When I received an invitation to a pop-up dinner at a fellow senior’s house just off campus here at Tufts University, I reacted like a tween winning tickets to a One Direction concert in typical fangirl style. I may have even squealed and jumped up and down but I’m not admitting to that just yet.
This dinner was going to be a 13-course affair, made by a student whose reputation for putting on fantastic culinary events and cooking delicious food preceded himself on campus. With the help of a few friends, senior Theo Friedman successfully planned and executed a tasting menu on February 15 of 13 dishes that represented the intersection of art and food.
With ingredients sourced mostly from local grocery stores like Market Basket and Whole Foods and cooking out of the standard kitchen in his home just off campus, Theo managed to curate a culinary experience that both showcased his passion and brought people from the same community together.
The meal was held in the dimly lit dining room with 10 guests arranged around a long table. We were told at the beginning of the meal that some dishes would be communal, so this singular table setting was able to facilitate that while encouraging a sense of intimacy among the attendees. We were brought together by Theo from different groups around Tufts campus: some were students in the class he and a friend teach, another was representing the school newspaper, while another was simply put just a huge fan. He considers bringing together a diverse group of people an important part of his meals, with food being the bonding agent and we were ever-so-willing to participate.
In the technical sense, the dinner is a stepping stone to Theo’s final twenty-course meal to fulfill a school requirement for his American Studies Major (what’s more American than food). In the figurative sense, this dinner represents Theo’s motivation and passion for cooking. In his words, “This is my expression, this is my release, this is my output, this is where I spend 12 or 18 hours on my Saturday. . .and this is something I feel compelled to do.”
We were presented with menus that laid out the basic elements of each dish without describing preparations. Ingredients that popped out immediately to me were the exotic ones like persimmon, kumquat, and pepperberry.
Course 1: Pea Soup, Chili, Bonito
The first dish came out from the kitchen and what I saw when the box lid was opened was entirely foreign to me. Nestled in a bed of straw in the box were a bunch of green spheres, each with a garnish like a small cap. We were told by Theo this was pea soup. My thought? No, it’s not. You can’t hold soup.
Oh, but you can hold pea soup. I like to think of this as a soup Gusher because the moment you popped the whole thing in your mouth, it literally exploded with the pea soup dwelling inside.
Course 2: Faux Foie, Chestnut, Smoked Tea, Kumquat
Not sure what the next logical step in a dinner would be after eating a soup bonbon, but faux foie-gras seems pretty appropriate. So when the charred slab of mushroom was placed in front of me, I embraced it as totally acceptable.
Mushroom as meat. I like it. Earthy with a fruity punch from the kumquat and a hint of nuttiness from the chestnut purée, it covered the best parts of the natural world.
All of us around the table were already blown away at this point, having just held our soup in our hands and convinced that mushroom was a delicacy. .
We moved on to two different preparations of scallop, served as consecutive courses.
Course 3: Raw Scallop, Pomegranate Hazelnut
The first scallop was raw and thinly sliced, beautiful in its simplicity and accompanied with a duo of sauces: one pomegranate, one hazelnut.
Course 4: Cooked Scallop, Sunchoke
The second was a perfectly cooked scallop that peeked out beneath a layer of thinly sliced, raw sunchoke.
Course 5: Adult Candy Bar, Milk and Honey, Berry and Pepper, Persimmon
With the first four courses covered, it was the fifth that I will never forget. It was the one I was most eager to try, with the most intriguing name of all the dishes. How does one make a candy bar “adult”?
Like every other unconventional element of this dinner, this dish had a surprise. Breaking open the log of chocolate that sat to the right of a beautiful arrangement of multicolored sauces and persimmon slices revealed a pinkish interior. Caramel? Milk chocolate truffle? Nope, that’s chicken liver mousse. Funky is perhaps the best word to describe it, and something about it was so strangely addicting.
The bittersweet, high-quality chocolate matched with the chicken liver mousse to create a luxurious flavor and texture combination that just worked. It was the intense bitterness of the chocolate that melded with the richness of the chicken liver that created a slightly sweet and absolutely, mind-bendingly delicious result.
Course 6: Monkfish, Red Pepper, Black Olive
Moving on from my moment of Zen, we were treated to monkfish, red pepper steel-cut oats and olive purée.
Talk about a work of art: color contrast, the brushstroke of olive purée, everything worked visually in this dish. And it was no slouch in the flavor department, either. The red pepper oats were a fan favorite around the table, with a level of creaminess achieved using just red peppers and oats (according to the chef).
Course 7: Pineapple, Pine, Apple
The next dish was also the most interactive, with dried pineapple slices hanging on a string above a plank dotted with a white sauce. Each dollop of sauce was matched with a slice of pineapple hovering above, so it was clear we were supposed to pull the pineapple off and dip it. I asked Theo later what the significance of having an interactive dining experience was and he pointed to the fact that interactivity avoids distraction, meaning diners will focus on the food and the experience they’re having with it. Breaking free of the monotony of the mouth-to-fork action keeps people engaged with the food and more excited to eat it.
Course 8: Tahini, Butternut Squash, Sage
Another way to please people? Give them ice cream.
Of course, we weren’t going to be eating just your average ice cream cone. No, we had these foil presents placed before us which had nestled inside of them the best ice cream sandwich I’ve ever had. Butternut squash ice cream was subtly sweet and intensely creamy, with a tahini cookie exterior that lent a wonderful nuttiness while still resisting moving into sweet territory. Fried sage on top let the dish continue toeing the line between dessert and savory.
Course 9: Grapefruit, Olive Oil, Fennel
For the next dish, Theo identified a specific memory that inspired him. His childhood breakfast of an ice-cold grapefruit translated into a grapefruit granita. The inspiration for all of these dishes varied, between single images and others firmly rooted in Theo’s personal experiences or memories. “These 13 dishes [are] me; and you having this experience is a way of understanding me…so it’s me on the plate,” he said.
Course 10: Persimmon, Carrot, Yuzu
With the ice cream sandwiches and snowy grapefruit, it was clear we were moving into dessert. Up next: yuzu and persimmon panna cotta with roasted carrots, carrot caramel, brown butter ice cream and ginger cookie crumble.
Every dish had been plated beautifully before this one, but it was still hard not to be bowled over by this presentation. Roasted carrot brought an interesting earthiness to the fruity and sweet panna cotta, while the brown butter ice cream and ginger crumble were comforting additions.
And so with this dessert and a last chocolate dish, the dinner was complete. We were all shockingly full given that each dish was only about two bites, but beyond that we were all impressed out of our minds that we just had a 13-course meal that looked and tasted the way it did and was served to us in a home on our college campus.
The dinner was a true reflection of Theo, whose passion for cooking stems from the fact that it is “the perfect blend of the two things that I love in life and that’s art and food.”
In the meantime, as Theo works to finish school requirements and graduate college with his American Studies degree, he hopes to inspire skeptical chefs out there: “People need to remove the fear of food and cooking. I believe everyone can cook and everyone’s a good cook. Everyone brings to the table their own set of experiences and everyone relates to food in their own way. And because we all eat…then I believe we all have something to say.”