Thursday night's sold-out Dallas Food and Wine Festival at the Arboretum was a classy affair. Finely dressed couples — many of them older and than the average food festival-goer — paid $140 per ticket to wander the colorful blooming gardens at sunset, sipping wine and sampling bites from Dallas chefs.
Thai waterfall beef salad with Rosewood Ranch filet, smoked yellowtail and Marcona almond on yucca, scallop crudo with gooseberries — delightful dishes were spread throughout the gardens, all of it complemented by a seemingly endless array of wine. The dishes were varied, and it was lovely to wander the gardens to see and smell the flowers.
But amidst the kimchi wraps and delicate herb salsa verde spooned over red wattle meatballs, one dish stood out, and it came in a tin can tossed inside a brown paper bag.
At first look, Kitchen LTO chef Josh Harmon appeared to be phoning it in with his Deviled Belly in a can. Guests at the fancy soiree eyed Harmon's table cautiously, no doubt wondering if they paid $140 to eat a tin can of deviled ham.
Which is exactly the feeling Harmon was going for.
"When [one of the Dallas Food and Wine Festival organizers] invited us to do it, she told me to think upscale — pretty to look at and take pictures of," Harmon says. "So I wanted to do the opposite of what she was telling me and the other chefs. I figured that could be a way to stand out."
Harmon succeeded. His dish, a play on deviled ham, was an upscale take on a nostalgic food for a good many American diners.
"My mom used to make me little deviled ham sandwiches when I was little," Harmon says. "She would buy the can with the little devil on it. She would chop pickles, sometimes boiled egg and some celery and onion, mayo and sometimes mustard. She would mix it together and put it on white bread. I loved it."
Harmon recreated the dish with some slightly more high-end ingredients.
"The protein in the can is bacon," he says. "We take whole slab bacon and braise it, then we take a bunch of Kewpie mayonnaise and we smoke it. We made some bread and butter pickles and chopped some shallot and green garlic and whipped it into the bacon with the smoked mayo and some house-made miso. We have had miso going for over six months, made from fermented black bean. After it's all whipped, we canned it."
The resulting dish, served with white bread, crackers and a crunchy, playful "cool ranch shishito" pepper, was garnished as creatively as it was conceived.
"The garnish on top started way before the bacon," Harmon says. "There was a celery nukazuke, which is a traditional Japanese pickle made by burying your product (in this case celery) in a fermented wheat bran mixture. We season the bran and let it get funky, then we bury stuff in it. After you pull it out, you can rinse it off and bam. Pickled. The fermenting of the bran is what takes a few weeks."
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He also pickled mustard seeds with coriander and a house-made vinegar made "out of old flower petals and some hooch," he says.
In the end, by keeping it casual but still thoughtful, Harmon created the most memorable dish of the event, one that felt as much like an experience as a bite of food. The icing on the cake: By going with a bagged lunch-style plating, the lines at his table moved fast, which is integral at a sold-out food festival.
"I think people really liked it," Harmon says of the dish. "You can relate to food like that. This was something people felt comfortable eating, or not at all, and that's the exciting part. I had a women tell me she hated canned ham when she was little, and she came back for another one to give to her husband. It was fun seeing people laugh and take pictures of our dish. It shook things up and made people ask questions.
"I'm still a really small fish in Dallas," Harmon says. "We are really just trying to do something different."