Describe XO Café.
XO has a hip atmosphere, funky art and, in its current incarnation, creative dishes featuring local ingredients.
You joined XO recently, right? Where were you before?
Yeah, it’s only been about a month. Before XO, I was recently at Loie Fuller’s and Nicks on Broadway for years before that. The owner of XO brought me in because of my approach to and knowledge of local food, with the goal of making farm-to-table more of a focus here. The other places I’ve worked in the past are really part of that philosophy, so I was well prepared.
How are you approaching the menu at XO, and what changes have you made?
For the first couple of weeks, I was just getting acclimated – getting to know the staff and day-to-day workings here. Then, I started switching over the menu and added five dishes of my own. I prepared the dishes and had all the servers try them. Eighty percent of my sales that night were from the new dishes. It’s great having servers behind the food, really believing in the dishes and wanting to push them, and also drawing customers who understand and demand seasonal local food.
How would you sum up your food philosophy?
A lot of young cooks are all about the over-the-top precious food. I like to make it aesthetically pleasing too, but when you break it down, for me it’s all about getting things in the peak of season and flavor, and letting the ingredients shine on their own.
What are some reasons farm-to-table and a frequently changing menu appeal to you? Is it more than a trend?
The ‘90s were all about organic, but people were shipping food 3,000 miles across the country, and that makes no sense. I’m all about making a conscious effort to get behind local economies, seasonal foods and the farmers that provide the food, food that was grown with care and love. I want to influence others to do the same – even if it is cost prohibitive for you, if you can choose just a few things to bring into your home or restaurant, it makes a difference.
As for why I like it, there’s the obvious – it’s great to support local farmers, and it just tastes better. But there’s the effect of change as well. Not only does a seasonal menu leave customers intrigued with what’s next, but it also keeps the cooks fresh and excited about cooking something new. When your staff becomes complacent it shows in the food; changing things up keeps them entertained and makes the food better.
What are some great local dishes you’ve featured recently?
A really popular one is the Grilled Pork Tenderloin with root vegetable hash, braised red cabbage, spiced cider reduction and pickled mustard seed. The vegetables include beet, celery root, carrot and turnip. The cabbage is cooked until it’s falling apart. And then there’s the cider – the components of this one really scream fall.
We also made a Pumpkin Seed-Crusted Salmon with celery root gratin with wilted greens, beet and apple slaw, and Dijon gastrique. Another favorite was the Seared Bomster Scallops with pork belly, Brussels sprouts, crispy quinoa and carrot-ginger puree.
What’s a seasonal vegetable that made you especially happy lately?
I recently got some beautiful buttercup squash. I made a soup, pureed some for the base of a special I was running, and also used it to make a panna cotta for dessert. They just lend themselves to many applications. It’s fun to see how many things you can do with one vegetable.
What’s next at XO?
I’ll be further refining the menu and plan to revise it on a weekly, rather than just seasonal, schedule. We also had a cooking class for 8-10 people recently and I hope to continue those seasonally. We walked through preparing a beet salad and a chicken dish with similar components to the grilled pork tenderloin I described earlier. We also talked about how to source local ingredients at their seasonal peak. I got a flood of email and positive responses after that first class – it was pretty validating.