Crave 10: #7 – Alana's Food & Wine

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

What's not to love about Alana's Food and Wine? Year after year the quirkiness and creativity from chef Alana Shock never fades. It's the one place you could eat at daily and never have the same dish twice, and it's rare to catch a bad one in the bunch. Shock's painstaking commitment to smart sourcing and to learning a new trick or two along the way, makes Alana's the colorful wild card in the bunch.

It's Friday morning and Alana Shock's walk-in is empty. It's been a good week, she says, practically yelling so I can hear her through the rain and wind at the Pearl Alley farmers market. A little precipitation won't keep the chef and owner of Alana's Food and Wine from her spring through fall tradition-sourcing local produce from area farmers markets two to three times a week.

Today, she'll buy what she needs to get through the night's dinner service. Tomorrow, she'll do it all over again, shopping to highlight the proteins planned for the day's menu and also for what she can preserve for the winter.

Shock sets an empty basket in front of a farmer whose van is filled with ears of corn and asks her to fill it up. She'll pickle and can roughly four bushels of corn (plus other veggies like zucchini, ramps and cauliflower) to last through the cooler months. She grabs butternut and crooked neck squash, holding them up and smiling as she says, "Pasta!" Her grin gets even bigger when she finds a small green worm on the base of a large green cabbage. "If the bugs want it, we do, too," she says.

This is how Shock has managed to change the menu every day for 15 years; a testament to her "mad skills," she laughs. "It's actually easier. My personal philosophy, when you have the same menu all the time, your kitchen staff, whether they're good or not, are half asleep and truly uninspired. And the food tastes like that."

At the restaurant, three hours before dinner service, Shock chops cabbage as she launches into another personal philosophy: to take the time to discover every ingredient's purpose. For example, though the basket of bright red tomatoes she purchased today look pretty, she declares them unworthy of a salad. "Even though I know I would sell it, it would taste like hell," she says. So, she'll smoke them and make smoked tomato cream to pair with empanadas.

Her husband and business partner, Kevin Bertschi, strides into the doorless kitchen. He's holding yesterday's menu, now a jumble of black, blue and red scribbles-Shock's edits and notes for tonight's dishes. "What's that word?" Bertschi asks. "Pickled ramp ravigote," she answers, then turns around and yells, "All right, Dorothy!"

She's talking to the ice cream maker that's been whirling jerk-spiced pumpkin sorbet 'round and 'round (hence the "Wizard of Oz" reference). Keeping Shock on one topic isn't easy. Her rotating menus, written in with a tongue-in-cheek tone, start to make more sense.

Though her foundation is in classic French and German techniques, her menus trek around the globe with no rhyme or reason. If she's craving Indian for dinner, expect curry spices on the menu. If she decided to learn how to make empanadas, those will be there, too (on this day made with Bluescreek Farm lamb and smoked tomato cream).

"I try to do at least two or three things a week that I have no idea how to do," she says. "It's also based on what I want for dinner." The latter is the reason we've seen more home-style dishes at Alana's this year, like a play on General Tso's chicken with cold cooked cabbage, or creamy and rich "Lambburger Helper" that riffs on the boxed skillet dinner.

At nearly 3 p.m., Bertschi arrives with round two of the menu, this one much closer to the final product. Line cooks file in to prep their stations. They'll spend the next 90 minutes finalizing dishes, tasting and figuring out what works, scratching what doesn't. By 4:30 p.m., the waitstaff arrive for staff meal and to hear Shock passionately describe every dish.

Tomorrow, they'll do it all over again.

Hot Stuff: Shock turned this little habanero she bartered for at the Pearl Alley Market into jerk seasoning to spice the day's pumpkin sorbet.

To Market: "I don't think chefs set their alarms to take advantage of farmers markets, which is sad," Shock says. Spring through fall, she'll visit markets two to three times a week.

Surprise: Trying to guess what's in the nightly Surprise entree? Look at yesterday's menu. If there were, say, goat shanks featured the previous day, but not today, that could be the secret protein.

On the Menu: Every day starts with the previous day's menu, which Shock edits to reflect new ingredients and dish ideas.

Familiar Flavors: "I'd like to do a lot more homey approaches to dishes," Shock says. "I want to do things that are a little less serious."