For Timothy Cottini, condiments are way more serious than a squeeze of ketchup or a dash of hot sauce. “They’re like the straw that stirs a drink,” says Cottini, chef-partner of Fork and Knife, two Chicago restaurants. “The right condiment unites flavors.” With the definition of condiment broadening an evolving global pantry, chefs are going deeper, pulling out a shio koji here, a dukkah there and maybe some gochujang, harissa paste or Bavarian mustard. So armed, they aim to create a full palate of tastes and sensations for guests.
A Balancing Act
Of his condiments creations, Cottini is especially proud of Knife’s housemade steak sauce. “It seems important to have steak sauce at Knife,” he says. “It’s a habit; people reach for it when meat has no baseline flavor. Our steaks are full-flavored and properly seasoned, so the sauce works to create synergy between the steak and potatoes, or any other side dish.”
Stephan Pyles, chef-owner of Flora Street Cafe in Dallas, agrees condiments are essential to balancing dishes. “Our menu uses big, bold flavors made sophisticated, refined and more elegant,” he says. “Condiments help complete the thought.” At Flora Street, powdered mole negro made from a heavily reduced sauce and then dehydrated unifies antelope plated with a huitlacoche empanada, roasted chanterelles and pickled peaches. “It looks like a sprinkle of paprika,” he says. “Except the flavor is completely unexpected.”
Condiments can fine-tune flavors in a dish, too. “They elevate menu items,” says Mark Jensen, chef-owner of Middle Fork Kitchen Bar in Lexington, Kentucky. “When I create a dish, I walk through the template of flavors, then try to hit sweet, salty, sour, umami, bitter. Condiments fill a void, help everything play nice together.”
Courses like his PB&J starter that pairs a fire-grilled baguette with ginger-peanut sauce, lime-orange jam, chilies, cilantro and red onion pickles highlight the importance of condiments. Even main dishes such as braised pork belly glazed with mirin, soy and lime served with sticky rice, kimchi, soy-vinaigrette salad and gochujang make the most of what are traditionally considered add-ons. They also demonstrate that not all creative condiments require scratch-made opuses.
Jensen’s kitchen buys base condiments such as ketchup and mustard in bulk. “They can jump-start a prep,” he says. “Our guests will never see ketchup on the table, but it will show up in something more complex.” That doesn’t mean diners won’t ask for it. “Ketchup on eggs? You try to lead them in the direction you want to go,” Jensen says. “But some want to add everything at the table. ”
Rules of the Road
Just one packaged condiment comes into Republic, a farm-to-table restaurant in Detroit: French Dijon mustard. Everything else is housemade, says Executive Chef Sarah Welch. “Condiments go a lot farther than typical sauces,” she says. “Pickled and fermented foods, dry spices, a jolt of vinegar round out dishes.” For instance, duck liver mousse with fat cap is accompanied by house preserves and pickled mustard seeds. A framework of fresh and local drives the menu, and condiments are no exception. “We operate best with structure. There are so many ingredients out there. We’d get lost if we tried to use them all. Seasonality gives us rules to live by.”
Another rule in Welch’s kitchen: The orchestration of any dish should elicit maximum flavor. “The idea of what condiments are is arbitrary, but how we design dishes isn’t,” she says. “We look to hit all the flavor and textural notes. A condiment can add acidity, crunch, creaminess, balance and a little funkiness. They ensure maximal flavor—that it’s not a one-note dish.”
Condiments: What’s Your Definition?
The traditional definition of condiments barely scratches the surface. Condiments have moved far beyond tableside ketchup, salt and pepper.
“As a term, it’s pretty broad-reaching,” says Sarah Welch, executive chef of Republic. “You want to say a condiment is a finishing element, but it’s more specific. I’m pretty comfortable saying it is something shelf-stable or preserved—or at least not highly perishable.” She gives pickles, crunchy spice blends, vinegar-based sauces, tapenade and chutney as examples.
For Timothy Cottini, chef-owner of Knife, a condiment brightens, adds depth and brings complexity. “It can be a spice blend such as za’atar or dukkah that adds texture, sauce, pickled ingredients, honey, tahini, barbecue sauce,” he says. “It’s a pretty wide field, and it keeps expanding; there’s more to reach for.”
The bottom line? “Pretty much anything that complements and completes a dish fits my idea of a condiment,” says Chef-owner Mark Jensen of Middle Fork Kitchen Bar. “You could make it a lot more complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.”