Ask any Columbus chef how he prepares for tomato season, and he'll likely laugh, pause and then laugh again. Drew Lash, executive chef at Black Creek Bistro, likens Ohio's tomato season (July through October) to a blessing and a curse. "You anticipate and anticipate," he says, "and then it starts, and it's like, 'Oh, crap. I suddenly have all these tomatoes.'"
Ask any Columbus chef how he prepares for tomato season, and he'll likely laugh, pause and then laugh again. Drew Lash, executive chef at Black Creek Bistro, likens Ohio's tomato season (July through October) to a blessing and a curse. "You anticipate and anticipate," he says, "and then it starts, and it's like, 'Oh, crap. I suddenly have all these tomatoes.'" But Lash-like the other chefs and restaurant owners who share their culinary perspective with us-rises to the challenge every year, finding fresh, new ways to work dozens of tomato varieties into an ever-evolving menu. Often, the fruit dictates late-summer menus, shaping soups and sandwiches, complementing fish and pork and, in some cases, even being served up raw. "I love them," says Tom Smith, executive chef at The Worthington Inn. "After a long day working outside, nothing's better."
Two words: Tomato Stack. Perhaps no single tomato dish in the city has more cred than owner-chef Alana Shock's amalgam of lump crab, cheddar cheese and greens, topped with red giant slices and a house-made buttermilk dressing. Substitutions? Don't even think about it. "The stack is perfect. I don't allow it," she says. "People go crazy. They'll even get up and leave if I don't have it."
Alana's ever-fickle menu is bound to include gazpacho, heirloom-tomato salad, fried green tomatoes and a host of tomato-based sauces and salsas, but Shock insists on cooking on the fly, never looking too far ahead. "I just don't think that way," she says. "When I feel like it, I'll use them." To ensure she's never empty-handed when inspiration strikes, Shock cans tomatoes to use year-round.
Chef-owner Magdiale Wolmark insists he's "a basic tomato guy" and has specific applications for the varieties he sources. For salads, he's drawn to teardrops and sunbursts that pop on the plate. For pizzas, he goes to dry plum tomatoes like Amish pastes or San Marzanos. "Many of these paste tomatoes are grown around Naples in volcanic ash and tend to be real dry, which makes for a particularly good sauce," he says. Wolmark doesn't gravitate toward many of the large heirloom varieties, as he finds they offer a low yield after any scarring is cut away.
Wolmark still experiments throughout the season, especially when he has an extra supply from his urban garden behind the restaurant. This includes tomato chutneys to supplement the restaurant's fish offerings, as well as spontaneous a la carte tomato tastings (which he once offered during an in-restaurant screening of "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"). Thick, raw slices of Cherokee purple and brandywines coated in a mixture of sesame, coriander and pumpkin seeds are among his favorites to serve during tastings. "The tomatoes we feature are mostly raw," he says. "They're best raw or just barely cooked."
Executive chef Tom Smith learned to love tomatoes while growing up around farmers and gardeners in western Pennsylvania. "Whether I'm doing a type of salad or a meat dish, it's all about different shapes, different flavors," he says of tomatoes. "I just want them." This spring, Smith transplanted the restaurant's longtime garden to his 6-acre Wyandot County farm. For now, he sources heirloom varieties from Blacklick Acres in Blacklick and Northridge Organic Farm in Johnstown, but he hopes to supply the restaurant largely himself by next summer.
Smith is drawn to green tomatoes for their tartness and versatility. "Green zebras look good on a plate and have a nice, sweet flavor," he says. "But the hillbilly ones are way better. People go away from them, but you just have to cut and clean them off." He works these into a number of sauces and salsas, like the relish he serves with the Cast Iron-Charred Berkshire Pork Tenderloin, which "duets" with a Carolina-style mustard barbecue sauce. He also offers a twist on fried green tomatoes by serving them with pickled gulf shrimp and a smoky, tomato-based aioli. Smith oven-dries tomatoes in both the on- and off-seasons, "which really consolidates them and reintroduces flavor," he says. He's worked these into his BLT riff, with crisped pork belly, Dijon-based aioli and arugula on house-made bread.
If there are tomatoes on your plate at Black Creek Bistro, chances are they came straight from owner Kent Peters' 11-acre Black Creek Heritage Farm in Canal Winchester. Most years, Peters and his wife plant more than 100 heirloom tomato plants (this year they planted about 160), from brandywines to green zebras-you'll find the latter in dishes as early as July. "I feel like people really only associate [tomatoes] with being red and ripe," Peters says. "I like to use [green zebras] in a lot of different dishes. They bring a different color, the flavor is more tart and they have a more firm, crisp texture." One of his favorite bistro offerings is fried green tomatoes with cornmeal breading, topped with mustard remoulade and crab meat.
Executive chef Drew Lash prepares several seasonal tomato dishes, including the Duo Gazpacho, with thick slices of yellow and hillbilly tomatoes, and an emulsion of roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil drizzled over scallops. "Everything's made better because we have our own tomatoes in there," he says. "Suddenly a regular BLT becomes a heritage BLT, with nice, fat slices of homegrown tomatoes. It's a completely different thing."
There's one thing to know about Spagio: Owner and chef Hubert Seifert loves tomatoes. So much so that during peak tomato season every August, the Grandview restaurant is in a state of Tomatofest. Essentially, this boils down to a special tomato-leaning menu that incorporates dozens of varieties, like beefsteak, Cherokee purple and Aunt Ruby's German Green. Many of these make their way into the Ohio Tomato Stack Salad-also prepped with avocado, cambozola cheese and champagne vinaigrette-and the Chilled Tomato and Watermelon Gazpacho, Tomatofest's consistent top-seller. "It's essentially a gazpacho with a twist," says chef de cuisine David Toth. "It's refreshing and nice to serve to people when it's hot outside."
Of all the varieties he works with during the season, Toth's favorite remains pineapple tomatoes, which he slips into soups, sauces and salsas. "Each has a different balance of sweetness and acidity that strikes a really good flavor for me," he says. "They're very easy to pair with any type of salad to any type of fish. It's just not a tomato that you see all the time." Last year, he worked pineapple tomatoes into an heirloom salad he served with Ohio perch and sweet corn spoon bread.