Maybe we Americans have the wrong idea about barbecues, and September, not July, is the ideal time for outdoor grilling. At least that’s what it felt like during the Taste Talks All-Star Cookout on Sunday, in Williamsburg’s East River State Park. With little humidity and temperatures barely passing 70, the fires burning at 12 different food stations didn’t make chefs wilt before our eyes. Plus, the smells wafting out at guests were 100 percent appetizing (not necessarily a guarantee for New York cookouts in the blazing heat of summer).
Top chefs from favorite local spots such as the Meat Hook, Mile End, and Okonomi, rising relative newcomers Sunday in Brooklyn and Camperdown Elm, as well as literal Top Chefs Dale Talde and Sheldon Simeon, were on hand to serve up small plates from 12 to 5. Many of the chefs were teamed up to combine their talents in one dish; one instance being Win Son and Smoke Show BBQ’s nutritious burger with Smoke Show sauce.
“For me, these events are more of a way to see your friends, your homies,” Simeon told me as he and Talde traded off at the table where they were tag-teaming to assemble their BBQ 7-Up shrimp with adobo toast (which Talde said actually contained Red Bull, though I’m not sure I believe him). “It’s crazy to be out here in Williamsburg. I’m just a kid from Maui!”
After hearing Sunday in Brooklyn’s Jaime Young talk about his black lime seasoning (made from the discarded limes from his bar) at Saturday’s Taste Talks conference, I couldn’t exactly imagine the purpose of such a bitter flavor. One answer is to slather it on sweet corn, as he did in the corn two ways collaboration with Camperdown Elm’s Brad Willits.
Attendees were expecting complex delicacies, which they appeared to take a little more time to create than, say, regular burgers and dogs. The line for the Mile Em Poutine, the work of Mile End and Emmy Squared, extended almost all the way back to the entrance, but no one looked exasperated or walked away. Because many guests were used to frequenting other New York food festivals, such as Smorgasburg, they knew the best strategy: First, get something from a booth with a short line, like the double-smoked bacon bao from Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Schaller & Weber. Next, get a drink and balance both while waiting in the longest queue, chatting with friends and listening to the DJ spinning ’80s and ’90s tracks.
The Meat Hook’s Brent Young and Ben Turley, along with Juan from the Brooklyn indie band Small Black, were serving up the day’s closest version of a hot dog: a pastrami sausage with fresh slaw on a bun. As they rushed to grill and serve some 1500 sausages, they laughed when I asked if they were going to venture out to try some of the other dishes.
“If you want to bring us stuff,” Young suggested. The team did at least pause when an Altos tequila rep came by to offer them shots.
“This guerrilla cooking is fun; I’ve done enough of these things.” Talde said, not looking quite as harried as some of his colleagues.
But watching skilled all-stars work up a sweat before is was part of the appeal of a festival, isn’t it? That and the chance to stuff yourself silly. As Norman’s Andrew Whitcomb tossed oyster mushrooms over charcoal while we waited, I didn’t bother to wonder whether there was room in my stomach for more. It would just have to fit.
“I haven’t heard of most of these restaurants,” a man named Steve told me as we waited for “burro” tacos from East Village restaurant Saxon & Parole and its sibling bar Ghost Donkey. “A lot of them are spread out over the city, so it’s kind of a trek to get to any of them.”
That exposure is part of what motivates the chefs to move their carefully laid out kitchens to a small square of pavement for the day. “I usually turn down most [festivals], but this was in Brooklyn,” said chef Akhtar Nawab, owner of the Mexican restaurant Alta Calidad in Prospect Heights. “This year we are doing some because we’re so new.”
The corn and radish esquites he handed me was perfect to have between meaty courses, combining crunch and cream from cultured butter. Nawab said the dish is on his menu too… for now. “As long as we can get the corn that’s this good, we’ll do it.”
The cooler air wasn’t the only indication that summer cookout season is over. The chefs were already thinking about what they’d be cooking this fall. Nawab is planning a Mexican take on Indian roti. Simeon said he is experimenting with old Hawaiian methods of fermentation at his new place, Tin Roof Maui.
“I’m about to open a new restaurant, Rice & Gold,” Talde said. “We’re opening breakfast this week, and in a few weeks we’re opening dinner. I’m excited to get that up and running. It’s been a year-and-a-half of us planning away at this.”
That’s something to look forward to. But first, I was happy to enjoy the mid-September sun, still warm enough to finish the day a vegan ice cream sundae concocted by both Van Leeuwen and popular indie rockers Frankie Cosmos. Following all that meat with a vegan dessert? Yes, Brooklyn still does irony.
Photos by Cole Giordano