"It's early in the morning to be eating this stuff," says Nick Curtola, the chef from Williamsburg wine bar and restaurant The Four Horsemen, as he chews on a buzzy, fiery leaf from an Acmella oleracea plant in our garden. Also known as an "electric daisy," this herb produces the Szechuan button, a flower that makes your mouth tingle and salivate.
He's equally overstimulated by the super-flavourful arugula, which is so peppery it makes him say, "Geez."
Although the food at Four Horsemen may seem understated—think beef tartare with sesame crackers, or fried potatoes with aioli and tomato chipotle sauce—Curtola's ease with navigating our herb garden is evidence that there's more complexity to his cooking than what meets the eye. A lot of chefs come through the MUNCHIES garden, but few can ID a few sprigs of anise hyssop, buried in a hodgepodge of other flora, from 35 feet away. ("We use a lot of anise hyssop in desserts," Curtola shrugs.)
From the Four Horsemen kitchen, he's also brought Christian, who immediately tasks himself with picking root vegetables ("Pulling carrots out of the ground is one of the most satisfying things," he says) and Lafayette, a former dishwasher at the restaurant who is now a line cook. The trio divides and conquers among the herb and vegetable patches.
Curtola loves the tiny Mexican cucumbers that look just like miniature watermelons. He and his team also grab bunches of chamomile, flowering thyme, and fennel, as well as green tomatoes, wild strawberries, blueberries, and a few other types of cucumbers.
Curtola likes working with stuff that's still speckled with dirt. "I used to work at this place called Camino in Oakland. Russ [Moore] sourced this really amazing produce," he remembers. He grew up in the Bay Area, but moved to New York six years ago.
"I also worked at Franny's and they're really into going to the markets. Myself and Christian and Adam, we just nerd out on really cool plants and flowers and herbs. A lot of the stuff in the [MUNCHIES] garden, we get—lovage, clover, and stuff like that."
The Four Horsemen team has also brought some of their own treasures, including a whole snapper and a vanilla semifreddo with crumbled pine nut praline.
With the snapper, Curtola plans to make a crudo similar to one on the menu at the restaurant. "We generally have a couple of crudo [dishes] on the menu," he says.
He has also brought juicy pork rib chops, rubbed with chiles, cumin, spices, and fennel seeds, which he plans to serve with shishito peppers, spring onions, and fresh baby greens.
First, he starts a carrot dashi broth for the crudo, using bonito flakes, cilantro, and coriander seeds. "We try not to put too much heat on it, because we don't want to take out the freshness," says Christian.
Then, he creates a quick cure for the snapper, using the chamomile, salt, sugar, lime, and the flowering thyme and fennel.
"We do a tuna dish right now that we submerge in salt. This will be a lighter texture," Curtola says. The fish will cure for just 20 or 25 minutes.
Christian cuts the Mexican cucumbers into thin coins as the spring onions char in our pizza oven. He then quick-pickles the cucumbers, carrots, and green tomatoes to incorporate into the crudo.
Although there is something very delicate and hyper-fresh about Curtola's style of cooking, he doesn't want it to be lumped in with "tweezer food."
"[Nordic food] is great as a concept, but it doesn't always hit right," he says, slicing the beautiful, pale-pink flesh of the snapper. "We're a neighbourhood wine bar, and we just want all of our food to work well together and with the wines. We have 350 different bottles of wine on the menu, but we don't want people to feel intimidated when they choose one."
Lafayette, meanwhile, blisters the shishito peppers with a blowtorch. In what feels like no time, the dishes start to come together.
The juicy, pink pork slices are topped with dressed greens, roasted onions, and peppers, as well as a few creamy dabs of freshly made toum for a simple but impressive entrée.
Curtola spoons the pickled vegetables over the fresh, raw snapper, then adds the carrot dashi. A sprinkle of sea salt and olive oil and an arrangement of tiny sweet basil leaves, chives, and flowers complete the crudo.
RECIPE: Red Snapper Crudo
Finally, the sweet heirloom strawberries and tart blueberries are mixed with rosé and Japanese brown sugar, then incorporated into a dessert with the pine nut semifreddo, which Curtola brought in a giant slab. He cuts off a block and spoons the berry mixture on top, garnishing the finished product with curly mint and fennel tips.
"We want people who eat at Four Horsemen to think that everything tastes good even if they don't know what's in it," says Curtola. "Maybe they have no idea that they're eating a carrot dashi, but they should still like it."