I have long admired Queens food ambassador Jeff Orlick for his great ideas and his determination to implement them. If you need evidence, Jeff recently organized a Momo tour in appreciation of those diversely filled, delicious Himalayan dumplings found in abundance in Jackson Heights, Queens. The best part? His tour was “pay what you can,” as long as you paid with two bills of any denomination. An egalitarian sensibility, a deep commitment to introducing people to the food of the borough he loves, and an inspirational level of creativity and energy are some of what makes Jeff and the events he creates special.
So when I recently heard about Jeff’s new Ambassador Plates program, I was struck with the same thought I always have when I hear about his endeavors, “what an awesome idea.” Jeff describes the program best when he says that with Ambassador Plates, “the chef is your ambassador” to the cuisine of the participating restaurant, cafe, or vendor. An Ambassador sign posted at participating venues means that a customer can pay a preset fee of $10 or $20, and the chef will prepare you a meal of their choosing for that day. If there is a better way to get to know the food of a particular global region, New York City neighborhood, or individual chef, I haven’t encountered it.
As of now, Ambassador Plates participants coherently mirror the demographics of Jackson Heights, the neighborhood in which the great idea was born, with mostly Nepali, Tibetan and Indian establishments participating. Thanks to the camaraderie of We Heart Astoria’s Meg Cotner and City Spoonful’s Anne Noyes-Saini, I had already explored a few of the great Nepali places in Woodside and Jackson Heights. And this weekend, Jeff’s Ambassador Plates program gave me the incentive I needed to finally try out Jackson Heights’ Dhauligiri Kitchen, a relatively new Nepali restaurant (replacing Tawa) that had been on my list for a few months.
I pointed out Jeff’s Ambassador sticker when I arrived at Dhauligiri Kitchen, and the chef opted to make me a Goat Thali. Thali is a traditional Nepalese meal that includes a variety of dishes and sides, each sectioned off from one another and served on a round platter. I’ve had Thali before, but this was my first Goat Thali, so I was pretty excited about the chef’s selection.
The goat, served in small chunks still on the bone, had a nice firm chew and was both juicy and delicious. Two milder sides included a mixture of potato and cauliflower and a lightly seasoned daal that was excellent with the rice mounded in the center of the platter. Dhauligiri Kitchen’s pickle side dishes were spectacular. There are an endless variety of pickle side dishes in Nepali cooking, and this particular Thali platter included a savory, addictive dried fish pickle, a sharp daikon radish pickle, and a green bean and chili pickle, all boldly flavored and quite spicy.
Halfway through the meal, the chef’s daughter brought me an outstanding mango lassi, and said she was concerned her mom’s cooking might be too spicy for me. I gratefully accepted the drink, but assured her that I was enjoying every bite. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I will admit that the bean and chili pickle was a touch spicy for me, and the lassi was a great way to cool my mouth down after scarfing that last side.
The Ambassador Plates tagline, “Don’t know what to try? Let the chef decide” is brilliant in its simplicity, answering the age old question of what on earth to order when you find yourself in a new place. But more than that, it’s the encouragement we all need to put our sustenance in the hands of the experts, to branch out and try new things, to support the local economy, especially mom and pop food makers, and to get to know our communities and neighbors better.
Jeff hopes that Ambassador Plates will eventually spread to other neighborhoods and even other cities, and I for one will encourage that idea as much as possible. You can support it too, by trying the participating places, and spreading the word about the program. And when it does succeed, because it’s just too good an idea not to succeed, the fact that it started in a place with so much culinary diversity, opportunity, talent and skill as Queens will seem incredibly fitting.
Find the list of Ambassador Plates participants here.