5 Ways DC Fine-Dining Chefs Are Playing With Old Bay

Spoiler: it's not just on crab

October 4, 2022 6:30 am
Old Bay Blackened Savoy Cabbage with Peanut Romesco, Shaved Compressed Pineapple, and Herbs
Old Bay Blackened Savoy Cabbage with Peanut Romesco, Shaved Compressed Pineapple, and Herbs
Moon Rabbit

There may be no American spice blend so rooted to its place of origin as Baltimore’s Old Bay. For over 80 years, that familiar yellow-and-blue tin has contained a mix of 18 different spices including black and red peppers, celery salt and sweet baking spices like clove and ginger. (The others and the exact proportions are, unsurprisingly, a closely guarded secret.) And while it’s best known for adding oomph to an array of non-kosher offerings like crab and shrimp, it was somewhat ironically invented by a Jewish immigrant.

It was in 1920s Germany that Gustav Brunn first forged a career in the spice industry, a mastery he would bring with him stateside when, following incarceration at Buchenwald after the Kristallnacht pogrom and an early release secured thanks to a hefty bribe, he settled in Maryland. There, following a short-lived stint at McCormick, where he was fired within days — due, depending on who you ask, to his Jewish heritage or lack of English proficiency — he founded the Baltimore Spice Company and developed the balanced, savory blend now known as Old Bay.

In another ironic turn, after a decades-long rivalry, McCormick purchased the spice blend in 1990, five years after Brunn’s death. Today, the company has revisited Old Bay in a number of forms from cocktail sauce to tartar sauce, from seafood batter mix to Goldfish crackers.

And the spice giant isn’t the only one playing with Old Bay. Here’s how local chefs are incorporating it into their dishes. 

Old Bay Blackened Savoy Cabbage with Peanut Romesco, Shaved Compressed Pineapple and Herbs

Executive Chef Kevin Tien and Chef de Cuisine Judy Beltrano, Moon Rabbit

“This collaborative dish combines the influence of my Louisiana background with Chef de Cuisine Judy Beltrano’s upbringing in Maryland,” explains Tien. “She makes a Louisiana Style Blackened Seasoning out of Old Bay. Then that seasoning is used on savoy cabbage and hard-seared and roasted, served with shaved pineapple and peanut romesco. People know that Old Bay is amazing on seafood, but it works great on this dish because it has sweet notes from the pineapple and the brown sugar in the seasoning mix!”

Hush Puppies Micheles
Hush Puppies from Michele’s
Leading DC – John Rorapaugh

Crawfish Hushpuppies with Old Bay Remoulade

Chef de Cuisine Rachel Bindel, Michele’s

“This remoulade is aioli-based and laced with Old Bay. The crawfish is a perfect pairing. The meat is sweet and ties into Michele’s NOLA roots and menu design. Plus there is corn in the hush puppy, which is a Maryland summertime favorite treat.”

Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
Charlie Palmer

Soft Shell Crab Sandwich

Chef Charlie Palmer, Charlie Palmer Steak DC

“While I didn’t grow up with Old Bay necessarily, during my time at the River Café, we had a partnership deal with Old Bay spice. We would develop dishes for them. One dish was what we called a Bayou Style Crab and Creature Etouffee. It had alligator meat in it, and Old Bay was the dominant seasoning,” says Palmer. “On the East Coast, it is the universally accepted favorite for cooking shellfish. It is consistently perfect, rather than having to blend the spices all together ourselves. You always get the same consistent ingredient. The subtle heat and depth of flavor Old Bay offers pairs nicely with the natural sweetness of the crab.” [Want more from Charlie Palmer? Here’s the recipe for his famous steak — step one, crack open a beer.] 

Old Bay Crackers
Old Bay Crackers
The Imperial

Old Bay Dusted Saltines

Chef Chris Reynolds, The Imperial

“We use Old Bay all over our menu, especially highlighting it on the raw bar. It is a key ingredient in our poaching liquids for shrimp cocktail, peel and eat, etc. By far my favorite application of Old Bay is the dusted Saltines. We take regular Saltine crackers, quickly flash fry them, and then dust them generously with Old Bay. Something about frying the crackers brings out a beautifully buttery texture, and Old Bay provides the perfect amount of zip to complement a salty oyster or fresh poached shrimp. The underlying celery and mustard flavors provided by the Old Bay complements our raw and chilled seafood offerings perfectly.”

Baked Pimento Crab Dip with Lump Crab, Tillamook Cheddar, and Old Bay Crab Chips
Baked Pimento Crab Dip with Lump Crab, Tillamook Cheddar, and Old Bay Crab Chips
Vinh Le | Haeun Ro

Baked Pimento Crab Dip with Lump Crab, Tillamook Cheddar and Old Bay Crab Chips

Executive Chef Kyle Bailey, The Salt Line

New England-inspired The Salt Line is known for celebrating the bounty of the Chesapeake and advocating for sustainable, local fishing. “The most crab-friendly seasoning for our Baked Pimento Crab Dip was an easy choice for us,” says Bailey. “We sprinkle it on the crab chips to be served with the pimento crab dip at The Salt Line.”


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