Pumpkin gets all the glory, but when a chef needs to dig for warm, comforting flavors they turn to a different fruit: butternut squash.
The versatility of the sweet, bowling pin-shaped fruit is on full display at Pig & Finch thanks to a trio of dishes from executive chef Raquel Kramer. The squash adds a slightly nutty component as a side accompanying an espresso-rubbed pork shoulder, takes center stage in a warm butternut squash salad and balances out a rich brown butter gnocchi dish.
“It’s sweet and comforting,” Kramer says. “Butternut squash is great with everything.”
On a recent Friday, she sits down in the dining room of the Park Place restaurant and starts talking about the gnocchi – one of the most labor-intensive dishes on Pig & Finch’s menu. The hand-rolled pasta, a recipe that is three steps removed from a grandma in France, takes two-and-a-half hours to make.
“Our gnocchi is a little different than most people do it. It’s softer and more pillow-like,” Kramer says.
The recipe isn’t written down; instead Kramer prepares it by feel just like former Pig & Finch executive chef John Smith. To make the dough, she combines russet potatoes, egg yolks, flour, salt and pepper. The remaining ingredients in the dish change with the season. Currently, Kramer is featuring butternut squash, candied bacon, goat cheese and brown butter cream.
“It’s a take on a dish that my family does every holiday. It’s a casserole from my grandma. I’m taking the same flavor profile, but reinterpreting it.” Kramer says. “It’s food that hits you on every note, salty, sweet and savory.”
Kramer looks to her family for inspiration and they, in turn, have always known that she would be in the kitchen.
“My mom built all the houses that we lived in and she said she made the kitchens extra big with an island in the center because I always wanted to sit on the counter,” Kramer says of growing up in Springfield, Missouri.
She made the decision to move to Kansas City to attend Johnson County Community College’s culinary program three years ago. She competed on the school’s culinary team, which won the national championship, and began as an apprentice for chef Smith at The Jacobson.
When Smith moved to Pig & Finch, he asked Kramer to come with him and she rose to the position of sous chef in 2014. This July, she was named the executive chef at Pig & Finch – the youngest and only female executive chef at the 11 eateries owned and operated by the 801 Restaurant Group.
“What I enjoy most is pleasing people and seeing the experiences they get through food,” Kramer says. “The style of food we serve here is very comforting.”
One of the most comforting (and popular) plates at Pig & Fig is the espresso-rubbed pork shoulder. The pork shoulder is brined for 12 hours in a combination of Louisburg apple cider, rosemary and brown sugar.
“We take steps to infuse all that awesome flavor into pork,” Kramer says.
Kramer then applies a dry espresso rub and roasts the pork for an additional 12 hours.
“It turns mahogany reddish brown and you get this nice, almost caramelized glaze from the brown sugar,” Kramer says. “It’s one of those dishes in the window that people see and say, ‘what’s that?’”
The pork shoulder is plated with butternut squash (roasted with fresh sage, fennel, salt and pepper) and sautéed kale with an apple cider maple glaze. Butternut squash moves from back-up dancer to star attraction with the warm butternut squash kale salad.
The kale is served raw for crunch and as a contrast to the red-wine poached cranberries in the salad that is served with a creamy apple cider vinaigrette and shaved parmesan cheese.
“You’ve got this creamy cool dressing with a hint of sweetness,” Kramer says. “Then you’ve got the crunch of the walnuts and warm roasted squash that just melds together beautifully.”
Kramer is thinking a lot about how everything works together these days. After recently participating in Socks & Hops, a fundraiser for Swope Health Services that paired local breweries and chefs, she’s been motivated to bring back monthly beer dinners to Pig & Finch in 2016. Five months into her new role, she’s also excited about the opportunities for ambitious chefs in her kitchen.
“It’s all what you put into it,” Kramer says. “I have students from JCCC right now and I tell them that nobody is going to push you to where you want to be. You have to want it. We feed people here and you have to be willing to put in the long hours to do that.”
Find Your Flavor is a series of sponsored posts on The Recommended Daily. Over the course of the next year, we’ll explore the menus, cuisine and folks behind dishes at the restaurants in Leawood’s Park Place. We talked food loves with 801 Chophouse’s chef Jeremy Kalcic, visited chef Leo Santana’s scratch kitchen at Carma, looked at how Gordon Biersch pairs food and brews, saw how Pickleman’s is reinventing the sandwich shop, learned about t. Loft’s evolution into a health cafe, discovered cake made daily at Cupcake a la Mode, created a pairing guide for the case at Paciugo, delved into the raw bar at 801 Fish, found out just how far BurgerFi will go to make a better burger, got a peek at RA Sushi’s fall menu, learned about the ingredients at Ingredient True Eatery, dove into the pumpkin patch with Parisi Cafe, and learned how The Grille is attempting to perfect contemporary American fare.