Hanover, Pennsylvania's Sheppard Mansion has been around for close to one hundred years. For the last five of them, Andrew Little — a Hanover native and CIA grad who has cooked at several respected restaurants, including the Inn at Little Washington — has been running the kitchen of the historic address. In that time, he has quietly and, by most accounts, compellingly engaged the traditional flavors and ingredients of the area to develop a contemporary brand of cuisine. Little calls it "New Pennsylvania Dutch."
In the following interview, the chef discusses what constitutes this style of cooking, how he came to make this particular kind of food, and the possibility that this endeavor might have an expiration date.
Well, what is New Pennsylvania Dutch cooking?
What we do is we take the traditional flavors of the region, become inspired by them, and present traditional dishes in a more contemporary light. So, for example, things like scrapple or shoofly pie or chicken pot pie — we take the original and see how we can become inspired by it and spin it around.
How do you spin it around?
A traditional shoofly pie might end up as an ice cream float, for example. Shoofly pie has the molasses and the crumb topping, so we'll take the flavors and make a molasses soda, a spiced ice cream, toasted oats, and make a whipped cream out of that and put a little pie twist on top that looks like a straw. With that, we come full circle to the original.
And the chicken pot pie?
It has a lot of different iterations. The last one we did was taking puff pastry, baking it off till it was very dark. We needed that to make a sauce. Then we took some chicken, bagged it with brown butter, and cooked it sous vide. It comes out and gets a vegetable accompaniment. That one's a bit more of a deconstruction.
We use the basis of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking as our inspiration. I grew up in the area, eating all of these flavors, and now we want to provide people who come to the restaurant a taste of that, but in a contemporary light.
Are you pioneering this?
Yeah. I think you'll see people taking a stab at scrapple or things like that, but the short answer is yes, certainly to the extent that we are doing it. We're really throwing ourselves into it feet-first. As far as I know, we're at the front of it.
You coined the term?
Yeah. I hadn't seen it anywhere before. The issue that we had is that immediately when you think of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, it conjures up this idea of heavier foods and smorgasbords and buffets. I grew up with that and a lot of the staff grew up with that, but we wanted to figure out a way to set ourselves apart. "New" was the quickest and easiest term. "Modern" I think also works. What it ends up being — I don't even know if it's a rediscovery. It's a real discovery of the region's cuisine.
What do you mean by that?
Pennsylvania Dutch food, in terms of being a regional American cuisine, isn't much different than Cajun or Creole or the food of the Pacific Northwest. It's a wonderful regional cuisine, but it just hasn't had its time in fine restaurants yet. You can look at Emeril and John Besh in Louisiana, who are taking their roots and presenting it in wonderful restaurants. That's what we are trying to do here. We are proud of this cuisine. Let's cook it.
Let's backtrack for a moment: at what point did you decide to come to Sheppard Mansion and, more importantly, to start doing this kind of cooking?
To give a bit of backstory, I went to CIA and I cooked at the Inn at Little Washington, which provided a serious grounding for me. What Patrick is doing there is taking foods from the area and being inspired by the Virginia countryside. Before I came to the Sheppard Mansion, I was at an 18-room inn in Bucks County, and the opportunity came up to come home. Now I live five blocks from the restaurant and 175 yards from where I grew up, so the chance to come home and really explore the foods that I grew up with was amazing. I've always had a garden, I've always been involved in using local farmers, so the next step for me in that farm-to-table tradition was taking the idea of terroir to the next level. We have this great food that is produced and brought to our front door, so why not maintain the raw local ingredient flavor as well as the local flavor of the food? It should all be rooted in the area.
A lot of my inspiration for what goes on the menu is food memories. I'm home here. I can walk down the street and have dinner at my folk's house. So those memories came back to me, and I decided that we needed to explore that in a restaurant setting.
So you didn't come to the restaurant with the fully-formed idea that you'd be doing this?
For me, no matter where I would end up, the idea of being able to source products and work with farmers would be with me. That's how I cook. But it was an evolution. It wasn't that I sat down one night and it just hit me. We started slowly putting things on the menu, and we got a really great response. Eventually we decided to take it and run with it.
You use the words "contemporary" and "modern" and "deconstruction." That begs a question that may be difficult to answer: how progressive is the cooking — the technique?
Well, we don't have a liquid nitrogen tank [laughs]. A lot of times when people think "modern," they think Alinea, Fat Duck, or elBulli. Certainly we use as many techniques as we can, but I think that the food stays true to its roots. So it's somewhere in between. We have an immersion circulator, but we're not making liquid nitrogen ice cream.
It seems like the two main focuses at the restaurant are the traditional recipes and the sourcing. Is one more important than the other? Could you, for instance, use a raw ingredient from your area, prepare it in a way that isn't historically tied to the region, and still call it New Pennsylvania Dutch?
I'm not so sure, exactly. We could take some of the products we have here, like the beef that we raise, and make something like beef bourguignon. That obviously doesn't qualify. But the raw product really does speak to the area. You can taste the area. When we're doing the dishes, it's important that we have the products that are from here.
On the other hand, we're landlocked, so fish and seafood is an issue. I can't run out to the ocean and pull some fish out. So, what we do there is get the very best that we can, primarily from the east coast, and make dishes that are inspired by the area. Chow chow, for instance, which they have in the south: we take it, purée it, add some dry vermouth, and make a vinaigrette out of it. It makes a wonderful sauce for fish. There we've taken a product from outside and brought it back to a flavor of the area. I want people to be able to read the menu, see the ingredients, and know where they are.
Do you feel that you can exhaust this type of cooking, or is it evolving?
I can tell you from personal experience that that is a great question. It is definitely evolving. We go through my family's recipes; my sous chef is from the area, and we'll look at his grandmother's recipes. That was something that concerned me at the beginning: "What happens when we come to the end?" It can be a little bit of a concern. But using the scrapple as an example — it changes throughout the year. The recipe changes, in addition to the accompaniment. I can't tell you that I haven't considered that, though.
A similar but different question: when I asked Sean Brock if he ever felt limited by Husk, he said that McCrady's was his outlet, that he could do whatever he wanted in that kitchen. You don't have another outlet. Do you at times feel limited?
I don't. Sean has very strict rules at Husk, but we are dealing more with inspiration here. We don't have hard and fast rules. I still want to bring in really fantastic local ingredients, and a lot of the time, it challenges us in a really beautiful way. What can we do with a sweet potato? How can we make it interesting to the diner and to us? Those situations often lead to the greatest creativity. We've got to work with this, so let's figure it out and make it fun.
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