Sunday, November 4, 2012


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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Day Of The Locusts

Are you a fan of the zombie cult movies?  Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead?  What about the spoofs?  Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland?  I love those movies.  There's some show on television about zombies that I've never seen because I reject cable TV.  I can't take the commercials.

For every seven minutes of programming there are three minutes of commercials; so a 30 minute show actually lasts 21 minutes and I have to endure 9 minutes of monotonous and repetitive advertising.  I can't do it!

Every time I walk into a Sam's or a Wal-Mart I am accosted by someone selling Direct TV, or a similar service.  I tell them "No thanks, I can't take the commercials".  Their well-prepared defense is that their product comes with a DVR with which I can fast forward through the commercials thereby avoiding them.  Then I point out that even so I'm still watching commercials, just faster.  No good!

Generally speaking I also don't care for horror movies.  When you think about it in a classical sense there are two major categories of horror movies--the first being that where the antagonist is a deranged or otherwise darkly represented human (or non-human) that kills for fun or sport.  With the exception of the occasional cannibal, these figures either eat normal food, or don't eat at all in the course of the storyline.

The second category is comprised of stories in which the "bad guy" is a human or perhaps an animal of sorts that kills or maims for food.  This type of story pertains most recognizably to vampires, werewolves, and zombies--all of which have the gift (or curse as it were) of eternal life.

In any horror movie there is almost always blood.  Blood is food to vampires, but vampire stories aren't about food.  They are about romance and eternal life.  I don't want to live forever.

Werewolves occasionally consume the flesh of their prey, but the main purpose of the attack is to produce terror in the community and also to extend the werewolf legacy, thereby perpetuating the species for unknown reasons.

Zombie movies however aren't about romance, they aren't about self-perpetuation, and they really aren't about horror.  No, zombie movies are about food!

Zombies eat flesh and brains, and their various anecdotes and adventures are about acquiring the aforementioned treats!  What is the purpose?  Well, they seem to already have everlasting life, and they don't seem to want it anymore than I do.  They aren't romantic.  In fact love and sex seem nonexistent in the zombie realm.  But zombies do appear to get hungry, and living human flesh apparently eases the pain of their miserable and unsolicited immortality.

In 1986 a movie was made in my own hometown of Charlotte, NC called "Goremet Zombie Chef From Hell".  The IMDB synopsis explains the plot in which, "A cannibal opens up a seafood restaurant, and kills and cooks people to serve to his customers."  Now that's a story I can sink my teeth into!  It's a terrible movie by the way, but it was made in the make-shift kitchen of my favorite bar at the time, Smokey Joe's.  I don't remember a zombie flick ever being nominated for anything!

So I was thinking that if I were to make a horror movie that centered around food I would call it Day Of The Locusts*, and it would be inspired by 72 hours of my life as the Executive Chef of a university dining facility during the first week of the fall semester.

We buy marinara sauce in #10 cans (about three quarts each, six to a case), and we normally go through 3-4 cases per day.  On the Monday of the first week of class we went through nine!  Tuesday morning we made about 15 gallons, and it was gone by the end of lunch--and that was just marinara sauce.

The blinding speed and precision with which we diminished our stock, and the stress and chaos that ensued as the result is enough to make a woman cry and a grown man set down his tongs and head for the door.

One dishwasher was in tears most of the morning.  The rest were speechless.

My sous chef walked out, never to return until a few days later to collect a pay check.  Would've been a nice time to have had direct deposit!

There were plates from one end of the dish room to the other--more plates than we actually have I believe.  Used food, straws, and fruit punch soaked napkins were strewn to and fro and piled ankle-deep on floors and counters.  Blood and sweat and soap adorned the walls and doorways.

The exhibition station cooks begged for mercy while grinding out enough General Tso's Chicken to feed the Chinese army!  Pizza cooks made enough pizzas to make the happy California cows fricking miserable.  College kids who have never even seen soy milk slurped their way through over 15 gallons, and I can't get more for another week.  We doubled our selection of delicious cereals this year, and record amounts of it was depleted (probably with soy milk).

Deli workers sliced and stacked nearly 350 pounds of ham and turkey, and most of it was gone when the smoke cleared.  I don't remember ever seeing the salad bar completely filled up all day...but then again I also don't remember seeing the salad bar.  There's no telling how many gallons of soup we went through, or did we even get around to making soup?

I think that by the latter portion of Tuesday's dinner the grill was serving anything they could find and calling it a hamburger.  Locusts don't care, they just keep their heads down and eat--much like zombies.

The morning of Day Three found me at Sam's Club picking up eggs to get through breakfast until our delivery truck could make it there 2 hours late.  And I honestly don't see what anyone, especially teenagers, sees in boiled eggs, but we served nearly 45 dozen in two days (plus another 36 dozen on the salad bar)!

The same day our bakers produced 28 key lime pies, a dozen or more chocolate Bavarian cakes, at least another dozen strawberry cakes, and 8 cases of cookies where we usually use 3.  An hour after they left I put out four pies and four cakes that we had frozen for emergencies (this was one).  The following morning there wasn't so much as a crumb or a smudge of icing left.

In the first three days of the week we served 15,221 meals!

Oddly enough we had hardly any catering for the week, though we had over 70 events during the previous week as various departments prepared for the new school year and broke in their new budgets.

I'm out of uniforms, shoes, aprons, and cut-gloves.  I've had three different special deliveries this week, and my body hurts.  I feel like a zombie, and I've subsisted for three days on ice cream, pie, cookies, and creme brulee.

I take that back, I did hide in our retail manager's office on Wednesday to try the newly added Spicy Chicken Sandwich from Chick Fil A.  While I was trying my best to enjoy it despite the repugnant odor of a "Plug-In" air freshener that I have rebuked repeatedly, I was told that our extremely pregnant administrative assistant (for whom I have the highest regard) had lost her "mucus plug" that morning.  Great!  So now I have my belly in knots, my nerves on edge, my mouth full of spicy chicken and pepper jack cheese, my nose filled with the obnoxious scent of a sickeningly sweet synthetic flower of some sort, and then fate comes along and fills my mind's eye with the image of a ball of bloody snot falling out of the poor girl's vagina.  Thanks!

The food business isn't always pretty folks!

All in all however I have to say (and have said quite emphatically) that it was a wildly successful opening.  I have the best staff that I've had yet in four school years, and I'm looking forward to growing into the rest of the season.

In 1915 a plague of locusts decimated Palestine and Jerusalem.  For eight months millions, perhaps billions of locusts fed on everything in sight until there was nothing left.  The aftermath was social and economic ruin for quite some time afterwards.  It was a world event.

Quatrain #85 from the 5th Century of Nostradamus' writings mentions locusts, gnats, and Geneva.  I'm not entirely sure what it all means, but we probably had 85 different employees that worked during the first three days of this week, and we do have a bit of a gnat problem in areas.  All I know of Geneva is coffee, banks, watches, and chocolate.  We have two of the four readily available in our facility at all times, and I do own a Swiss watch.  Could this really be the End of Days?

Tuesday I ordered 18 cases of marinara sauce, and Thursday I interviewed a potential new sous chef.  

It's gonna be a good year!

* Unrelated to the Depression Era novel, or the 1975 movie based upon the same.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Thousand Words Paint A Picture

Or "A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse"

This may be my last blog entry.

I like writing, but let's face it--I don't write that often, and I don't really say much.  About six people read this stuff, and frankly there are a lot of better food blogs out there.  I don't blame them.

There are blogs with lessons, and videos, and lots of pretty pictures.  The ones that get read are typically written by people who write daily.  They are more inspired on a regular basis than I am.  They cook at home every day, and they document their experiments and explorations.

There are blogs that are maintained as a revenue stream for people selling food products, books, lessons, and equipment.  And some that are just cashing in on the "clicks" from the ads they allow to post on their blogs.  I have ads on mine and since July 2008 I have proudly netted exactly $2.63!  Thanks guys!

Then there are the cookbook blogs.  Ever since that Julie and Julia movie came out there are people all over the globe cooking their way through one book or another and documenting every ingredient, every failure, every shopping trip, every dollar spent, and every cute little expression that the dog has on it's face while they are beginning their third attempt at the dish at 3 infinitum.  Seldom if ever are these literary giants actually culinary professionals, but some of them should be!

The most popular one out there to date has got to be the Alinea cookbook.  A Google search for "Alinea cookbook blog" netted 214,000 results.  Now not all of those are blogs about the book, but a bunch of them are.  I've browsed quite a few of them and I've been surprised by three things.  First, many of the authors have never been to the restaurant.  Second, most of the authors are not chefs but mere hobbyists and foodies.  And lastly, most of them have been able to reproduce the recipes in the book fairly accurately.

I don't make these comments as criticisms!  Far from it.  What I find amazing is how one chef and one restaurant has had such a magnificent impact on food in America!  Such an inspiration to foodies the world over.  I perused the book on a friend's coffee table some 5 years ago and thought that this was not food as I then knew it.  This was something much, much different.

Just a few days before seeing the book I was told that a mutual friend of ours had done a stage at Alinea, and I had ask, "what's an Alinea?"  After having the Chicago eatery introduced and explained to me I wanted to go shake our friend and reprimand him harshly for turning down an opportunity to stay on full-time.

Still it wasn't until 3 years later that I bought the book myself, another year before I opened it, and only a couple months ago I tried my first recipe from its pages.  That one failed, the next one failed, the next one wasn't quite what I expected, the forth was just awful, and the next couple...failed.

So I began to doubt my own understanding of cooking principles after all these years of having achieved what I consider to be a mastery of culinary fundamentals.  Well I didn't go straight to that.  First I wrote it all off as yet another beautiful book composed by people who might be great chefs but lousy authors.  Then after looking at blogs like Alineaphile and Alinea At Home I thought wow, maybe it's me!

I wrote in my last blog that I've just about lost faith in "modern cuisine", and that I have planned a trip to Chicago to give it one last look at the "laboratory" of the newly appointed Godfather of it all, Grant Achatz himself.  Well that trip has come and gone and I will waste no more words before saying that I have become a believer!

Our four day dining excursion to the Windy City began at Lou Malnati's, the heart of Chicago style pizza.  If you're unfamiliar, Chicago pizza is made "deep dish" in essentially a cake pan out of a more crispy than chewy, buttery crust.  Mounds of cheese go down first, then copious amounts of choice toppings (homemade sausage is the quintessential Chicago experience), and then zesty tomato sauce tops it all off.  There's no need to go into a great deal of detail here, just go to Malnati's next time you're in town.  You'll wait an hour for a table, and you won't be sorry you did!

Friday night we suited up and headed over to Charlie Trotter's.  I was there in 1997, and there were 2 menus offered, a Grand Tasting menu and a Vegetable menu.  My memories from that meal were that there were 9 courses on the menu, we were served 13, and we left hungry.  But I also remember that something like half of those courses were fish (I don't eat fish), and though they were small and not what I would have ordered had I had a choice in the matter, they were pristine, simple, and perfect.  

The presentations looked like the ones in Chef Trotter's books that had so inspired me for years previously, and each dish was a perfect representative of just plain well-made and identifiable cuisine.  A pinnacle of American dining, and great food at it's absolute peak of purity!

My companion at the time leaned more towards a vegetarian lifestyle, and therefore ordered the Vegetable menu.  Probably helped by the fact that I find fish generally repulsive, I surprisingly favored the dishes on the veggie menu, and was frankly dazzled by the creativity and expertise that composed them.

Now fast forward to 2012, only a month before Trotter closes his doors for good to pursue other avenues and passions in life...

Good idea for Charlie!  He has passed his prime.

It's not his fault.  A lot has happened in American food in the last decade and a half, and Chicago has been right in the middle of it all.  One thing about this business is that it is a business.

I recently watched a documentary on NetFlix called "A Table In Heaven", about Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque and his family's struggles and successes in closing one of New York City's brightest culinary stars and reopening it twice.  When I was in school Le Cirque was the Alinea of the western hemisphere.  Daniel Boulud was the chef and Jacques Torres was the pastry chef.  Both made names for themselves that still rival the best of the best in Euro-American cuisine.

Yet for all Le Cirque was for so long things change and diners change with them.  New names come, old names get lost in the mix.  And throughout the documentary it is almost painful to watch the stubbornness of the old school mentality refusing to acquiesce to the new pulse of the food industry's bloodstream.

There are videos galore on YouTube about Alinea and Grant Achatz, one of which is a pretty cool recording of a planning session with Achatz and his chefs in which Achatz describes the visible evolution of styles that various big name chefs, including Trotter, have gone through during their careers.

In my opinion Charlie Trotter, in a effort to appease his own need for professional growth while keeping his restaurant on the forefront of a viciously competitive market, has gone over the edge and inevitably lost the war.

Based on past experience, and the desire to sample the entire gamut, we ordered a Grand Tasting and a Vegetable menu.  Since eating there nearly 15 years ago I have learned that it's okay to speak up and ask for less fish!  The current menu of eight courses derives three of them from the sea, and a forth is lamb (which I also find repulsive).  Our stately Spanish speaking captain was happy to arrange for me to have no fish and no lamb!  Muchas Gracias!

The first course was based around a marinated globe artichoke and was divine, despite the fact that the center-of-the-plate item was a chilled half of a baby artichoke somewhere between the size of a quarter and a half-dollar.  Subsequent courses came and went, but none particularly shined.

Grand Tasting Menu
 Again the Vegetable Menu was the big winner of the evening.  The best thing we had in my opinion was a One-Hour Poached Hen's Egg with Morel Mushrooms, Swiss Chard, and Licorice.  This dish was on the veggie menu, but they gave me the same course with a bit of squab added. 

Vegetable Menu

Throughout the meal the portions were tiny, and there were so many flavors on the plate that no one course had any true identity of its own.  This is in no way the Trotter cuisine of the late 90's.

When it was all over Joan asked me how they manage to make money with all of the people working there and all of the amenities.  "I'll tell you how", I responded.  "They take a twelve ounce New York Strip steak, divide it 14 ways, and charge $200 for it".  Oh, and it was a bit overcooked at that.

The menu listed eight courses and we got exactly eight courses.  There was no unlisted amuse course, and mediocre mignardises were served along with dessert and the check as if to say "time to go".  The bill was just under $500.

When I was there in '97 I remember being lavished with attention and never seeing the same server twice.  On our recent visit we had one captain, and we had to flag down support staff to ask for the coffee that we had ordered 15 minutes previously.  My guess is that some staff was lost when they were told that they would be out of a job at the end of August.

Countless online reviews proclaim identical scenarios and opinions.  Sorry Charlie!

To get us out of our seats we were offered a tour of the kitchen.  We didn't even have to ask, and were told that every guest gets this tour.  The Trotter kitchen is surprisingly small but immaculately outfitted.

I remember when renovations were done to the kitchen in the mid-90's.  The event was covered by several publications, and touted as a million dollar renovation that rivaled every kitchen of the day.  No freezers and minimal refrigeration meant that fresh products were brought in daily, and everyday started with a blank slate.  Very impressive and unheard of in that period.

The kitchen was still in amazing condition after 20 years of use, which is purely evidence of a true professional with incredible standards.  A true inspiration to those of us that struggle with keeping our kitchens clean and well-maintained!

When I say we got a tour of the kitchen I don't mean we stopped at the door and peeked in.  We were led by one of the restaurant's cooks through the entire maze of the kitchen, down each production line, behind the stoves, over to the tight little pastry corner in the back, and did a dance with each and every one of the dozen or 15 twenty-something year old culinarians who were hard at work grinding out picture-perfect plates for a dining room full of patrons.  Each one of those patrons will do that dance before the end of the night, and dealing with that must be the most challenging part of the job for Trotter's cooks and chefs.  God bless them each and every one.

Mr. Trotter was not in attendance.

Best wishes Charlie and staff.  Each of them will likely land in a prominent position most anywhere they want to go with Chef Trotter's name on their resumes.  Oh, to be so lucky!

 Saturday night took us to the prize--the mecca.  Alinea!

Alinea Entrance
Our cab almost missed the unassuming door which bears no signage whatsoever.  In fact the only thing that tipped us off was a sign on the sidewalk that advertised their valet service and has their logo on it.

A sharply dressed gentleman wielding an iPad stood in front of 8 foot high steel doors, and could easy have been mistaken for a member of the Secret Service.  He took our names, input them into his device, and explained that lemonade was waiting just inside the door.  He said that we should "enjoy the space", and that there was a basket at the end of the hall in which to deposit the glasses when we were ready to proceed.  Then he opened the door.

A long, narrow hallway was appointed on both sides with louvered walls of descending height so as to give the illusion of an Alice In Wonderland shrinking room.  The hall was barely lit with purple lights and the floor was made of grass.  Actual panels of sod were rolled out so the hallway felt and smelled like summer--a perfect complement to the little scoops of frozen lemonade that nestled in over-sized glass globes floating around a galvanized tub of ice water like little plastic ducks at a carnival arcade.

As we neared the end of the hall unsure of what to do next, and almost stunned by the surreality of our Wonderland surroundings, huge double doors abruptly and electronically whizzed open just like on Star Trek, and we stood in the doorway of the future of cuisine--about 25 years early.

Two or three attendants were standing in the hallway waiting expressly for us, and took us up two flights of stairs to our table.  Tabletops are made of black granite and are without tablecloths.  It seems like there was something on the table, but I can't recall what.  It all happened so fast.

Little pillows were issued to both of us upon which silverware was to be placed prior to each course.  We were asked not to place soiled silverware back on them, but to leave them on our plates.

We were offered a choice of mineral waters, and declining wine I accepted the offer of a house-crafted ginger soda which was served in a champagne flute and was divine.  I requested on Joan's behalf that she be brought a glass non-Chardonnay white wine of the captain's choosing at an appropriate time.

Several courses later our server decided that the appropriate time had come, and that it would also be a good time to switch me over to the house blueberry soda.  We agreed, and both of us were brought a most exquisite accompaniment to the next couple of courses.

I could go on for another 8 pages describing each course, but I won't.  I will say that of the 19 courses we had, seven of them were fish, and I loved each one!  Something like half of them were raw, and none of them tasted like fish.  In fact my favorite course was titled "Halibut Acting Like Agedashi Tofu".

A small block of what appeared to be tofu sat in the middle of a shallow bowl surrounded by 6 or 8 tiny, intricate garnishes, and our server brought what I later learned was a coffee siphon to the table and brewed a dashi infusion there before us, which was poured over the dish and also in a little Japanese cup for sipping throughout the course.  This was the coolest thing I've ever seen, and in fact I went back to the hotel and ordered this exact piece of equipment for myself.  It arrived two days after our return, and it produces the cleanest and most amazing cup of coffee I've ever had.  Here is a video, and here is where to get one.  Can't say enough about this thing, except that I dread the day that I break it, as one fears the inevitable first dent in a new car!

Through some type of culinary wizardry the halibut had the exact texture of well made firm tofu, and the crisp and clean flavor of something magical that still bewilders me as having been fish.  The dashi offered magnificent umami, the garnishes were every one integral to the plate, and I will remember this dish to my dying day.

By the way, of the four courses that Charlie Trotter's added to my menu instead of fish the previous evening, I can remember only three components of one of them.

There were fresh morels filled with a mousse of black trumpet mushrooms, foie gras custard, truffles, the cool little dishes and utensils that Alinea has become known for; smoke, smells, nitrogen, dry ice, glass, steel, straws, cracks, sizzles, lights, and magic.  There was amazement and laughter.  There were flavors that we couldn't get enough of, and some we will never forget!

There was one dish that was stupid...a dish of lamb cooked three sublime ways that was accompanied by a plate of glass adorned with 60 different garnishes.  Yes, sixty.  We have no idea what a third of them were, and all but three of them were entirely unnecessary, but I'm pretty sure no one else is doing such a thing, so what the hell!

To make up for the asinine lamb course we were brought the thing that apparently the whole of culinary America is a-buzz about--Apple Balloon.  Oh My God!

A helium-filled balloon made of sour apple flavored candy and tied with a string of apple leather is brought to the table with tweezers.  The loose end of the string is tied around a silver "pin" which weights it to the table and keeps it from floating away.  The diner either pops the balloon with the pin and eats it, or bites into it sucking out the helium, talking like one of the Chipmunks, giggling like school children, and then eating the amazingly delicious balloon.  We opted for the sucking and giggling!

Afterwards we were presented with warm, moist linen napkins to wipe any sticky remnants off of our faces.

Then for the grand finale our table was cleared, cleaned, and sanitized.  A silicon mat was rolled out, and a third dessert course was prepared and artistically displayed on the tabletop by one of the chefs.

Strawberry powder went down, then English pea powder.  Strawberry ice cream "dots" made by drizzling ice cream base into liquid nitrogen (like Dippin' Dots for those familiar), and then English pea dots.  Vanilla sauce, another sauce maybe...heck I lost track.

The center-of-the-plate item was a white chocolate globe about half the size of a bowling ball and open on top.  Liquid nitrogen was poured into it and we were momentarily engulfed by a cloud of chilled fog.  Once the table was covered with various and sundry garnishes the chef lifted the globe about a foot above the table and dropped it.  It cracked open and goodies spilled across the table like a pinata busting open.

Inside were bits of strawberry ice cream, cotton candy, maybe there were some bits of frozen strawberries, and little quarter-sized doughnut holes filled with olive oil jam.  Joan later said she wasn't totally blown away by the whole thing, but she ate just as much as I did, and I thought it was pretty frickin' delicious.  Different, but delicious.

Seriously, who else is doing this kind of stuff?

When it was all over we stopped and watched the chaos in the kitchen for a few moments.  I counted 18 young chefs asses-to-elbows in a space-age environment about 20' by 30'.  Chef Achatz was not one of them.  He apparently was at one of his other properties in the city.

As we left we were each presented with a copy of the menu in a black envelope.  Until that moment we had not seen a menu, and never questioned what was to come next.  We never saw a piece of bread, and we couldn't eat another bite.

Alinea Menu
Throughout the entire experience at least one of 4 or 5 of the most knowledgeable and professional service staff I've ever known stood by our table and provided our every need without being asked.  They explained each detail of each dish as if they had designed it themselves, and taught us without being annoying or intrusive how to enjoy it .

I'll be honest, I went into this experience with very low expectations, and anticipating a lot of over-marketed "Hollywood" fluff.  Au contraire!  Grant Achatz is probably the most brilliant and talented chef on the planet today.  In fact there is Grant Achatz, and then there is every other chef lucky enough to have a job today.

And I will concede that in the matter of the recipes in the book working, I know absolutely nothing about food.  I never did, and at this point in my life I never will.  I'm not worthy!

So why are there no pictures?  Why are there only YouTube videos?  Chef Achatz has this to say on his own blog...

"I appreciate that people are so into food, and excited about eating at Alinea, to the point where it drives them to record it. Obviously these “foodies” are a large segment of our cliental, and the very people that help propel the awareness of food and dining. I certainly admit that the popularity of web based reviews and information has helped Alinea achieve a certain level of popularity, and ultimately some level of success has to be attributed to this. In fact, since the beginning we have embraced the web, often contributing to food blogs with things like the egullet project before the restaurant was even open. With the proliferation of food blogs and the almost competitive nature of the posters to delve further into detail with their reporting, coupled with the ease of capturing images and video with our phones, we have seen a very high rise in photo and videography in the restaurant.

Documenting the food is one thing. I understand taking a photo in the kitchen with the chef after the meal to frame and hang in your office, perhaps of a particular course that you want to remember because it was so amazing, so you can remember the presentation, or even the manipulation of an ingredient in way you have never seen before. Taking it to the next level many people take pictures of every course and some even take photos of the wines as well. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritizing the documentation. Courses get cold, or melt while the images are taken, and in extreme cases the intended effect of the dish is completely lost. A month ago a front of the house team member served the Hot Potato –Cold Potato to a blogger that was taking photos with a camera resting on a tripod. The server did their normal spiel, telling the guest the dish was intended to be consumed right away so the sensation of temperature contrast could be experienced. Instead they took a few minutes to move the course around on the table to find the right light, snapped several images, and then undoubtedly enjoyed….Warm Potato –Warm Potato. Not to mention the time that is added to the experience. Three extra minutes to take a photo is not much, but if you are eating 30 courses, you just added an hour and a half to your dinner.

And what about the people in the restaurant that are there to –- eat? Or enjoy an evening out with a significant other, or even having a business dinner? Often we have guest request to move tables in the restaurant because they feel the sound of the shutter, the light produced by the auto focus assist, or the person’s actions are ruining their own experience.

But recently the trend has been to video myself or the front of the house team. This is where I feel the documentation crosses the line. Now that I spend a good amount of time in the dining room with the table-plating concept we are doing guests will often stick the camera in my face as I walk up to the table. I never say no to guests when they ask to take a photo with me, but I always suggest we do it in the kitchen after their meal is finished. This is happening with the servers as well. Voice recorders are being held in front of them while they describe a course or a wine, or video is shot. It is uncomfortable… and frankly rude to do so without asking. This activity seems strange to me, I can’t imagine how celebrities feel. No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance."

Overall, when asked about the best meal of our lives Joan and I will without hesitation respond "Joel Robuchon", but when asked about the most amazing, fantastical, whimsical, fun, stimulating experience of our lives I think that Alinea will hold that place in our hearts for many years to come.

The bill including tip was just under $600. And we don't regret one penny of it.  I will remember every moment and every bite as vividly as I remember seeing The Who at the Meadowlands in 1989. 

Who needs pictures?

* We respectfully didn't take any pictures or video, but others have.  All pictures and videos on this blog, with the exception of the scanned menus, are the work of others and can be found in various places on the internet.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

For the last year I have really been trying to embrace this "molecular gastronomy". It's not taking.

Its greatest contributor Ferran Adria prefers the moniker "modern cuisine", and I concur. I was taken aback last spring at the Catersouce Convention in Las Vegas by young European chefs demonstrating a nitrogen-frozen mojito and quick frozen yogurt lollipops. Cool space-aged equipment and a whole array of products that I can buy online rather cheaply...and I have!

I have been seduced by pictures of beautiful food from another planet called "Alinea", and another called "NOMA". I've studied some of the works of Adria and Andres, and I'm currently making my way through a series of Harvard lectures by a number of today's cutting edge culinarians. I even did a little demo of this stuff just a couple days ago in Maryland.

Milk skin, spheres, powdered anything--dehydrated, aerated, gelled, noodled, filmed, parceled, and yes...foamed gastronomic delights! And I must tell you that after working with some of this stuff and paying huge amounts of money to try it in restaurants I really don't get it. It's just not fucking food!

I'll tell you how weird it got for me. In designing a menu for a recent benefit dinner I actually almost menued Thai Curry Marshmallows with Chili, Lime, and Crispy Chicken Skin. That's when I woke up in a sweat, screaming, and said "this must stop".

I must say that I finally got the blackberry sphere right, and it was pretty frickin' cool, but I couldn't help but notice the harsh aftertaste from the calcium chloride. You've seen this stuff, it's the little white balls that you spread on your sidewalk when it snows. I think they're used in pickling as well.

A couple days ago I put a teaspoon of them in a little plastic cup and added some water to dissolve them. Within moments the plastic cup became too hot for me to hold. And you want me to eat this? Even worse, serve it to others? And this is something that naturally occurs and is not a dangerous "chemical". I dunno pal!

When the long-distance love of my life and I are able to get together for a quarterly visit we always have at least one extravagant meal together. Last November it was at The Inn at Dos Brisas in The Middle of Nowhere, Texas. They are one of 20 U.S. restaurants that are fortunate to have a Five-Star rating from Forbes (formally Mobil Travel Guide).

Dos Brisas is about 2 hours from Houston on a road that Tom Tom is very confused about. Once through the stately front gate and on the property one winds over hill and dale through several Certified Organic growing fields where most of the Inn's produce is grown year round. Once at the 28 seat restaurant we were escorted in and seated in front of a huge and picturesque fireplace--the evening's only diners. We were pampered by the manager/maitre d'/sommelier and cooked for diligently by a team of two (one of whom was supervising for the most part I believe). You can tell a 5-Star place by the little stool they bring the ladies to place their purses on. That may be about it these days as you'll soon see.

Our first course, a amuse, was a lone tiny radish buried in a bowlful of brown butter powder that needed more brown butter and salt. I actually kind of like this technique where a fat or other non-water item is blended with tapioca maltodextrin into a feather light powder that melts immediately in your mouth.

Maltodextrin is used in several things that we've been consuming for ages. The thing that most readily comes to mind is the protein powder that so many body builders stir into a delicious (sometimes) shake after a hard workout.

The radish was good, the combination was good (in theory)...but it was a two component dish where one component was merely plucked from the ground and the other made poorly.

Next we were dazzled with a couple tiny, tiny small little beets, some beet puree, and a baby beet leaf all splayed out on a thin slab of slate. Art imitating life I guess.

It was about this time that the bread basket came 'round including a buttermilk biscuit that was the size of a wagon wheel and as dense as a sea ration from the 1600's. It was like one of those coloring book pictures where you're supposed to circle the thing that doesn't belong.

Additional courses stayed the course of more traditional cooking methods, but with a disappointing trend of harvesting vegetables for looks long before they develop flavor and texture. We also found it alarming how undercooked some of the items were. Why does fine-dining have to equal "undercooked" these days? Is that what they're teaching? Where is the skill and craftsmanship in that?

Clams were unpurged and sandy. In a 5-Star place one would expect that someone has taken the time to ram pipe cleaners or something into each clam's intestinal tract and extracted each grain of sand individually. It is normally customary to cut bivalves loose from their shells in even the diviest of oyster bars. These were firmly fastened, a severe faux-pas.

Lobster had no flavor. Dishes were missing components that the menu described. Our captain described Loupe de Mer (the king of European sea bass) as a bottom-dwelling flounder-like fish. Vegetables were undercooked. And vegetables were almost raw...repetitively.

Dessert was a lemon ricotta tart--cheesecake. Just cheesecake.

Mignardises were fresh-from-the-oven full-sized chocolate chip cookies that had nothing on the Toll House back-of-the-bag recipe. Not 5-Stars!

It seems that Forbes has apparently made a mockery of Mobil's Star system if Dos Brisas is any indication of the mettle of things.

Our next venture takes us to Maryland and Virginia just last week during Spring Break.

The Ashby Inn is a delightful bed and breakfast in the tiny town of Paris, VA. Paris is quaint and beautiful with a population of 51. The only two buildings in the town are the Ashby Inn and the church next door which is now closed.

From our first course we felt that the chef was torn between contemporary American and modern cuisines. There was the cleanness and innovation that one expects from today's trendier restaurants, but with a distinct clumsiness and portion sizes that would founder the heartiest of eaters. Too much of a good thing IS too much. Too much of a dish that hasn't quite reached its evolutionary peak is just not good at all. We had several of these.

I had a spectacular bacon and egg salad, though it could have been half its size. Following was an enormous portion of tough, gamey beef that was billed as "smoked" but I couldn't be convinced. The plate was splattered by farro salad that consisted of the now-popular ancient grain swimming in a warm sauce based on the most indistinguishable flavor I've ever experienced. It was brown and it tasted like a combination of stale refrigerator melange and wine vomit.

Joan had a pork shoulder dish that was presented in a not-elegant manner. Really an over-sized clod of uninteresting well-done pork piled onto...something. I can't remember, but it did have a couple of sorrel leaves thrown on for garnish and delicious puree of garbanzo beans that tasted more like Jerusalem artichokes.

She had an amazing dessert of warm tapioca pearls swimming in a light cinnamon custard, pistachios and some olive oil, and crowned with a quenelle of dried fig gelato. Very delicious actually. My dessert was a chocolate semifreddo with candied barley and vincotto ice cream.

Semifreddo is turning up on a lot of menus this year. Last year it was chiboust and speculaas, this year semifreddo. This is sort of new to me, or at least it's been a long time. Semifreddo means "half frozen" and in my opinion amounts to lightly aerated frozen mousse that is not nearly as pleasurable to eat as ice cream. Vincotto is a condiment made from non-fermented grape must leftover from the wine making process. Good I suppose. Anti-climatic at best.

Candied barley nearly destroyed my teeth and was entirely inedible. Raw, whole barley was tossed with a little hot caramel. That's it. No cooking, no puffing. Just hard, hard little pellets of grain. If this entire meal was the product of a creative chef being inspired on the way to work, tossing together initial ideas and throwing them on a plate thinking "this could be better, but I'm not sure how", then candied barley was its pinnacle!

The Alinea influence is felt here mainly in dessert, although Achatz/Adria's "air bread" turned up on our favorite course which was a delightful sharp cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virgina. Toasted almonds ground together with maltodextrin and a little sugar made an awesome addition to the semifreddo. Saved it in fact. The presentation very Alinea-ish. Altogether though we gave the place a 5 out of 10.

Keep practicing. Stop reading and become your own chef!

A couple of days later we ventured out to Fredrick, MD to the kind-of-famous-in-some-circles Volt. Right away we were treated to a trio of amuse'; mock oyster, potato soup with lobster, and crisp apple foam with foie gras.

Mock oyster was the most perfect and beautiful sphere of salsify (oyster root) topped with a hand-torn piece of oyster leaf (never heard of it). Terrible.

Potato soup was sublime, but Joan's son and I both got the tiniest fragment of lobster shell that nearly took out a couple teeth. Disappointing in the end.

Foam and foie gras thing was right out of the Alinea play book. Just saw it online that afternoon. What it amounts to is a meringue made with water and methyl cellulose (whatever that is), dried in a dehydrator, and filled with the tiniest little squirt of foie gras. Anti-climatic at best.

Thin sliced kampachi was about 1/2 inch thick, and there was about 4 ounces of it on the plate. Way too much for the first of 7 courses. Blood orange sauce was juice over-thickened with UltraTex. We used a similar product in the hospital to thicken liquids and pureed foods so that patients who were unable to chew could enjoy some type of texture to their food and beverages. Comes out kind of like piping gel. Not very classy.

I must say that the next course was a divine combination of noodles arranged in a bonito flavored broth with radish kimchi, microgreens, perfectly cooked chicken, and a poached quail egg. This was our favorite, and I'd put it against nearly anything I've ever eaten for flavor and finesse.

A couple courses later we had turbot (another one of the great fishes of Europe) that was bland, flat, colorless, boring, and covered with what appeared to be a substantial mouthful of spit except it had no flavor. Here we go with that foam crap.

Right away we got three black ravioli haphazardly thrown on the plate and artfully topped with more spit, except this spit looked more like bubble bath suds. Still no flavor in the foam. Is this stuff supposed to be for looks or what?

Next came sweetbreads that were properly cleaned and stuck back together with "meat glue" or transglutaminase. Now I actually really like this stuff. It's the secret behind chunked and formed ham, turkey, and roast beef; the star behind Chicken McNuggets, and the controversial element that binds little scallop scraps into something that looks like a real scallop. You'll see these heavily coated with breadcrumbs and fried on Chinese buffets.

glutaminase was at one time illegal in Australia and parts of Europe because clever butchers can take meat scraps, glue them together, form them into a nice uniform logs, and slice them into what appears to be top quality filet mignon, and no one can tell. I've been using it to bind roulades, especially this boned and rolled whole chicken that I do. Before I discovered meat glue I was tying and I lost at least 25% of each chicken because it was just ugly. This stuff really is handy in my opinion, but one must wear gloves and a face mask when working with it or it can cause pretty severe problems.

Some chefs are mixing it with pureed seafood and chicken and then it can actually be rolled or extruded into "noodles" and poached. Kind of cool but then there is a great deal to be said about actually just eating a noodle.

Probably the best course was a couple of slices of beef (not sure what cut) that was served with a tiny little potato and perfect thin rectangle of potato puree on the plate underneath. So I'm guessing that this is what this guy does really well. Ok, just do that! It was decadent, delicious, and appropriately portioned!

Now we start down the slippery slope of modern dessert.

I think what they tried to do was recreate carrot cake but with parsnips. Parsnips look like white carrots, but it is there with physical resemblance that all similarities cease in my opinion. While quite closely related botanically (which may be an error that no one has had the stones to challenge) parsnips to me have a flavor and texture closer to a sweet potato. Nonetheless they do not make good cake.

Also on the plate however was a homemade version of Dippin' Dots, which I adore. Basically you take ice cream base and drip it into liquid nitrogen. Frickin' cool, don't care what you say!

Then we have another idea stolen from Grant Achatz (which by the way rhymes with "jackets"). Nitrogen frozen chocolate mousse. Much better that the Ashby semifreddo from earlier in the week. A paper thin shard of burnt sugar made it all worthwhile, but otherwise the dish was sloppy and not terribly exciting.

Even Joan's teenage son agreed on a score of 5 out of 10, even though he got a free special occasion dessert out of the deal. You guessed it...semifreddo.

So pending a trip to Chicago this summer to try "modern cuisine" at the last existing mecca of its creation, and to say goodbye to Charlie Trotter's which closes its doors in August, I am all but giving up and going back to the classics. I intend to give it one more shot in my own kitchen and I've fashioned a shopping list of among other things iota carrageenan, calcium lactate, gellan, methyl cellulose, glycerin flakes, a dehydrator, and a caviar spherification kit. Perhaps...just maybe there's something to this stuff and these other guys are just doing it wrong.

So I said all of that to say this...

The original title of this article was "Foam Is For Pussies, Revisited". It was inspired by my chagrin with modern cuisine--a plug for the classics and the simplicity of "a lot of little things done well".

I was called to St. Louis, MO for a seminar about sustainability (I feel another article coming on). While trying desperately to stay awake during a lecture on building "green" parks and buildings I entertained myself by Googling "best St. Louis restaurants", in the hopes of finding a reasonably decent dinner in a town that I am sure is void of genuine cuisine. Although there is this indigenous thing called Gooey Butter Cake that must be experienced!

At the same time my mind wandered back to the last 2 or 3 upscale dining experiences I've had and I thought "Jesus, another 3 hours in a restaurant wishing I'd gone somewhere else". Keep in mind that I know nothing about this city, and even forgot that they make beer here.

My eyes found "Niche" on the little 2 inch wide screen of my Blackberry, and as best I could tell with just the right squint it was by far the most interesting option that I could conjure. I made reservations. Nestled in an unassuming neighborhood next door to a church and across the street from what appears from the huge flashing neon Budweiser sign (there's a lot of those in this town) to be somewhere between a biker bar and a liquor house.

I went in and was shown to a table for one directly across from the kitchen...and then it began.

I gave the menu a quick glance and decided upon my entire meal in mere moments. I don't remember ever being so decisive!

"BBQ" Trotter; foie gras, calvados, tobacco, grapefruit, and mint

Pork Duo; smoked shoulder, pulled belly, popcorn polenta, dill, hickory broth

Vacherin; lemon meringue, thyme, hickory, lavender

I had passed on the Chef's 5-course sampler, but was disappointed that I was going to miss a couple things that weren't on the menu--and then they came.

They sent out an amuse which was an egg shell filled with warm maple custard, roasted shiitake mushrooms and I believe grapefruit (but I could be mistaken), and then topped with bonito caviar. I wasn't in the mood for caviar, but then it occurred to me that this wasn't true caviar. Oh no--much, much better. It was Adria-style hand-made caviar-like "spheres" made from an umami filled bonito broth.

I dug down into the egg with the little spoon and combined silky smooth custard, bacon-like roasted shiitake nuggets, a hint of sweet/sour fruit, and a little mass of "caviar", and suddenly I was transported back to Joel Robuchon's amazing lemon/anise gelee. I think that I can honestly say that the two afore described dishes were the two most genius dishes that have ever graced my palate, and I have discovered an amazingly valid use for spherification! I'll be investing in the study of this craft immediately. Like a child watching fur-lined red velvet clothed legs dropping from the chimney on Christmas morning--I BELIEVE! I'm giddy! I furiously texted Joan elation-laden expletives describing the rebirth of cuisine as I know it.

Next I was brought a delightfully playful arrangement of carrots on a large white plate entitled "Carrots Three Ways". On this night two baby carrots beat the fuck out of beets on a rock!

Next came another dish that incorporated some of the stuff I see in the fancy books of late. A space-age arrangement of boneless pig's feet molded into disks and fried layered with Keller's foie gras torchon and shards of fleur de sel "glass". A sauce made from apple brandy and infused with tobacco (Cohiba or Marlboro...I can't be sure) adorned the plate underneath. Grapefruit and mint finished the presentation. The textures, flavors, and originality were flawless!

This is how I cook...take a perfect component from one chef, another from a favorite book, one more from a cool picture, and some of my own creativity and intuition to make it mine. When it doesn't work is when you don't really know what you're doing, but that's not the case with Chef/Owner Gerard Craft (who I didn't actually meet). This guy really knows what he's doing. He's the real deal. After a little accidental research it turns out that in addition to ten years worth of accolades he's nominated for a James Beard award this year. Hope he wins! He certainly has my vote after just two amuse' and a first course.

My delightful server Sarah (who also deserves a James Beard award) brought me a single slice of focaccia that was flavored with something, something, and chili flakes. It was the softest, most moist, chewy, airy, and delicious bread I've ever had. I had bread this memorable one other time, and that was at Charlie Trotter's in 1997. Sarah didn't offer butter, she didn't offer more focaccia. When I was done she took the plate away.

This was a course--a bread course. Probably not intentional but how fricking perfect is that? At this point I'm asking myself where did this guy learn how to cook?

Then a scoop of sorbet as a palate cleanser--grapefruit and basil.

Now at first I'm thinking this is the 3rd course I've had that had grapefruit (though I'm still not sure about the first alleged grapefruit addition). But then I tasted. Sweet...salty...bitter...sour...basil, basil, basil! Then I went back to the demo I did for Joan's class last week on the physiology of taste when I explained the benefit of filling the palate with flavor by touching all of the components of taste.

So it's not actually just grapefruit again...but perfect!

We move on to a spectacular table-finished presentation of pork shoulder, pork belly, apples, parsnips, a really cool polenta cake that tastes a bit like popcorn, some crunchy pork cracklings, and an ethereally light hickory broth. I thought about the slight version of this dish that Joan had in Virgina last week and I wanted to go back there and punch the guy that made it right in the mouth. THIS was the way it was SUPPOSED to be!

Here I shall make a comment about where dessert has been heading for the last few years in the fine-dining sector. Why does dessert have to be made from vegetables and herbs and chilies and such. What's wrong with fruit and sugar and chocolate and a limited number of spices. Why does black pepper and vinegar and olive oil and basil have to keep showing up? Are we really that bored with dessert that we have to reinvent it? I wasn't!

Ok, thanks.

When I ordered the Vacherin I ordered it like a lot of people are going to vote this November--not FOR anyone but AGAINST one guy (again hope springs eternal). My memory is of the gateaux I made every day as an apprentice with circles of crispy baked meringue, ice cream, and whipped cream. I figured this would be at least that, but much, much more and I was not disappointed.

Again I was presented with a plate designed by a sculptor and a genius in a nearby galaxy 60 years from now. Something like the ice palace from the first Superman movie actually. A disk of lemon/thyme ice cream was topped with whipped cream and tiny scoops of the most tart lemon sorbet I've ever had (almost too tart to be honest, but it worked) and shingled with delicate sheets of perfectly crispy meringue that you could almost read through. Splatters of rich lemon curd, dots of woody (but not smoky) hickory whipped cream, thyme leaves, and lavender blossoms adorned the outer circle of the plate.

This was another dish composed of inspired components that I've seen in some of my favorite books, yet it was truly a unique dish that belongs to Niche. While it is clear to me where some of Chef Craft's inspiration comes from, it is truly inspiration and not plagiarism by any stretch of the imagination.

Sarah brought the bill. $60!

I paid over twice that 3 times in the last year and got bupkiss!

I'm putting Niche in the category with the most masterful meal I've ever had at Robuchon last year which blew my mind, restructured my entire understanding of cuisine, and took $350 plus tip out of my pocket.

I paid the sixty bucks and left before they changed their minds.

Folks there is hope for the future of cuisine in America. I wish I could tell you how to find it every time, but there doesn't seem to be a pattern or an accurate and consistent indicator of excellence. Gerard Craft has certainly found his "Niche". I guess you have to kiss a lot of frogs.

That's a different story!


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

Ya know that haunting, delicious, ethereal scent that is produced by seasoned meat simmering slowly over a hardwood fire? Pork, ribs, chicken, and beef brisket...oh how wonderful! Your nose perks up, your mouth waters, your stomach growls. Even on a summer evening when you smell it in your neighborhood it frankly just turns you on--makes you hungry!

Well, no matter how it starts, when 63 other people are creating that smell around you and it's 4 o'clock in the morning, and it's in your hair and your clothes, and it's getting a little chilly, and you just want to's fucking repulsive!

On Friday September 30, 2011 two of the five members of the newly formed Dean Street Smokin' Rib Rubbers showed up at a parking lot in dowtown Jonesboro, AR to begin setting up for Jonesboro's annual barbecue competition. I wasn't one of them, but I am a member of the team and I was there at 4 am wishing the guy next to us would have shown up a couple hours earlier to start his fire!

We talked about doing this last year and nothing ever happened. This year we signed up just in time! Our team leader and head cook is Mark Griffith. Mark is one of our catering cooks at ASU, and he has a nice butt...barbecued pork butt that is!

My first holiday season at ASU I had just hired Mark and he brought me a barbecued pork butt for Christmas. He had cooked a bunch for his church and had a couple left over. I thanked him and put it in our walk-in freezer for a rainy day. I live alone, don't eat at home much, and didn't have room in my home freezer for a ten pound piece of meat. I forgot all about it and from time to time didn't really know if it was still there.

One year later I was headed back to North Carolina (the home of American BBQ, I don't care what you say) for Thanksgiving and I toted the year old frozen roast with me just in case. Not only did it weather the year in the freezer well, it was the BEST barbecue that I and my family had ever had! So good in fact that my nephew and his fiance required it for their wedding the following Spring.

So when this year's barbecue competition came up we knew we had to get involved, and Mark was our guy!

The team consisted of Wes Wade (one of our cooks), David Miller (our General Manager at ASU), myself, Mark, and Allan Gates (Mark's catering partner in the kitchen). Mark is the expert and the rest of us were there to bask in his success, have some fun, and pitch in wherever we could.

It took a day to set the thing up and we started the first fire just after 11 pm. Pork butts went on about 12:30, along with brisket a bit later, and cooked all night. Everything was rubbed with Mark's own spice blend (which I'm still trying to talk him out of the recipe for), and the larger cuts were injected with a mixture of liquid love and spice!

The competition is broken into four different areas; chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. Competitors can choose what to enter, we entered all four.

Now here's where it get's a bit sticky...

Food competition is not necessarily about whose food is best. It's about a lot of things seemingly. It's a little about politics, a little about standards, a little about looks. It's about texture, timing, flavor...and I think a little about luck! There were 64 entrants in the competition. Now seriously, when 64 people are cooking all night and have spent the money on equipment and food that a thing like this requires, one might imagine that all 64 are pretty good at what they do.

So imagine that you're the judge...

Tell you what, do a brand new bag of potato chips. Eat one. Eat another one. Let's say you've chosen barbecue potato chips. What do you taste? Imitation smoke, sugar, tomato, a little tanginess. Keep eating them (you can't eat just one). Get down to half the bag. Now tell me what you taste. For me it's always potato, grease, and salt!

Now, tell me how a barbecue judge whose tongue is covered with smoke, sugar, salt, and tanginess is going to be able to differentiate the next 30 or 40 samples accurately. And this was a small competition compared to some. And now put yourself in that seat for 4 hours tasting as many as 256 unique samples of food. Jesus, I wouldn't even be able to sit still much less eat all that stuff! I certainly wouldn't be able to be objective at some point...which is one of the many reasons that I am not a barbecue judge. LOL!

Are you getting yet that we didn't win?

Well anyway, let's look at barbecued chicken. We all know what barbecued chicken is right? Guess again. In competition standards we're talking about thigh meat only. And what the judges want to see (from what we were told) is not chicken to me at all.

I grew up with whole pieces of juicy chicken that are seasoned and cooked slowly on the grill for an hour or even two before being basted at least 3 times with delicious, tangy homemade barbecue sauce. Be careful to wait until the coals are the right temperature and then turn and move the chicken around frequently to avoid burning the sauce. When it's all done the chicken is juicy, the sugar in the sauce is lightly caramelized, and the skin is thin and crispy and holds most of the flavor. Oh how divine!

We were supposed to bone the thigh, remove the skin, scrape off all of the fat from the skin, trim the thigh to a perfect rectangle, then lightly season, roll into a perfect little bundle, and wrap the skin back around it before cooking. You can't tie it or pin it all together, as this would leave unattractive marks.

At this point you can't manhandle the pieces or the skin falls off. In fact, no matter how long you cook it the skin will be fine until the very end when we flip the skin side towards the flame for the final crisping and the skin reacts to the direct heat and shrinks up and off of the meat. At the very least the skin now has no flavor and none of the delicious crispness that would have come from leaving the fat in it.

We did brine the meat for a hour so our chicken was delicious, tender, and juicy...but barbecued chicken it wasn't. Not our fault, but the fault of the system that dictated this heinous bastardization in my opinion.

We didn't place in the chicken category. Mark's ribs are without peer! Ribs are what Mark does...and pulled pork.

We were told that we could use any kind of pork ribs that we wanted to, as long as they were delicious. We bought St. Louis style ribs (my personal favorite) and baby back ribs. We cooked both...some with the membrane on the backside left intact to be removed after cooking, and some with the membrane removed prior to cooking.

After the team sampled them all we decided unanimously and without reservation that the baby backs with the membrane removed after cooking were far superior not only to each other but also to any ribs we'd ever eaten! These we sent in with great pride.

We didn't place in ribs.

We later found out that the judges in this region are currently (but not always apparently) looking for Kansas City ribs. I don't even know what in the hell that is.

Pulled pork is Mark's claim to fame, and my family will back it up from Arkansas all the way to North Carolina and Virginia. We took morsels from 5 or 6 different butts to submit the perfect entry. And it WAS perfect!

We didn't place in pulled pork.

Beef brisket is more of a western barbecue favorite. Though certainly part of the standard barbecue repertoire we don't do it in the Carolinas. I think it starts in Arkansas and makes its way south to Louisiana and west to Texas. I like barbecued brisket...always have. I've never made it and neither had Mark. We menu a more institutional version at school once a week or so, but have only really gotten it right once that I remember. It's not easy!

Brisket is a tough, fatty, but higher flavorful and less costly cut of meat from the front shoulder of the cow (or steer as it were). It requires proper trimming and just the right amount of fat. Fat...good, too much fat...not good.

It requires the right seasoning, a dark but thin and tender outer crust or "bark", and it needs to be not too tender and not too tough. Not easy! When sliced it needs to be thin and across the grain. There should be a substantial pink "smoke ring" around the edges. It should taste smokey. When sliced it should slice easily and you should be able to stretch it just a couple or 3 millimeters before the meat breaks apart--it should not just fall apart. It should stay together pretty well.

You should not need a knife to cut it for eating, and the necessary remaining fat should melt in your mouth and create a symphony of flavors and textures that you just can't get from any other food!

Our brisket was overcooked. The bark was too thick from too much cooking, and it was tough which made it difficult to slice. We were to produce six perfect slices, and we cut portions of 3 briskets to get them. I would liked to have seen a wider smoke ring and a little pinker meat than grey. The flavor was delicious, but the meat tended more towards falling apart than stretching.

We took 7th place in brisket.

We laughed!

They didn't even pronounce our name right!

Nonetheless, the name was heard and will perhaps stick in their minds for the next time.

Will there be a next time?

A few months ago I did an ACF culinary hot food competition (Category K-4 for those of you who are in the know). I had never done one and I took a bronze medal, which to this day I am ashamed of. The lamb rack I used was supposed to begin unfabricated and the only lamb I could get was already "frenched". The judges awarded me with enough points for a high silver, but later reviewed the rules and took some away because of having the wrong product.

However, they loved my dish. One judge said that he "would love to order this dish in a restaurant". They didn't say anything like that to any other competitor. Had I brought the right product and utilized the trim in an additional item on the plate I would have no doubt been given a gold medal and quite possibly "Best in Show".

The guy who got that designation produced an awful looking combination of foie gras, soft potato, and fried egg (which was tough and brown on the bottom) all served with a salad of vegetable peelings. I kind of liked the salad actually, but the presentation was sophomoric at best and the combination of flavors and textures was in my opinion way to rich and terribly uninteresting. Nonetheless, he got a gold medal and $2,000.

I couldn't help but notice that one of the judges spent the entire hour standing and talking to the gold meal guy as if to "catch up" and reminisce about old times and mutual acquaintances. The same judge told me that my coriander chutney was more of a pesto and that if I was going to use multicultural ingredients and labels that I should study them a little more. I obviously eat more Indian food than this guy, and I assure you that I have studied the cuisine exhaustively. I wanted to tell him to do the same...but I didn't.

So finally what I think is that when one is planning to compete in anything, one must first attend a few competitions and really study what the judges are looking for. Study who wins. Watch what they do at the next competition or two that they enter. Talk to them--pick their brains. Ask them what they do to be successful. Find out who the judges are, and why they are judges. Practice what you do...A LOT! Practice making mistakes and plan how to recover from them successfully. From all of this one should be able to distill what the competition is really all about, and perhaps what it takes to do well in it.

What you and all of your friends and loved ones thinks is spectacular may not mean much at all to the people who don't know you exist. So in the end one must feel a sense of accomplishment from it all. Most importantly one MUST have fun--and the Dean Street Smokin' Rib Rubbers collectively had a blast! We perhaps learned more about each other in a non-occupational setting. We bonded at times. We learned from one another. We respected one another. And we ate some great food!

Would I do it again? Not if my life depended upon it! But if someone else's life, happiness, or success depended upon it, or even if they just asked, I would gladly show up and do anything I could to help! It's what I do.

As for the ACF, I dunno. I don't think so...but who knows what the future will hold. I change my mind all the time.

What I know for sure is that I know food, and Mark Griffith makes the best ribs and pulled pork east of the Mississippi--and at least 100 miles west of it--and that's all that matters! I'm proud to have been there.