Brunch: Feeding on Innovation

Matt Sullivan

Three area chefs have added creative dishes to the Sunday meal, once in danger of growing stale, that is enjoying its second golden age

At the tail end of the 19th century, the world cried for brunch. Well, pleaded, anyway.

British writer Guy Beringer wrote “Brunch: A Plea” in 1896, calling for an alternative to the “post-church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies,” laying out a plan for a meal that would start around noon, begin with teas and jams and then slowly turn to heavier fare, making “life brighter for Saturday-night carousers.” It would be a “talk-compelling” meal to put people into “a good temper… satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings.”

H.G Wells predicted space flights to the moon. Jules Verne foresaw the submarine. But Guy Beringer may have invented the 20th century Sunday.

The world awoke to brunch and basked in its sunny-side-up glory for a century. But after years of delicious creativity—the popularization of Lemuel Benedict’s eggs, the Belgian waffle diaspora that spread from the 1964 New York World’s Fair—brunch began to grow stale, pancakes flattened, bacon strips went flaccid. And when Anthony Bourdain took to the pages of The New Yorker in the final days of the 20th century to reveal that our precious hollandaise sauce was made from last night’s bacteria-infested leftover table butter, we came close to losing out brunch appetite altogether.

But brunch did not die. Instead, it has fed heartily on something it hadn’t tasted in decades: innovation.

Welcome to the second golden age of brunch, and meet three Delaware chefs who are redefining the taste and trajectory of the most important meal of the week.

Robbie Jester

“Potstickers. We like doing potstickers.”

This is Robbie Jester, chef at Stone Balloon Ale House in Newark. This is how he thinks about brunch.

“We wanted to do something else with sausage gravy. We played with ideas, like some sort of sausage gravy pancake or things like that. Is it a biscuit pancake with sausage gravy on top? Do we do sausage gravy soup? That’s different. But potstickers. And we figured by changing the proportion of sausage to gravy in there, it’s what basically goes into a potsticker anyway. We think a lot like that. Like, ‘Ahhh, I just went to 7-11 and I had a taquito. It was pretty good. I’m a little drunk, but it was pretty good. I think maybe we should do something with this.’ And then all of a sudden, two and two together, sausage gravy and potstickers, and should we test it? Yeah, we should test it.”

The result: brunch potstickers with a cheddar cheese hot sauce. This is the brunch of the 21st century, with dishes that may once again make us a people who are satisfied with ourselves and our fellow human beings.

This is bacon-crusted French toast shooters. Sausage-egg-cheese biscuit risotto. Everything pancakes with smoked salmon and dill cream cheese. Chorizo cumin pancakes.

The Stone Balloon kitchen crew finds inspiration everywhere, in late night 7-11 trips, in Slim Jims, in jail food and in classic Disney songs. (“We sing a lot in this kitchen,” Jester says.)

Will every idea make it to the menu? Will every combination taste good? Will you necessarily be able to fit into your pants on Sunday evening? No, no and no. But that’s not the point of what Jester is trying to accomplish.

“People are not coming out for a half-hour brunch,” he says. “They’re coming out for two, three hours. That’s the plan.”

Whatever plan people had when they walked through the door often changes when friends find other friends at brunch, Jester says. Tables get pulled together. Things get loud. So how can the Stone Balloon extend the length of its service to keep people engaged and happy and eating as brunchers linger for hours, when one couple sits down while another couple is finishing their steak and eggs?

Ordering a tabletop cocktail for four is a place to start. You’ll get a carafe of orange juice (with a splash of Triple Sec) and a bottle of prosecco. It’s been so popular, more shareable cocktails are coming. Then maybe start out your meal with a brunch appetizer – a sticky sweet cornbread doughnut or the classic “Glass of Bacon,” which is … yeah, you get what it is. Main courses follow. Maybe a red velvet cupcake waffle?

“Could you argue that it’s dessert?” Jester asks. “Sure. But the sweet side of brunch is the beautiful side.”

Creative brunch cocktails at Grain include the Bloody Mary made with beef jerky and a manmosa, called Shavasana, that's made with Dogfish Head's Namaste. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Creative brunch cocktails at Grain include the Bloody Mary made with beef jerky and a
manmosa, called Shavasana, that’s made with Dogfish Head’s Namaste. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

William Wallen

“We have a dinner nacho, we have a dessert nacho. So we need a breakfast nacho.”

This is William Wallen, chef at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark. This is how he thinks about brunch.

“So, breakfast nachos, what do we use? Tater Tots are your best base. I can make them as crispy as I want and they’re still going to hold up. Our Sunrise Nachos have chili, peppers, onion, bacon and cheese sauce. And I didn’t want to use home-fry potatoes, but everybody likes a Tater Tot. I can overcook them just a little, give them that crunch.”

He recently walked into the kitchen with an idea and walked out with a prototype to test on a table of college students—chorizo sloppy joe with cheese inside a donut bun. (“I’ve been trying to put something on a glazed donut for six months,” Wallen confesses. He made it happen.) It’s a hot, sweet, spicy, sticky mess of a thing, but all the flavors balance, and those college kids, they Instagrammed the hell out of that sandwich.”

Grain restaurateurs Lee Mikles and Jim O’Donoghue have found a kindred comfort-food soul in Chef Wallen, who seems willing to pick up any ideas they throw out and make it work. Could pound cake be used as the bun for a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich? It can and it will, with pound cake from Bing’s Bakery, right down the street. Wallen puts beef jerky into the Bloody Mary and wraps lobster tails with Old Bay cheese sauce and scallions inside some pancakes. And don’t forget the Cap’n Crunch. Could Cap’n Crunch be used to make French toast? Yes. What about Cap’n Crunch ice cream? Working on it. (While Mikles might seem to have a bit of a Cap’n Crunch problem, it seems to be working out for Grain, which was recently Delaware’s entry on Yahoo’s Best Places to Have Easter Brunch in Every State, for its “inventive and indulgent breakfast offerings.”)

Innovation works its way into the craft beer selection as well, where Dogfish Head Namaste provides the bubbles in a surprisingly complex manmosa, with fresh orange juice and notes of peach and raspberry. The cocktail is the Shavasana, named for the yoga pose of complete relaxation.

Come to think of it, yoga pants are starting to sound like a good idea.

Chef Bill Hoffman's scrapple, served on toast, topped with an over-easy egg. (Photo O&A)

Chef Bill Hoffman’s scrapple, served on toast, topped with an over-easy egg.
(Photo O&A)

Bill Hoffman

“We break down a pig and save the whole head, and any trim from around the belly and the breast, when we’re scraping bone, any bit that comes off the side … all that goes into the scrapple.”

This is Bill Hoffman, chef/owner at The House of William and Merry in Hockessin. This is how he makes scrapple.

“A lot of times, I’ll chop up a little fat and throw it in there for extra unctuousness. There’s some cuts off the back, some cuts off the shoulder that I like to put in there. I take one cut that I love off every part of the pig—a section of the front leg, a section of the neck, all the livers, the kidneys, the heart goes in there, the tail, the ears, the trotters, the jowls. Chefs who make great scrapple don’t use the crappy parts. You use the best parts because you want your scrapple to taste the best. And those bits are what give it its traditional gamey flavor, which is what sets apart people who love scrapple and people who don’t.

“We take that and we cook it for 24 to 30 hours in water, mirepoix and a tea bag with peppercorns, some rosemary and thyme, coriander, fennel seeds, some bay leaves, and we let it just stew down. Sometimes we add a little white wine if we’re feeling fancy, sometimes we don’t. And we take all that and put it in the walk-in [refrigerator], and let it sit overnight.”

Then we take it, we pulse it up, mix in cornmeal, a special batch of seasonings—that’s where chefs put their own touch on things—and then add some stock, and it becomes a porridge, like pork grits. And when we get it going in here, this whole place smells like southern heaven.”

It takes five days to make 30 pounds of Hoffman’s scrapple, enough to last two or three weeks at the restaurant. It is a revelation of breakfast meat. The exterior has that salty, crispy crackle you’d want and expect, but inside, this scrapple is like a creamy pork pâté, delicate and almost spreadable. Serve it as a side and you could imagine slathering it onto some freshly toasted bread.

And with that scrapple, we have come full circle. The hottest innovations in brunch, the fuel that feeds the fire in the belly of these three chefs, these guys who dress in their neatly pressed chef coats on a Sunday morning while the rest of us lounge around in pajama pants…the newest trends all return us to that 19th-century plea for a Sunday meal to make life brighter. Family. Friends. Love. Community.

Brunch Equals Grandma

There is one common inspiration for brunch, one person who came up in conversation over and over, at every restaurant I visited. Her name is grandma.

“Brunch reminds me of the past,” Hoffman says. “It reminds me of breakfast with my grandmother, when the family was together. There’s something about memory and brunch, about this meal. I don’t remember many great lunches, but I remember a lot of great brunches.”

For Hoffman, honoring the spirit of brunch means making everything he can from scratch—the breads, the sausages and yes, the scrapple. He uses modern cooking techniques—circulating the eggs in a hot water bath and crisping them up in a fryer instead of a traditional poach—but the dishes on his brunch menu come back to the flavors and familiarity of family. Chocolate chip banana pancakes. House-made sausage gravy and fried egg on top of a house-made cheddar biscuit. Open-faced scrapple sandwich with local pepper jam, black garlic, fried egg and arugula.

All of it is brunch, that great meal at the end of the long week, that last chance to see visiting loved ones and to catch up with friends and family before we all go our separate ways, back to the weekly grind.

“I don’t see many cell phones out. I see them out at fancy dinners, but not at brunch,” says Hoffman. “Brunch should have some panache, it should have that vibe, you know, it should have fresh local fruit or whatever you have, but it’s always special with the people you spend it with. And I think our generation has not lost touch with that. We’re still holding onto it.

“People say, brunch, oh, it’s just eggs and bacon. It’s not. It’s not short-order diner cooking. It’s got soul, man.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.