Russell Jackson runs Subculture Dining NYC, a pop-up cutting-edge dining experience where clients buy tickets to the dinner and find out the day of the event where the location is. He themes his dinners off pop culture icons or particular songs, as well as specialty foods, common versatile ingredients, musicians, artists, his chef friends, writers and food writers. Music is a big part his inspiration. From what I’ve noticed, he’s also inspired by ice cream, bacon and coffee. We spoke on the phone during his visit to San Francisco, where he used to live. You might know him from the show Iron Chef or The Next Food Network Star. He's known as "The Don" of the underground dining world.
Eva: How do you use coffee when you cook, and what properties from coffee do you consider when you use them in cooking?
Russell: I use coffee extensively. As you know, I’m an avid coffee drinker and I don’t necessarily think of myself as a coffee snob. I’m more of a coffee inclusionist. I want to kind of sample and go everywhere and everything has a sense of what people do and don’t like. And I have my own personal opinions about specific coffees I love. I’ve tried everything from the bottom shelf to the most popular and was an early adopter to technology changing and because I lived a long time on the West Coast, there is a very distinctive and intentional style of regional-specific and small, what you could classify as nano roastery, small roasters. But I’ve been really getting into micro-roasters. These guys that are doing their own blends or doing very regional-specific buying directly from farms and traveling down and meeting the farmers and bringing bag bags of raw beans and roasting through one bag at a time, it’s really interesting. I got really turned onto coffee when I used to visit Seattle.
While I was going through the ten-year process of building my first restaurant in San Francisco in 2003, we had starting running this underground restaurant to build the resources and everything we needed to own the bricks and mortar restaurant. In 2004, I started doing Subculture Dining and somewhere along that time I traveled to Seattle cause I wanted to have a unique coffee program and strategic alliance with a small bean manufacturer that no place in San Francisco was utilizing. Really standout. We went to Seattle to travel around and drink coffee. It was one of the most heavenly weekends I ever had. We went to so man cuppings in a day, I’ve never had so much caffeine. My teeth were chattering for a month afterwards. I ended up going to all these different roasters and buying all this coffee. I got to Caffe Vita and I’ve met Robert Prince whose this lovely man, and I struck up a great relationship with them and I got so turned onto their coffee, none of the San Francisco roasters tasted good any longer. I started importing coffee in every week, shipping in 5 pounds of coffee for my own personal use.
We created an alliance with Caffe Vita doing coffee dinners. We did an 18-course coffee dinner where every single dish had coffee in it and it was served with some form of coffee.
We did it for a couple of weeks. We were killing people with coffee - it was brutal, it was brilliant. It was dish after dish after dish where i was experimenting and incorporating coffee into how I wanted to interpret all of these different styles of coffee. I’ve learned how to incorporate coffee into all aspects of my food programs, whether it be cocktail, whether it be savory dishes, sweet dishes. Coffee and octopus are incredible together!
When I braise whole octopus, I’ll put a handful of coffee beans in the braise. Sometimes I’ll torch the beans a little bit and blacken them to give it this dirty earthy woodsy tone to it. Sometimes the oil will fry and the acid within the coffee helps to soften the octopus a little bit, give it a slightly different bite of a chew. Obviously dry rubs where I’m doing something with lambs. What’s great with pork butt - I used to make this coffee rub - cowboy coffee - cowboy steak, black pepper and coffee and salt and fennel and cumin and you grind it in the grinder and dry rub the steak and let it sit overnight and it gives it that smokey Southwestern treatment and then there’s that delicate side - we used to do a scallop ceviche and to finish it, we would hand grind little beans of coffee on top of the ceviche. It sometimes, will give it an earthy peppery flip to it.
My relationship with Vita, we take their chaff. Chaff is the outer skin on the coffee bean that when you roast it knda falls off and falls to the bottom, when the beans are spun it falls off the bottom of the coffee, it’s this lightweight feathery substance that they throw out. They throw it into the compost. We as a sustainable organization wanted to figure out how to utilize that coffee chaff in our cooking. I’ve used it in everything from stock making to stock in clarification work to the best part is mixing it with salt and flour and make a coffee crust and I wrap vegetables or fish or chicken coffee leaves or fresh tobacco leaves and we crust the outside, we pile this stuff up on top of it and we bake it and it steams it and gives it all this aromatic lovely flavoring. Coffee chaff is a big thing for us now.
I’m always looking for unique and interesting ways to utilize culinary waste. We wanna do what’s good for the environment, good for us, cost effective for us to create flavors that work and that’s one of those things that actually really works. I can get a 5 pound of this chaff and they’re going to throw it away in the garbage every week but we can take that fresh flavor and put it inside of our work and create some incredible dishes. I wanna take coffee chaff and mix it with some japanese curing technology, or styles where you cure vegetables like umeboshi or kazuki vegetables where you take sake leaves - leftover rice garbage when they make sake or miso, there’s all this leftover chud - if we take that and pari it together with the coffee chaff and age vegetables in it, we can create these unique flavor profiles.
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