Alex Talbot, the world-respected chef, scientist and culinary problem solver behind the must-read Ideas In Food blog, is having an early dinner at Elements in Princeton, New Jersey when I walk by him sitting at the bar. Like myself he’s there to attend the latest Summer Of The Chefs dinner organized by the restaurant’s Executive Chef Scott Anderson. Talbot looks happy forking into a scallop roe croquette.

“It took over a week to cure the scallop roe in the scallop roe croquette,” recalls Anderson via phone a week later. When I forked into the croquette, one of three amuses served, I probably looked happy too. Also, a little puzzled. Cured scallop roe? The wha? It’s this type of exploration and inventiveness that defines a meal at Elements, which on that night was hosting Dave Racicot of Notion and Shawn Gawle of Corton. It was truly a blockbuster meal, with Anderson stealing the show — a Portuguese sardine with squash, verbena and garlic yuba was standout of the night. Home field advantage? Perhaps. But home is always pretty good for Anderson, as I found out during our chat.   

What is it like to cook with all these different chefs over the summer?
All the dinners are different. Some are highly collaborative and others are chefs doing what they want to do, either what they are doing at their restaurants or things that they have done well in the past.

And you oftentimes wait until the last moment to pick the dishes?
We did things that we had worked on that week. In the sardine dish, I really wanted to use a lot of the lettuces we had in the garden and do a squash consommé because the squash is beautiful right now. So dishes kind of present themselves as we see ingredients.

You really get to use a lot of great ingredients too, right? You have a pretty big culinary garden, and have the means to fly in some great products from around the world.
We are absolutely ingredient-driven, without a question. We have farms all around us in New Jersey and get to pick the best of the best. We’re very ingredient-driven people.

To that point, let’s talk about your location. You’re close to two major cities, but this all feels pretty far away. What’s the benefit of running a restaurant in Princeton, and not New York or Philly?
As far as I’m concerned, the benefit is being able to work with local farmers. We get a ton of locally grown stuff that you can’t get in New York City. We have a guy that is just five minutes north of us who is growing green gooseberries, currants, Saskatoons, all kinds of different things that you would spend exorbitant amounts of money for if you were in New York City. We’re able to work one-on-one with farmers and have them grow different things specifically for us. We don’t get the foot traffic that Philadelphia or New York has, but if you want super fine products, this is the place to be.

Your food is definitely not for all diners. You challenge people. How has that gone over in Princeton?
It’s gone over well. I knew that coming into this we would have to “train the sheep,” for lack of better terminology. There are a lot of things that we still want to do, but are reluctant to do so because we know that our guests aren’t ready for them. If we were to open up right off the bat doing a lot of the things that we wanted to do, our doors would probably be closed. It’s about being patient and knowing your market.

But then you get somebody like Alex Talbot who comes in. I saw him dining at the bar. Does he come in a lot?
No, no. He texted me like an hour before. He very rarely comes with us to eat. He usually just comes in to work with us and play around in the kitchen. Every so often, you’ll get somebody from New York City, who will be like, “Oh yeah, last night I ate at Atera.” So you know you can take risks with them. I remember when we first opened, a guy came in and was like, “I just got back from a business trip in Chicago and I ate at Alinea.” And I was like, “Oh, fuck.” We do get those diners.

What is a dish that you would say exemplifies your ability to also cater to your meat-and-potatoes customers?
We are getting beautiful fingerling potatoes in during this time of year. We have a great rib-eye that we get from Niman Ranch, along with some local onions. So we’ll do something like fingerling potatoes confit that has cipollini onions and fire-roasted tomatoes. Something that takes a little bit more technique to get it right, but that is more familiar to guests, who will read it as “Niman Ranch ribeye, smoked tomato, fingerling potato, and onion,” they’re like, “Okay, I can handle this.” When it gets presented to them it might look a little different, but the flavors are there.

Let’s talk about some of the aging you are doing in your walk-in. I noticed some birds and some charcuterie. What do you have hanging right now?
Right now we have a bunch of different lardos hanging, which comes from our local pig person. We have a variety of different sausages hanging, as well as some Wagyu beef. In the fall, we had a bunch of mallards and guinea hens.

Is this a big part of your menu?
It doesn’t generally go out on the normal menu. We usually reserve it for chefs’ tastings. It’s mostly a practice run right now.

Do you plan to do some more curing at your new restaurant?
Yes. We’ll have a fair amount of charcuterie there, so we are now practicing.

What is the new restaurant going to be like? What’s the name?
The name is Mistral. It’s a small plates concept.

Give me a couple of menu items that you are going to open with.
I don’t even have one iota what we’re going to put on the menu yet. It really depends on the season and when we open. Right now, it’s looking like a mid-fall opening, but it could be much further, because we’re dealing with the township of Princeton.

Who are some chefs that you really look up to right now?
There a ton of them. The chefs that I’ve worked with over this past summer I respect highly. And, of course, the pope himself, David Kinch. We have been following him for years and years. Also a lot of the old guards like the Thomas Kellers and Charlie Trotters of the world.

What is your relationship with Kinch? Did you do some guest stage work with him?
Not with him. Our relationship is either via Twitter or texting here and there. I’m going out there in August to eat dinner and I’ll spend the day with him at Love Apple Farms and then eat.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
Probably doing the same thing I’m doing: cooking and enjoying life. I try not to think too far ahead.

Do you want to still be in New Jersey?
Yeah, absolutely.

That’s cool. A lot of the time chefs don’t have a clear idea but it seems like you have it.
It’s pretty crystal clear. As long as I’m cooking and enjoying myself, I’m a happy camper.

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