When many of us look at a potato, we don’t see much. We see an earthy root vegetable, with its oblong shape and dark spots. We also see the many forms it can take — baked, fried, boiled, mashed, diced. But Chef Kenny Seliger sees more.
To him, a potato isn’t just a potato. It’s a symbol that grounds him to his German roots. It reminds him of the time he spent there in his youth. Of the lush green forests near his childhood home. Most of all, it reminds him of the times he spent cooking with his grandmother. Watching her peeling the potatoes with the “potato knife” (what he called his grandmother’s tourné knife). Watching as she made sure to get rid of the spots and checked that the water was boiling at the right temperature. He remembers all of the ways his grandmother used to cook those simple potatoes, and the impact it had on his family.
This is the genius of Chef Kenny. He sees food in a totally different way than most of us do because, at heart, he is a storyteller. Every ingredient that he uses, every dish that he makes, has a narrative behind it. He always aims to learn the story of his food, even if he has to source the ingredients himself. Everything that he cooks is his attempt to share what he sees with others. His vision is the basis of his pop-up dinner series, Trap Door Dining, here in Orange County.
Read our full-length Q&A conversation with Chef Kenny below.
Q: Why did you call this dinner series “Trap Door” Dining?
Chef Kenny Seliger, Trap Door Dining: The original name kind of came from the idea of pop-up dinners. I always thought of pop-up dinners like the old speakeasy bars during Prohibition Era. I always looked at pop-ups when they became trendy a couple years ago as sort of the new “modern speakeasy”. As a bunch of chefs who couldn’t really afford to do our own thing, we kind of opened up things in secrecy. So from that, I thought of a trap door as a hidden secret that someone would have to find.
Q: You have talked about growing up in Germany and learning to cook from your grandmother. When you were young, what kind of things made you fall in love with cooking?
KS: It’s funny because, as a kid, if you had ever asked me if I wanted to be a chef, I would have said no. Cooking with my grandma and my mom was natural. It was the life that my grandma grew up in. Every time I would spend time with her, we would go to the grocery store every day, buy fresh produce, buy meats, and that was what she would cook. She just spent all day in the kitchen, and I was always attracted to being in the kitchen with her.
Q: What did you learn from your other cooking experiences that you brought to your current cooking?
KS: Two of my experiences, Wirtshaus and Breslin, were very different. Wirtshaus taught me leadership qualities, how to build a menu, and my first brief understanding of the business side of being a chef. Stepping into the world of Breslin was probably the most impactful kitchen experiences I’ve had because there was no second-best. Sometimes in kitchens, people make sacrifices. They know it’s not the best and they still send out the dish, and that just wasn’t acceptable in that kitchen. It didn’t matter if we were serving ten people or three hundred people — the only food that left that kitchen was the best food; that was the first time I learned how important it was.
That’s our job as chefs: work to put out the best out there. It’s not easy, but I learned to always push the hardest and serve the best food possible.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of doing a pop-up dinner series? Why did you choose to do a pop-up experience?
KS: The biggest spark was the freedom of being able to do my own thing. Working in the kitchen of a restaurant or a hotel, you may be confined to that person or company’s ideas. Of course, we chefs do get a little bit of creative freedom, but it’s not always full creative freedom. The cool thing about doing a pop-up is that it’s like my own restaurant, so I can build an experience for guests that is completely from my own mind; the dishes are something that I have trial-and-errored on my own time. Basically, it’s me; it’s my story as a chef.
Q: So you started the dinners in Los Angeles, and after its success there, you moved it here. What do you find special about the area that made you move it down to Orange County?
KS: I love a lot of things about Orange County. The main thing that brought us down here was that my wife is from Orange County, so when we moved back from New York, we just settled here. I wanted to highlight the area because I think lots of people don’t really know about Orange County; and I could say, out of the ten years I lived in L.A., I probably only went down to Orange County one time.
But it’s sort of like an untapped resource. There’s so much good happening down here — so much good food coming out now, so many good purveyors and people making amazing things, from plate wares to potteries to farmers growing things here in San Juan Capistrano. Orange County has a lot to offer and I want people out here to get their fair shot.
Q: Mentally, how do you approach forming ideas and creating and perfecting a menu? What kind of headspace do you need to get in?
KS: A lot of my ideas I base off of an ingredient. So, like for Trap Door’s new menu that we’re working on right now, we’re working on an eggplant goulash. With that, I would start off with the eggplant and the way I eat eggplant — the dishes that I’ve liked with eggplant, the dishes I’ve hated with eggplant, and everything far in-between.
And then I always try to aim for something that I want people to eat. An ingredient that they know, but in a way that they never thought that they would like it. With the traditional goulash, especially from where I come from, is a rich, full of meat with onions and garlic type-of-dish. I like flipping that around into a vegan dish, serving ingredients in ways that people didn’t know excites me.
Q: Where do you take inspiration from? What interests you?
KS: I always go back to family; it is what always motivates me. I always have a desire to make my family happy, and so I think about what I would make for them. I think about my past a lot. Growing up in Germany it was pretty cool because I lived by a forest and I would often use that to inspire me. Now that I live so close to the ocean, I use that to inspire me too.
And ultimately, I would say this is more of a recent thing for me over the last two years, it’s just the way I view my job as a chef now. I think before I would just look at it like I’m just a guy who cooks and put food out there. But I think it’s a good that we chefs are starting to have a role, we have a bigger impact in what we show people as far as good food.
I truly believe in local ingredients and everything that I do I want to get from people who are here making it, not take the cheap, easy way out. And that kind of became part of the bigger picture that started to motivate me. Meeting these farmers and fishermen that I’ve been able to meet. At the last Trap Door dinner, I worked with these two grain-farmers who grow everything themselves, and it’s pretty inspiring to meet these people.
Q: How would you explain your method of culinary storytelling and what you try to achieve with it through food?
KS: Pretty much all the time, I like to take dishes and build a story behind them. One of the dishes I made for the first pop-up was a dish where I was thinking about beets and about a campfire. I thought about the feeling of going camping: the first time you wake up in the morning you smell that little bit of smoke from last night’s fire; that little bit of dew on the ground making everything a little wet too. So I took that sensation and built a dish around that sensation using beets. So it’s just little things that I will start to think about.
And the thoughts just kind of happen. Usually, if we’re out walking the dog, or out to dinner, or I’m driving, thoughts will hit me. I always carry a notebook with me or put these ideas in my phone right away, and make sure I come back to these ideas and just play around with ingredients in many ways.
Q: You talk about two very important things to you when crafting a menu—showcasing beautiful and locally-sourced ingredients, and avoiding using the same ingredients on a menu twice. Are there any other “rules” you try to follow?
KS: I think another big one I always try to follow, and it’s going to go back to what I think chefs try to challenge themselves now, which is that I always want to know where ingredients come from and I want to know I had a hand in making it. And that goes all the way down to my vinegars, and I’m learning to process my own sea salt. I want to be able to know where that ingredient started and where it’s finishing.
A couple of years ago, I was at one of my jobs and I had a lady come to me with severe allergies and it was very embarrassing that she kept asking me questions and I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know where the food I was giving them came from. I didn’t know who made it, I didn’t know who touched it, and I didn’t know if it was going to trigger her allergies. That was the moment when I realized I always have to know who makes the food. For Trap Door itself, I make and do 95 to 96% of everything that we serve.
Q: Besides the cooking, what goes into actually setting up a ‘pop-up’ dinner? Who helps you out?
KS: Luckily for me, there’s a team of four of us at Trap Door. We have a winemaker, James Sparks, who takes care of a lot of the wine and alcohol. I will say that especially for Trap Door, the wine has become a really big thing. I think people originally thought of wine as the sidekick to the food, but it’s definitely become the partner; it’s become equally as important as the food because there’s always so much story behind wine as well. We’ve really realized that guests love that aspect of it, so having James there is critically important.
My wife, Dominika, she does a lot of our social media. She does all these beautiful tablescapes and handles all the menu printing and wording; it’s hard for me to make things sound good on paper, so she and Anna Ferguson-Sparks, who is also involved and handles PR, take care of all of that. There’s definitely a lot of moving parts to it. The other challenge before was constantly finding new locations. We’re lucky to be able to lock Kit Coffee as our main home now, so we will always be there.
Q: What do pop-up dinners allow the customers to experience?
KS: If you’re going to a pop-up dinner, you’re getting that chef’s true side of their food; you’re getting exactly what they want to put out for you. From a chef’s standpoint, you can’t ask for anything better. For me, it’s the ability to serve a guest exactly what I want to serve and it’s not based on a restaurant’s standard. You have a chef cooking for you whose work is not stuck in a box at all.
Q: Do you think there is something that consumers have forgotten about food? What would you like them to remember about cooking and food?
KS: I think the dining experience is something that’s been forgotten. Maybe it’s just the chef in me that’s saying this, but at times, people go to restaurants and try to customize too much. I would like to get to a point where people just trust the chefs who are cooking for you. Whether you’re going to a fish house, a barbecue house, a fine-dining restaurant or a burger joint (or to Trap Door) just trust that the chef back there is capable of giving you a really good meal.
Try their dishes the way they are intended to be tasted. Even if you have an allergy, just be upfront about it. Most chefs are aware of allergies and if you give us enough notice, we can still build a really good experience. I always look at it like a musician — if you have a musician you really like, you listen to their music as is, you don’t call them and ask, “Hey man, can you change the words to this and that?” It’s the same thing for chefs.
Q: What can we expect for the future of the Trap Door dinner series?
KS: Our next Trap Door dinner is in about a month. It’s going to be a completely vegetarian experience, very vegetable-driven. We’ll have the eggplant goulash there. I’m also working on another dish about “three bites of cabbage” (cabbage is a big part of my life). We’ll be working with red cabbage, sauerkraut, and a stuffed cabbage. With the dinner, it became sort of a German story, though not intentionally. We kind of looked at the menu and noticed it was really German. I guess it’s a throwback to my childhood, but again it just kind of happened that way.
In the long-term, Trap Door will head towards a direction where vegetables become the stars and proteins will kind of become the sidekicks. Partly because I enjoy cooking vegetables, but also because I want to create a positive and memorable experience of vegetables, which I think many people miss out on. Many people have eaten a great steak, but much fewer can say they’ve eaten a great carrot.