Suddenly Tim Ma had skin in the game.
Ma is not alone in his embrace of that other world of science. Chefs across the country are showing more skin: in everyday chicken skin salads and cow skin stews as well as fancy turns of, say, salmon skin chicharrón at Mírame in Los Angeles. Or casual eats like the Chinese-Cajun cracklin’ at Bywater Brew Pub in New Orleans and the curry noodle sandwich with crispy guinea hen skin at Rose’s in Durham, N.C. Even José Andrés’ grilled vegetables are skin-on. Every skin everywhere all at once.
“It’s cool to take something apart, treat each piece differently and put the pieces back together,” Ma said. “It’s a technique thing, but it’s also a good way to introduce different flavors, different textures. You see that a lot; it’s like peaches five ways, but with animal skin. It’s very Thomas Keller-ish. It’s a lot of pride, skill, a little showing off. There was an era of cooking that was always like that. And we’re back in that era.”
Although history does not celebrate the first skin-eaters, cultures around the world enjoy their recipes — whether Brazilian torresmos, Canadian scrunchions, Indonesian krupuk kulit, Jewish gribenes, Mexican cueritos, Slavic cvarci or Vietnamese tóp mo.
At The Mary Lane in Manhattan, chef Andrew Sutin keeps reinventing his menu’s trout dish with skin: first with a dried-skin crumble, then with playful curls of fried skin on sautéed fillets and now layered between sliced leeks in a potato soup topped with trout.
“It’s a fresh approach to something that’s already there,” he said, comparing it to a “bonus track” on an album. “Your creative landscape is doubled.”
Sutin compared skins’ moment in the sun to the rise of aioli and yolk-heavy pasta, which came in tandem with the popularity of egg-white omelets and egg-white cocktails earlier this century.
“We’re trying to push the envelope into interesting adventure,” he said. “It’s delicious. It adds texture. And it’s not too far out there, really. I don’t want to serve something weird for the sake of weirdness.”
Of course, skin is not magic. At DaDong, celebrity Chinese chef Zhenxiang Dong built his whole restaurant around duck skin so delicate that it easily shattered. His American debut flopped, despite counting Michelle Obama among its duck skin fans.
There are also limits to what diners will stomach: Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods,” once recalled with revulsion that he was almost served a human baby’s foreskin in Madagascar.
Even in less-extreme circumstances, a reluctance bordering on squeamishness around eating skin is not uncommon.
“My dad loves making kilawin with the cow’s skin or goat skin,” said Sheldon Simeon, a Hawaiian chef with his own recipe for Ilocano cow skin. “Not something that I do in my restaurants, though.” Asked why not, he declined to answer.
Inspired by cotenne (an Italian pork skin braciole) as well as bì heo (Vietnamese shredded pork skin noodles), New Orleans native Dominick Lee — the chef behind New York’s upcoming Alligator Pear — makes a roast beef tagliatelle, with a gluten-free option of pork skin noodles. He also uses dried skin as a kind of furikake-style flavor bomb with rice.
“You have to be a really brave gluten-free person,” Lee said of the skin noodles. “It can be intimidating. So you really have to present it well. You have to have some strong salespeople with you, some strong front-of-house people. How do you present it to someone who didn’t sign up for it?”
It can be a tough sell. “It’s not often someone wants to talk about skin,” he said. “You’re either extremely interested in food or you’re Buffalo Bill.”
Diet offers many entry points. In Savannah, Ga., Fleeting’s Rob Newton credited ketogenic eating with a rediscovery of skin.
“Keto diets have really helped the eating of skin,” he said. “You can eat chicharrónes or fish skins in cured egg yolk. People want their crunchy, salty thing without a potato or corn, and pig skin has really stepped into that role.” He’s currently developing a kind of terrine he saw in Mexico City that incorporates pulverized chicharrónes.
A desire for zero-waste sustainability helps, too. “We want to honor every bit of the animal,” Newton said. “We don’t waste the bones, the feet, the ears, nothing. This is a way to help do that. And that makes us feel good, like we’re doing the right thing, because we are.”