Meadowlark’s Aaron Braun: ‘You are going to love eating this’

A local chef nabbed second place at the American Culinary Federation and the Ohio Pork Council’s annual Taste of Elegance Competition that was held in downtown Columbus in late January.

Erin Vasicek, who operates the food blog The Spiffy Cookie, was one of the judges. In a blog post on her website she wrote: “Taste of Elegance is a friendly competition working to promote and educate Ohio Chefs about pork and the Ohio pig farmers that raise them with the overarching goal of the participating chefs promoting pork in their individual locations. Three chefs competed and prepared an appetizer and entree, both featuring pork. The winner was selected based on taste (50 points), appearance (30 points), and originality (20 points). While only one could come in first, every chef won a piece of the prize with awards going to The Chef Par Excellence (1st place $1000), The Superior Chef (2nd place $500), The Premier Chef (3rd place $250), and of course The People’s Choice Award as chosen by the reception attendees.”

Aaron Braun, Sous Chef at Meadowlark Restaurant, took home second place at the competition, as well as the coveted People’s Choice Award.

On Braun’s cooking Vasicek wrote: “Chef Aaron Braun (The Meadowlark) … started his Southern California meets Ohio menu off with an Al Pastor style roasted pork belly served atop a fresh fried cornmeal sopa with grilled pineapple and pickled red onion. The entree was a pickled pork butt braised in stewed tomatoes and served with verde sauce and cotija cheese over cheddar grits. His pork preparations were very tender, I really enjoyed the blend of genres, and I though his presentation was the most approachable.”

Three months after participating, Braun was invited to attend the Midwest Pork Summit in Iowa City, Iowa, with chefs from all over the Midwest for a three-day summit exploring pig farming, breeds, butchering, pork cooking techniques and more.

Reflecting on the experience Braun says, “(I) brought back the latest industry wisdom on butchery cuts, brining techniques, breed development for flavor, and now I’m kind of obsessed with cooking and serving the best pork and pork dishes I possibly can. After spending a day at Brenneman’s Farm, meeting the family, seeing the respectful way the pigs are raised and the dedication to sustainability — they grow everything the pigs eat — I feel it’s the least I can do.”

Here is a Q&A with Braun, who graduated from Hocking College with a dual degree in culinary arts and business, about his experience and about what he’s currently up to in the Meadowlark kitchen.

Q: What is your culinary background?

A: Dayton is my hometown. I started at Bill Knapp's at 15 as a dishwasher, then moved to the line and learned all the stations. I worked at a couple of restaurants in Athens, Ohio, while I was in culinary school, and then I worked under a great chef at Crescent Tavern in Put-In-Bay. After a year, I packed my bags and headed to San Diego, where I worked for Chef Amy DiBiase, which really expanded my knowledge and skills, my dedication to the craft, and developed my palate.

Q: What was your favorite dish from the Pork Summit?

A: My favorite dish right now is the shaved pork loin sandwich with chimichurri cream cheese and zucchini-radish slaw. It was created as part of the Market Basket Cooking Challenge — the culminating event of the three-day Pork Summit. I was tasked with inventing a roasted pork loin sandwich using simple, everyday ingredients, surrounded by more than 40 chefs in an amazing, state-of-the-art kitchen. The sandwich was really well-received. Creating in that environment was exhilarating and I'm glad to have the chance to bring the sandwich home to Meadowlark to share. At the restaurant, we put it over the top by including freshly fried pork rinds on the sandwich. This bad boy has some crunch!

Q: What is your favorite Meadowlark dish?

A: My favorite dish on the dinner menu is the Pasta Puttanesca with shrimp. A classic dish that we do our own way, and the flavors really deliver. It's made with local homegrown tomatoes and a super-flavorful mixture we make called "midnight paste." That's all I'm sayin'. Tomatoes are on their way out, so the pasta will change to house made Italian sausage and rapini with plenty of parmesan for fall.

Q: Are there any changes happening with the Meadowlark menu?

A: We are transitioning our menu items from warm weather to cooler weather right now. We do not roll out an entire seasonal menu at one time. We change dishes as seasonal items become available, when we think a dish has been on long enough, and when we try something new and can't wait to put it on the menu. In the last couple weeks we have gone from peaches to pears, soon we'll be going from tomatoes to turnips, and from grilled meats to braised meats … Currently, we are working on lamb and duck dishes for the holidays. Shellfish is at its best during winter months, so we'll be getting into that. We are getting our first homegrown potatoes and baking squashes this week. Stay tuned!

Q: What do you think makes Meadowlark a destination restaurant?

A: We want you to get a welcome that makes you want to come back. That first sip of a hand-crafted cocktail that makes you go, "Aaahhh, yessss." Food that you keep thinking about after, and want to come have again. We want your friends to say, "let's meet at Meadowlark!" Your kids to say, "Mom and Dad, take us to Meadowlark!" If we are doing our job on all those fronts, we get to be lucky enough to be people's idea of a destination restaurant. The vibe of Meadowlark is comfortable, friendly and neighborhood. We make everything from scratch, and the staff, both back and front of house, get excited about what we are cooking and serving. The enthusiasm transfers naturally to our guests. Food-wise, we are more domestic than cheffy, meaning that if you wanted to, you could cook most of what we do at home. Our food says, "You are going to love eating this!" Not, "Look at me, I'm a chef! Look what I can do!"

Q: What is your favorite style of cooking?

A: I have my passions, for sure. I love cooking outdoors, and I love Southern food. I love using chiles and vegetables in interesting ways, and I love cross-pollinating one culture's flavor profile with another. Fusion got a bad name when cooks went too crazy with it, but when it works, it's delicious.

Q: Are there any Meadowlark events or special dinners that are not to be missed?

A: We don't do a lot of events, but we go all out for Restaurant Week (RW). The RW menus always feature all new dishes, so we force ourselves to stretch out and do new things. Often we have a theme, which the bar team gets to tie into as well. For instance, a couple winters ago we did a Latin-inspired menu, featuring dishes like a "Grilled Baja Beach Bar Fish Platter" and some really tasty chargrilled skewers of pork al pastor. In July last year we did a RW menu called "Summer Food with a Touch of Nostalgia," where we made deviled eggs but we battered and deep-fried them, and had a traditional grilled chicken with Alabama white BBQ sauce and summer squash-cracker crumb casserole. It gave us a chance to work with some American regional specialties, and really amp up the flavors and textures. We have a killer brunch. We grate potatoes and make hash browns from scratch. We get the best, freshest eggs from farmer Dale Filbrun. We serve Steve Evans sausage patties and Nueske's bacon. We serve more guests at brunch than any other meal, including Saturday night, and brunch is a blast to cook.

Q: What makes for good food?

A: Good ingredients, making things by hand, truly wanting to cook for people, and proper use of salt.

Q: What are your favorite new dining trends?

A: Handmade pasta and cheeses. Out with all the plastic. Less waste. What you can do with a Vita-Mix blender. Vegetables to the forefront. And how about Asian flavors in our own familiar places, like tacos and sandwiches? I could eat that everyday.

Q: What would you like to see happen with local dining in the region?

A: More independent restaurants, small, medium and large. Dayton is overflowing with chain restaurants. Chef (Elizabeth) Wiley (owner of Meadowlark and Wheat Penny) says that Dayton is like the culinary Bermuda Triangle — no matter what is happening here, nobody outside Dayton ever knows or hears or cares about it. So we would like to see all of us raise the bar as a culinary community, and get some statewide as well as national attention.

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