After years of overzealous coffee abuse, Los Angeles–based chef Wes Whitehead needed to find a caffeine alternative for his daily energy boost, and soon enough, he became “an avid lover of all things tea.” But he doesn’t just stop at hot water: Whitehead has become a major advocate of using tea in cooking.
This weekend in Los Angeles, he’s hosting a pop-up dinner for members-only pop-up restaurant Dinner Lab, in partnership with Bombay Sapphire Gin, called Tea Time: A Global Celebration of Tea and Cuisine. Manipulating the subtleties and complexities of a variety of teas, he’ll be serving everything from sweet tea–infused corn fritters to green tea pickles to Earl Grey custard—a surefire potpourri of tastes and aromas.
Curious how we can and should be using tea in our own cooking, we spoke to Whitehead about his favorite ingredient. Read on below.
MyDomaine: Why should we be cooking with tea?
Wes Whitehead: Tea is one of the oldest and probably the most popular flavored beverages on earth. Chefs talk a lot about infusing flavors into their dishes, and tea is the oldest and, in some ways, most pure forms of infusion of flavor. As well, tea is subtle and nuanced; in the same way that wine has layers upon layers of flavor, so does tea. It can add layers to your food by bringing out floral, spice, herb, and earth notes in the food that you make.
MD: What common dishes, foods, or cuisines do you think work well with tea?
WW: Desserts are obviously a go-to, in particular cakes, custards, and ice creams. But verging into the savory world, Asian foods in general are just begging to be incorporated with tea infusions, as evidenced by our Indian- and Japanese-themed dishes on the Dinner Lab menu. Also, I think there could be some amazing potential for tea in BBQ and Southern applications, like our Arnold Palmer Hush Puppy.
MD: Are there any classic cocktails that you think would benefit from a tea "twist"?
WW: I think the cocktail applications could be even more plentiful, but just a few off the top of my head: a Manhattan maybe with some Earl Grey (I can envision making Earl Grey bitters). Gin immediately comes to mind, and my favorite summer cocktail is a negroni—so I would love to find a way to incorporate tea into that. Also, what about a twist on a mojito using arrack [a Southeast Asian liquor similar to rum] instead of rum and Moroccan mint tea instead of fresh muddled mint?
MD: What about gin makes it particularly suited to pair with tea?
WW: With 10 botanicals infused in Bombay Sapphire Gin, there is a lot of creative freedom to experiment with unique flavors to pair with tea. Bombay Sapphire is particularly great when served as pre-dinner cocktails, in order to prep the palate and enhance the flavors.
Want to try your hand at making a tea-infused pre-dinner cocktail? Whitehead shares his recipe for the Duke of Earl below.
Duke of Earl
1 1/2 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
2 1/2 oz. Owl's Brew The Classic (a freshly brewed English breakfast tea with lemon and lime peel)
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
Pour first three ingredients over ice. Stir. Garnish with a lavender sprig. Serve.
Live in L.A.? Whitehead's Tea Time dinner takes place Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at a to-be-revealed location. Join Dinner Lab to get on the fun.
Have you ever cooked with tea? Tell us what you've made in the comments below.