The kitchen at the upcoming Sassafras restaurant will be led by executive chef John Thomas, formerly of 32 East in Delray Beach.
Sheer location will be an asset at the Sub-Culture group’s new modern Southern restaurant opening on Narcissus Avenue on Nov. 15. Not the kind of geography that places Sassafras in the classic South or gives its executive chef deep-Southern roots. But you can toss a turnip a few yards from the place and hit the Saturday morning green market in downtown West Palm. To executive chef John Thomas, a longtime local chef given to wanderlust and research, that’s instant Southern inspiration. The Florida-raised chef turns to fresh, local ingredients to rev up Southern classics. “Access to the green market on Saturdays will be a plus during season. We plan to feature items from the market as well as from local farms,” says Thomas, whose resume includes top chef positions at the now-closed Tryst and 32 East restaurants in Delray Beach. He also spent some months working under chef Clay Conley at Buccan Palm Beach. Sassafras’ working menu confirms Thomas’ fresh-and-regional focus. Some highlights:
‒ Kai-Kai Farm carrots with ginger, sorghum, peanut dukkah and avocado. ‒ Swank Farm “roots and lettuce,” kohlrabi, apples, pecans and cured egg yolk. ‒ Local tuna crudo with green tomato, peanuts and buttermilk. ‒ Squash blossoms with blue crab in a street-corn-inspired preparation with cotija and TajÍn seasoning. ‒ House-made andouille sausage and local fish gumbo with okra and dirty rice. These share the menu with a range of snacks (including crispy chicken skins cacio e pepe), raw bar items, veggies, small plates (like chicken liver paté with pickled watermelon rind mostarda, and Wagyu beef cheeks and dumplings), and larger “supper” plates (as in shrimp and Geechie Boy Mill grits with bacon, butter sauce and scallions). Side dishes include radiatore and cheese, local squash and lima bean succotash and his grandmother Betty’s family-famous baked beans. For dessert: beignets with chicory custard, buttermilk panna cotta with cranberry honey and a s’mores chocolate chess pie, among other options. Thomas says there’s a “traditional and recognizable” dimension to the menu. Which means, yes, there will be fried chicken. The chef tea-brines the chicken and cooks it in a Henny Penny pressure fryer to seal in natural juices. It will be served with local honey, pickles and piment d’Espelette. “I also want to get innovative and out of the box. Like with our fried green tomatoes -- we’re serving them with burrata and pepperonata and black garlic balsamic emulsion,” says Thomas. “We’re going to be that pan-Southern place, for lack of a better word. But I do want to educate our guests on some regional differences.” After 32 East closed in spring 2018, Thomas reached out to Sub-Culture partner Rodney Mayo, with whom he had worked during his Tryst Delray era. By then, Sassafras was a spark in Mayo’s imagination. The Southern concept fascinated Thomas. Born in New Jersey, he came to Florida as an infant. And while Florida may not always be considered part of the traditional South, growing up here exposed Thomas to a world of flavors that are part of the emerging, more global South. Plus, Southern dishes were part of his family’s repertoire, thanks to his grandmother, who hailed from the Upper South (southern Indiana). But Mayo’s restaurant project, which would later take over the former Nature’s Way Cafe space across from Sub-Culture’s Camelot club, was nowhere near ready. Thomas embarked on an extended road trip to immerse himself in new flavors and restaurant experiences. He traveled to Montreal, where he “ate my way around the city” and ventured into some kitchens, such as the one at Au Pied de Cochon. He recorded the experience on his Instagram page in chef shorthand: “I felt their camaraderie and they cooked with confidence -- foie gras / boudin checkerboard -- cavatelli + morels -- tete cochon / walnuts / capers / cauliflower -- maple cake made with syrup from their own sugar shack.” Then it was off to Boston, where he “staged” (worked a rotation stint) at the acclaimed tapas spot Little Donkey. In New York, he “ate a bunch of food” and visited a kitchen or two before heading to Virginia and Washington DC for more food explorations.