The Continued Quest For Quality ‘Junk Food’
Sam Monsour and Mark O’Leary are bringing back their haute approach to Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and Hungry-Man dinners with a series of pop-up dinners.
During their time at jm Curley, Sam Monsour and Mark O’Leary developed quite the following with their progressive take on upscale “junk food.” Some of their creations included Doritos made from dehydrated beets, a McRib molded from Brambly Farms pork farce, and morel-infused Easy Cheese squirted from a basketball pump.
At the end of 2013, both chefs moved on from the restaurant to pursue private projects: Monsour to work on the lifestyle app #true28 and a hamburger cookbook with Man Food‘s Richard Chudy, and O’Leary to start Aprons Off Catering as well as the pop-up restaurant, Guchi’s Midnight Ramen.
Starting on March 28, Monsour and O’Leary are partnering with Kitchensurfing to resume their junk food crusade in a series of six pop-up “experiences.” Each dinner will have a completely original, seven-course menu of iconic junk food favorites reimagined with culinary-driven techniques and nutrient-dense ingredients.
I caught up with the two chefs to discuss their ambitious new pop-up, which may include everything from Easy Bake Ovens, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, and actors paid to portray nagging parents.
What kind of plans do you have for the “Future of Junk Food” pop-up dinner series?
Mark: It’ll be a journey through the future of junk food from fast food, to snacks, to staples like push-up pops, rocket pops, and shit like that. We’re going to run the gamut, but we’re going to use quality, chef-driven ingredients that’ll put a progressive spin on all these dishes reminiscent of our childhood.
Is this an extension of what you were doing at jm Curley?
Sam: Absolutely! And that started with the both of us. We’re obviously speaking to diners when we do these things, but we’re not trying to preach to them. When we did these things at Curley’s, we made them very affordable so people couldn’t say, ‘yeah, you’re trying to reform the processed food system, but no one is going to want to pay for that.’ This is a little more playful, and we wanted to push the envelope in terms of ingredients. It’s a $125 price tag, but you’re going to get what you pay for with that. With the seven courses, you’re going to get very high-end ingredients.
Mark: With junk food, they’re using shit ingredients to start with: corn syrup, bad corn, and shitty flour. For the structural/novel aspects of it, we’ll use all-natural ingredients used in molecular gastronomy. It’s usually derivatives of sugar, but it’s more to achieve certain textures or to preserve the nature of the snack.
Sam: Oftentimes, people will read the back label of a bag of junk food and read corn and flour and think, ‘yeah, that’s okay.’ Then they’ll read all the words they don’t understand and they’ll think that’s the reason processed food is bad for them. In our opinion, it’s the fact that it’s genetically modified and that it lacks any fucking resemblance to what corn was 100 years ago. There’s hardly any nutrients in corn today. But when you see agar gum or konjac root or xanthan gum, these are all plant-based extracts.
When I think “junk food,” I just think of potato chips and candy. Your definition seems fairly broad.
Sam: When you really start to look at it, the freezer aisle is all junk food. A Hungry-Man dinner is junk food. We all know it’s not good for us. When we target foods and label them “junk food” it’s because they’re made with junk ingredients. They’re not nutritious. Even though there might be meat involved on a McDonald’s hamburger, we don’t know what that meat is.
Mark: As an example of what we’re doing, there will be a super high-end Filet-O-Fish on the menu. There’s going to be the most decadent Hungry-Man dinner possible. There will be meat courses, but they might be hidden under the guise of a snack, a TV dinner, or some novelty fast-food item.
Is there really going to be a Filet-O-Fish sandwich?
Mark: Oh god, yeah! Obviously, with the price point where it is, we’re going to make sure everyone is satisfied with both the quality and quantity of food. You’ll definitely leave full and it will be equal to any seven-course tasting menu you’ve ever had. It’s just going to be bananas! We’re going to go berserk basically.
Sam: We want people to see what our inspiration was and say, ‘Wow! This is really cool and delicious.’ We want to do really fun and funky stuff that will make them laugh out loud. Maybe we won’t roll in an Easy Bake Oven for table-side desserts, but maybe we will just because we know it’ll be hilarious and it’ll hit that nostalgic tone we’re relying upon.
Mark: We’re actually going to bring in some paid actors to act like your parents and yell at you and make you feel bad. We’re going to put a bowl of peas on the table and an actor is going to come out and say, ‘everybody has to eat your peas or you’re not getting your next course.’ If that happens, it does. If it doesn’t, we apologize. We’re trying to tell a story.
I’m pretty sure you’re lying, but it would be phenomenal if you actually did that.
Mark: If you think we’re lying, you apparently don’t know us very well. We’re going to sink or swim with this one.
Sam: In all honesty, it would be cool to make some inroads with the American food system. We want to have a sense of humor with this because we don’t want to be preachy. We don’t want to point the finger at people. Believe me, we love eating like this, too. Let’s just source food more responsibly.
Tickets are $125.00 per person and include a seven-course menu and cocktail pairings. Tickets must be purchased prior to the event at eventbrite.com.
Dates: March 28 - two seatings will be offered at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. The forthcoming pop-up dinners are scheduled for May 9, June 20, August 1, September 12 and October 24. The Emerald Lounge at the Revere Hotel Boston Common, 200 Stuart St., Boston. 617-457-2626.