What do you like about September in the kitchen?
September is one of my favorite times of the year for cooking. You’re still using up the end-of-the-season tomatoes, and you’re also getting into the hearty root vegetables and greens that people associate with fall and the beginning of winter. The summer squash season is wrapping up—zucchini and yellow squash, and we start to see eggplants, and more of the fall greens, kales and collards, mustard greens that are really hearty but still have fresh flavor.
How did you grow up eating?
Until I got into high school I moved 15 times: all over New England, down into the South, and finally landed in Annapolis as my home base my senior year in high school. My dad was in the banking industry; he was constantly being shuffled to reorganize and get new banks established. I’ve kind of absorbed a little bit of everything I’ve seen through bouncing around. I have a love for the food of New England, Italian and Portuguese flavors, the beach flavors, clam and lobster rolls. A lot of my training was in Charleston, North Carolina, so I use a lot of Southern flavors. I’m kind of a patchwork quilt of the East Coast.
How is that reflected at Level?
I think I’m pretty good at thinking outside of the box and stepping away from what’s expected.
What is that? Crab, crab, rockfish and crab?
If you put crab, rockfish and oysters on your menu, you know it’s going to sell. We don’t have rockfish on the menu at any of the restaurants. We have one oyster dish at the Fox’s Den. We don’t really use much crab at all. I want to step out of the idea that Annapolis is crabcakes on Kaiser rolls and fries.
Does that mean your customers are mostly local?
Our audience is definitely a local crowd. Because the locals enjoy us, it’s inevitable that we’ll have tourists. When tourists are walking around down- town and ask someone where is a good place to eat, the locals will direct them to where they go as well.
Tell me about the cocktail program.
We like to have overlapping flavors, so the bar folks kind of riff off what I’m doing. If I’m bringing in apples, they might do a cocktail with an apple shrub, where they macerate apples with sugar and soak them in vinegar, or a torched or caramelized apple. These guys are amazing at what they do. I step away.
And how do you use apples in the kitchen?
On the food side, we use apples for a lot of salads. I like to poach them. Apples are great with pizza. Last year at Fox’s Den we had a bacon-apple-caramelized onion-sage pizza on a ricotta base. We’ve done a lot of butternut squash and apple bisques. Apples are so easy to use. It’s one of those things that everyone recognizes but doesn’t always think of putting into food.
Small plates can be more labor intensive than entrees. Is there a lot of pressure to keep everything lively and creative? Not to mention the fact that people order more plates.
We probably do three to four plates per customer. On weekends, we do about 300 covers a night, so the kitchen is putting out 1,200 plates. Logistically, doing small plates is extremely hard. We try to make sure every dish is a complete thought. A lot of European-style tapas might be just, say, roasted peppers on a plate. We like to make sure they are complete dishes. You’re never going to get a plate that is just a piece of fish or sliced meat. That way, if you’re not sharing you will feel satisfied. Some people still don’t understand the concept of shared plates and will just order for themselves. We want to make sure they are just as happy as those who are eating communally.
Roasted butternut squash, walnut pesto and apple pizza
Makes one 14-inch pizza
11 ounces pizza dough
1 cup shelled walnuts
1 clove garlic
3 sprigs thyme
1⁄4 cup Parmesan cheese (grated)
1⁄2 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1⁄3 cup oil
1⁄2 loaf Italian bread (or about 1 cup breadcrumbs)
2 ounces whipped ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ yellow onion, thinly sliced
½ cup butternut squash, roasted
½ cup Granny Smith apples, cubed (about ½ apple)
Lightly toast walnuts, garlic and bread. Once toasted, blend all ingredients in food processor while slowly adding vinegar and oil. Refrigerate until use.
Preheat oven to 500° with pizza stone.
Slice onions and sauté over medium-high heat until soft and caramel-colored.
Roll pizza dough into a 14-inch circle with a slightly raised edge for crust.
Spread about ¼ cup of the walnut pesto on the dough. Evenly distribute onions, squash and apples on the pizza.
Bake 6-8 minutes, or until the crust is brown and cooked through.
Place dollops of ricotta over the pizza.
Cut and serve.
Josh Brown is executive chef for Fox Boys Hospitality Group, which owns the Annapolis restaurants Level, the Fox’s Den gastropub and Vida Taco Bar. Brown worked in Charleston at Oak Steakhouse and O’Leary’s in Annapolis before taking over the kitchen at Level in 2014.