I remember the first time that I approached Brad Kilgore about offering tea at his restaurant Alter in Wynwood. We sat in his dining room, surrounded by young, passionate, talented individuals, each buzzing about with complete focus on their own tasks, like an artist in front of a canvas. Immersed.
Brad’s Chef de Cuisine, Seth Blumenthal (@bluemanjus), came up and introduced himself quickly, and was gone before I could say, “Nice to meet you.” But Brad (@brad_kilgore) sat at the table, surrounded by the mad energy of this young, hungry kitchen. He was calm, patient and 100 percent present.
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I brought out a kettle, prepped a white tea; a high mountain oolong; a wild black tea; and a 2012 raw puerh. American chefs are usually not accustomed to the flavor profiles and mouthfeels of real Chinese teas. Brad appreciated the flavors and residual aromas. After we tasted the high mountain oolong, he looked at me and said, “Yeah, it’s really floral, nice and fruity, aromati- wait, I think I’m high.” And I laughed! “Yeah, that’s called ‘Cha Dzui‘ (pronounced tzway).” Ever since then, Brad has offered our teas at Alter, and I’m lucky enough to consider him; his wife, Soraya; Seth; and many others on his team great friends.
Alter’s Epic Collaboration with Will Goldfarb
Which brings us to the other night. The other week, Seth sent me a text asking for a black tea. He said Alter was doing a collaboration with a chef, and he had a recipe that called for 200 grams of black tea. He told me he’d be steeping the tea in a mushroom broth, and I instantly thought of Yunnan Gold.
It’s a black tea from the Yunnan big-leaf variety and has lots of malt and earthy chocolate notes that could balance mushrooms nicely. At any rate, I said, ‘Hey, if you’re up for it, I’d be happy to offer a tea service if it makes sense with the dinner.’ Seth and Alter’s manager, Michael Gonzalez, spoke to Brad about it, and they consulted with the collaborating chef. He loved the idea, and they invited me over to taste them on some options. After a bit of digging, I found out the collaborating chef was Will Goldfarb (@willtgoldfarb)!
Will is certainly within the top tier of pastry chefs worldwide. He currently owns and operates Room 4 Dessert (@room4dessert_wg) in Bali, Indonesia, and was just featured in the most recent episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix! In an instant, I was presenting tea to Brad (a 2018 James Beard Foundation Award nominee) and one of the world’s top chefs.
An Expensive and Rare Tea, Blended Only for This Dinner
I ran over to the restaurant with a few options, but I also brought one tea from my personal collection. It’s a raw puerh from You Le Mountain (2005) along the Mekong River. This mountain supplied emperors with puerh tea. It is one of the six most famous mountains in the history of puerh production. I bought this particular cake of tea last April in JingHong. It. Was. Pricey. The single cake was more than $400. But its flavor really attracted me. It has a thick, rich, plummy sweetness with lingering notes of cedar and a vibrant energy to the cup. I brought it back in my carry-on.
Will told me he didn’t like overly tannic teas, that his palate was quite sensitive lately. We tasted a yellow tea that we all enjoyed, but as soon as we tasted that 2005 You Le Mountain Puerh, I might as well have packed up my bags and left. Everyone was fascinated by it. But Will said the tannins were a bit too harsh. He said the flavors reminded him of sherry, and we played with the idea of serving the tea in a sherry-washed glass.
I ran a quick experiment and saw that there was an opportunity to create an absolutely unique flavor experience with this sip. It would come to the guests after Brad’s final dish (seared wagyu beef with grits and brassicas), just before Will’s first dish (a playground of black tea and mangosteen). I felt that a touch of caramelized sugars would go a long way in opening up the sherry notes and balancing them with the plummy cedar notes of the aged puerh. So I went back to our tasting room, and I added a touch of 2017 Yunnan Gold, an earthy black tea from Simao, to the puerh, and it worked beautifully.
Moment of Truth and Ready to Rock
The next day, I brewed two gallons of it, put it in a thermos, and headed over. The dinner was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. I arrived at 6, and that frantic, focused, mad, young, passionate symphony was in full effect. It was beautiful and inexplicable, like watching 1,000-pound racehorses doing elegant choreography; a high-stakes, high-speed, world-class ballet.
Every chef was cutting or painting or dusting or torching. Every server was laser-focused on Michael as each course came out. I stood closely as Brad and Will explained each course, ingredient by ingredient, and the entire staff instantly memorized these endless complexities. Michael asked questions, and servers quickly and confidently fired back answers, rat-a-tat-style. I explained the tea to the team. They understood, and we were ready to rock.
And rock they did. It was hard not to be overwhelmed as each guest was patiently escorted along a world-class journey of flavors and textures, aromas and mouthfeels. The tea served as such an amazing transition between the two chefs’ signature flavors. I could not be more honored.
As the final service wound down, and the last guests got their desserts and began shuffling out, Brad and Will shook off their aprons. Soraya joined us, as did Brad’s brother, and some other local chef and foodie friends trickled in. Brad and Will lovingly ushered us through a private expression of the dinner they had just offered the guests! Course by course, we tasted the work of these incredible talents.
When Brad’s last course was out, I made our tea pairing and offered it to the others before the first of Will’s four desserts. We were all so happy that, truthfully, the words we were saying at that point might as well have been meaningless.
From there we went to a neighboring bar for Champagne with the entire crew. I left having made a new friend in Bali.
My parents’ generation talks about how they lived through Woodstock and what a momentous occasion that was. Well, on Tuesday, May 1, I was at Alter with Brad Kilgore and Will Goldfarb.
Michael Ortiz is the founder of JoJo Tea in Miami. This essay was reprinted with permission from a recent JoJo newsletter. See more photos from the dinner on photographer Felipe Cuevas’ Instagram: @culinarylense.