The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Foss's Next Move: Cooking With Tobacco

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 18, 2010 4:00PM

Back in the spring, our own Kevin Robinson started a tobacco-growing project (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). In his first post on the project, Kevin said that tobacco was "a fun and easy plant to grow, if cared for properly."

Which I assume is why he and his wife gifted me with four planters of White Orinoco tobacco after an evening of tiki cocktails at Won Kow in Chinatown in late May. I found it to be a sincere gesture on Kevin's part, but ultimately a tits on a bull move: I'm a non smoker. 'Course, as soon as I returned to my apartment I was online furiously searching for historical examples of possible culinary uses for tobacco. We do know that the so-called "molecular gastronomists" have toyed with tobacco, largely as sorbets or sauces. Hervé This, the Adrias and Grant Achatz have all crafted desserts using tobacco as an ingredient. Native American tribes held tobacco plants as sacrament. It was used in sacrificial rites and for medicinal purposes. As a culinary agent, a little tobacco went a long way as an herb to put some kick in stews and broths. Then there are separate stories coming from the Indian subcontinent that cooking with tobacco oil may someday be a reality.

Kevin was right about one thing: the plants are beautiful. They develop wide leaves capable of drinking in large amounts of sunlight, and they grow faster than weeds. As part of the nightshade family, they also stain the fingers easily and sometimes the sap from freshly cut leaves require the use of petroleum to remove from the skin. But who would be daring enough to play with tobacco as a foodstuff?

Enter Phillip Foss, who rechristened Asian carp as "Shanghai bass" at Lockwood and is currently making bulls testicles melt in the mouths of customers of his Meatyballs Mobile food truck. Foss has a penchant for being daring with his cooking and for being adept at self-promotion. Foss was one of a group of chefs I had an eye on giving some tobacco to work with as the plants grew in my backyard over the summer (the others being Avenues' Curtis Duffy, John des Rosiers of Inovasi in Lake Bluff and Nacional 27 GM/mixologist Adam Seger).

Between the four plants there was plenty of tobacco to spread around. Unfortunately my Chinese neighbors upstairs also recognized the plants growing in the backyard as tobacco and promptly started helping themselves to the leaves, which they're now curing for smoking. Foss, meanwhile, pitched to Art Culinaire magazine a piece about him cooking with tobacco.

Yesterday Foss dropped by my house to pick up a few leaves to work with. We each tasted a bit of a leaf and the bitterness still lingers in my mouth after three vigorous brushing and waterpik sessions. "This is disgusting," Foss said. As for what he has planned with the leaves, Foss is looking at a dish of venison loin he planned on wrapping the tobacco in. But that was prior to the tasting of the leaves. "This is some serious overpowering flavor I'll be dealing with here," Foss explained. "I'll have to re-think how to prepare the tobacco."

Stay tuned.