Vandaag Chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark doesn’t merely bake his own bread—he smokes it with hay. And this is only one example of the various ways local restaurants are deriving a distinctive fragrance from an ingredient that most of us associate more with the petting zoo than with fine dining. But cooking with dried grass is actually a centuries-old European technique; the French cooking term “dans le foin” means cooked in hay. And more than a hundred years ago, hay box cookers were utilized here as a low-energy, low-cost kitchen tool: The insulation enabled foods briefly brought to a boil to finish cooking fuel-free. More recently, though, in spite of its barnyard connotations (or perhaps because of them), hay has become an essential element of the mise en place in some of the world’s most cutting-edge kitchens, from René Redzepi’s Noma to Grant Achatz’s Alinea. Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi, who cooked with the stuff at last fall’s Le Grand Fooding at P.S. 1 and then at an Astor Center event two months later, doesn’t seem to leave home without it. And hay’s growing prevalence on New York menus suggests that more and more forward-looking chefs are enthusiastically embracing the old-school custom. At La Fonda del Sol, spring lamb is cooked over hay and served with hay-infused yogurt. At Vandaag, Kirschen-Clark doesn’t stop at rustic loaves of country levain; he also applies the technique to ruby-red shrimp, and cures duck breast in a mixture of salt, sugar, and burnt-hay ash. Manzo’s hay-roasted veal chop has become a signature dish, and Jean Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini has even been known to churn hay ice cream. Chefs credit the subtle herbaceous aroma for its appeal. “It brings Mother Nature in!” says Aquavit’s Marcus Jernmark, who captures the smoke’s earthy essence in his sweetbreads.
We’re not talking about your local pet-store blend, by the way. Chefs procure their hay from local farms—at Manzo, a farmer actually delivers it in trash bags, while at Corton, where Mangalitsa pork comes with a hay-infused jus, Paul Liebrandt gets his from Greenmarket’s Berried Treasures (one grocery bag runs $5). Michael Toscano of Manzo suggests chefs’ growing familiarity with farmers has helped them discover (or rediscover) such unlikely “ingredients.” Not that anyone claims to be pioneering an audacious new culinary trend. “Hay comes from where the chickens lay the eggs,” says Liebrandt, a chef whose past exploits make hay-smoking look as sedate as buttering a bagel. “To cook chicken in hay is a natural thing.”