7 Questions with Ryan Sulikowski, Executive Chef at Lotus Farm to Table
The man behind the locally-inspired plates dishes on his experience at the Media-based restaurant.
Beet Salad//Photo courtesy of Lotus Farm to Table
Since opening in 2009, restaurateur Courtney Rozsas’ Lotus Farm to Table has set the pace for inventive, sustainable dining in downtown Media. But it wasn’t until 2012, when Executive Chef Ryan Sulikowski inhabited her kitchen, that the rustic-chic BYOB exceeded its lustrous reputation, pushing its own boundaries to become one of region’s most admirable restaurants.
From constantly presenting beautiful compositions to debuting tea-influenced pairings and an ever-changing dessert program, the chef's recent culinary pursuits are taking our breath away. And let’s not forgot Rozsas and Sulikowski’s fast-casual, farm-focused offshoot that debuted in July 2013, Farmer’s Road Drive Thru in Chadds Ford, which allows us to enjoy their cuisine more conveniently.
To fully understand what Lotus and Farmer’s Road do best, we tapped the up-and-coming, late 20-something chef. Below, he shares what inspires him most, how he creates his seemingly effortless and whimsical dishes, his obsession with dessert and why he’ll never stop going to other people’s restaurants.
Main Course: We’ve always been intrigued with the high caliber of creativity you throw into your cooking. Dehydrated olive! Basil-cured octopus! Celery gin granita! What inspires you to be so inventive?
Ryan Sulikowski: Usually when creating new dishes, I'll start with the flavors or ingredients I want to work with or highlight. From there it's very much "off the cuff." I tend to react to how a particular dish is coming together as opposed to sitting and thinking about it for hours at a time. Balancing out the flavors in real time helps me round out a dish more completely.
A dish may need a refreshing component that adds a little sweetness and a palate-cleansing bite at the same time; that's when an addition like the celery gin granita may come into play. Most of the ideas seem great at the time but don't turn out as perfectly as I envision. But as a chef, I have to be honest with myself and be able to look at a dish that doesn't work and scrap it.
I am obsessed with learning, which is what drives me to try new things. I am always reading about new techniques or even revisiting classical techniques I may have never used before or simply have forgotten about. There are a lot of amazing chefs doing a lot of amazing things. You just have to be willing to take the time to let yourself be inspired. Social media can be a huge form of finding inspiration now, as well. A lot of chefs are posting pictures daily from their kitchens with what they are trying, whether it is a huge success or major flop.
You’ve been manning the Lotus Farm to Table kitchen since 2012. How have you progressed as a chef in these recent years?
This was my first job as executive chef, so I wasn't 100 percent sure how it would all turn out, but I was confident I had the proper training to run the kitchen successfully. I realized very quickly that who I was becoming as a chef was based more on my past experiences than I had ever thought.
I was extremely fortunate to have worked for chefs who were very demanding in their kitchens. The most important lesson I learned was to have the discipline and self-respect to do something correctly, not to take short cuts or jeopardize the integrity of the food I was preparing. This was the biggest part of my upbringing in the many kitchens in which I worked—the highest-quality ingredients, treated with respect, to yield the best-possible results. I try to balance creativity with that discipline, while also keeping in mind the clientele we serve at the restaurant.
Rohan Duck//Photo Courtesy of Lotus Farm to Table
Lotus Farm to Table is celebrated for its refined tea program. Courtney relayed that you regularly incorporate the house teas into your dishes. What is your most-prized tea-infused dish to date?
The best tea-infused dish we did at Lotus was from our collaboration with Art in the Age. It was a cocktail-paired tasting menu and one of the courses included a peach tea on our tea menu. The dish was a seared scallop with a parsnip bacon jam, blue cheese and peach tea sauce with lemongrass and capers. The cocktail was a play on a warm tea—it was a peach-tea base, with rhubarb "tea" liquor, candied lemon and blue cheese. It was one of those dishes that didn't seem like it would work on paper—but all of the components worked well together and rounded each other out.
During our recent visit, your flawless approach to dessert utterly impressed us. Turns out, pastry is one of your specialties. Can you explain what you are looking to do with Lotus’ dessert program, particularly with a one-ingredient, multiple-ways attack?
Desserts are the most important part of the Lotus menu, in my eyes. It is most often the part of the meal that a lot of restaurants overlook. There's nothing worse than having an amazing meal out and being let down by bland and lacking desserts or realizing that a restaurant’s desserts were simply delivered to the location. I was fortunate to have come from a culinary school with a strong pastry program and from restaurants that made their desserts in-house.
Most young chefs don't realize the importance of knowing pastries, and I try to impart that to every person who comes through the Lotus kitchen. My desserts have also grown and evolved over the years, just as my savory cooking has. One-ingredient themed desserts is a relatively new concept we are playing with in the kitchen. Desserts are just like appetizers or entrees in that you need a balance of flavors, textures and even temperature to have a truly successful dish. We always get amazing products coming in through our kitchen, so sometimes the best answer is to highlight those ingredients.
An aspect of Lotus that I really admire is that it features a petite market, from which I can take home your jams, pickles, sauces and so on after I try them. Why was it important to offer this take-home option to your guests?
Preserving foods is a big part of cooking in some parts of the country, and I was fortunate to have worked in restaurants that had their own gardens, and this was a necessity at the end of the seasons. Tomatoes were pickled or cooked down into a jam or sauce and then canned for the winter months. This is important at Lotus because not only does it allow us to keep experimenting with new techniques or flavor profiles, but it also can help us reduce our own waste dramatically. A lot of times a dish may not make it through the week on the menu. Instead of creating a new dish using all of those original components, I know I can pickle a couple jars of carrots (for example). It also allows us to offer our customers items from the menu that can be taken home, from cheese-board accompaniments and salad dressings to seasonal specialties.
A year after you came to Lotus, you collaborated with Courtney to expand with a more casual concept, Farmer’s Road Drive Thru. How is this farm-focused, fast-casual restaurant changing the face of on-the-go dining? What is your favorite dish from its menu?
Courtney approached me with her idea for Farmer's Road Drive Thru and asked me to help her in setting up the kitchen, training staff and helping consult on the menu and processes for the restaurant. The most important part when working through the menu was using local products, but also offering the freshness that is all too often missing in "on-the-go dining." Courtney wanted to create a restaurant that offered locally-inspired food, but in a fast-casual setting without compromising the integrity of those local ingredients. I'm a huge glutton for "buffalo" chicken wings, so that was an early menu favorite for me, but now my favorite dish is the hummus wrap. It's hummus we make inhouse, with avocado, organic yogurt, lettuce and cucumber. It's very light and refreshing, but filling at the same time.
Wild card: on your rare night(s) off, what are your favorite restaurants to visit?
I try to visit as many different restaurants as possible. I think it's important in this business to be able to get out and see what other people are doing. You can learn more from having an amazing experience than you can learn from reading, but you can also learn a lot from a bad experience.
Every restaurant has its own story and philosophy and way of doing things and it's amazing to see! I do have some favorites I frequent a lot, but I love experiencing new restaurants and bars whenever possible. Sometimes you want to be pampered with a white-tablecloth tasting dinner when the entire experience is choreographed perfectly, and other times you want to sit at the bar and eat nachos and wings. When you find those restaurants that truly respect what they are serving, it doesn't matter if you're eating French fries or foie gras and caviar; it is fun to be a part of.
Find Executive Chef Ryan Sulikowski in the Lotus Farm to Table kitchen at 112 W. State St., Media, (610) 565-5554, www.lotusfarmtotable.com