Whitney Otwaka’s career began almost by chance: after taking a few culinary classes at University of California at Berkeley, she decided to apply to a waitressing job, even though she had never worked in a restaraunt.
She didn’t get the job. Instead, she was hired as a cook in a small kitchen-with only one other chef. On her official website, she recalls how that first encounter shaped her:
“I discovered my innate discipline and rigor, and a passion that would allow me to thrive in the grueling environment of a restaurant kitchen…”
After continuing to learn by working in various kitchens in San Diego and San Francisco, Otwaka eventually worked her way up to becoming an Executive Chef of Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island. The prestigious position earned her a spot on Bravo’s Top Chef.
Yet her unprecedented rise always harks back to one thing: taking a chance and transforming circumstances to create something innovative.
Defying Expectations With Everyday Ingredients
That approach extends to the dishes she prepares. Many of her recipes are deceptively simple, from flaky buttermilk biscuits to sugar snap pea salad and southern shrimp rolls, there’s always a twist.
For Otwaka, everyday ingredients become a playground for unexpected flavors. Take her pudding cakes: she pairs the familiar southern comfort dessert with both Meyer lemons and chamomile cream, using mostly down to earth ingredients but challenging what is seen as a conventional use for those ingredients.
For fall, a favorite in her kitchen is also seemingly mundane: spaghetti squash. It wasn’t always: like her entire career, it took time and faith to work with something she once avoided:
“I was slightly scarred by it as a kid..It’s what your friend’s mom would trick you into eating by saying it was pasta.”
It seems that those scars have vanished: with its mild taste, spaghetti squash became a perfect template for a slew of dishes that evoke autumn comfort. Her signature dish? Spaghetti squash with Romano Cream.
The Forgotten Squash
Even for personal and private chefs, fall evokes pumpkins, with their sweet flavor and rich color(Click here for unique takes on pumpkin:no pie or lattes included) . And while fall traditions are sure to delight clients, sometimes seasonal ingredients are sitting right in front of us, waiting to be transformed.
Squash is a member of the gourd family and comes in countless varieties; both summer and winter squashes are actually available during the cooler months. For any squash, check to make sure the stem is hardy, that there are no cracks or severe ruptures on the exterior, and that there is no green coloring. Select squash with a matte skin; while shinier skin may be aesthetically pleasing, it’s a sign the squash was picked prematurely.
In addition to misconceptions about squash, it’s also underused because it;s usually reserved for savory side dishes. Even the popularization of spaghetti squash as a pasta substitute fails to showcase this fall delight to its full potential.
Whether it’s ambercup, butternut, carnival, or even golden nugget squash, chefs should capitalize on squash’s natural sweetness to create new and stunning sweet finishes to any hearty autumn meal.
Sweet Notes: Squash Delights to Try this Season
While even innovative takes tend to rely heavily on the common butternut squash, chefs should consider experimenting with other squashes to create complex flavor profiles. Banana squash is considered just as versatile, for its mild and sweet flavor, while delicata is prized for its exceptionally creamy notes. Check out this list of varieties of squash for inspiration.
Pudding (and Pudding Cake)
Squash, with its creamy and mild notes, pairs beautifully with traditional and Southern puddings. Steamed pudding fully incorporates squash with a splash of fresh citrus, and plenty of ginger and nutmeg. For a more elegant, cake-like dessert, this cast iron pudding cake is made with milk-poached butternut squash and topped with slices of delicata squash drenched in caramel. Described as “velvety” and with flavor notes similar to butterscotch, try this classic and simple pudding.
Think squash would ruin cookies? Think again: the natural nutty notes lends itself to cookies that are a refreshing twist on an often saccharine dessert. Maple syrup and squash puree not only make this a more healthful choice, but intensify the dark chocolate in these squash-chocolate chip cookies (Swap out pre made puree for your own homemade; you’ll be glad you did. Try another twist on a classic with cinnamon oatmeal cookies topped with a vanilla glaze. Just watch the texture and add flour as needed). Clients with special dietary needs or preferences? Squash adds a buttery taste to vegan sugar cookies and texture to a gluten free version.
Love the ambiance of carrot cake? Squash spice cake marries similar flavors, but with a softer color and creamier texture. Finished with a maple cream cheese frosting, this is sure to delight as much as the beloved classic. A roll cake is perfect for a rustic meal, while this coffee cake highlights autumn flavor at its best and is perfect for almost any occasion.
While certainly not unheard of, a more reserved but still striking take places squash as the main filling for a pie: try butternut squash pie as an alternative to pumpkin; add creamy notes with this coconut squash pie, or add richer colors and flavors with a brown sugar take. To finish any pie, top with fresh whipped creamy, caramel, or rum sauce. Trade pie for individual tarts to complement a tapas themed meal.