If you watched the Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez’s episode of “Chef’s Table” last season, you probably remember his encounter with a huatia, the earth oven built as both a celebration of the harvest and as a good if laborious way to cook dinner.
In the show, at the edge of a potato field, overlooking a lake in the high Peruvian Andes, traditionally dressed women gather grapefruit-size clumps of dirt. They arrange the improvised mud bricks into a structure that looks something like a beehive. They pile small, gnarled potatoes into an opening at the base, and push in flaming twigs and bits of straw. When the fire is hot, they collapse the oven. Hours later, they disinter the roasted potatoes from their earth oven. You have never wanted to taste a potato so badly in your life.
Earth ovens, or food baked in clay, are of course common almost everywhere that has both fire and dirt. They are the basis of Yucatecan cochinita pibil, Chinese beggar’s chicken and New England clambake, Hawaiian luaus and South Texas barbacoa.
Basque chef Andoni Luis Aduriz serves a dish of unadorned potatoes coated with a thin layer of fine, clean kaolin clay. I have tasted potatoes served in a broth carefully distilled from soil, potatoes plucked from a pit, and potatoes slowly roasted in wood embers. Potatoes and earth were especially made for each other.
If this year’s L.A. Times Food Bowl had a theme, it was probably new potatoes, usually a crop that appears in great abundance in May, and a vegetable that chefs love to play with. California’s cool spring didn’t cooperate — potatoes didn’t really come in until June. But when I sat down to write about the best dishes I’d had at the festival, which ran May 1-31, the three that crowded out all the others seemed to involve tubers and earth. And if Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa had managed to re-create his Satoyama Scenery dish in Los Angeles, there might have been one more.
Ben Shewry has arguably done more to advance Australian cuisine than anyone in ages. His cooking at Attica, just outside Melbourne, features things like crepes made with wallaby blood instead of eggs, compositions of wild native greens, and the occasional pit-cooked carrot. As part of their duties, his cooks tend and harvest many of the vegetables and herbs they use in the gardens the restaurant maintains on an adjacent National Trust estate. If you look beyond the elaborate plating and the emphasis on produce instead of meat, you could trace a lot of the dishes to the Australia of a century ago, when many people really did live off the land.
Still, the dish that perhaps made Attica’s reputation was Shewry’s riff on hangi from his native New Zealand, the Maori technique of steam-cooking food on top of heated rocks and under a layer of earth for several hours. Shewry cooked potatoes in the soil in which they were grown.
Those potatoes have been off the menu at Attica for a few years now — kitchens move on. But at a Food Bowl event with Curtis Stone at his Hollywood steakhouse Gwen, Shewry slow-roasted tiny potatoes from Tehachapi’s Weiser Family Farms in a bed of the farms’ soil, which intensified the succulence and the place-specific flavors that wine people call terroir to an almost unimaginable degree. It was one of the few meals I can think of where the baked potato outshone both caviar and a splendid beef Wellington. Shewry’s version of the Australian spongecake dessert called Lamington, paved with prickly Australian ants, was almost an afterthought.
Monique Fiso is a young chef of Maori heritage who is becoming famous in New Zealand for her exploration of local wild plants and her devotion to traditional hangi. (The food chatterers expect her to join the top rank of chefs after her restaurant in the capital city of Wellington opens this fall.) Fiso cooked a lovely barbecue dinner with Timothy Hollingsworth outside Otium for the festival. Yet the dish that knocked me backward in May was composed of the simple sweet potatoes she cooked at the No Beast Feast dinner downtown, a celebration of seasonal vegetable-based cuisine prepared by 20 of the best woman chefs in the world. She encased sacks of sweet potatoes in mud taken from Border Grill chef Mary Sue Milliken’s home garden, roasted the mass over a hot wood fire, and finally splashed the tubers with puréed herbs. The soft, steamy potatoes, intensely sweet but with an earthy essence, were spectacular.
And then there were the roasted potatoes from Virgilio Martínez himself, grown at 13,000 feet in the Andes, brought into the country, and served on heaps of the crumbly clay in which they’d been cooked. The texture was hard. The mineral essence was extreme, the kind of thing I imagine Aduriz had been trying to duplicate with his clay-coated potato. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine you were in the mountains outside Cuzco instead of a potato field in Tehachapi, with fragrant herbs all around and the barest hint of acrid smoke in the air.