The Tater Tot Revolution
Chefs around the country are updating classic after-school snacks and guilty pleasures for their restaurant menus.
Chef Brittanny Anderson is scared. She’s standing at the pass in her Richmond, Virginia, restaurant Metzger Bar and Butchery, the point where the line cooks deliver plates to the expeditors who add the final garnishes before the dishes are delivered to the tables. Anderson is the last line of quality control before a guest digs in.
The plates that she sends out are clean, arranged. She’s not a tweezer food person, but her game is tight. This, however, is a mash up, a brunch takeover by the famed New Orleans joint Turkey and the Wolf and its sister café Molly’s Rise & Shine, which have taken over part of her menu.
“Walking in. Pot pie. Two Ruebens. Yogurt. Tater Tot. All day long, I need five tater tots on the fire.” She speaks firmly, but she’s calm, solid.
There’s a line down the block in front of the restaurant and the dining room was full the moment the doors opened. Someone from the front of the house leans in and says: “Y’all just turned your first two top in twelve minutes.”
A cook whoops and hollers.
Mason Hereford from Turkey and the Wolf walks in and says “I just told the people out there it was okay because we can cook fast as shit, by which I mean that you people can cook fast as shit.” He joins Anderson at the pass to inspect the plates going out, seemingly unfazed by the huge crowd.
Why would a hipster sandwich spot in New Orleans command this sort of attention? How can a crew that tops bologna with potato chips and wears service-station shirts travel halfway up the East Coast and be greeted by loads of adoring fans?
The simple answer is that the landscape of American dining is ever-changing and has been in motion since James Beard wrote the menu at the Four Seasons in English and not the traditional French. Individuals get too much credit of course—do I really need to say that Alice Waters moved the story forward?—but certainly they help us locate the waypoints on the trail. And recently, it seems like change has sped up to a blistering pace. It’s old news that Momofuku made tablecloths seem absurd and cooked things that everyone wanted to eat—ramen, dumplings, and chicken wings. Fette Sau gave us subway tile and welding. Roy Choi was named one of the Food & Wine chefs of the year in 2010 for cooking out of a truck. (Which sounded a lot different then, and resulted in an ebullient video of him necking a bottle of Champagne and telling everyone they let the pirates on the boat: “I don’t even have a restaurant!”)
This is another step in the food revolution with which I am, frankly, in love. Elevated, precise, delicious, but rooted in the familiar. In my search for what, exactly, this new cuisine comes from, the best thing I’ve come up with is that it finds its foundations in after-school snacks. Seriously. Comfort food from the minds of kids who grew up in the ’80s and ‘90s and were fed microwaved hamburgers, cup of soup, and frozen biscuits.
Hereford has said as much. He’s trying to take things from the store and make them taste good. Which is why the stuffing of his signature pot pie has chicken flavor amped up with the addition of the MSG laced Totole.
Do you remember how hungry you were when you got home from school? Now imagine that a group of exacting, talented chefs thought about what you ate then and instead of just handing you a Hot Pocket, they stuffed their hand pie full of herbs and big flavors. They’ve even taken the humble tater tot and made it more than a guilty pleasure, in fact Anderson drapes one giant, golden tot with smoked fish and a dollop of caviar.
It’s also a perfect reaction to the obsessively twee farmers market nightmare we’ve been living through. If you’ve ever showed up at a party with a box of fried chicken, you know that people’s real preferences are far from what they tell you if you ask.
Remember when people were still snooty about iceberg lettuce and we had to eat raw kale all the time? (I enjoy kale, but not as much the world wanted me to.) Remember when the culture of well-raised meat had risen to such a hysterical height that Portlandia actually thought it would be worth making fun of the way people fetishize their chickens?
The snap back from that has us all melting American cheese into our ramen, losing our collective minds over a spicy fried chicken sandwich at Popeyes, and eating chili out of Fritos bags. It’s also, luckily for all of us, inspired a new crop of chefs who are thinking about these permissive, playful, tastes of your childhood afternoons in exciting, careful ways.
There’s obviously room for variables in this world. As well as Metzger, Anderson runs a fine dining restaurant called Brenner Pass that has nothing to do with tater tots. Some of that highfalutin vibe remains—she looks to wipe a plate of collards at the pass before calling for service to pick it up when Phil Cenac says “we don’t wipe plates at Turkey and the Wolf.” She moved back to her side of the station and cleaned up a plate holding one of her foie gras-stuffed soft pretzels.
Alas, the NOLA crew was in town for just one day. (Several months ago, they all had partied together in New Orleans, and they wanted to do it again, so they dreamed up this event.) The menu is truly a mash up of different nostalgia driven takes on familiar foods that traditionally chefs might have made for themselves after they had spent a night working the line.
From Hereford’s team there’s deviled egg tostada cotija whipped egg mousse stuff, refried red beans, cilantro, lime, red onion pickled peppers, Daniela’s spicy peanut salsa; a yogurt dish; a kale salad with maitake mushrooms, sherry, and raisins; fried chicken pot pie with tarragon buttermilk; collard greens with spicy salsa macha, poached egg, roasted peanuts, onions and cilantro. They’ve brought their famed bologna sandwich, too. And Anderson, in addition to the foie gras pretzel topped with everything chicken skin and the tater tots, is serving her chicken schnitzel Rueben.
Out front, the bar is pouring Bloody Marys with pickled shrimp and Crystal Hot Sauce, Fishtail Punch, and a rum and amaro drink called a Coca Libre made with allspice and lime.
There isn’t an empty seat in the place. Flatware clinks and people laugh and backs are slapped—some meetups are coincidence, other folks clearly set out to rendezvous here. The front of the house staff is happy, but the only thing keeping them out of the weeds is that they’re good at what they do.
It’s as if there has been a memo, a pre-service message about how this could never even really work, and since no one is expecting it to go smoothly, it’s coming together just fine.
It’s fast, and for the first five or 15 minutes the energy in the kitchen is tangible, if not flammable. They’re trying to keep the event out of the ditch. They get it together and they’re off to the races. By the time they clear the tickets the first time, it’s smooth.
“We’re gonna feed you, Max,” says Anderson. She’s not scared anymore.
So, I eat a pot pie, it’s got a chewy/crispy thing going on with the crust that is like a funnel cake or a perfect slice of pizza. The stuffing is luscious and rich. It’s crazy good. I don’t remember why I’ve never ordered it when I’m at Turkey and the Wolf.
“Everybody talks about Turkey and the Wolf,” says Hereford, “but Molly’s is better.”
Colleen Quarles, the chef de cuisine at Molly’s, hands me a bowl of roasted carrot yogurt, granola, berries and mint and carrot marmalade—I’d have drifted right by it in search of meatier things, and it would have been a mistake. The doubling of the carrot flavors, the warming spices in the marmalade, the fresh sharpness of the berries and the mint. It’s brilliant. Quarles was grinning when she gave it to me, like she knew that she’d just handed me my favorite birthday present. She was right. It’s at the same time incredibly familiar and also completely new. I wouldn’t have it any other way.