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Don’t Try This at Home


justin burdett by peter frank edwards
Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

I wonder how many chefs think. What makes them tick? How do they approach new dishes and preparations?

A few years ago, a prominent Charleston chef relayed, “Good chefs are problem solvers.” I’ve seen chefs fix an oven door, cut costs by learning what to do with all the fat trimmed from fresh meat (lardo anyone?), and in the case of Chef Justin Burdett of Ruka’s Table, figure out a way to create kimchi out of tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon.

Kimchi. It’s everywhere. The fermented Korean condiment is now firmly entrenched in American cuisine, and Southern chefs are also getting in on the fermenting action, utilizing local ingredients. But if you really think about fermentation, it is essentially letting something go past what many of us would consider “its prime.” In other words, with a little human assistance, nature creates a condiment when foodstuffs start breaking down.

In the case of tomatoes, cukes, and especially watermelon, “breaking down” can actually mean “becoming a watery mush.” But when I tasted Burdett’s watermelon kimchi recently, it was delicate, delicious, and magically, still reminiscent of the texture of watermelon, not a soupy mush.

How did he do it? Well, he’s a problem solver.

“I took all the liquid off a cabbage kimchi, then I compressed* it into the watermelon,” he explains. “I’m using Tiger melons, Georgia melons. Doing the kimchi out of these compounds the sugar when you compress it, and then you get this sweet, sour combo.”

At the moment, he’s serving this kimchi with pork belly and a local quail egg. Sometimes you don’t want to try “this” at home. Sometimes you just want to eat it and admire the creativity on the plate, even down to the compressed watermelon cubes.

Editor’s Note: The chef used a vacuum chamber to push the cabbage kimchi liquid into the cells of the watermelon, thus compressing it.

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