Kraut Rocks is the hipster appellation promoters have conferred upon a sauerkraut competition involving five of DC area leading chefs. Steered by Bravo’s Top Chef alumni Spike Mendelsohn, the contest is sponsored by Great Lakes Kraut (GLK), a century-old company and largest producer of sauerkraut in the world. GLK is the maker of the KRRRRISP Kraut, as well as the Bavarian style Silver Floss Sauerkraut that boasts a hint of caraway and Courtland Valley, an organic kraut with healthful probiotic benefits.
It’s an intriguing concept from a company looking to introduce the region’s younger generation to the wonders of sauerkraut. Revered in France, Eastern Europe and throughout the Slavic states, the fermented cabbage has yet to enjoy the same hoopla in our area. (N.B. Costco has recently ceased offering it with its in-store hotdogs).
Before refrigeration pickled and fermented vegetables were in – every family larder and rows of glistening Mason jars contained the jewels of the growing season – providing nutritious eating throughout Northern winters as well as an appealingly tart accompaniment for Southerners when it was too dang hot to cook.
Kraut Rocks puts the classic ingredient into the hands of edgy chefs like Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore, Fabrice Reymond of Redline GastroLounge, Ian Reeves of The Queen Vic British Pub, Ryan Wheeler of Virtue Feed & Grain and Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground, and that’s where the transformation from age-old condiment to trendy ingredient takes shape.
Throughout the month of September voters choose their favorite dish online at KrautRocks.com. Dishes can order the dishes at all four restaurants and a $250 restaurant gift certificate to the winning chef’s restaurant will be awarded as a grand prize in the Kraut Rocks Online Sweepstakes, second grand prize winner scores a $250 gift certificate to one of Mendelsohn’s multiple restaurants. In addition there are five first prizes of Kraut Rocks restaurant gift certificates, merchandise and exclusive access to special events hosted by Kraut Rocks’ chefs.
Whisk and Quill spoke to Spike Mendelsohn and some of the chefs this week.
Jordan: Where did you get the idea to do Kraut Rocks?
Spike: It was Krispy Kraut and I was honored to team up with them. They approached me after reading about stuff I’d done with kraut.
Has it been done anywhere before?
Nope! It’s the first time ever in the company’s history. They were debating which city to host it in and settled on DC because the food scene here is growing at a very fast rate. They are trying to take the fear out of fermentation, the process also used to make beer and pizza dough. The idea is to make kraut more fun and creative.
How did you select the chefs involved and what does each one bring to the table so to speak?
I’m a DC chef now and have been following the food scene here. I wanted chefs whose careers were born here and also tried to choose from different neighborhoods like Chinatown and Alexandria. Ultimately the company chose the chefs they wanted to participate.
Is Mike Isabella in on this?
Mike helped judge. But it’s the consumers that choose the winning dish.
What were the rules in regards to ingredients, technique and final product?
No rules at all!
Have you ever heard about sauerkraut being used in a chocolate cake?
Yes, we talked about it but I’ve never tried it.
Would you say these are dishes easily made by the home cook?
Definitely all the dishes that were presented could be done at home. It’s one of the things the chefs kept in mind.
Are they currently being served in their respective restaurants?
Yes, all the dishes can be ordered throughout the month of September.
Tell me about your early experiences with pickling and kraut?
When I did my formal training in the South of France there’s a dish there called choucroute, which I used to prepare when I was at Cirque in NYC. It’s very wholesome and very delicious. It’s one of my favorites.Oh, and I love to snack on kimchee.
Why was DC selected for the competition?
They chose markets that weren’t big to get new people turned on to kraut and raise awareness. It’s been one of the most enjoyable campaigns to work on highlighting DC chefs.
What’s next for you?
The Good Stuff Eatery expansion continues, as well as Life After Top Chef a show that follows my family and me around. It’ll debut in October. I’ll be on an upcoming Iron Chef and I have a new steak frites restaurant called Bearnaise opening up on Capital Hill.
Ian Reeves, one of the contestants and Executive Chef of The Queen Vic British Pub on H Street in the newly revitalized Atlas District spoke to Whisk and Quill.
Jordan: Have you ever been in a single product competition before?
Ian: No, but it’s been a good experience and well received.
Do you use sauerkraut regularly in the Queen Vic?
We’ve had it on the menu before but we normally make our own. I do like using this product though. It’s a fine shred.
How did you come up with your dish that so far is the top pick?
I just thought of using it as the star of the dish and combining it with pork and apples. I’m using the Red Delicious, which are in season now in Virginia.
What are your earliest experiences with kraut?
My first experience was in Munich about three years ago. I was there for a wedding and had it at a bierhaus.
Do you rinse or soak it first?
I squeezed some of the liquid off since I was doing some caramelizing in the pan. But not usually if it’s a good product such as this is.
Have guests been ordering this dish?
Absolutely it’s been quite popular. I’ve already gone through half of the thirty pounds I requested while using about six ounces per plate.
Would you say it’s brought new customers into your restaurant?
There are definitely new faces ordering this dish.
Jordan: Is sauerkraut something you serve at Virtue?
Ryan: Typically we make our own in house and serve it with a Polish style sausage.
What was the inspiration for your dish?
When I signed on I wanted to do something that embodies what we do at Virtue – something out of the box. So I made Scotch eggs and put sauerkraut inside.
Jordan: What are your earliest memories of kraut?
Ryan: As a kid my parents would have it in the fall as an Oktoberfest meal. That was my first exposure and so I’ve had it with schnitzel and spaetzle.
Do you rinse or soak it first?
No. I enjoy the taste of brine and the good taste from the salt. Though we do braise it here, which softens it up a bit.
Do you find guests are ordering this dish?
As a special, yes! We’ve sold about 120 eggs so far averaging about 15 a day.
How have you introduced diners to the competition?
We do a good job of promoting it with table tents and menu inserts with the Kraut Rocks logo. The whole team has been involved. It’s been good fun and I’ve enjoyed the process. I would encourage new chefs to get involved with challenging competitions like this. We plan to put the Scotch eggs on our menu even after the competition is over.
To vote for your favorite sauerkraut dish, watch videos of the ongoing competition, below, and get all the recipes to prepare at home.
Kraut Rocks website.