Critic’s Notebook

Kennebec, the New “It” Potato

Kennebecs are showing up by name on menus all over town. Taste one and you’ll know why.

By Kathryn Robinson June 18, 2012

8 oz. Burger Bar’s famed Kennebec fries. Photo courtesy of their website.

We asked our waiter at 8 oz. Burger Bar what “Kennebec Fries” were, and she lowered her voice to a reverential hush. “A Kennebec is a very rare kind of potato,” she explained. “It makes the best fries.”

Well, she was right about the fries anyway.

Rare, not so much. Though rarely seen in grocery stores the light tan, thin-skinned potato is widely grown, having been introduced in the ‘40s by a USDA in search of a good frying spud. Its minimal water quantity makes for a particularly firm fried product that browns beautifully. Flavorwise the Kennebec’s vivid, almost nutty essence makes it taste more like a potato than most potatoes do.

Making the Kennebec the Platonic ideal of fried potato-ness. Seriously. Try one.

In the past year I’ve seen Kennebecs called out by name on menus at Sand Point Grill, Bastille, Copperleaf, and Safeco Field (for poutine!) Most recently I spied them on the menu at Restaurant Marché, Greg Atkinson’s new farm-to-table bistro on Bainbridge Island.

“I wanted to make the perfect French fry and that’s why I decided on the Kennebec,” Atkinson told me last week. First he steams them in his combi (combination steamer/convection) oven, cools them, sprinkles them with potato starch, then fries them in rice-bran oil. After frying, Atkinson sprinkles the fries with a dried blend of French sea salt, chives, chervil, tarragon, and parsley. The result is firm, crispy fries with peerless flavor—thanks as much to the Kennebecs as to the fragrant fines herbes.

If they’ve been around for so long, why are they only recently getting the star treatment? I called Wayne Ludvigsen (yes, that Wayne Ludvigsen, former seafood maestro from Ray’s Boathouse who’s now at Charlie’s Produce) to find out.

“For the longest time, Kennebecs were pretty much chipper potatoes, bought by processors like Lay’s,” Ludvigsen told me. They are more perishable than other potatoes, making them less attractive to restaurants. Gradually, the flavor overcame the objections. In-n-Out Burger, the California-based chain, committed exclusively to Kennebecs for its fries. Claim Jumper began to use them in its cheddar cheese soup. Ludvigsen says that five or six years ago, he started seeing occasional menu references to Kennebecs. Now Charlie’s Produce supplies some 30 restaurants with the special spuds.

“We really experienced no demand until recently,” Ludvigsen affirmed. “Now we’re bringing in pallets of ‘em.”

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