It’s not that duck heart gravy is the solution to the soul-sucking, physically-wearying reality of Covid-19. It’s just part of a larger solution—specifically, duck pot pie, the luscious and comforting creation of chef Lauren Hirschberg at Turtle + the Wolf in Montclair. A rich mixture of root vegetables, duck meat, foie gras, and aforementioned duck heart gravy, the concoction is sealed up in golden brown pastry crust, the perfect little “Extra Care” package for grim—and perpetually gray—days like these.
Along with other recent menu items at Turtle + the Wolf (like the buttermilk-brined Lo’s Famous Fried Chicken), that duck pot pie demonstrates the kind of spot-on luxury-meets-large-format exigency of a pandemic that’s turned every pretention of the restaurant industry on its head. But where duck pot pie might seem like an elegant pivot from some daintily-plated norm, it’s how chef Hirschberg—who came up in the ranks of Tom Colicchio’s Craft empire—has been feeding his diners since opening in 2015, a style he calls “simple soulfulness.” And that might be how, once coronavirus restrictions hit in mid-March, Hirschberg found himself at the helm of the kind of restaurant we all really, really need right now.
We caught up with Hirschberg to ask about his cooking style and why it hasn’t had to change at all in the Covid era.
Table Hopping: With dishes like the duck pot pie, it seems like you’re able to provide a classical finesse while also accommodating large-format and comfort food during the pandemic. Did that take adjustment?
Lauren Hirschberg: I’m the last person who likes to view themselves as a “cheffy-chef.” The stuff we’re doing for curbside takeout, the fried chicken, the duck pot pie, really it’s the stuff people are super comfortable with. They’re our biggest signature items. That adaptation isn’t such a huge stretch for us, unlike, I can use Robbie Felice as an example, going from doing these very austere pasta plates and charcuterie boards normally to doing a double smashed burger. He’s utilizing a bunch of technique, dry-aging, highlights his ability to pivot. But I don’t think having that on his menu is something he would want normally. I haven’t had to make those choices.
TH: How would you describe the food you’re cooking at Turtle + the Wolf?
LH: After my departure from Craft and opening Turtle + the Wolf, trying to figure out what that cuisine that is, I realize I just cook the kind of food that I like to eat. I cook food that, I think, is based in rusticity and just kind of, like, simple soulfulness.
TH: That seems to translate well, and kind of southern?
LH: There are a lot of people who think I’m southern! Yeah, there’s a lot of southern things on the menu, fried chicken and biscuits. But I think there’s just more of a homespun way about the food that I cook. I like to approach things more from a craftsmanship standpoint. Knowing we’ve made the pasta dough from scratch, made our puff pastry, butchered an animal. Those crafty, technical aspects of being a cook, not the idea of a flavor combination someone hasn’t thought of yet or a presentation that makes everyone pull out their phone and go to Instagram.
TH: You didn’t decide to stay open immediately, correct?
LH: The question was “Are we going to open for takeout?” We had a walk-in full of product. We ran a menu just to kind of move stuff through and then it was like “OK, we’re still feeling our way through this, getting our hands on masks, let’s simplify. We’ll start doing fried chicken with a few other items. But after that the next weekend, we’re still hearing all this random information. So we didn’t do anything for almost two weeks.
As Easter was approaching, with Passover week, I felt like we should do something. Everyone was getting a bit stir-crazy. So Friday, Saturday and Sunday we had fried chicken and some a la carte stuff, pork and lamb. I know Seders were Wednesday and Thursday, and we weren’t quite ready in time, but that weekend we did some Passover-themed braised short ribs, chicken liver mousse, veal tongue pastrami, and matzo ball soup.
TH: What was the response like?
LH: We did maybe 400 to 500 dinners. People were ready. That kind of helped alleviate my own personal anxiety a little bit. It’s not really about the money. Though we’re happy to be able to support at least six of our employees right now who have financial obligations for themselves and their families. But the number of emails and personal messages saying “Thank You, Easter can be Easter, we can celebrate,” that’s when I started to feel a little bit better.
TH: It seems like a time for restaurants to really reaffirm relationships with their communities, and vice versa.
LH: I feel like we’ve just done a good job of instilling trust in people. A lot of our customer base is the same over five years. Now I’m personally friends with dozens and dozens of people after seeing them in the restaurant and starting conversations with them.
TH: It doesn’t hurt to have duck pot pie and fried chicken.
LH: Until opening this restaurant, I’d never cooked fried chicken en masse. I’m a lifelong New Jersey guy, so chicken cutlets were and continue to be a thing in my life. But doing southern fried chicken, I didn’t have that much exposure until I started visiting the south. It was a “WTF” moment for me. To this day sitting around a big platter of fried chicken with friends and going to town is one of my favorite moments in time. About 35 percent of our sales over the course of the year is our fried chicken.
TH: That’s a lot. Can you tell us anything about the recipe?
LH: We do a buttermilk brine. There’s garlic and herbs and some secret spices, if you will. And then we dredge and fry it. Of course, over five years, little technical points and improvements have been made. Really the thing that became the signature of our fried chicken was a whimsical thing—I took some seasoning mix and hit the chicken with it after it came out of the fryer one time. This one day, I had a leftover batch of mix and threw it on there and we were like “Oh man. I really like that.” A lot of people end up asking “Do you like, grind up barbecue potato chips and bread your chicken with that?”
TH: You’re also doing sides like pecorino arancini and chicken liver mousse. Again the vibe feels rustic, and very classic, but comforting.
LH: The arancini was a big thing at Craft. When I left I was like “I can’t wait to never cook those gain.” But we used them for hors d’oeuvres at a small party and people were like “Oh my god.” So we brought back the ones from Craft—it’s an ode to them. I literally have a tub in my freezer. My son will eat four for a meal. That’s his jam. There’s actually a lot of people whose kids like rice balls. So this helps with that. And the chicken liver is my absolute favorite thing to sit down and eat. So we’ll keep those things in the mix for now.
Chef Hirschberg posts a new menu to the Turtle + the Wolf website and Instagram each Monday for the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that week. The menu is currently available for curbside pick-up only. Order 48 hours in advance (email your order to [email protected]). Your order can be picked up between 3–7pm. 622 Valley Road, Upper Montclair; 973-783-9800