With restaurants closed and stay-at-home orders in place, most of us are doing a whole lot of cooking these days. (Anyone else tired of doing the dishes?)

We asked Philly chefs to share their most versatile flavor-boosting ingredients. From coffee to miso to maple syrup, here’s what they’re using in their own quarantine meals.

Add these secret weapons to your grocery list, and get ready for some new, and simple, experiments in the kitchen.


Kelsey Bush, chef-owner of Bloomsday Cafe

KB: Since you need it in the morning, it’s probably already in your pantry. But coffee goes far beyond a drink. I like to use it in rubs for meat. I’m a huge fan of cumin and coffee. I’ll throw in some chili powder, paprika, and a little mustard seeds, too. For rubs, leave the coffee a little coarser — like a fresh cracked pepper. [See recipe below.]

It’s fun to throw coffee into curry, too. It’s never going to be the ingredient that stands out on its own, but it helps bridge flavors and adds depth. I’ll add it when I’d throw in the curry paste — a tablespoon at the most, finely ground, for a big pot of curry that’d feed eight to 10 people.

You can use brewed coffee to add a little fruitiness to vinaigrettes. Coffee can add bitterness without it being super astringent. Try soaking dried cherries in the coffee, and add that to salad, too. I’ll throw leftover brew into chocolate cake and brownie batter.


Greg Vernick, chef-owner of Vernick restaurants

GV: Miso sort of acts like Parmesan does — it adds a savory, salty, umami flavor to a variety of dishes, and it’s really shelf-stable. You can buy a one-pound bag, and it’ll last forever in the fridge.

I’ll mix a half teaspoon of yellow miso with three tablespoons of mayo, a couple drops of hot sauce, and a squeeze of lemon or lime, and spread that on any kind of sandwich. We’re doing a lot of turkey right now.

Miso’s also really good for marinades and braises. Recently we did beef cheeks braised in miso and chicken stock, soy sauce, and white wine. It’ll work for any cut — around one cup of miso to two quarts of chicken stock.

With salads, we’ll whisk it with rice wine vinegar, vegetable oil, and salt. And we use it a lot with rice. I’ll take miso and melted butter, drizzle it over the rice, and top it with shrimp and lime.

Oyster sauce

Kenneth Sze, chef-owner of Tuna Bar

Oyster sauce adds that umami flavor, without needing too many other ingredients. It’s salty and a little sweet, and has a slight fermentation flavor.

I love fresh vegetables. So I’ll steam broccoli or bok choy, drain it and make sure it’s a little dry, and then pour oyster sauce on top. You’ll see the oyster sauce melt into the vegetables. It’s so simple, and delicious. If I want to get a little fancy, I’ll add sesame oil.

I use it in anything I’m stir-frying. With stir-fried soba noodles or fried rice, just a little soy sauce and oyster sauce can go a long way.

I also love it on steamed flaky white fish, with ginger and scallions. [See recipe below.]

It's maple syrup season in Philadelphia.
It's maple syrup season in Philadelphia.

Maple syrup

Matt Fein, culinary director of Federal Donuts

MF: I usually have Spring Tree maple syrup, and use it for more than just pancakes. I really like maple mustard — ¼ cup of dijon with one tablespoon of maple syrup. I love to dip soft pretzels in it.

Whip syrup into butter for a sweet maple butter. For grilled salmon, I brush on maple syrup when the salmon is halfway cooked. The maple syrup bubbles and glazes over. I’ll hit the salmon with another brush of syrup when it comes off the grill. I like to sprinkle some cayenne pepper, too, to give it a little sweet heat.

Nutritional yeast, aka “nooch”

Rich Landau, chef-owner of Vedge and V-Street

RL: A lot of people look at this as one of those old hippie tricks for your popcorn, but honestly that doesn’t work for me.

I use nutritional yeast less as a seasoning and more as a way to add umami and body when cooking. You can use it to get this sharp cheddar flavor into things if you don’t want cheese. Pasta for instance, add a little nutritional yeast into the sauce, and you’ll get that extra richness without adding extra fat.

It’s great for Asian noodle dishes, like lo mein. When you’re not using all the fat, salt, and sugar that they do at restaurants, you can use nutritional yeast. Add it at the beginning, when you’re sautéing the veggies. And you don’t need much — a tablespoon for a lo mein for two.

Same with refried beans. They’re usually made with tons of lard or oil, so when you get a fat-free can from the store, it’s just not going to taste that good. Add a tablespoon [of nutritional yeast] to a can. It tricks the palate into thinking there’s more going on than just beans. It’s also one of those secret ingredients for hummus. When I eat hummus, I don’t stop. And there’s usually a lot of fat in hummus. If making your own, try about a tablespoon for one can of chickpeas to replace some of the oil or tahini.

Fish sauce

Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, chef-owner of Kalaya

CS: Fish sauce can enhance any kind of flavor. Each brand is different. Megachef and Three Crabs are very mild. Red Boat is stronger. So you have to adjust to taste, but you can use it to replace salt.

When you make seafood pasta, use a little bit of fish sauce at the end, rather than adding more salt to season. When I’m marinating lamb or beef, I’ll do fish sauce, brown sugar, pepper flakes, black pepper, and some oil.

In Thailand, it’s traditional to whisk garlic, Thai red chilies, fish sauce, and lime juice. We eat that sauce with everything. I like to serve it on rice under an omelet. Fish sauce is great in salad dressing, too, with lime juice and chilies. That’s it. You can try it in Italian dressings, replacing the salt.


Nick Elmi, chef-owner of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie

NE: Pesto packs a tremendous amount of flavor in a small package. And you can make it on your own with anything that’s green — any herb, spinach, whatever. If I have something stronger like dill, I’ll cut it with spinach. Throw the herbs in a food processor with olive oil, salt and pepper, and Grana Padano. I usually use Grana Padano instead of parm — it’s half the price and has that same salty flavor.

Pesto’s great for really simple pastas or grilled fish. You can use it as a dip with crackers or bread. My wife likes it on eggs in the morning, too.

All I’ve been doing right now is figuring out ways to go foraging, so I just made 10 pounds of ramp pesto — that’s been going on everything. I’ll also do a green-goddess-like pesto with dill, chervil, chive, and basil. We recently made an arugula and toasted hazelnut pesto inspired by one [Marc] Vetri was doing with almonds. [Recipe below.]

For Kenneth Sze of Tuna Bar, oyster sauce is his favorite flavor-boosting pantry staple. He loves it on steamed veggies and also steamed flaky white fish, like the sea bass pictured here.
Courtesy Kerrie Longo
For Kenneth Sze of Tuna Bar, oyster sauce is his favorite flavor-boosting pantry staple. He loves it on steamed veggies and also steamed flaky white fish, like the sea bass pictured here.


Steamed Black Sea Bass

Per serving

1 (6-ounce) fillet of black sea bass or other flaky white fish

5 teaspoons fresh ginger, julienned

5 teaspoons scallions, julienned

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoons oyster sauce, plus more to drizzle

1 teaspoon sake or dry white wine

¼ cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the fish, ginger, scallions, and oyster sauce in parchment paper. Place fish on top of a baking sheet and bake for 6 to 7 minutes.

Once fish is cooked, unwrap and place on a tempered plate or bowl (any high temperature-tolerant dish, such as a ceramic dish that can be put in the oven).

Over medium-high heat, heat oil in a sauté pan to its smoking point. Monitor this closely. As soon as oil begins smoking, turn off heat and pour the hot oil on top of the fish and herbs. This will bring out the flavors, and cook the ginger very quickly.

Top with soy sauce, sake (or white wine), and a drizzle of oyster sauce. Top with extra scallions and ginger, if available.

Recipe courtesy Kenneth Sze, chef-owner of Tuna Bar

Coffee-Rubbed Roast Beef

Serves 6

3 pounds eye round beef

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon granulated onion powder

2 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon black pepper ground

2 tablespoons coffee, ground the size as the pepper

1-2 tablespoons kosher salt

Sunflower, vegetable, or any neutral oil

Mix spices together in a bowl.

Cover eye round evenly with the spice blend.

Place beef on a roasting rack with a baking sheet underneath. Refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight. When ready to roast, pull beef out and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover roast with a neutral oil and roast in the over for 10 minutes. Drop oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue to cook until the internal temperature is 130 to 135 degrees for medium rare.

Let rest for 20 minutes, then slice warm. If you are using this for sandwiches, let the meat cool completely before slicing.

Recipe courtesy Kelsey Bush, chef-owner of Bloomsday Cafe

Arugula Hazelnut Pesto

Yields about 2 cups

½ cup hazelnuts

8 ounces arugula

½ cup Grana Padano (can swap for Parmagiana-Reggiano)

1 bunch basil

1 cup Spanish or neutral olive oil

½ clove garlic

Salt, to taste

Juice of half a lemon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Scatter hazelnuts on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes, until toasted. Cool completely.

In a food processor, pulse hazelnuts until finely ground. Add the arugula, Grana Padano, basil, and garlic; puree until smooth. Slowly add the olive oil, pureeing until very smooth. Season with salt to taste. Right before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice. Drizzle on fish, add to pasta, or serve as a dip.

Recipe courtesy Nick Elmi, chef-owner of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie, and inspired by Marc Vetri