lamb illustration on transparent background

Bring Modern Lamb Into Your Kitchen: Q and A with Local-Food Chef Ted Habiger of Room 39

In this Q&A, we spoke with Chef Ted Habiger of Room 39 about the value of supporting local farmers and sustainable agriculture, cooking seasonally, and how he prepares amazing lamb dishes — and his recommendations on the best wines to pair with different lamb recipes.
sheep grazing at the central grazing company farm

Lamb is one of the most commonly eaten meats in the world. Lamb is getting a fresh take in the U.S., and restaurants across the country are using simple, fresh ingredients to create mouthwatering dishes with lamb. When lamb is paired with fresh and seasonal ingredients, you might be surprised by the rich flavors you can create. 

That is why we’ve loved working with Ted Habiger, chef and owner at Room 39 in Kansas City. By combining seasonal ingredients with friendly service and welcoming atmosphere, Room 39 has become a must-visit in Kansas City. Nominated three times by the James Beard Foundation for the Outstanding Chef award, Ted Habiger is committed to prioritizing seasonal fresh produce from local farmers who use sustainable harvesting and growing practices to deliver bold flavors and unique dishes.

“The biggest thing that holds people back from cooking seasonally with local produce is that they think it's more work,” Ted says in a conversation with us. “Cooking and eating food should be fun, and preparing meals seasonally with local produce and meat reminds us to appreciate our relationship with food.”

In this Q&A, we spoke with Ted about the value of supporting local farmers and sustainable agriculture, cooking seasonally, and how he prepares amazing lamb dishes (and the best wines to pair with different lamb recipes).

What drives your passion for farm-to-table dining?

My father grew up on a farm in southeast Kansas that I would visit when I was young. Although leaving for the farm for college, my dad would always grow fresh vegetables at home. Although I didn't like everything, it exposed me to many different flavors, and it instilled in me a sense of where my food came from.

Ingredients are an essential part of my work as a chef at Room 39. Finding the best ingredients means buying fresh local produce most of the time. For example, carrots are truly amazing when you get them the day of or the day after they're harvested. I prize carrots for their flavor, not their color or ability to withstand shipping like store-bought carrots are bred to. 

I worked for a chef at a restaurant that cooked seasonally. It was exciting not to cook the same thing every month and every day – and I brought that to Room 39, where our menu changes throughout the year. Take asparagus for example: Although we didn't have it on our menu in February or November, we were excited when we saw asparagus at the farmers' market. 

How can people change their shopping and cooking styles to eat and cook local and seasonal foods?

The biggest thing that holds people back from cooking seasonally with local produce is that they think it's more work. Cooking and eating food should be fun, and preparing meals seasonally with local produce and meat reminds us to appreciate our relationship with food. People foster the habit of creating huge lists, buying a lot of groceries, throwing away the food that spoils, and preparing meals with ingredients shipped from across the country; it doesn't seem fun. And as our lives get busier, people allow recipes to determine what they buy rather than enable ingredients to guide their cooking plans. 

But going to the local market, holding hands with loved ones and talking with local farmers as you pick out what to cook — that can reconnect people with the joy of food. I want people to share in that joy.

What methods do you often use when preparing pastured lamb, like that from Central Grazing Company?

Every animal has different parts that need to be cooked in different ways. With pastured lamb, the loins and the chops are the kind of things you can cook to medium, medium-rare, and still have very tender without long cooking times. I often simply use salt and pepper for chops and loins before grilling or sautéeing them – they rarely go in the oven.

You can think about what parts of an animal are used. For example, because legs are an active part of four-legged animals like lamb during their lifetimes, they will likely be cuts that are a bit tougher and take longer to cook. If you want to cook them rare, you need to cut them into smaller portions first. Braising (cooking with liquid covered in a pan) or roasting (uncovered in a pan, basting along the way most likely) is better for the whole cuts, like an entire leg. One of my favorite preparations with the leg is to de-bone it and make a purée with garlic, fresh herbs, anchovies, and capers to spread on the inside of the lamb before roasting. The wonderful drippings that collect in the pan while roasting can be turned into a delicious sauce!

When cooking nose-to-tail, the neck meat is one of the most delicious meats of an animal. You can expect any meat close to a bone to be delicious, from halibut to steaks to lamb. With the lamb neck, I braise the meat with white wine, carrots, and celery before covering and cooking it in an oven at 350 degrees. The goal is to steam the meat with the wine and vegetable essence. After 3 hours, you can serve the meat in a soup or use it in a pasta sauce with tomato, onion, and fresh herbs. 

What flavors and wine pairings do you lean toward when preparing lamb? And what about dessert? 

If I prepare an appetizer such as lamb tartare or a lamb loin carpaccio, I'll pair the dish with Muscadet––a white wine from the Loire Valley of France. The wine is crisp, minerally, and light-bodied, making it an excellent pairing. You want to avoid grapefruity-style wines in favor of the more grassy-style white wines from California or Central France, such as a Sauvignon or Chenin Blanc.

When it comes to red wine, one of my favorite pairings is Dolcetto, a grape from the Piedmont region in Italy. The tannins in the wine give it a bright and slightly chewy mouthfeel. With lamb, the Dolcetto can cut through the flavors of the fat marbling and get you ready for the next bite! 

There aren't many red wines to avoid with lamb, but I advise people to branch beyond Cabernet. It's better with steak, and a Northern Italian red or a Pinot Noir can be great choices instead.

For dessert — something fudgy, like chocolate truffles or flourless chocolate torte sprinkled with cocoa powder or powdered sugar is an excellent pairing. 

For folks who consider lamb an old-fashioned meal: What are a few simple ways home chefs can modernize how they cook with lamb?

My father had terrible experiences with lamb growing up in the '50s. He was eating mutton, which is an older, larger animal. We had to get past that with him to try lamb dishes I loved, so we went back to basics with dishes like lamb chops. Together, we tried lamb from different places; imported from Australia, grain-fed lamb from Colorado. He liked the local, Central Grazing pasture-raised lamb the best.  

At Room 39, I like to play with the traditional lamb and mint pairing, because the flavors truly go so well together. Dishes that involve a mint aioli or a mint marinade braised with white wine can complement the meat in a modernized way.

We have come so far as a food culture in the U.S. in the last 50 years, and we're catching up with the rest of the world. We still have a long way to go, but when I was growing up, the thought of having lamb was awful. Spring lamb with peas and prosciutto is not what you might think of as mutton stew. It’s an incredible meal.

Cook with us: Find an excellent Yucatan Lamb Chops recipe created by Chef Ted for Central Grazing Company

sheep grazing on midwestern grass under a blue sky, on a farm that practices ethical animal farming in lawrence, kansas