Like lots of young, ambitious cooks, Kilgore isn’t necessarily concerned with making his food delicious in the standard, accessible ways. He wants to stimulate, to educate, and impress. But while most chefs and restaurants seem, in the end, to favour one school of thinking and eating over another, Kilgore is unusually ambidextrous, as comfortable whipping up ethereal foams as barbecuing a rack of ribs (he is a Kansas boy after all).
Mostly, though, his cuisine is intelligent and delicious, a welcome, contemporary, well-grounded departure from so-called molecular cuisine. At Alter, the house-made bread was crusted with sumac, dill and poppy seeds and accompanied by an oval of umami butter (everyone always wanted refills). The ‘soft egg’ dish - arguably the most popular on the menu - was a play on onion soup gratiné with a creamy egg giving way to truffle pearls crowned with a crisp gruyere chip.
The goal of Alter was to change a diner’s perspective on fine dining. “We were saying: you can have this creative, beautifully presented, thoughtful meal. But you don’t have to do it in the manner that fine dining has been presented for hundreds of years. Then from there we were like: maybe we can structure the menu in an altered way, thinking, why can’t you have ice cream as a first course?” They made a 36-month aged Parmesan cheese ice cream, and another made of dill with English pea. And he admits his mid-western raised father would have been puzzled by this first course.
But he is hardly the first chef to toggle, in the space of a relatively compact menu, between elaborate and straightforward impulses. And his restaurant Ember, a rustic-yet-polished affair with a menu propelled by a wood-fired oven, excelled at presenting some dishes defined by their look-at-me artistry and others that simply went for the gut. His cornbread dish was topped with a short-rib ragout dressed with a hours-long reduced red wine jus. It was accompanied by a bone marrow butter that was equal parts richness and decadence. But there was also fried chicken on the menu, albeit with caviar butter. And wood-oven roasted lasagna.
He describes the process of tasting a dish and instructing his chefs in honing their palettes. “I’m always striving for balance in the flavours. Your palette naturally cleanses itself, after you take a bite of something the richness is offset by saltiness, next comes minerality and then a hint of acid washes it away and you finish with Umami which for me is yearning for another bite. In the end you’re left with an emotion. That’s how I try to balance all my plates.”
And in the end, whatever Kilgore’s next move is - whether it’s a palette-challenging tasting menu or a slow-roasted brisket - it will appeal to culinary sophisticates and those looking for something different on the Miami scene.