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Course of Action is a recurring monthly column by Marcus K. Dowling. He believes that behind every great meal, there’s an even better story. This column takes things one step further by exploring how a single dish (or course) can be representative of a chef’s background and culinary inspirations.
Restaurant:Emilie’s, 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Dish: Scallop Crudo
The story: Emilie’s Chef Kevin Tien believes the concept of American cuisine has shifted. He says it’s no longer solely about pizza, burgers, fried chicken, steak, and potatoes. “America was like that 30 years ago, but it’s not like that right now. Being American now involves blending a lot more cultures, and being inspired as well by where you’re from.”
Tien, a first-generation Vietnamese American from Texas, was an Army brat and lived throughout the U.S. as a child, spending time in Hawaii, Seattle, Houston, California, and Louisiana. His culinary career included jobs working under the likes of José Andrés and David Chang.
Emilie’s represents the totality of Tien’s influences, as does his scallop crudo with crispy okra, curry leaves, and chili oil.
“[Emilie’s] scallop crudo is important not just because the hamachi crudo we served at Himitsu was a signature dish,” Tien says of his first restaurant in D.C., which he operated with Carlie Steiner. “It’s because my first job in a kitchen was as a sushi chef, so I worked with a lot of raw seafood.”
Tien points out that many flavors in crudos, such as lemongrass, tomato, curry leaves, cilantro, lime, citrus, and spices, can come from Southeast Asia. “My sous chef Brian Jeon and I also took three months trying to figure out the best flavor profiles to add to reflect where we’re creatively headed as a restaurant with the dish. While eating scallops in tom yum [Thai hot and sour soup), we realized the inspiration was there.”
He also describes a research trip he took alongside his management team to Los Angeles and a visit to Chef Mei Lin’s Asian-California fusion restaurant, Nightshade, where he tasted fried curry leaves on her curry on shrimp toast dish. The notion to use the leaves was so inspiring that he stopped Lin as she was leaving the restaurant to explain that her food resonated with him because it was “a clear representation of her, her career, and who she was as a chef, on the plate.”
As for guests, it’s the inclusion of candied okra that has made the dish an immediate smash hit. “I wanted to add something sweet to the dish, that also provided a crunch, and realized that okra was a familiar ingredient to tom yum,” Tien says. “Okra is also a staple of Southern cuisine.”
“When you see the table lift the bowl to their faces and drink the broth, that’s amazing,” he says of the dish’s success. “There’s no better feeling.”