From the rise of dry-aged fish to Tulumified dining rooms and the sameness of “cool” restaurant playlists, it’s impossible not to notice specific trends while dining out at restaurants in Los Angeles. It’s rare, though, that a seemingly singular dish appears on the menus at two unrelated — and thematically different — restaurants separated by 20-some-odd miles across a tangle of freeways and busy boulevards.
The humble baked potato and its glorious avalanche of toppings seem to have inspired a duo of dishes on opposite sides of town. At the Southern restaurant Hatchet Hall in Culver City, chef Wes Whitsell serves a “loaded baked potato gnocchi” in a luscious butter- and cheddar-fortified creme fraiche sauce topped with a smattering of crispy lardons and dehydrated potato skins. Meanwhile, at the Midwestern-inflected Agnes in Pasadena, chef Thomas Kalb treats his “loaded potato dumplings” to a whirl of sour cream, bacon bits, cheddar shards, and roasted broccoli florets. To unravel just how culinary coincidences can happen and the part food memories play in recipe development, Eater LA sat down with both chefs to explore the origins and influences behind these two loaded baked potato pastas.
Thomas Kalb: “I grew up in Iowa City, Iowa. The idea of the loaded potato dumplings was kind of a refinement and a level-up of the idea that my mom used to make us baked potatoes on those nights when it was more difficult to get dinner on the table, like [when] somebody had football practice or when my sister had violin practice or something like that. And on those nights, and obviously, there were a lot of winter nights when I was growing up in the Midwest, my mom would throw in a cookie sheet of baked potatoes. And then she’d pull out all the stuff in the fridge (sour cream, some shredded cheese, some broccoli, and sometimes there was chili) and do like, a baked potato bar. My favorite one’s where it’s just the cheese, the broccoli, the potato, the sour cream, and then some green onions.”
Wes Whitsell: “I grew up outside of Dallas in a little town called Princeton, Texas, a population of about 2,000 people. Growing up when we had baked potato for dinner, it was always a big show with everybody like, ‘Oh, he’s got a potato, he’s going to doctor it up. Let’s watch him.’ It took me like 20 minutes to get the potato how I wanted it. My first executive chef job was at Osteria La Buca; it was the first place I learned how to make gnocchi and I was always wondering how I can put my own story behind it, my little spin being from the South. One day, I just thought of the idea, ‘What if we make it like a loaded baked potato?’ — because a loaded baked potato is my favorite thing on the face of the Earth. A perfectly baked potato with a lot of butter and sour cream and chives, salt, pepper — it’s like the greatest thing ever to me.”
TK: “We bake the potatoes loaded in salt so it pulls all the moisture out. And then we scoop out the inside, we mill that, and then we start to fold in a little bit of flour, our yolks, and ricotta to give it that really fluffy texture. Then we have a butter sauce with a little bit of lemon juice and pasta water — to give it that silky, unctuous glaze — and then we top it with bacon bits, shoestring potatoes, roasted broccoli, and Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze cheddar.”
WW: “It’s a basic potato gnocchi. We bake the potatoes and then we scoop the insides out and make a mound and well with eggs and flour. We boil them and then as soon as they float to the top, we skim them off and put them in cold water to stop the cooking process. When we go to service, I use some of that pasta water, a little bit of butter, and then creme fraiche, a lot of pepper, cheddar cheese, and let all that incorporate. We take the skins from the potatoes, fry them, and then put them in a dehydrator so they’re really crispy. We garnish it with that, crispy lardons, a lot of chives, and a lot of black pepper.”
TK: “The dish has evolved a lot over the year and a half that we’ve been open and it started as a ravioli that was stuffed with a potato filling. It just felt a little too refined. We used to make a roasted broccoli kind of salsa, and that was really delicious, but it sometimes became a little bit too acidic. When we switched over to gnocchi style, it really clicked. I don’t think we’ve ever taken a step backward on that dish. And so every time we’ve taken a step forward, it’s gotten more approachable, more recognizable, and easier to produce. It’s always changed for the best, and I think that this current version is the version that will remain forever.”
WW: “I first put that dish on at Manuela back in 2016; it was a dish that me and my former [chef de cuisine] Christian Truong came up with. I retired it there and then I brought it out of retirement at Hatchet Hall. I think I’ve toyed around with topping it with different things, just the way we picked it up [i.e. prepare it during service], put a bunch of pepper in the water, tried to thicken it with the wrong thing — I put sour cream in instead of creme fraiche — that didn’t work. I didn’t have the potato skins on it originally, it was just bacon bits and chives, little dollops of sour cream; it was a little too platey, it was too precious. And then decided to fry and dehydrate the skin, give it that extra texture, and utilize all of the potato.”
On culinary coincidences
TK: “I just think it’s a fun approach, like a loaded anything. Everyone’s had it, it’s not a novel idea. When I started thinking about the food [at Agnes], I didn’t want to hang on the genesis of ideas as much as I wanted to rely on the execution of them. I knew that it was quite possible that I could open a restaurant and have a menu where the majority of [the dishes] are recognizable in a way that they could be inspired by and pull ideas from [other places] — because comfort food, at the end of the day, is most of the time recognizable. It’s very nostalgic, it’s something that I definitely want to incorporate into the way that I cook.”
WW: “It’s all borrowed knowledge. I go to places all the time and think, I’m gonna do this dish or put my spin on it. Like, that’s cooking: We all borrow each other’s ideas in some form or fashion. No one’s reinventing the wheel.”
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.