Jacob Lefenfeld is co-owner and bar manager of Baltimore’s Basque-inspired La Cuchara. Rated “Best Bar Program” in the city by The Baltimore Sun, Lefenfeld is used to pushing the boundaries and leading beverage innovation. His approach to beverage development incorporates flavor-forward techniques from the back of house, especially in using spices and herbs in his drinks. In collaboration with McCormick Chef and culinary mixologist Gabby Quintana, Lefenfeld discusses the nuances of black pepper flavor and his winning approach to cocktail development.
What aspects of pepper do you like the most, and how do you feel it factors into cocktail culture?
Pepper creates a deeper, more savory flavor which people seem to want more of in cocktail culture. Many customers are moving away from overtly sweet drinks in search of flavor complexity and balance but I believe even classically sweet beverages can benefit from a dash of black pepper as it adds more depth and a nice back bite of heat to even the most one-dimensional cocktail. It basically contributes enough in the background to make the flavors pop.
A good pepper should accent a chef or bartender’s expression, not alter it.
What do you find to be the key to flavor balancing? How do you figure out where to start when developing a cocktail and where to go profile-wise?
The starting point is always the base spirit I want to work with; selecting the centerpiece, examining unique characteristics, and building upon them in an exciting but logical way. I isolate individual flavors that come together to make the spirit complex then seek out ingredients that will naturally highlight them and add depth. A lot of it is trial and error as something crazy sounding might actually balance well. You just have to be willing to fail and start all over again.
You use a number of surprising ingredients in your cocktails, such as butternut squash. How do you go about creating things like that?
Personally, I benefit from Ben’s culinary experience. Bartenders who can learn from the kitchen have an extra card to play in cocktail development. Seeking out the methods and techniques, not just ingredients, that are traditionally only used in kitchens can open up a whole new playing field behind the bar.
La Cuchara is a Basque restaurant, which is a type of cuisine many people may not be familiar with. What do you consider when designing a cocktail to complement a Basque menu?
Located between Northern Spain and Southern France, two of the most culinary rich countries, the Basque region pulls the best influences from both places to create a truly unique cuisine.
So, when I’m designing the cocktails for La Cuchara, I then try to use Basque’s most prominent items, things like Armagnac, Vermouth and gin. Different Vermouths from different sub regions can radically alter a cocktail as it’s not a spirit but a very fortified wine, a product which is shaped nearly entirely by the nature of where it’s produced. Some are herbaceous, some are sweet, others are intensely floral. You can make the same cocktail hundreds of different ways, all by using various Vermouths from different places–it’s that unique as an ingredient.
Is there a particular cocktail you’ve created where you found that black pepper really shines?
Sangre del Toro, or “blood of the bull”. It’s a variation of a gin and tonic that has black peppercorn-infused simple syrup, Black Pepper Beet Espuma and cracked black pepper. The black pepper tempers the syrup’s sweetness while pronouncing the earthy flavor imparted by the red beets.
Stepping out from behind the bar, are there any foods you find pair exceptionally well with black pepper that people wouldn’t normally think of?
I truly enjoy it when pepper is included in a sweet dessert, such as a black pepper angel food cake inspired by our pastry chef Carrie Goltra. She has actually used black pepper in several of the desserts she’s created for us, like our roasted pineapple sorbet with black pepper marshmallows, and our cinnamon churros that are spiced with pepper and annatto and served with a warm chocolate sauce.
For more flavorful inspiration visit: www.McCormickForChefs.com.