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FIG's Jason Stanhope Scrutinizes Potato Puree Every Day

Erin Perkins is the editor of Eater Carolinas.

When asked to make a classic FIG dish, chefs Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope thought about numerous menu items and settled on the potato puree. The creamy, starchy goodness serves as a backdrop for numerous plates. But as Stanhope explains, it's a damn fine dish on its own. Here, Stanhope walks us through the process of the restaurant's perfect potato puree.

For me, there are two sides to potato puree. There's the romantic side of it, and then there's the process side of it. Mike Lata and I were talking about it, and we basically made two lists of what potato puree meant to us. Part of it was the craftsmanship — you are taking a lowly potato and trying to make something ethereal and memorable out of it. And at the same time, there's also a craftsmanship involved, because it's a long process. We tend to make things harder than we have to here, but I think the way we make our potato puree, it's one of those things where the process comes through in the final result, is very satisfying.

[Photos: Leslie McKellar]

It starts with the potatoes. We usually use a Yukon Gold potato, which vary based on what time of the year you're in. They get harvested, and then they get stored. At different times of the year, they might have different moisture levels, different starch levels, and they may be waxier. One person makes the potato puree every day, so they can develop a relationship with the potatoes. The fun time of year is when we get freshly dug potatoes, and our favorites are Nicola
and Désirée potatoes, and sometimes the Butterballs that Greg [Johnsman] at Geechie Boy grows. They're tiny, so the whole kitchen stops what they're doing and starts peeling them together — otherwise it takes two hours just to peel the potatoes.

They're tiny, so the whole kitchen stops what they're doing and starts peeling them together ...

We wash them really well, and when we cook them, we want to cook them very evenly and slowly, without them exploding or cracking. You don't want the potato to take on any water. You just want them to cook inside that skin until they're beautifully cooked, so when rice them, there's still a little texture to them. That's how you get the smoothest puree possible. We put them in a fair amount of water, and they never come to a boil, that's our big no-no. You'll see people dive for the stove once they see a bubble coming up with the potato.

Once the potatoes are cooked, we peel them while they're hot, which is kind of a trick.

[Photos: Leslie McKellar]

I peel with a paring knife and a kitchen towel while they're still hot. The problem is, if you don't, when they get cool, they seize up, and that's when you get lumpy potato puree. The potato will settle when it gets cool, and the potato itself firms up, and then you can't get that creaminess that you get from pureeing a hot potato. I always store them in something with a lid so they stay warm while you're peeling them. Luckily, we're working with a smaller batch, so it's probably not too big of a problem. This is a five-pound batch, and we usually do about 20 pounds a day.

This dish has been around for as long as FIG's been open ...

This dish has been around for as long as FIG's been open, which is almost 12 years. It's endured so many folks and so many people making the same potato puree. We're always trying to make it better and better and have a feeling of never being quite satisfied with it. We're actually thinking that it's time to make a vessel just for it. We don't necessarily advertise this, but returning customers, people in the know, they'll order a side of our sauce Bordelaise and the potato puree. It's so creamy. It's stringent, beefy sauce with these perfect, silky potatoes.

One thing, with this is, we don't really use a ton of butter. A lot of the inspiration for this dish came from the Robuchon-style potato puree. One difference that we did with this, is that we like to go crazy with sourcing different potatoes. We don't really add a ton of butter — it's definitely rich, and it's luxurious for sure, but it's about 10 to 1 butter, for every 10 pounds you get about a pound of butter. Today, it is about half a pound of butter and five pounds of potatoes, so it's rich, but it's not out of control.

[Photos: Leslie McKellar]

You have to make a decision, based on the type of potato — we might use milk, we might use half and half, or we might use cream. It just depends on how waxy the potato is, and they can get very gummy when you work them, so they become hard to work. If they're too waxy, we'll use something like milk that will loosen them up a little bit, but give us room. Part of the genius of this process is the actual physical elbow grease that goes into working these potatoes. If they are mildly waxy, we'll use half and half, and maybe finish them with cream. Or if they're traditional Yukon Gold potatoes, we'll often go 100 percent cream to make them as luxurious as possible without seeming overwhelming. With seasoning them, we're kind of conservative — we want you to be able to eat a bowl of potato puree, and not just have that one perfect bite, and then the second and third bite overwhelm.

We scrutinize this to an unhealthy level. We identified that and just decided to go with it. What I like to do is go in and cut the potatoes up for two purposes: one, you're going to release steam, and two, you're looking for imperfections in the potatoes. Sometimes, the potatoes grow up too fast, and when it does it'll leave a core in the middle, and that core, you'll see it and it'll get hard, sometimes it'll be off color, but it will leave lumps in your potatoes. So you're always looking for things that may stand in between you and the perfect potato.

We scrutinize this to an unhealthy level.

This steam that's coming out of it is literally just moisture. The drier the potato, the better. Which is why we cut it so slow. Now, we use a food mill, or a ricer, and we use the smallest setting that we can. One thing that I never do is force the potatoes through — I let the food mill do the work. That way, if there is one of those imperfections we talked about, you're not forcing pieces through that are going to make it lumpy or gritty or not perfect.

They need to go back on the low heat as we work them into a puree. And they should just ball up, like a dough. You're actually working hard on those starches right now. This the most important part of the process. This is probably the most underrated part of the process — actually working the potatoes. You can use a wooden spoon, but I prefer a rubber spatula so I can get into the corners. Once you feel like you've got a really nice puree, you can start chipping in the butter.

At this point, we treat it like a sauce and start emulsifying the butter a little at a time. You really are making an emulsification with the potato puree. It reminds me of pat a choux dough for éclairs and profiteroles. It really is beautiful. It's fun for me to work with it at this volume. With every pound you add, there's a little more room for error. The good thing about this process is you can make these far in advance and keep them warm.

I added about eight tablespoons of butter for five pounds of potatoes. We can taste them, but I can see they are getting glossy and silky. We get the cream nice and hot and start adding it in little by little. This is one of the things that Lata comes by everyday and tries. It's so near and dear to his heart. It's a right of passage for the cooks to execute this dish. It's a mile marker for the kitchen. We hold it so near and dear to our hearts. It's important that something like this that's been on the menu for so long, to not become part of the grind. If the chef passed it off to his right hand man, and then if he passed it off to one of the other cooks, then you have what we call the Crab Cake Theory — where it started as something amazing, but by the time it was passed down the line, it became another terrible crab cake.

[Photos: Leslie McKellar]

At this point, we would store the potato puree for service, but I'm going to spoon this out, layer by layer for the finished product. You take a lot of cues from taste, or sound, or smell, but I can always tell they're perfect by how they streak off the spoon. It should leave a beautiful ribbon, but leave a nice concentric circle on the plate. Once you get to here, you can do so many things with it. If you want to celebrate, you can shave truffles on top of them. Potato puree is the ultimate backdrop for whatever seasonal thing you're doing. Or you can eat them on their own and be incredibly happy.

It's a good sign if you're working up some perspiration. When you're making potato puree, nothing else is happening in the world. I'll work this in a smaller pot for the finished presentation. The recipe is very luxurious and slightly gluttonous, so we're conservative with the seasoning. We season with restraint. It shows sensibility and skill. We're trying to show off the potato in the purest form. We use kosher salt and just a knife tip of white pepper. There should be enough that you think, "Why are these so good?" But not, "Oh, that's white pepper."

... try to make your potatoes look like Walden Pond ...

We plate it this way to give that final touch of care. With a lot of things we do, it's important to think about this meticulous style of plating for the guests, because it translates into other things that you do. The potato puree is so symbolic for us, that if you're super careful in how you plate it, and try to make your potatoes look like Walden Pond, then everything you do, you'll do with care.

[Photos: Leslie McKellar]


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