Every chef has a secret ingredient—it might be a well-rounded herb or something more unusual, like annatto, that most of us have never tasted. These go-to items inspire both chefs and the dishes they prepare, and they’re worth seeking out on a menu. We asked around to see who’s cooking with what.

  • Freeze-dried Shallots
    “I just received a sample of freeze-dried shallots…. I know it sounds strange that I would use a freeze-dried product when I go through the effort to grow my own vegetables. [But] the freeze-drying process removes the water content so you end up with a more intense, sweet shallot flavor. —Olav Peterson, chef, Bistro One
  • Smoked Paprika
    “I dust a little smoked paprika from Spain on the plate (with scallops) to give it that extra level of flavor. There’s nothing like that smoke flavor from the oak they use.” —Jeff Osaka, chef-owner, Twelve Restaurant
  • Thyme
    “Thyme is more than just a base ingredient for us; its flavor profile and affinities are perfect for our style and protein selections. Among other preparations, we fry it and put a twig on our Scotch Egg (we encourage our guests to put it between their hands and smash the fried twig all over their egg).” —Robert Thompson, owner, Argyll Pub
  • Myoga
    “We use myoga in our signature dish with the hiramasa and Pop Rocks. It’s a very floral piece of flower bud that’s slightly sweet with a hint of ginger. We also toss it in salads and… stay tuned for the myoga cocktail.” —Troy Guard, chef-owner, TAG Restaurant
  • Jasmine Rice
    “I’ve been mildly obsessed with jasmine rice lately—it has such an intoxicating aroma. We’ve made blinis out of it for gravlax…and we used it during Restaurant Week in our scallops entrée, and I’ve decided to use it on our spring menu in fried rice paired with a roasted pork shoulder.” —Paul Reilly, chef, Encore Restaurant
  • Primo Preserves and Chutneys
    “We use the pineapple-lemongrass chutney on our new menu—on the Hawaiian pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, provolone, pineapple chutney, baked cotto ham). —Patrick Mangold-White, co-owner Kaos Pizzeria
  • Lemon Verbena
    “Lemon verbena is my favorite spring ingredient. I will be using it in an angel-food cake with a lemon verbena-white chocolate ice milk, and infused into baked strawberries, and as a flavored agave nectar marshmallow.” —Keegan Gerhard, chef-co-owner, D Bar
  • Himalayan Red Salt Crystals
    “I’ve been shaving [these] for dishes like carpaccio and to finish entrées. The salt is mined from deep underground, the taste is truly unique, and the color is beautiful. It really is red when left whole, and it has the benefits of the mineral contents of the Himalayan mountains.” —Mary Nguyen, chef-owner, Parallel Seventeen
  • Dehydrated Worcestershire Sauce
    “I can do a Bloody Mary scallop dish by dusting the scallop in the Worcestershire and searing it, then serving it with a black-pepper Pomodoro sauce and mixed-olives brunoise, horseradish-whipped potatoes, and celery leaves for garnish.” —Elise Wiggins, chef, Panzano

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2010.
Amanda M. Faison
Amanda M. Faison
Freelance writer Amanda M. Faison spent 20 years at 5280 Magazine, 12 of those as Food Editor.