Our Chefs Choose Their Favorite "Go-To" Ingredient

While creativity is the name of the game for Towson’s top chefs, all have tried-and-true ingredients they reach for again and again as they prepare the dishes that wow local diners. We asked three popular chefs to share their favorite pantry standby—here is what they picked.

Chef Brigitte Bledsoe: Old Bay

The original creative force behind the menu at Miss Shirley’s Café in Roland Park, corporate executive chef Brigitte Bledsoe grew up in Towson with a love for classic Southern dishes and the fresh flavors of the Chesapeake region. She landed her job back in 2005 after wowing Miss Shirley’s founder, Eddie Dopkin, with her crab cake and fried green tomato eggs Benedict, which is still on the menu of the popular breakfast, brunch and lunch spot.

It should come as no surprise, then, that her go-to ingredient is Old Bay, that classic blend of herbs and spices produced by McCormick & Company, which is a mainstay in the spice cabinet of most Marylanders.

“Old Bay can be used in just about everything,” says Brigitte, who was voted Chef of the Year at the 2017 Restaurant Association of Maryland’s Stars of the Industry Awards. “At Miss Shirley’s, I use it in many dishes, including the Bay-O Po’ Boy, with either fresh soft-shell crab or mini jumbo lump crab cakes. We even have Old Bay on all the tables.”

Brigitte’s passion for the spice blend doesn’t end there.

“At home, I use Old Bay on popcorn, grilled corn, any kind of eggs, potato salad … well, just about anything!” she says.

Chef Jason Hisely: Salt

When perusing the beautifully elaborate cupcakes, doughnuts and homemade pastries that line the shelves of CakeTM by Jason Hisely in Timonium, the sweet taste buds on your tongue will no doubt perk up in anticipation of the sugary fulfillment that awaits.

It might seem ironic, then, that executive chef Jason Hisely’s go-to ingredient is salt.

“I know, I know,” he says, laughing. “However, most people have no idea how important salt is in baking and pastry. Try a loaf of bread without salt or with too little salt or a chocolate cake without an ounce of salt. Not to mention things like salted caramel, salty bacon and toasted nuts tossed in sea salt—all of which can take a sweet item over the top.”

Jason, who formerly owned La Cakerie in Towson, opened CakeTM by Jason Hisely earlier this year, together with co-owner Kelly Sokolis. In addition to offering a wide array of sweet treats, Jason hosts regular baking workshops for kids, families and adults, where he shares the expertise that has carried him to victories on the Food Networks’ Cake Wars and Cupcake Wars.

“As most of our pastries and cakes are made with butter, you need a salt to cut through that fat to really bring out the flavors in everything,” he says. “So, salt may be basic, but everything has it. And it’s the most important ingredient in much of what we do!”

Jay Rohlfing: Sweet Dark Soy Sauce

Jay Rohlfing, executive chef of Cunningham’s in Towson, describes his approach to cooking as “rustic American” and says he is committed to using the freshest local and seasonal ingredients.

“From our vegetables and fruits to our pork and lamb, many of our ingredients are grown only about 15 minutes north of our restaurant, at Cunningham Farms,” he notes.

When creating one of his signature side dishes, such as pork belly and shrimp dumplings, or slipping a honey barbecue chicken pizza into his restaurant’s wood-fired oven, Jay says he’s apt to reach for one of his favorite go-to ingredients: sweet dark soy sauce.

“It adds sweetness and a touch of sodium,” he says.

Jay, whose career took off under Linwood Dame at Linwoods in Owings Mills, joined Cunningham’s in 2016. When he’s not at work, he stays busy on his small urban homestead, where he and his wife raise chicken, ducks, rabbits and a bounty of vegetables. The couple recently welcomed the newest member to their roost, daughter Scarlett.