20 Apr 2016 Liquid Riot Interview: Nick Krunkkala
We have officially welcomed Chef Nick Krunkkala as Executive Chef of our resto-bar kitchen. He’s been our consulting chef the past few months. He’s already developed some excellent beer- and spirit-driven dishes. In fact, our beers and spirits are ingredients in every dish on our menu.
In this blog post, Chef Krunkkala talks about keeping up with our brewers and distillers and how he’s going to raise the bar, in our resto-bar kitchen.
How did you get into cooking?
I went to college in New York, where I was an athlete first and student second. I wasn’t going to continue with sports so I needed a new focus. I did a lot of construction jobs, didn’t love that, and cooking was always something that I was really good at and a hobby I enjoyed. I lived in a house with several friends and was always preparing these extravagant meals. They suggested that I think about doing it professionally so I entered a culinary program and then worked in New York for a while before moving back to Maine. I worked in Rockland for a few years, then opened up my own restaurant in Yarmouth, and now I’m here.
What’s different about working at Liquid Riot than at some of the other places you’ve worked?
This is one of first places where the bar and beer already had a really good reputation, and I had to try and meet that reputation. Usually it was the other way around, so it’s been a big challenge for me to get people away from ordering a pretzel and fries. They’re coming here to drink, and my mission is to get them to eat as well, and get outside of what they expect from a bar.
What’s your biggest accomplishment as a chef so far?
Being able to turn my own thoughts into dishes to create a menu that people really enjoy.
The new spring menu just came out at Liquid Riot. What’s your menu planning process like?
When I’m coming up with a menu, I focus on seasonality and what I would like to eat and what our guests are going to enjoy. Every dish I put down I think that everybody’s going to enjoy. I don’t want any “fillers” on our menu, I want to create a menu that has something that pretty much anyone will be able to enjoy.
Is there a particular new dish you’re most excited about?
Everything on the menu is new. I’m calling our food “upscale casual pub fare” so there are a lot of interesting vegetable options, which aren’t something you’d typically find on a bar menu. One of those is our roasted cauliflower, which is caramelized with seared dates in one of our ales. It’s seasoned with sumac dust and served with an arugula pesto. The pesto is made with pumpkin seeds, so there are no nuts and no cheese so it’s vegan.
At Liquid Riot, you use a lot of the house made beer and spirits as ingredients in your dishes. Is that something you came up with prior to working here?
I had done it, but not to this extent. I’ve never worked at a place that made all their own beers and spirits. You have to play to your strengths and make the best use of your resources. I worked at a place where I was doing exclusively farm to table things, getting fantastic products from a farmer. This is basically the same thing, I’m getting fantastic stuff from a brewer that’s essentially five feet away from my office.
What’s that process like? Are certain dishes inspired by certain beers or do you come up with an idea for a dish and then think about which beer or spirit might blend best with it?
It kind of goes both ways. Any of the sour beers and the saison are really good to cook with. When I tasted the blueberry saison I knew that that would be fantastic with pork belly. I took the saison and added wild strawberries for the braised pork belly that’s on our new menu. That dish also has a pureed cornbread and a pistachio relish so you have sweet, acidic, and slightly bitter flavors to balance out the fatty pork belly. That dish is one that I consider perfect pub fare.
What are some of your favorite ways to source locally?
I live in Damariscotta, so I get all my shellfish from my Damariscotta River. The mussels we have are by far the best in the state. I live right next to the Pemaquid Mussel Farm, so I actually get them on the morning he harvests. Glidden Point Oyster is also right there, I’m looking forward to using those this summer, pairing them with a nice, cold IPA beer – it will be perfect to enjoy on our deck by the water.
Favorite ingredient to cook with?
I have a lot of interesting spice combinations that I use, and I really like to push the boundaries with vegetables. Picking a favorite though is hard to say because it changes so much. I will say that my favorite piece of equipment in a kitchen is a grill. I like grilling everything, especially vegetables. The grill gives vegetables a charred flavor that’s not something you typically get from a steamed vegetable.
I like any kind of stouts. I like the flavor that they build up, it’s almost like a good red wine. I’ve never been an IPA fan, but talking to the brewers here and sampling the different things they’re working on I can taste the different ingredients and the care that they’re putting into it. I’ll always try a good cocktail. If somebody puts work into it, and uses quality ingredients, that’s just as creative as a dish and I can respect that. A perfect margarita after a long shift is fantastic.