Sunday, November 4, 2012
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Sunday, July 29, 2012
Or "A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse"
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|
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.
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.
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.
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."
* 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
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.
Transglutaminase 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!
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
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 sleep...it'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 this...open 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.
Ribs...now 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.
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.