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Tea as an Ingredient

From Kettle to Kitchen, Chefs push Tea Beyond the Cup on the Plate

Chris Holt

Mention tea and most likely your first food associations drift towards spreads of biscuits, petit fours and crustless sandwiches served in the afternoon hour; or perhaps images from China to Argentina pop into mind, thanks to the ubiquitous status of this beloved beverage, which many cultures build entire ceremonies upon its consumption alone. But a creative chef knows that tea is not just a drink served with food or a means in itself; tea is an integral ingredient to any restaurant, whether the kitchen’s cuisine embraces French, Japanese or even Californian cooking. Tea’s versatility can bring out the floral, fruity tastes of desserts and provide a smoky, full body flavor to meat dishes. Whether the leaves are steeped, mixed into a sauce or simply smoked, they can impart both bold and subtle characteristics to both sweet and savory preparations alike. It is this complex profile that has made tea an ingredient on the rise in many kitchens across California and Nevada, allowing chefs to create a bitter, powerful accent or just a whisper within a dish’s larger symphony.

Why tea?

Tea has earned a well-deserved reputation for its health benefits. Rich in anti-oxidants, less caffeinated than coffee and providing medicinal benefits, tea has been a favored beverage for hundreds of years.

But while the drink is common and known, its applications in the kitchen still leave chefs room to explore. “Tea is unexpected,” San Francisco’s Chef William Werner of the Tell Tale Preserves Company explains. With a mischievous smile, the pastry chef admits that his patisserie and deli uses tea in their finished products because its flavors are unexpected and often “intrigue customers.” Often, patrons will ask about a specific flavor, and he will refer to his use of a specific tea. The result is not only a satisfied consumer, but also a spike in sales of tea and tea-inspired dishes. Due to the versatile nature of tea and its spectrum of flavors, “people get to explore more,” and that means lots of returning customers eager to try his different tea-infused combinations.

Part of the usefulness of tea is its ability to compliment other flavors. Meats cooked over a wood stove tend to taste better with tea infusion and creams are more floral or fruity when they have tea to complement a more common ingredient such as strawberries. “Tea can be used to round out flavors or add additional flavors to a dish,” explains Pastry Chef Bill Corbett of Absinthe Brasserie and Bar. “We can use it as ganache or in a mousse...really [you] can go anywhere with it.”

But tea’s ability to play the supporting role isn’t the only reason tea has become a favored tool of chefs recently. Simply put, tea has a spectrum of strong, unique flavors that can shine through when integrated properly into the appropriate dish. Chef Rio Hirashima, the owner and founder of Los Angeles’ Harajuku Crepe sees tea’s ability as both an “accent” within a recipe and as the driving force of flavor behind a dish. He explains that, “…to enjoy the delicate, light and elegant tea aroma in cooking is still unique.” Triggering not only the palate, but also the olfactory senses, is an indispensable gift for the capable chef.

Tea is catching on with fowl and fish

While the six main types of tea offer a range of flavors that can go into many dishes, fish and duck particularly benefit from the use of tea. Chef Rick Bartram, executive chef at San Francisco’s Silks restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, has been using tea for years. British-born, he grew up drinking tea with aged Winchester Farm Gouda. Now, he uses it to complement his restaurant’s Pan-Asian palate of flavors.

In this tradition, Silks offers green tea-infused steelhead trout. The dish is served with miso broth, shiitake chips and shiso leaves. Green tea can have a bitter, overpowering flavor so Chef Bartram chose to keep the dish “light with a bright miso broth,” later adding texture with the shiitake chips and shiso leaves.

But tea isn’t limited to Asian cookery. Executive Chef Perry Hoffman of Domaine Chandon’s étoile restaurant has been around the Napa Valley food scene for his entire life. His tea-smoked duck has been the result of an evolving style that started out when he tested recipes in his grandparents’ restaurant when he was a child. Granted, that restaurant just happens to be The French Laundry, so his “experiments” were probably a bit beyond many chefs’ childhood concoctions, so it is not surprising that Chef Hoffman’s dishes reflect a lifetime of sophisticated culinary influences. In the past, he has used tea in scallops, in broths and with berries. Now, his tea-smoked duck applies a simple table-top smoker, perforated pan, loose tea leaves and six to eight minutes of smoking. He also enjoys steeping light black tea and poaching eggs, especially if they are from quails. The egg not only soaks up the tea’s color, but also its aroma and spice.

Chef Vincent Pouessel also sees the potential of tea to bring both flavor to a dish and its ability to preserve other ingredients’ flavors. Chef Vincent brings years of experience from his native France to Aureole in Las Vegas where he serves as executive chef. He works with an organic green tea mixture (a combination of lemon citrus, lemon grass and lemon myrtle) by processing, powdering and then spicing the concoction to create a delicate coating for tuna loins. Chef Vincent enjoys utilizing tea for its capacity to add spice and “bring a smoky, woody, flavorful taste” to a dish. When smoking a duck, he explains that most chefs grow frustrated when the wood chimney taste isn’t retained. With tea, this is not a problem. Tea retains the smoky essence that chefs crave, making it an exceptionally important ingredient in both French and Asian cooking.

The toast of the patisserie

While tea can be a bold addition to your poultry or fish, it can also be as subtle and aromatic as the best fruit, herbs and produce. Chefs will regularly use teas to complement the sweeter items on their menus, especially desserts and breakfast pastries. Chef Vincent, for instance, will use a white Chinese rose tea called bay mu ban to make a tea base for a variety of dishes including sorbet or strawberry soup.

Lighter teas are not the only baking-friendly tea. As anyone who ventures to Asia knows, darker teas are often infused in sweets alongside western favorites such as vanilla and chocolate. Chef Hirashima of Harajuku Crepe presents the perfect marriage of East and West cuisines, featuring earl grey and green tea-flavored crepes served with European favorites such as Nutella, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Customers are encouraged to enjoy sweet flavors like fruit and ice cream with the tea-flavored crepes as the harder, darker tea flavors provide nice complements to the light, fruitier flavors of crepe fillings.

Similarly, Pastry Chef William Werner uses Naivetea’s Shan Lin Shi Oolong tea for its smoothness and round flavor, with chocolate. Chef Werner doesn’t just use tea to serve as a strong counterpunch to a berry flavor, instead he uses oolong in “a variety of textures” including a white chocolate cream and a blueberry, white chocolate tile. Most recently, he experimented with a Dong Ding Tea and caramelized milk chocolate éclair.

Of course, chefs shouldn’t write off dark teas in pastries or fruitier teas in meats either. Some chefs are adept at using both light and dark teas in a wealth of items. Absinthe’s Bill Corbett regularly incorporates a dark earl grey tea in his pavlova but will also use the rarer South African rooibos tea in a liquid-centered chocolate mousse. The teas he uses can be light and breathable or a strong complement to something sweet. Tea, he finds, is also plenty fruity on its own. His willingness to use a variety of teas is so strong that he will incorporate certain teas as substitutes for fruits that are no longer in season.

Challenges and lessons to learn

While many chefs will sing the praises of tea for its versatility of flavors such as its ability to be light and fruity or bitter and smoky as needed, virtually every chef will also admit to the challenges of cooking with tea.

Chef Corbett cautions chefs against over-steeping, as it is “really easy to kill the flavor.” Teas will often get too bitter or the tea will take over the flavor. You want the tea to be something you can taste, but not something that overpowers everything else.

But despite the risks, Chef Perry encourages chefs to experiment. “Don’t be scared,” he exclaims, just remember “not to cook with used tea or boil over 200 degrees.”

For enterprising chefs, it’s good to try out a variety of teas first and see what goes best with what. Many of Chef Perry’s tea-infused dishes always start out as experiments and rarely turn into a dish he originally envisions in the initial stages. And lastly, start simple. Chef Hirashima recommends “trying simple flavored teas first.” Once you appreciate the core flavors of tea, you can open them up to your meats, desserts, appetizers and pastries. Think it over, but of course, don’t over-
steep it.

Blueberry Sablé, White Chocolate & Shan Lin Shi Oolong Tile
Inspiration for Executive Chefs
World Tea Expo on tap in Las Vegas

June 24-26, 2011

World Tea Expo 2011 is the largest and most prominent event for the tea industry, catering to tea retailers, restaurateurs, food service leaders, hoteliers, spa owners and other business professionals who want to learn more about the latest opportunities and tea trends, in addition to what consumers can expect to see more of in the future.

The event’s “Cooking with Tea Workshop” is open to restaurateurs, chefs, hoteliers and other foodservice leaders. Aureole’s Executive Chef Vincent Pouessel and Pastry Chef Megan Romano are set to demonstrate some of their restaurant’s offerings, which include both savory and dessert dishes that feature tea. The event takes place at
the Las Vegas Convention Center, June 24 - 26, and
conference registration and details are available at