Omakase by Basan: When Food Is Love
Not fond of fuss, I was surprised by the words that came out of my mouth when my wife asked what I’d like to do for my birthday this year. Instead of my usual response – “Nothing” – I heard myself say: “I’d like Basan to make a bunch of small bites of whatever they want.”
Whatever inspired it, the idea draws on the Japanese concept of “omakase” – when restaurant guests leave it to a chef to decide what to serve. A good way to order at restaurants, it works well with catered events too. The key is trust of the chef. After all, the Japanese origin of the word “omakase” is the term for “entrust.”
A veteran of some of Charlottesville’s best kitchens, Basan’s Kelsey Naylor warrants that trust. The truck that she runs with her partner Anna Gardner won 2021 Best Food Truck. And, in C-VILLE Weekly’s recent Best of C-VILLE 2021, Naylor was runner-up for Best Chef.
And so, we put ourselves in Naylor’s hands for a night, with no restrictions at all. From a cooking station she set up in our driveway, Naylor created a parade of a dozen beautiful little dishes that we enjoyed over the course of an evening, taking time to appreciate each one.
For her cooking, Naylor draws heavily from her parents’ farm just outside Charlottesville, where her mother squeezes two full-time jobs into a single work day, which can often run from 10 am to 10 pm. One is tending to the farm: caring for chickens, ducks, guineas, turkeys, and quails, while also planting, growing and harvesting organic seasonal produce. The other is preparing an enormous selection of Korean food that she sells each week at the farmer’s market along with the farm’s produce. For our meal, the farm yielded chicken eggs, quail eggs, Asian pears, Korean chili, scallions, and shishito peppers.
Those shishitos appeared in Naylor’s showstopper of a starter: hamachi sashimi in a pool of shishito vin, topped with jalapeno potato chips and calamansi sorbet. Hamachi is Naylor’s favorite fish for sashimi, and this presentation came from a brainstorming session with Gardner about how they’d like to eat it themselves. “We thought the texture of the chip would be a great break and that the shishito vin would add some depth and really complement the fattiness of the hamachi,” said Naylor. For the vin, Naylor roasted shishito peppers from her parents’ farm and blended them with soy sauce and butter.
“From there we decided it needed something bright,” said Naylor. “PK (Ross) from Splendora’s had made calamansi sorbet, and after tasting it we knew we had found the missing piece.” Calamansi is a citrus fruit often used to accent savory Filipino dishes like pancit, palabok, or sinigang, said Ross, who was born in the Philippines. “It’s a flavor I grew up eating,” Ross said. “A vendor I use had it on an updated catalogue, so I jumped on the chance to make sorbet from a childhood taste.” For the sorbet, she combined calamansi juice, water, sugar, and a stabilizer of xanthan gum and brown rice flour.
With the hamachi, calamansi sorbet, shishito vin, and jalapeno potato chips, the finishing touch was ikura (salmon roe), “to add little pops of fresh sea flavor,” said Naylor.
Next came dashi-compressed watermelon, with shiro shoyu, and chili. Naylor first made dashi (a Japanese umami-rich broth) from konbu and dried bonito flakes. She then placed the broth in a vacuum sealer with watermelon and more bonito, to compress the flavor of the dashi and bonito into the melon. For the watermelon’s garnish, she pickled Korean chilis from her mother’s garden in sugar, salt, and vinegar. Atop that, she sprinkled Maldon salt and shiro shoyu, a hard-to-come-by white soy sauce prized for its delicate flavor, which Naylor travels to D.C. to purchase.
After the delicate start, it was time for some fried stuff. Teba Gyoza – chicken wings stuffed with dumpling filling – is a favorite dish of Naylor, Gardner, and, now, Basan fans, some of whom pray for its appearance on the truck’s weekly specials menu. “We had Teba Gyoza for the first time back when we were living in Japan and it absolutely blew our minds,” said Naylor. “We like to share it with people every chance we get.”
Naylor first made a dumpling filling of ground pork, chives, garlic, and yuzu kosho, a citrus and chili paste made from yuzu, a Japanese fruit. Next, she deboned the “flat” part of chicken wings, while keeping their skin and tip intact. In the place of the bones, she stuffed the flats with the dumpling filling, coated them in potato starch, and deep fried them a first time. Before serving, she fried them a second time to maximize crispiness, and drizzled them in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and rayu (hot sesame oil.)
Loud as they were, swoons for the wings may have been matched by those for soup, of all things. Asian pear soup, with white miso and a Japanese whisky reduction. In a broth of chicken stock and a splash of Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Whisky, Naylor slow-cooked Asian pears from her parents’ farm with bacon fat, onions, and garlic until most of the liquid had reduced. She blended it all in a Vitamix, and whipped in white miso and a splash of shiro shoyu, allowing the miso and bacon to emulsify the soup, leaving it buttery and creamy. Tasting the soup, Naylor found the whisky a bit lost in other flavors, and so added some back at service in the form of a whisky reduction with a touch of grated ginger.
Asked what inspires her creations, Naylor doesn’t hesitate. “As cliché as it sounds, most of our inspiration for dishes we create comes from what we feel like eating that day or from asking questions to each other like ‘could chicken skin be a bun?'”, said Naylor. Case in point was our final savory course: a beef tongue Big Mac. As much as Naylor and Gardner enjoy the local food of Charlottesville, they have long shared a deep love for Big Macs. “Every time we’re traveling, there inevitably comes a point when we miss something familiar,” said Naylor. “And, the Big Mac is always the same no matter where we go and will always hit the spot.” The iconic burger has inspired them to create many riffs over the years, including “a never-ending quest to see what else we can put Mac sauce on,” said Naylor. The version for our dinner — a slider with shaved sesame smoked Seven Hills beef tongue — she calls one of her favorites yet.
The idea for dessert began with a foraging expedition and ended by bringing together two of Naylor’s most beloved local artisans. On a forage this summer, Naylor, Gardner, and their dog Mr. Flowers came across a forest of Autumn olive, a wild berry native to East Asia and common in Virginia. “We immediately thought of PK (Ross),” said Naylor, “and knew that if we gave them to her she would make something awesome.”
Naylor initially had planned to use the Autumn olive sorbet that Ross made for them with the hamachi sashimi, but after tasting it and the calamansi one, she decided the calamansi would better complement the hamachi flavors. The Autumn olive sorbet, she repurposed for dessert, for which she called on another favorite Charlottesville food friend. “I’m surrounded by so much pastry talent here, why not just showcase some of the people that I love?”, thought Naylor.
Matcha Mint Chocolate Cookies from Bowerbird Bakeshop, Naylor says, are probably her favorite cookies of all time. Earl Vallery, who founded Bowerbird, calls the cookie his baby. “It was the first recipe that I worked out when I decided I’d start selling as Bowerbird at the Cville City Market,” said Vallery. “It’s also the recipe that took me the longest to get right.” The concept began with Vallery’s aim to create a play on a mint chocolate chip cookie. As Vallery was experimenting, he recalled that mint and green tea pair well as a hot beverage, and thought of incorporating matcha into the cookie. But, because chocolate and mint can be such dominant flavors, Vallery had to try multiple chocolates and ratios before the subtle earthiness of matcha green tea came through with the optimal balance. Finally, he replaced a portion of the sugar with wildflower honey to achieve the chewiness he sought, and add yet another complementary flavor.
“They were the perfect vessel for the Autumn olive sorbet,” said Naylor.
When Food is Love
Food is love. Or, at least it can be, when it is the product of interconnected acts of love by people who care as deeply as Naylor, her parents, Gardner, Ross, and Vallery. Her mother toiling for twelve hours on the farm. A 200 mile trek for the right ingredient. A gift of foraged berries. Vallery honing his “baby.” Ross recreating a childhood taste. Chefs sharing a discovery found continents away. And, the care Naylor takes in every aspect of every dish.
What makes these acts of love is that their very purpose presumes the existence of a human whose life they will improve. There is no abstract sense in which, in and of themselves, a shishito pepper, a sorbet, a cookie, or a chef’s creation are good. Rather, their goodness depends on the extent to which they will ultimately benefit someone. And so, for those passionate about their craft, every step taken to enhance the human experience of the fruits of their labor is an act of love. As a final step, in preparing a meal, a great chef like Naylor strives to do justice to the acts of love that preceded her. In heedless hands, love is lost.
So maybe this explains why I took the rare step of suggesting my own birthday celebration. While it was tempting to blame the Campari in my veins at the time, perhaps the real culprit was love. Because, even when a chef is mindful of the acts of love that preceded her, there is still another way for that love to be lost: when someone is not ready to receive it. Since the Basan truck launched last fall, I have found time for occasional quick visits. Regrettably, wolfing down their latest creation between life’s demands may not allow full appreciation of the love that went into it.
For one evening, we paused our hectic lives, and, for several hours, took the time to feel the love. Of food.
(Basan’s email for catering inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org)