Tabard Inn’s Pelt, 52, didn’t grow up eating hoppin’ John. He’s a Chicago native whose parents were born in the Second City. Southern cooking was not a regular part of his diet, even though Pelt’s grandparents, on both sides of the family, were from the South. Pelt moved to the District in 1973 to live with his father, who had a healthy appreciation for food and was known to prepare a plate of collard greens from time to time. Pelt fell into the restaurant business along Pennsylvania Avenue SE, busing tables, washing dishes and doing prep. Like so many in the industry back then, he worked his way onto the kitchen line.
Pelt eventually landed a cooking job in the 1990s at the Tabard Inn (the first of two runs for him there), where chefs Stacy Cosor and David Craig took the untrained cook under their wing. They encouraged him to read as many cookbooks as he could get his hands on. “I always liked cooking, but reading made me start thinking how American food got to be what it is — all the different influences on what we cook.”
The book that really deepened Pelt’s appreciation for Southern food was Heidi Haughy Cusick’s “Soul and Spice” (Chronicle Books, 1995). “It’s about the cooking of Africans in the Americas,” he says. “Around the same time I got that book, I went to Nigeria for the first time, for like three weeks. . . . That was really an eye-opener for me: just the history of how the slave trade affected what we eat and what people eat in the Caribbean, what people eat in Brazil and the American South.”
Many years later, Pelt is creating his own fusion of cultures with his hoppin’ John cassoulet, which combines African and American traditions with the classic French stew. Aside from substituting black-eyed peas for the more traditional cannelloni or flageolet beans in cassoulet, Pelt also puts a Southern twist on the proteins in the dish. He retains the Toulouse sausage and duck confit but replaces the lamb and roast pork with ham hocks and pork shanks. The result is a deep, smoky, satisfying winter dish: perfect, I’d say, for many other occasions besides New Year’s.
There’s just one ingredient missing from Pelt’s chef-driven hoppin’ John: the rice. He says the grains are a casualty of his multi-course New Year’s Eve meal. “Because it’s an appetizer,” he says about his cassoulet, “I don’t want to make it too filling.”