Interviews

Top Chef Winner Hosea Rosenberg Talks Food and Smoke Pairings

By David Jenison

<i>Top Chef</i> Winner Hosea Rosenberg Talks Food and Smoke Pairings

Winning Top Chef is a massive feat on its own, but Hosea Rosenberg rose to the top in a season stacked with talent like Carla Hall, Stefan Richter, Jamie Lauren and Fabio Viviani. Since winning it all in 2009's fifth season, Rosenberg continued to raise his profile earning several awards, cooking at the venerable Beard House in NYC and launching the Blackbelly brand. Originally a farm and catering company, Blackbelly grew into a market, butcher shop and popular sit-down restaurant that epitomizes farm-to-fork excellence. Sample dishes include local grass-fed beef tartare, crispy pig ears with fried hen egg, Colorado angus bavette steak with pickled morels and Mary’s free-range half rotisserie chicken.

The New Mexico native is also a long-time Centennial State resident where voters famously legalized cannabis in November 2012. Rosenberg characterizes himself as a chef focused on food issues, but he embraced the opportunity to work with Mason Jar Event Group on cannabis-paired dinners. The chef does not work with the cannabis itself or infuse any of the courses, but similar to food and wine pairings, he does collaborate with the growers and suppliers on a culinary plan that best accentuates the flavors in the food and cannabis terpenes. This approach clearly differs from traditional edible infusions, but it does open the door to a new dining experience that Rosenberg is helping pioneer. PRØHBTD spoke with the farm-centric chef to learn more.

When it came time to do the sit-down restaurant, what parts of the original idea stayed the same, and what parts had to evolve and expand?

It's pretty close to what we were trying to do. The whole business evolved over time, and I let things happen organically. Blackbelly started as a catering business and soon thereafter we had a farm. That was going well, and I started looking to expand, but I was also looking for restaurant space. When I found the current space, I intended for it to be a kitchen for the catering business, not a sit-down restaurant. In some ways, the restaurant's exactly what I wanted, and in other ways it wasn't at all what I was looking to do. It just sort of depends on your point of view. I found the space to be a commissary kitchen, realized there was a very viable space to make a dining room and had to do a lot of construction to make it right. It went from being catering to a full-blown breakfast, lunch and dinner spot within a pretty short amount of time. Once I decided it was going to be a restaurant, I sat down with my architect, and we put plans together. From that point moving forward, the restaurant came out pretty much exactly as I wanted it.

You originally sourced items from your own Blackbelly Farm. How did you learn about farming, and what sparked the original idea to start a farm?

We were farming a couple years ago when I started the catering business, but we don't have a farm anymore. I was raising pigs and lambs on my own farm until about a year ago. As the restaurant and butcher shop grew, we just got so busy that we literally couldn't keep up with the needs for the restaurant so we started outsourcing all of our ranching. One of my employees now runs a farm for us. It's not really my farm, but he has a number of products on the farm that are solely for Blackbelly. Now we work with three main partners that do all the livestock farming for the restaurant, butcher shop and the catering.

When you cooked at the James Beard House, you served 100-day-aged beef. Is that something people can get at Blackbelly?

Not all the time. We do have a dry-aging program, and all the beef we serve at the restaurant and butcher shop is dry aged a minimum of 35 days, usually somewhere between 40 and 50. The 100-day dry age isn't something we do very often. You lose a lot of product, the yield goes way down, so it's not very efficient or profitable to do it that way. We occasionally dry age things pretty far, and we recently served 55-day dry-aged beef on our dinner menu as a special. It's always dry aged, but I can't promise a specific day of aging.

[Celebrated chef] Kevin Taylor was the first person to elevate you to a head chef position. Working with him and others, what did you learn that you applied to your business?

I learned different things from all my mentors, and I've had quite a few over the years. Working for Kevin taught me a lot of technical knowledge, like how to work in a professional kitchen quickly and efficiently. It was a very serious place to work. Every chef I worked for has taught me different things. I could write novels about all the things I've learned.

You won season five of Top Chef, which stood out for having so many great chefs. Is it crazy to see how successful many of the contestants became?

I expected that. I would hope that would be the case for every season, and that's what I expected at mine, to go up against great talent with potential to do great things. I feel like that's what the show's all about, and that's what it should be. I’m not surprised at all. I think it's great, and it makes us all look better.

How different is the real-life competition compared to what people see on TV?

You're sequestered for six weeks alone with all these people. No freedom, no contact with the outside world. It's very different, and that's all I can say about it.

What was your highlight from the show besides winning?

Meeting a lot of great chefs, Jacques Pépin, some of the others. To me that was the best part.

You sometimes cook for events that involve food and cannabis pairings. Cannabis is still a polarizing topic for many, and you have a mainstream profile. When you agreed to get involved, how did you weigh the risks?

We're not cooking with marijuana, so we treat it as if we're just cooking food for an event, at least from the business side of it. I live in Colorado where it's been legal for quite awhile now, so there's nothing illegal about being involved in an event that serves marijuana. I think most people in Colorado are very comfortable with it now. I don't see it as very polarizing or risqué, but it's still viewed differently across the country depending on where you live.

This is not something that we expect everyone in the country to understand, but it's a part of the culture in Colorado now. We're embracing that. We're doing these special, private, fun, cool events that are limited and almost secretive where there's alcohol, food, cannabis. Sometimes they include yoga. I think we're one of the first companies to get involved. We're just pioneering in this and doing our best to make it a positive, fun, exciting, talked-about, professional event.

How often do these events take place?

To be clear, we don't produce the events. They are produced by a woman named Kendal [Norris] from Mason Jar Event Group, and we just cook the food at them. Her schedule is based on what she wants to do, but there are at least four a year: spring, summer, winter and fall. Then we also have a couple of yoga events and luncheons throughout the year. I don't know how many we're going to do this year, but I think we've done three or four already.

What flavor profiles tend to pair well with smoked cannabis?

Tough question to answer. We pair the food based on each strain served, and there are thousands of different strains out there. It's like asking what would pair with wine. It has to be more specific to the actual wine. I basically treat it the way I would treat a wine dinner where I talk to the winemaker or the [supplier]. We would taste it together and talk about the aromas, the flavors. You do a similar thing with cannabis where I talk to the grower, or at the very minimum, Kendal brings us some samples. We check it out, we smell it, we taste it and decide what flavor profiles are going on in this particular strain and decide what dishes to serve that best complement that strain.

Have you ever messed around creating your own infused dishes?

Not really. I have friends who do it much better than I do. I've got very little free time running my business so I haven't actually done a whole lot of infusing or cooking with it. I have lots of friends in the industry who are always giving me sample products or telling me to check something out. It's not really a hobby of mine, to be honest with you.

In the overall food scene, what are the latest gastronomic trends?

It's evolving. The food industry is so dynamic right now. The number one thing I think is people knowing where their food comes from and understanding the source and the treatment of all the ingredients they're being fed. That seems to be the number one priority for a lot of chefs these days.

Would that be your number one priority?

I have a few top priorities in my cooking, but that's certainly at the top.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. The last three images (of the pairing events) by Dog Dayz.

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