jason stratton.jpg
This summer, chef Jason Stratton, late of Poppy and Cafe Juanita , took the helm at Cascina Spinasse . He's been melding his long-standing passion


Grillaxin' with Jason Stratton, Part One

jason stratton.jpg
This summer, chef Jason Stratton, late of Poppy and Cafe Juanita, took the helm at Cascina Spinasse. He's been melding his long-standing passion for Italian food with the local bounty of seasonal ingredients ever since, turning out dishes that are simultaneously classic and wildly creative (think tripe soup with hazlenut-fed pork belly and chickpeas, guinea fowl with Negroni flavors, Venison salmi, and marinated farro salad with beet and Meyer lemon).

"A great chef or great cook is born with something in them that knows how to make food taste good," says Poppy's chef/owner Jerry Traunfeld of Stratton. "It's not about technique. Some people can just make things taste delicious, and he's one of those guys."

What were your culinary inspirations?

My first real inspiration was definitely Bruce Naftaly of Le Gourmand. He was very generous enough to allow a 16-year-old me come in to wash dishes. He showed me how to break down a duck, a chicken, a rabbit. He gave me my first tastes of a lot of things: venison, morels, gooseberries, black currants. I will never forget the first time I had sweetbreads. After showing me how to meticulously pick the fat and membrane away from the gently poached glands (me: "thymus glands?!"), he sautéed them gently and served them in a chanterelle sauce that had been reducing slowly for an hour. I dubiously took a small forkful. I was floored. I think that one bite definitively changed the direction of my life.

I have to mention Jerry Traunfeld also. I learned much from him about how to really perfect and express a personal vision through food. His knowledge of ingredients is vast and inspiring, how they taste with each other, how they grow, even what their Latin classifications are! He draws reference points from so many places, but they all come together in this very simple, subtle way that couldn't be anyone's but Jerry's. He's fearless. I love that.

Is there an ingredient or dish that you're particularly into these days? If so, what?

We are getting amazing mandarinquats (a hybrid between a mandarin and a kumquat) from Rising C Ranch in California. These are really fabulous. The zest is intensely aromatic like a satsuma, but the flesh is sweetly sour. I make a version of mostarda di Cremona, a fruit mustard where you preserve the fruit whole in a hot and sour mustard syrup. It's one of the classic accompaniments to a bollito misto or for a roast. We are using its zest atop our squash ravioli with a little crushed amaretti cookie and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Some of the spicy syrup is getting drizzled over our braised, then roasted pork belly with cabbage and sunchokes. (Morgan Brownlow should be getting terrific props by the way, for spear-heading this terrific project for hazelnut finished pork. Look for Tails and Trotters!)

What do you think this says about your cooking style/interests?

I have always been interested in how history has influenced the way that we eat now. Take for example risotto Milanese, perhaps the most emblematic dish of Milan and a classic Italian dish. It came about to satisfy the nostalgia of Valencian sailors who missed the rice dishes of home. Looking at medieval recipes seems odd, such strange flavor combinations and heavy, heavy use of spicing. But much of rustic cuisine is still living very much with that history present every day, every meal. I cite the entire Catalan cuisine as reference, interestingly now being referenced and reformed by the most cutting edge chefs in Barcelona and all over Valencia. I feel it's very important to know why these foods became dishes that we still make.

The need to preserve foods isn't really a matter of survival today but did bring us dishes and ingredients that we now crave and can't imagine life without: cheese, salumi and jamón, salt cod, kimchi, duck and goose confit, ketchup, mustard, fish sauce etc. This fascinates me.

You're making a pizza. What's on it?

I love a good pizza with just tomato and anchovies. Though I am pretty easy.

You're making an omelet. What's in it?

Omelet? I like gruyere and a healthy crack of black pepper. But if I were cooking eggs for myself I would be much more likely to fry myself some eggs Spanish-style in plenty of olive oil. Crispy edges, puffy whites, runny yolk = a very good time.

What's your after-work hangout?

Sun Liquor for Negronis. I really, really love this bar. It was the after-work hangout when I was at Poppy also. It's just a few blocks from home. I love the Palace Kitchen for a burger though if I'm hungry. Rare with blue cheese.

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