Now approaching his one-year anniversary at Four Seasons Hotel New York, Chef John Johnson reflects on future food trends, the most important meal of the day and of course, his first encounter with the formidable Four Seasons hotcakes.
When you interviewed for the job, were you aware you’d be inheriting this rather famous menu item?
John Johnson: Oh, I knew all about the lemon ricotta hotcakes. This dish has a cult following! Everyone says it originated here at the New York property but no one is one hundred percent sure — it’s all part of the legend, which makes it fun.
As a chef who was new to the property, did you ever think about changing the recipe to give it your own flavour, so to speak?
JJ: I wouldn’t dare mess with it too much. We have many regular customers who come to The Garden and order these hotcakes on a daily — yes, daily — basis. We even have one regular who eats them twice a day. So our customers know what they like, which is great. Where I have a chance to be creative is with the toppings. I change things up with the seasons, so it could be Meyer lemon preserves or local black raspberries depending on what’s in the market at that time.
What is it about these hotcakes that make them so popular?
JJ: It’s a very simple, old-fashioned recipe with fresh lemon zest, strained ricotta and a little bit of extra whipped egg white to make them extra light, that’s the secret.
Apart from the hotcakes, you’ve re-worked the breakfast menu. What was your inspiration?
JJ: It tends to be a polarizing meal: People either want something super-healthy or they’re traveling and want something indulgent. So, we’ve kept all the classics and introduced and identified more healthy choices, like fruit smoothies, whole-wheat omelet wraps and gluten-free items.
It sounds like that’s all a perfect fit with the Eat-Drink-Local menu and general philosophy that you’ve brought to The Garden.
JJ: We’re lucky because some of the world’s most amazing produce comes from New Jersey, upstate New York and Connecticut. And I should know, since I grew up in New Jersey. My love of cooking comes from being in my grandma’s kitchen and garden, and spending time on my uncle’s lobster boat on the Jersey coast. So incorporating local products and having contact with the cheese mongers and the farmers, it’s infectious and I wanted to bring that energy to our menu.
Do you think the “Eat Local” movement will ever hit a saturation point?
JJ: It’s definitely here to stay. Butchers and farmers are now at a celebrity level, and most people’s new food shopping routine includes backyard gardens and the farm stand down the street. But maybe we won’t hear the term so much because it’s just part of our culture now.
Are there any other food trends you think we’ll be hearing about — and tasting — in 2013?
JJ: I think there has to be a large-scale change in the way people eat everyday. With all this talk of a “fiscal cliff,” the cost of ingredients, especially beef and dairy, could quadruple in the coming year. I can see people discovering different, more inexpensive cuts of meat or alternative proteins, like soy and quinoa. I also think a more vegetable-based diet will gain popularity. So rather than panic, I think it gives us the opportunity to discover new things. As a chef, you have to be agile with your menu and adapt to what’s going on in the world. I look forward to the challenge. – Beth Hitchcock