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Tag: Kelsey Naylor

2021 Dish of the Year: Basan Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen

A lot goes into the way we experience food. It’s more than just sensation on one’s tongue. Appetite, mood, health, expectations, setting, lighting, company, and even weather can color our perception of food.

The most striking meals occur when these factors align. The right bite in the right place at the right time.

One evening in September, this happened. We invited Basan food truck to our house to serve whatever they’d like, and the “omakase” of small bites they created was one of the most memorable meals of the year. There was hamachi sashimi with calamansi sorbet, shishito vin, and jalapeno potato chips. Dashi-compressed watermelon with shiro shoyu and chili. Asian pear soup with white miso and a Japanese whisky reduction. And, even a beef tongue “Big Mac.”

As delicious as each bite was, it was not just food that made the meal so special. The beautiful Virginia late summer weather allowed for dining on the patio. And, perhaps best of all was the company. Days later, the small group of friends who attended still reflected on how good it felt just to be together. Months of isolation can do that.

But it wasn’t that September evening in the company of friends when I enjoyed my most memorable dish of the year. It was months earlier, alone at my kitchen table.

“They’ve Made Every Part of It”

The women behind Basan, Anna Gardner and Kelsey Naylor, share a deep passion for food. It is so deep that they once spent a year in Japan just to explore the food. A teaching job for Gardner placed them in the small rural city of Miyakonojo, rich with rice paddies and palm trees. There, Gardner and Naylor were struck by the tight-knit and hospitable nature of the community, a welcoming place where a persimmon picking outing could turn into an invitation for tea from the orchard’s owner.

One community member, Yuki, even offered Naylor a job cooking at her izakaya – an informal bar serving small bites to enjoy with drinks. For Naylor, it was a crash course not just in Japanese food, but also language and culture. “Yuki was kind enough to teach me anything I wanted to know,” said Naylor, “and working in an izakaya-style open kitchen was a wonderful way to meet new people and get to know them.” One regular customer, for example, would catch all of the fish for the restaurant each day, and dishes would be built around whatever he happened to catch. He invited Gardner and Naylor deep sea fishing.

Also striking to Gardner and Naylor was the reverence for food, and the time and care devoted to it. Part of the reason was necessity. In a remote community like Miyakonojo, the absence of big city conveniences forces people to grow their own foods, cook locally, and make the best of what’s around. “Japanese culture is very food-centric,” said Naylor, “but even moreso in the countryside where a lot of the seasonal traditions are still intact by sheer nature.”

But, another reason was pride. Take a dish as simple as miso soup, which Yuki served at her izakaya. Despite the time-intensive process of making miso from scratch, Yuki did it herself. For Yuki, to do otherwise would leave to a manufacturer the dish’s most defining ingredient. And so, for months at a time, she would ferment soy beans in a crock with salt and koji, assuring it remained air-tight and at a constant temperature for the duration. People like Yuki, Naylor said, seem “more connected to what they’re making because they’ve made every part of it.”

When Gardner and Naylor returned to Virginia, they were as determined as ever to to do the same. “Our experience solidified our stubborn need to make as much as we possibly can on our own,” said Naylor.

A Labor of Love: Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen

For a bowl of food handed through a food truck window, the amount of work that goes into Basan’s ramen is remarkable.

First is the tare. “All ramen starts with a base tare, the seasoning that carries the bowl,” said Naylor.

Basan’s requires a three day process. On day one, they start with Kishibori shoyu, an organic, minimally processed soy sauce. To that, they add dried mushrooms, kombu, bonito, dried anchovies, and dried scallops, and let them steep in the soy overnight to draw out the flavors. On day two, they heat sake, mirin, and dashi, to burn off the sake’s alcohol, and add it to the day one soy sauce mixture. Those flavors meld for another 24 hours, and on day three, they strain the sauce and add two different kinds of miso: red and white. Red miso, Naylor says, is pungent and salty, and can come off as harsh if used in excess. Supplementing it with the milder white miso tames the flavor, allowing miso to remain the shining element of the tare without muddying the flavors of the prior steps’ ingredients.

That’s the tare.

Next comes chili paste. Gardner and Naylor source chilis from a Korean woman in Tennessee who grows and dries them herself. To make the chili paste, they roast chilis, and blend them in a Vitamix with rice vinegar, salt, white soy, and dried Korean chilis, along with some Gochujang also made by the woman in Tennessee.

Next, there is hot sesame oil. For that, they steep more of the chilis in sesame oil over low heat, with a little bit of garlic. They then strain it, leaving behind hot sesame oil.

These are just the dish’s seasoning elements. Next comes the broth, or paitan. To make it, they start by soaking whole chickens overnight in water. This draws out blood and other elements that can cause an excessively gamey flavor.

The next day, they put the whole chickens along with extra chicken necks and backs into a giant pot of water over burners turned as high as they can go. They boil the chickens hard for 8-10 hours, topping off the pot with more water as it evaporates. Next, they add aromatics – scallions, ginger, garlic, and onion – and keep boiling for another two hours. Meanwhile, they use a refractometer to monitor the broth’s density, measured in a unit called brix. For the cloudy and creamy texture they seek in paitan, they aim for 7-8 brix. Once they achieve that, they strain the solids, and the broth is done.

Now for the toppings. First is onsen tamago – slow cooked egg. They bring water to a boil, add eggs, and then shut off the heat. The eggs slowly poach in their shells for 13-14 minutes, yielding the jammy yolk that is a signature of ramen eggs.

For the pork belly, they buy whole bellies which they skin and trim, slicing the bellies into three inch strips. They braise the sliced pork belly in a rondeau over low heat for 2-3 hours, with their shoyu tare, sake, and grated ginger.

For the mushrooms, they use compressed and dried wood ear mushrooms, which they rehydrate with an overnight soak. They then pickle the mushrooms in soy, rice vinegar, sugar, dashi, and salt.

Last but not least are the noodles, which Naylor says took a long time to perfect for the ramen they envisioned. “We wanted chewy, but not too chewy,” said Naylor. “We wanted them to hold up to transport. And, we wanted a little bit of earthiness, so they had their own flavor.”

For the desired texture, they settled on a blend of bread flour, cake flour, and oat flour. And for the flavor, they used a touch of salt and kansui, an alkaline solution that is a signature of ramen noodles. Combined with water, the ingredients form a dough, which they roll into sheets and pass through a pasta machine to form noodles.

With all of the elements of the dish complete, assembly is done to-order on the truck. First into the bowl goes the miso tare, then the spice paste, and then a little bit of hot sesame oil. Meanwhile, they cook noodles for 47 seconds in boiling water. “I can’t tell you how many times we had to re-cook the noodles because they were just one second off,” said Naylor. To avoid that result, they keep handy four tiny kitchen timers, all set to 47 seconds.

While the noodles cook, they add two large ladles of broth to the bowl, and whisk it to incorporate the tare, paste, and oil. When the noodles are done, they add them to the bowl, taking care first to drain all of the water from the noodles. Unlike pasta dishes where cooking water can enhance a sauce, in ramen water is the enemy, as it can dilute the broth they worked hard to perfect. Next, they use chopsticks to fold the noodles over themselves in the center of the bowl to make a raft for toppings. Atop that, they add the egg, pork belly, and mushrooms, and garnish with hot sesame oil and scallions from Naylor’s mother’s garden.

Naylor acknowledges that not every customer may appreciate every detail that goes into a single bowl of ramen. (If the noodles were cooked to 48 seconds, would they know the difference?) But, to Naylor, that’s not the point. It’s a labor of love. “It’s a lot of fun to build it the way we want it, and that makes it worth it for us,” said Naylor. “When you put all that work into it, it is incredibly satisfying when you achieve your vision of what you want it to be.” Of course, when guests do notice the difference, the work is all the more rewarding.

Right Bite in the Right Place at the Right Time: The 2021 Dish of the Year

One cold evening in January, as I was rushing from one place to the next, I made time to pick up a bowl of ramen from Basan, which had parked in our neighborhood. It was such a cold night that, as I waited for my order, not even the shelter of the car could protect my bones from the winter’s chill. I had asked the kitchen to prepare the ramen however they like it. A dealer’s choice. They made Spicy Miso Paitan with pork belly, onsen egg, and wood ear mushrooms – the dish described above.

When I got home, my family was out, and I sat down at the kitchen table, alone. I removed the bowl from a brown paper bag and placed it on the table. As I lifted the bowl’s lid, steam filled my face and at once began to restore me. The aroma alone, I thought, was worth double the price of the bowl. I paused to enjoy it, inhaling above the bowl. As I dug in, I was in awe, struck by the broth’s flavor. Rich and deep, explosive yet nuanced. I remember wishing I had the discipline to eat it slowly, thinking that might allow me to savor the flavors even more. But, I was no match for it. Without company, I made no time for table manners, and slurped the bowl’s contents in minutes. And yet, the dish still caught my attention. Amidst the flurry of life’s activities, it forced me to pause and take notice.

It was not until months later that I learned the elaborate processes and time the dish’s preparation requires. It all makes sense now. Yes, the fetishization of details in cooking can at times warrant mockery. When those details are just for the sake of details, they can seem like the nouveau riche describing every last element of their mansion. But, when a chef’s attention to detail is for a higher purpose, the results can be transforming.

In Gardner and Naylor’s case, when they returned to Charlottesville from Japan, they couldn’t find ramen anything like what they had in Japan, where they enjoyed it so much they would eat it 3-4 times per week. So, they decided to make it themselves – to bring ramen to Charlottesville. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” said Naylor. “And, the best way to do it right is to be a part of every step of the process.” Like Yuki.

Why set four timers to forty-seven seconds for noodles? Why use three types of flour in one noodle? Why take the time to soak chickens in water overnight? Why spend three days to build a seasoning with a dozen ingredients? Why source chilis from a Korean-American woman in Tennessee? Why measure broth with a refractometer? Why devote so much time to a dish known in college dorms for its instant preparation?

This. This bowl was why. This moment. We don’t get many moments like this. And, the ones we do, we owe to people like Anna Gardner and Kelsey Naylor.

The 2021 Dish of the Year is Basan’s Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen.

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.

C-VILLE Weekly 2021 Best Chef Angelo Vangelopoulos with Runner-up Kelsey Naylor

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:

Chefs on the Move


Devin Murray, now of Brasserie Saison

Catching up on chef news around town:

Brasserie Saison has just added even more talent to its kitchen, which already included head chef Tyler Teass, formerly or Rose’s Luxury, and Morad Sbaitri. Now they’ve added longtime Whiskey Jar head chef Devin Murray, who joins the kitchen as sous chef, replacing Nick Moon. John Meiklejohn takes over at The Whiskey Jar.

Kardinal Hall recently welcomed new head chef Jeff Burgess, former chef and co-owner of Provincetown’s Ristorante Marissa, who has also cooked at top spots like Jasper White’s Summer Shack and Mario Batali’s Babbo. Original Kardinal Hall chef Thomas Leroy left to run the kitchen of the Market at Grelen.

Kelsey Naylor, former sous chef of Timbercreek Market, just took the same role at Public Fish & Oyster “Watch this girl,” said owner Daniel Kaufman. “You heard it hear first.”

Aris Cuadra, formerly of Tavola, is new Executive Chef of Clifton Inn, which re-opened yesterday with a fresh new look and menu, after a brief closure for refurbishments. Look for a more accessible menu, suitable for regular visits.

At Duner’s, longtime chef Doug McLeod moved home to Asheville, and has been replaced by former head chef Laura Fonner who returns after a few years of baby time. “She’s an amazing chef,” says owner Bob Caldwell.

And, last but not least, John Shanesy is leaving Petit Pois to try his luck in New York City. Owner Brian Helleberg will continue as Executive Chef, and though he would not rule out hiring a sous or chef de cuisine down the road, says that for now he really enjoys being involved in the nuts and bolts of Petit Pois’s kitchen. We will enjoy him there as well.

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