“Top Chef” alum Chef Eli Kirshtein sat down with Where to talk about his new Franco-American concept, The Luminary, and share his passion for amping up flavor with raw foods.
Q: Why a French restaurant?
When you go to school, your focus is almost entirely on French cuisine and philosophy. Everybody’s gotten away from that. It was a unique opportunity to get back to my roots. But also, I was looking at the neighborhood. We found the space and had some top-level concepts. You know, it’s something that’s missing in Atlanta and it’s missing in the neighborhood. It’s a super neighborhood-friendly concept.
Q: You don’t think raw when you think of French cuisine. Why incorporate raw components in The Luminary’s menu?
I totally agree, people think of Japanese food when they think raw. But raw oysters are a classic French food and beef tartare is a super traditional raw French dish. We use raw techniques all over the menu because we want to incorporate these awesome flavors. They’re little accents, they’re garnishes, they’re finishing touches, they’re ways to season. We use those as another tool in our toolbox to be able to create awesome flavors.
Q: Do you think the word “raw” scares people if it’s outside the context of sushi and oysters?
I did a bit of consulting for a Kosher restaurant group, and one thing I kept seeing was that everybody says, “It’s good for Kosher food. It’s good for vegetarian food,” and things like that. We focus on things being great all the time. This is really good food and it happens to be raw. I think that there’s this stigma, because people say “Oh, it’s raw.” We don’t tell people that we do these applications for any kind of marketing. We do it because it makes a great product.
Q: How do those raw garnishes add to the flavor of a dish?
[The Luminary’s] chef de cuisine, Billy Kohl, is vegan. So he’s constantly able to find these cool ways to draw flavor out that is non-meat oriented. One of the things he’s brought to the table is this philosophy of being able to use essential juices that create really awesome flavors. We’re just trying to amp up flavor all the time—that’s the whole goal.
Q: Is there a specific time of year for eating raw food?
Not really. Our applications are year round. We’re given a bounty of ingredients even in the dead of winter. Right now, we’re getting beautiful produce, whether it’s kale or sunchokes or turnips or radishes. Those things are only available now, and some of them are awesome in raw applications.
Q: What’s a good time of year for oysters?
I think oysters are good all times of year. Some people say [the month] has got to have an “r” in it. That’s an old-wives tale, because back in the day they were taking oysters out of the water and having to ship them across the country...and by that time, you would die. People would be dying. We’re inland, we’re pretty close to the coast but we’re still inland. And now I can get [oysters] the day after they come out of the water. So, I think that’s an old cliché that’s not relevant anymore.
Q: What’s your favorite raw dish?
That’s a tough one. We’re so inspired by the produce we get. We’re getting local kohlrabi right now and any application that I get to use it in is exciting. We’re incorporating it into a salad and also cook the leaves in a vegan application. I could eat it like sliced apples.
Q: The Luminary’s menu is printed in-house every day. What are the challenges and opportunities that come with that?
I know this is not a new thing. For a long time people were slaves to menus, where if we get ugly produce you still have to put it on the menu because you’re committed to it. We have the ability to say this fish isn’t nice or we found these beautiful things we can bring in. We got some awesome black truffles in right now, so we have the ability to just add it to the menu right away. It gives us a tremendous freedom and it gives us a tremendous burden of responsibility that we have zero excuse for [bad] product.
Q: Is there a specific cocktail that pairs well with raw food?
A lot of raw foods can be strengthened by acid and herbaceous notes. An old-school gin and tonic is the way to go, because you can incorporate flavors of juniper and angelica, plus that heady aroma of tonic. Who doesn’t like a gin and tonic?