In my not so distant past, I had a byline in food. I had occasion to write for both magazine and newspaper, covering the connection that food serves within our lives. My portfolio runs the gamut: farm to fork; dining etiquette; the sacrifice an elk makes when harvested with a rifle; and why honesty in food matters..
That byline died in favor of a job with full medical. As does happen on occasion, my vocational malaise was in need of an existential Band-Aid. I shot a message to Justin Kruger last week, local chef and one half of Two Fat Justins.
TFJ tend to pleasantly haunt breweries with their fare, and they don’t even own a food truck. This culinary team partners with a brewery and designs a private, custom dinner around what the label has to offer. The intent is always to pair the food with the beer, composing a song of nuanced flavor.
I was given permission to shoot their next event at Mash Lab Brewing, as long as my payment expectation was a four-course meal. Done. With my Canon in hand, I embarked upon a lesson in pairing food with beer that I was not expecting.
Put Yourself in the Way of Food
I have a belief that if you feel wrong or out of sorts, you need to put yourself in the way of beauty. In other words, “Get inspired, stupid.” Putting myself in the way of well-crafted food and beer last Friday night fixed a little bit of my broken. It all started with a warm salad comprised of roasted winter squash, charred cranberries, onion, and sour beer vinaigrette, piled on top of a some Mouco ColoRouge.
Justin Wright explained to the crowd, “You don’t want to have a food flavor that is high, and pair that with a high. In this case we have earthy, rich flavors in the squash and the onion. That’s the low. We’re presenting the high notes in the form of this Cranberry Orange Berliner Sour.”
He then told the diners to take a bite, hold the food in their mouths, and then take a sip – letting all of those flavors pair the way they should. As a connoisseur of wine, this all sounded very familiar. What I didn’t understand is that this other half of TFJ is a certified Cicerone®, the beer equivalent of a Sommelier.
Watching the crowd actually take instruction from him – first take a bite, then a sip – moved me a little. They wanted to know what would happen if they did it right. The resulting flavors were deeply on target, a ringing bell of goodness washing over every palate.
And so it went for the second course of citrus cured steelhead trout tostada with herbed cucumber relish and queso fresco. Paired with Mash Lab’s Crispi Boi German Style Pilsner, I was relegated to repeating the phrase “holy shit” and could not seem to find the proper words for the way my taste buds were being made to feel.
The main course provided yet another lesson on the expertise that TFJ bring to the table. Wright is a deeply affected maker and lover of BBQ. I found myself staring down the barrel of a brisket that had been smoked for over six hours. A hunk of this joy would be served atop scalloped potatoes with a dollop of horseradish cream, paired with an Imperial Stout that boasted coffee notes.
Even though the brisket deserved a post-meal nap in honor of its existence, we moved on to a well-earned dessert. The fourth course was Dark Chocolate Decadence crafted by Justin Kruger. This cake is flourless and boasts four ingredients: chocolate, butter, sugar, and eggs. When the chef announced this to the room, I swear I heard a small sigh from every woman present.
The pairing of a barrel aged stout with vanilla was a rich treat and flew in the face of Wright’s tutorial. There were no “high” notes here. His explanation, “It’s dessert. That’s when you go deep all over the place.” I’m going to remember that.
Food Brings Us Together
The part of the building in which we dined at Mash Lab is a classic car body shop. Those present were completely taken by the novelty of the cars, then utterly swept away by the meal that they dined upon.
In this particular instance, I was looking for a culinary experience that would make me forget that I had just come off a sufficiently shitty week. Yes, okay, the glass of Friek that was handed to me at Odell prior to my journey to Mash Lab also helped (thank you, kind Odell taproom person).
But what really brought it home for me was the thoughtfulness that went into preparing this experience. It was the sharing of the meal that mattered, and the collaborative nature of how it came together. We can all agree that food can be a pleasant distraction. But it also shapes our habits in some way and conjures emotions that go beyond flavor. It triggers memory.
I am still relishing the memory of how my week ended better due to the effort put forth by Two Fat Justins and Mash Lab. I highly recommend putting beauty in your way by sharing a meal with others. But to make it memorable – you might want to find out where Two Fat Justins will be booked next. I am dying to know what they would pair with that glass of Friek.*
* (TFJ have not yet booked a dinner at Odell – but if that changes, see you there)