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I often dream of the day that my closet will be filled with the elegant creations of Leanne Marshall (winner of project runway 2008). When I stumbled across this dress on her blog and in her etsy shop, I was blown away by it’s delicate beauty. Even though it’s designed to be a wedding dress, I’ve imagined wearing this to a garden tea party while serving flowering teas from large glass pots. Champagne pink roses and lilacs would be strewn about the table. Maybe I’d serve lavender cookies.
While dreaming of wearing the dress, I was inspired to write this haiku:
peony tea blooms
While exploring the multiple ways in which I can use my tealeaves beyond the steep, I stumbled across info about environmental chemist turned sous chef with a passion for tea, Melanie Franks. After realizing her heart was in the kitchen, Melanie dove into the culinary world as a sous chef at Hook Restaurant and minibar chef at think FOOD group (Chef Jose Andres), just to name a few.
Although her passion for food spans cuisines, there is one beverage that excites Melanie’s palate. Yes, you guessed correctly, it’s tea. Beyond serving as a tea sommelier and training her staff about pairing and serving tea, she also completed all level three certification classes with the Specialty Tea Institute. Now a sous chef at NYC’s Degustation, Melanie is developing recipes that incorporate tea. How fabulous!
Lucky for me (and you), Melanie (pictured below) agreed to answer a few questions about her love of and experience with tea! Enjoy!
1. What are your top 5 favorite teas?
This is almost impossible to answer there are so many teas I love. However, there are a few favorites that I always come back to. In general, I am an Oolong girl. The complexity of flavor and aroma is unequal. From Pouchongs to Champagne, the range of oxidation levels in Oolongs creates an exceptionally pleasurable experience. I can talk endlessly about Oolongs so it is best for me to move on. Another tea I would have to mention is Silver Needles. Indeed, this tea has the power to transport me to a misty mountain day whenever I take a sip. From the leaf style to aroma, it is simply amazing. Another tea I can’t live without is Puerh, because of its’ distinct earthy qualities and deliciously mellow finish. There is almost a change in mood one experiences when they drink this tea. It is for this reason that I often drink Puerh after a long day at work. Pi Lo Chun, is a great tea that I revisit on a regular basis. Between the tea bushes of Pi Lo Chun apricot, plum and peach trees are planted which yields a beautiful aroma and clean finish. The last tea I will mention is Sencha. I love the oceanic quality of Sencha and brilliant color of the cup. It simply energizes me. In reality, I could easily mention a dozen more teas.
2. Do you have any favorite tea accessories?
When I left Hook, the staff bought me a teapot from China that I adore. It has a natural rough glaze and yellowy brown color. It is beautifully made and has sentimental value. I can’t live without my tea tray that I use for Gung Fu tea service. It is just so practical to have a beautiful vessel that serves for both serving tea and disposing of water. I also have an affinity for my everyday tea cup. It is extremely simple. It is an all white porcelain cup with a matte glaze and has bowl shape that is perfect for holding with both hands. The white color allows me to enjoy the color of the liquor.
3. Can you share a favorite moment/memory of your experience at the Specialty Tea Institute?
This is also a very difficult question to pin point one experience at of two years. However I will say this, the teachers and the people you meet taking these classes are amazing. During the session breaks I still keep in contact with my teachers and friends that I have made along the way. To have such an immense amount of knowledge of tea gathered together in one place solely to educate one another is a beautiful experience. I have to mention Phil Parda (Zhong Guo Cha), Donna Fellman (Tea Education Alliance), and Yoon Hee Kim (Tea Classics) because they truly gave me a diverse and solid foundation in tea.
4. Tell me more about your position as a tea sommelier at Hook restaurant…
This was a large undertaking. While working as a Sous Chef, I changed over the tea program from bag teas to loose leaf tea. Training my staff properly was so very important. We averaged around 250 to 300 people a night, and I learned very quickly that the wait staff did not take the care to brew some of the more temperature sensitive teas when they got busy. In this particular restaurant setting (high volume), I put together a tea list that was both provocative and service friendly. It was exciting for customers because instead of the normal pedestrian cup they were able to have the opportunity to try an array of different teas. Talking to the customers and staff about tea on a daily basis only increased my love of tea. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
5. How do you incorporate tea in your dishes?
Cooking with tea as an ingredient is really limitless. Tea can be both savory and sweet as well as earthy and aromatic. I love cooking with tea because of its flexibility. Right now we have a soup with tea as ingredient that just speaks spring is here (finally). It is a nettle soup with Lapsang Souchong yoghurt, salmon roe, cured Tasmania sea trout, and fava ban flowers. I am going to put on a desert of a chilled chamomile soup with mint and lemon sorbet this week. I can’t possible pick a favorite dish that I have done with tea, but I did really enjoy a desert I that consisted of Matcha tea cake, maldon salt, strawberry sorbet and thyme syrup. My favorite teas to cook with are the highly aromatic teas like Lapsang Souchong, jasmine green, Darjeeling as well as tisanes like chamomile and Rooibos. As for tips with cooking with tea, I find it helpful to infuse tea into oils and liquids first. Then use the tea flavored components in your recipe just as like normal. For instance, if you wanted to make a vegetable puree of some sort take the liquid you are going to use in that recipe and infuse the it with tea. The Infusion should not be stronger than normal, infuse it just as you want to drink it so that it is balanced. This method is more user friendly to start. Than as you get more comfortable with tea one can experiment with smoking, curing, and steaming with tea for example.