A Language Most Elegant: One Couple Nerds Out Over Food
May 28, 2020 03:58PM
By Lisa Lukecart
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Chris Larkin bit into the crunchy shell of a grilled scorpion. The slightly salty, nutty flavor reminded him of a large shelled sunflower seed. Eating the arachnid whole supposedly makes men virile and strong. Malin Plaza bustled with energy as he chewed the protein. Vendors sold souvenirs, clothing, and accessories. The aromatic air promised the exotic spices of Thailand. So Larkin, along with fiancée Linda Sue Lichtenwalter, had eyes only for the rich spread of street food, succulent duck, and rolled ice cream. Lichtenwalter, a vegetarian, couldn’t get enough of the fresh fruit. After peeling the tough purple skin, she sank her teeth into the white sugary flesh of mangosteen. Her fiancée opted for the thorn-covered durian, quite possibly the most foul-smelling fruit around. Larkin pulled out a segment of the pale-yellow flesh and tasted something similar to a creamy brie cheese. He just couldn’t get over that smell.
“Feet and death,” Larkin recalled.
Larkin, 39, plans on waiting another 10 years before touching durian again, but the memories he has made with his future wife make it all worth it.
The couple bonded on their first date over their mutual love of food. That connection has grown stronger after traveling together around the globe these past four and a half years.
“If you travel together and don’t want to hurt each other by the end of it, she’s probably the one,” he said, laughing.
On their trips, each dive into dishes based on their respective businesses. Lichtenwalter, 36, opened a private baking business aptly named The Pie Fairy. During her years working as a pastry chef at Modern Love, a “mythical fairy” made pies before any of the staff arrived. She adopted the nickname, creating classic comfort desserts. Her signature item, Fat Elvis, became a delight for vegan lovers. The Fat Elvis is a peanut butter custard nestled in a graham cracker crust with a chocolate ganache top. The surprise twist is the coconut “bacon.” Lichtenwalter keeps this part of her recipe a secret, but it mimics the flavor of bacon, adding a smoky flavor to the pie.
Larkin, meanwhile, opened a mobile pop-up, The Crepe Beyond. He graduated from The Texas Culinary Academy where he developed an interest in expanding his palate. He has worked in the food industry for 15 years, opening as a chef and sous-chef for Nite Owl and Mula. But Larkin saw a lack of pop-up businesses in Omaha. The crepe offered him a blank canvas, a way to push the boundaries of food. Larkin believes a dish should be 70% familiar, 20% surprising, and 10% scary. Inspired by the documentary, McQueen [based on the life of designer Alexander McQueen], he once created a chocolate-covered cone-shaped crepe, filling it with Nutella, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and a tobacco flavored crème which was then bruleed and topped with a candy cigarette. The entire crepe tasted, you guessed it, like coffee and cigarettes. His motto is food should be delicious, sustainable, fun, and help others. One dollar from each crepe sold is donated to a local nonprofit. In 2019, the couple did a pop-up tour together that ran from April to October. Over $2,000 aided Benson First Friday, Youth Emergency Services, Great Plains Black History Museum, and Omaha Girls Rock.
“It’s great they try new flavors and adapt that to what their audience and fans want. It makes them stand out,” explained Melissa Wurth, the executive director of Omaha Girls Rock.
Some of these ideas spring from food travel adventures…or misadventures. For example, the duo became lost for hours in Central Park on their first trip together to New York City in 2016. Luckily, the exhausted tourists found a cute little spot, Park West Café and Deli, that served some of the best Turkish coffee.
“Now that I have a good travel partner, I do my research in advance and have certain tools for tracking down good food in any neighborhood,” Lichtenwalter said.
Whether sipping straight from a coconut in Phuket, Thailand, or eating Peruvian food at Andina Shoreditch in London, these “food nerds” consume the scrumptious journey.
Paris, though, stood out as an educational and eye-opening experience. Lichtenwalter spent over a hundred dollars in Le Patisserie du Meurice, the establishment of celebrated pastry chef Cedric Grolet. She brought back chocolate from Paris to re-create a pain au, or chocolate bread. The baker honed her skills on croissants, ensuring the airy and flakey style mirrored her experience in France.
Larkin shows his excitement in a photo, light blue eyes wide, as he stares at an enormous crepe from Elo Jazz stuffed with ham, Emmental cheese, and a fried egg. Larkin “steals with his eyes” by watching street vendors to learn about their use of ingredients, timing, and techniques.
“You read about specific chefs going after a signature dish. I want to see the trick,” Larkin explained. “That’s how I make my decision, show me your thing, and the weirdest thing you got.”
Larkin had another secret up his sleeve during that trip to the city of love. After asking for her mother’s permission, he sneaked Lichtenwalter’s great-grandmother’s ring into his bags. He proposed to her at the top of the Eiffel Tower at the end of March 2019.
“A pie fairy needed a fairy tale engagement,” he added. “I’m fortunate to live with the only person that I would want to travel the world with.”
This past year, the now-engaged couple traveled to Vietnam. Farmer’s markets became a popular destination. On the street, vendors laid out baskets of bananas, cabbage, and tomatoes. And when dining in casual settings, it is traditional to consume a meal family-style. They wolfed down morning glory (greens usually stir-fried with fish, soy, or oyster sauce), egg soup, and Vietnamese omelets. Or lunch might mean a classic bánh mì sandwich chock-full of pork pate, citrusy cilantro, pickled carrots, and spicy mayo. The sandwich, made with an airy baguette, was born out of war and famine.
“Food tells a story,” Larkin said.
“Traveling is important to understand other areas of the world and cultures. We can learn so many beautiful things we can experience only by exploring, understanding the local produce, or a new type of cuisine,” Lichtenwalter said, later adding that while she still abstains from eating meat while abroad, she does make some concessions. "I know several dishes likely had fish sauce or might have used fish stock, as that is a staple in Asian cuisines. But I wasn't going to be a finicky ass---- tourist."
The opportunity to stay with a family and have a home-cooked meal meant immersing themselves further into someone else’s world. The two feasted on fresh chicken, raised by the family, with rice noodles and a flavorful broth. The thin hot sauce contained chilis, rice vinegar, and oil.
“You could smell just how much time, effort, and love got put into it,” Larkin said. “Food is a language, a more eloquent language than the spoken word.”
Larkin lamented the fact people will miss out on experiences like these due to COVID-19. The illness caused restaurants to shut down.
It caused them to be unable to continue with their small businesses, and they cannot work their jobs at Jake’s Cigars and Spirits.
“My first thought, in addition to the bottom dropping out, is we took for granted the time where we could sit together across the table and be united with food,” Larkin said.
It hasn’t stopped the two from dreaming of destinations to explore later. They still hope to marry under the Northern Lights in Iceland sometime next year with immediate family and friends. Lichtenwalter isn’t sure yet if she will make her own wedding cake for a possible reception in town for industry friends.
“Just a warning to the city of Omaha. We will have a lot of staff members get that day off,” Larkin joked.