt to satisfy that insatiable desire.”
“Dating back to the early 1800s, cheese balls became a fixture at cocktail parties in the 1940s, but slowly lost their place at the table,” says executive chef Brian Millman of Vol. 39 in Chicago, IL of this traditional appetizer made of cream cheese, cheddar cheese, and crushed nuts. Thanks to the simple nature of these ingredients, the cheese ball proves very easy to customize, as Millman likes to do at his restaurant: “At Vol. 39 we offer an elevated twist on the classic where cheddar cheese is replaced with house-made pimento cheese to give it a richer flavor that is complemented by smoked almonds and served with house-made crostini instead of crackers.”
A low-key party snack found at football viewings and family gatherings for decades, potato chips and onion dip typically only involve a bag of Lay’s, a container of sour cream, and a packet of onion soup mix. When devising her menu, executive chef Ashley Berman of Bernie’s in Brooklyn, NY wanted to introduce a polished version of this crowdpleaser while still preserving its simplicity. “Chips & dip are a perfect snack and starter to have on the menu for something quick and classic, and they pair really well with a frosty mug of beer! [My version] includes caramelized onions, sour cream, mayo, cream cheese, Worcestershire, soy sauce, salt & pepper, and fried garlic,” Berman explains.
Easily one of the most daunting dishes in Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking, the traditional European delicacy known as aspic is a savory gelatin made from meat stock. It’s not commonly found on menus these days, but executive chef Drew Dzejak of Caliza Restaurant in Alys Beach, FL would like to see that change.
“When [it comes to] old-school dishes making a comeback, I think bringing back the use of aspic would be great,” Dzejak tells The Manual. “Think along the lines of making a beef aspic to glaze a plate that is covered in beef tartare, or a seafood aspic for a crudo dish. To reinvent, I would go down the road of making it herbaceous, with plenty of spices to accent the dishes, bringing strong flavor, and in some cases, bright colors, to dishes when they are not expected.”
The green bean casserole, typically made from canned green beans, cream-of-mushroom soup, and fried onions, is a perfect culinary example of mid-century Americana, and it can still be found on Thanksgiving dinner tables throughout the country.
Chef Mike Brewer of Copper Vine in New Orleans, LA fondly recalls the green bean casseroles of his youth: “I love green bean casserole! My mother made it for Thanksgiving every year, and it was one of my favorite holiday dishes. The flavors were spot on … but she always used canned green beans. Today, with farm-to-table [cuisine] being at the forefront, I think that fresh ingredients would make this dish fantastic. Blanched green beans, toasted almonds, sautéed fresh mushrooms, and crispy fried shallot rings … incredible!”
Once considered a quintessential dinner option for families in search of a hearty and easy-to-prepare evening meal, meatloaf fell out of favor in the last few decades, as ground beef-based entrees became less and less enticing to health-conscious diners with inquisitive palates.
However, meatloaf serves as an excellent canvas for chefs who want to bring international flavors to this all-American classic. Chef Maxcel Hardy of Coop Caribbean Fusion in Detroit, MI both cherishes meatloaf in its traditional form, but also enjoys updating it with bold spices and seasonings: “My family roots are Bahamian-American. I was born in Detroit, but raised in South Florida by my Bahamian mother and grandmother. Although we ate a lot of Caribbean-style fare, there is one old-school [American] dish I’ve always loved and hope makes a comeback: Meatloaf. Meatloaf is the ultimate comfort food. It brings back memories of eating frozen meatloaf TV-dinners with my dad back in Detroit. Back then, it was simplistic – two slices of meatloaf served with a tomato-gravy meat sauce, a side of mashed whipped potatoes, and corn.
My [updated] version of a meatloaf dish combines the nostalgia of the past with my Caribbean culinary expertise of today. I call it ‘Momma’s Meatloaf’, – a hunk of curried meatloaf slices with cumin and turmeric served with a curry-pineapple-tomato sauce [and paired] with cheesy scalloped potatoes and a side of garlic and cinnamon-sauteéd spinach. A throwback with a touch of Caribbean soul.”
Rich and indulgent stews and sauces become especially appealing during the cold weather months, and one such Russian-inspired dinner has captivated American diners since the early 1900s: Beef Stroganoff. Nostalgia contributes to chef Hannah Hopkins of Besame in Steamboat Springs, CO’s fondness for stroganoff; she tells us that “delicious, creamy, rich Beef Stroganoff is what my childhood memories are made of. [When I was] growing up in Connecticut and New York back in the ’80s, this was a typical meal in our household on a cold winter night. Tender beef strips in a creamy mushroom sauce with a touch of dill over buttery egg noodles.”
As far as beef stroganoff modernization goes, Hopkins has a few ideas: “For my modern version, I would deconstruct this dish. I would sear a steak-preferably a beef tenderloin for its tender, buttery texture — and make a sauce using wild mushrooms (such as chanterelle mushrooms), beef demi-glace, sour cream, and fresh dill & chives. Gotta have the egg noodles, but I would make them with a decadent egg yolk pasta finished in butter and truffle oil!”
A dish loosely based on the French “Lobster Thermidor” that became a sensation among upper-crust New Yorkers in the late 19th century, Lobster Newburg features fresh lobster meat bathed in a cream-and-Cognac sauce and traditionally served over toast. It’s a dish that chef Philip Sireci of Fine & Rare in New York City considers well worth a revamp. “This winter, I’m excited about bringing back Lobster Newburg for a fun addition to Fine & Rare’s brunch menu. This recipe has over a hundred years of culinary history and has fallen in and out of popularity. My take [involves] preparing the dish with bourbon instead of Cognac and serving it with a Balthazar brioche, [resulting in] a warm, creamy lobster roll!” Sireci explains
Coq au vin, or chicken and mushrooms braised in wine, still appears on French bistro menus throughout the world on a regular basis. Outside of that small restaurant niche, though, it’s generally regarded as a dish from another era and not particularly innovative. Chef Clayton Rollison of Lucky Rooster Kitchen & Bar in Hilton Head Island, SC, however, thinks that coq au vin deserves another look, because “red wine-braised chicken is freaking fantastic.” When asked how he’d update coq au vin for today’s diners, Rollison told us that “[coq au vin] is traditionally stewed with the chicken skin on, and the skin can end up colorless and soggy even if you brown it before braising[I] would give the chicken a second sear in a pan to ensure brown, crispy chicken.”
When most of us think back on dishes that we adored as children, we’re not recalling high-concept, molecular-gastronomy preparations or luxe ingredients. We’re remembering playful, low-maintenance fare like mac & cheese, frozen pizza, and the messy sandwich wonder known as the Sloppy Joe.
“Sloppy Joes are one of those childhood favorites that you just don’t see anywhere on a menu anymore,” owner Randall Alonso of Lost Boy in Miami, FL says of his personal retro favorite. “When I think of [Sloppy Joes]. I instantly remember the scary lunch lady in ‘Billy Madison’ who spits out the famous line: “Have some more Sloppy Joes. I made ’em extra sloppy for yous, I know how you kids like em sloppy,” which is one of my favorite movie lines. That’s why I decided to add [Sloppy Joes] to the menu at Lost Boy. A twist on the cafeteria classic, our Sloppy Jose pays homage to our Miami roots [by using] Cuban picadillo (a ground beef dish made with olives, capers, raisins, and spices) piled on a potato roll and served ‘extra sloppy’ for all our fellow ‘Billy Madison’ fans out there.”
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