When I arrive a few minutes late to the apartment, just steps from Central Park, Beatles harmonies are filling the room and the table is surrounded by an odd mix of people — part businessmen in dress shirts splitting a bottle of expensive wine, part college-age kids with an appetite for excitement.
As I take my seat, a plate is presented to me, holding the first of the 10-course meal we’ve gathered for — a small, fuzzy white orb that fits between my thumb and forefinger. “You’d better eat that all in one bite,” the girl next to me whispers. I pop it into my mouth and jolt as it bursts open, releasing the tart, cool strawberry gazpacho contained within. “Thanks for the heads-up,” I respond, wide-eyed.
The apartment we’re seated in is warm, spacious, affluent — borrowed for the evening from a family friend of the chef, I later find out — and a far cry from what I had expected when I first came across the mysterious dinner invite, buried within posts on a popular New York chef’s Twitter feed. “One night. Ten courses. BYOB,” it proclaimed, listing an email and phone number to contact if you were down. I was down.
After the strawberry gazpacho came one course after another of unique, delicious fare. A chicken liver mousse with sour cherry fluid gel and black lava salt, cured scallop with bacon-apple dashi, a pressed carrot “steak” with chipotle-pineapple crema, and shaved root beer-cured pig tongue. Yes — pig tongue.
One of the night’s dishes: roasted chicken breast, fermented black bean-and-turnip purée, Thai basil oil, charred apricots, chicken skin with fermented black bean powder.
The food was surprising and sophisticated, and the chef shuffled in and out of the kitchen to present each course, giving a brief rundown of the contents of each plate. Dish after dish, the complex combinations of ingredients appeared to be crafted by well-seasoned hands — but this was no veteran. Rather, the chef was Theo Friedman, a 22-year-old recent college graduate ready to make his mark on the culinary world.
Friedman talks about food with a poise and assuredness beyond his years. “When it comes to cooking, the motivation is infinite,” he says, his eyes lighting up excitedly. “When you look around and see people digging in and loving this thing you just created — that’s the best feeling you could ever have.” Though lacking classical training, Friedman forged a name for himself on the Tufts University campus and is now doing the same on the New York City food scene.
“From the womb, food has been the most important thing to me and the thing that defines me,” Friedman says. He and his brother were raised by their artist parents to be adventurous eaters: “I was the weird kid who brought baby octopus or seaweed as a snack to school, and everyone would be like, what is that weird stuff?” He credits his father, in particular, with always teaching him to use food to “explore new places, meet new people, and understand new cultures.”
Sharing a meal with his culinary partner in crime, his father, in Vietnam.
However, despite his audacious appetite, Friedman didn’t always know he wanted to be a chef. Growing up in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, he had ambitions to be a photographer and follow in his parents’ footsteps. But during his freshman year at Tufts, “Something clicked. I got bit hard and fell really deep into that world” — the world of cooking.
One night while surfing YouTube, Friedman stumbled upon a modernist cooking video showing strawberry noodles being made with agar. He thought it was magical. Soon he began preparing dinners for friends in his dorm kitchen, earnestly utilizing whatever tools were on hand. “It was ridiculous, using a broken electric oven and a shitty pan I found in a thrift store.”
But that didn’t stop the dinners from blowing up. Friedman’s events became a hot ticket on campus, with eager coeds clamoring to get a spot at the buzzed-about table. As the dinners evolved, so did his skills. Along with sophisticated 10- or 20-course tasting menus served to a handful of friends, Friedman held taco nights, packing his small university apartment with hundreds of college kids and selling inventive tacos filled with the likes of Japanese eggplant with maple yuzu yogurt and Korean braised beef with kimchi for a couple of bucks a shell. “They started as just me wanting to do something for myself and my friends,” Friedman says of the dinners. “They grew in size, intensity, execution, and popularity, but my intentions were still the same. In a way they were selfish, because I probably had more fun than anyone else.”
Friedman and fellow WD~50 cooks.
During the summers, Friedman honed his kitchen skills working the line at acclaimed New York restaurants including the Michelin-starred Gotham Bar and Grill and Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50, a bastion of modernist American-Eclectic cuisine, as well as Nudel and Clio restaurants in his home state. However, at the end of each summer, it was back to school, where Friedman used the pop-up dinners to keep his kitchen skills sharp and his hunger for cooking satiated. “I was sitting in school absolutely incapable of thinking of anything else beside food,” he says.
When senior year rolled around and it was time for Friedman to pick a final project to finish out his American studies degree, he knew a paper just wouldn’t do. Instead he decided to put on a dinner. Friedman set out to make a statement about how people are disconnected from what they eat because of the industrial food system. Through 20 courses, he countered this mentality with his more personal, creative, and emotional approach to cooking, creating a sense of “community and expression.” Friedman’s project passed with flying colors — and even got its own write-up in the Boston Globe — and as graduation neared, Friedman wasn’t sure what his exact path would be, only that it would lead to the kitchen. So he stuck to what he knew and loved, the pop-ups.
Friedman’s cones, made from dehydrated rhubarb, goat cheese mousse, candied fennel, and chard stalks.
A plan was made, a mysterious invite tweeted, and tickets were sold. That’s how I found myself seated at a stranger’s apartment on a Wednesday night eating a tasty bite-size morsel of braised and charred octopus with dehydrated pineapple foam and micro cilantro from the end of a stick — the chef’s play on the flavors of tacos al pastor. “I think it’s important to add elements of surprise and confusion, almost to discomfort without going too far,” Friedman says of his intrepid menus. “If you’re doubting a dish and aren’t totally comfortable with it, I think that makes you more engaged and involved in the meal.”
Our dinner was rounded out by a few desserts: a tart ground cherry sorbet with candied black olives, corn husk cream, and a citrus meringue; fennel and lychee yogurt with fermented black bean cake and cucumber sorbet; and a cone made of dehydrated poached strawberries and rhubarb filled with goat cheese mousse and pickled rhubarb. A fitting end to an exciting gastronomic experience.
“The cool thing about food and cooking is that inspiration can come from anywhere — everything you’ve ever eaten and smelled, of course, but also everything you’ve ever touched, every way a shadow has created an image. Those are all logged in your brain, and it’s just a question of when one of those things falls into place and an idea forms,” Friedman says.
Friedman’s cucumber lemongrass sorbet with fermented black bean cake.
A few weeks after this dinner, with another taco night under his sleeve and plans for more pop-ups in the works, the opportunity arose to apply for a job working under Chef Matt Lambert at the Musket Room — a Michelin-starred restaurant serving New Zealand-inspired fare — so Friedman sent in his résumé. They called him in for a cooking trial, giving the young chef the opportunity to show off the chops he had sharpened over nights in the dorm cooking in an old pan over broken burners. They offered him the job on the spot.
“Being able to do something you’re so passionate about is the most incredible experience,” Friedman says of his cooking career, still very much in its infancy. “Cooking allows the total freedom to express myself … to communicate a message.” Facing a future surely filled with countless new, venturous dishes to be dreamed up and created, Friedman couldn’t say what the best meal he’s ever cooked was — but he did know the most memorable. “I was 13, and I made creampuffs for my dad’s birthday. That was the first time I was able to use food as a language and deliver a message that words couldn’t do alone. That was a really powerful moment.”
Friedman has tried to replicate that moment and that message with every meal he’s prepared since. “To see that in front of you, joy and happiness being experienced because of something you just created — that’s ultimately what I’m trying to do with food.”
Theo Friedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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