His mission is as daunting as it is tedious: Langhorne wants virtually every ingredient at the Dabney, within reason and budget, to have its origins in the Mid-Atlantic. That means sweeteners, seasonings, cooking oils, vinegars, sometimes even finishing salts if they're not priced at $6 an ounce.
If Langhorne can't find a good regional source for a product, he will make it himself, as he did at McCrady's in Charleston — or at least work with a local producer to make it. It's part of the chef's grand plan to develop, help develop or just promote products that may one day, long into the future, define the Mid-Atlantic. If you need precedents, think sourdough bread from San Francisco, traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena or even cabernet Franc from Virginia.
But right now, Langhorne just needs to start filling his pantry in anticipation of the Dabney's opening in August. Which is why he's experimenting at Union Kitchen. He wants to find out what works, what doesn't and what ingredients he will need to move into larger production. At the moment, the chef acknowledges he's just "shooting from the hip," trying almost anything to see how it tastes.
It's not the easiest task to undertake in February when the farmers markets are limping along, waiting for the spring harvests. Take, for example, Langhorne's working version of kimchi. It's a semi-funky mixture of cabbage, carrots, onions and dried peppers that he's fermented for about 10 days. The chef is "happier with it than I thought I would be," but he feels it's missing some vital ingredients, like fish sauce (which Langhorne will eventually make himself), ginger and scallions.
"I'm glad I got started, but in retrospect it's definitely a mistake to start doing a bunch of stuff and fermenting vegetables in the middle of winter," Langhorne says, "especially when I only want to get vegetables from here."
On some black metal shelves, in a corner of Union Kitchen where the light shines only a couple hours a day, Langhorne has stored numerous containers filled with colorful liquids, a rainbow spectrum of vinegars in varying states of sourness. There's the rose-colored beet vinegar, the cantaloupe-tinted quince vinegar and the dark, inky beer vinegar made from Port City Porter, which looks like medicine when Langhorne dips a spoon into it.
"All the beer ones are super easy, and that's why I've got so many of them going," says Langhorne. Unlike with fruit or vegetable vinegars, the chef doesn't have to convert beer into alcohol first before the liquid starts fermenting into acetic acid, otherwise known as vinegar.
"I got, like, nine different beer vinegars going right now, just because I want to see which ones are best," he adds. Among the beers converting to vinegar: Porkslap pale ale, Stateside Saison from Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Killer Kolsch from Champion Brewing and another porter, this one from DC Brau. There's also a murky, opaque mixture in a container affixed with a bright blue strip of tape. It reads: Suicide beer vin.
"This is just me not wanting to throw things away," Langhorne explains, laughing at his own frugality. "This is like the leftovers of all the different beers poured into one."
If you peer closely into one of the vinegars, you'll see what looks like a small, faceless sea creature floating in it. That's the mother of vinegar, a gelatinous bacterial culture that ferments ethanol into acetic acid. In many cases, vinegar makers add pre-existing mothers to jump start the fermentation process. In Langhorne's case, he's creating mothers out of thin air, allowing wild airborne yeasts to acidify his liquids.
Theoretically, the wild yeasts and the multi-colored liquids, built from local ingredients, will combine to create a distinctively Mid-Atlantic vinegar. This Washington-fostered fermentation will be particularly important to Langhorne when it comes to one of his go-to ingredients, a sorghum vinegar, which he expects to use in a variety of ways at the Dabney.
"There's a sorghum mother floating around in there," Langhorne says, eyeballing the liquid on the shelf. That mother will be used to make larger batches, which will then be aged in a barrel. After a year of barrel-aging, the vinegar "will come out much more like an aged sherry vinegar," the chef says. "It will be really, really delicious."
If Langhorne's current experiments sound promising, consider this: He's just getting started. The chef carries a notebook in which he has cataloged, in his neat, all-caps handwriting, the "fermentation game plan." It includes future testing with more beers, not to mention wines, ciders, honey, pears, strawberries, plums, persimmons and other ingredients. And those are just the vinegars. He also has plans to make misos, fish sauce, fermented vegetables, cured meats and even his own seasonings such as burnt ramp powder (take ramp tops, roast in a hot oven until blackened and puree).
Langhorne's two biggest concerns right now are oils and citrus juices, both essential elements to the cooking process. He's still pondering what animal fats he could use as, perhaps, an alternative to olive oil. But at least he has options. When it comes to citrus in the Mid-Atlantic, the chef is at something of a loss.
"I'm going through a lot of struggle right now," Langhorne says about citrus juices. " There's so much of me that doesn't want to use them, but there's a big part of me that says, 'All I really care about at the end of the day is making sure people love their food and have a wonderful time.'"
There are "a lot of dishes that I have tried to make and I've had at other places that's like, 'God----, it would be so good if there was some lemon juice in that.'"