Posts filed under ‘The Paupered Chef’
We just braved the gauntlet balcony, which is, yes, still sweltering. You can barely move out there; only Higgins’ dry-cure Berkshire ham is sweating more that the rest of us. We went out there for the cocktails, but we’re going to come back to talk about the food. We’re a little stunned. After waiting all night for some samples, we have feasted.
First off was the Osteria Mozza, the one that we tried to get a peak at earlier. They were in full swing slinging out big, pillowy mozzarella with a beautiful artichoke stuck on top. The artichoke was slightly sweet, and perfectly tender. It’s probably the best artichoke Nick had ever had.
We finally had a taste of that 43-ingredient, 6-chili, blackberry mole we were eyeing earlier. It lived up to expectations, deep, complex, and in possession of a beautiful bitterness. Jaime Martin Del Campo once again went into the passion he had for the dish, and it showed.
Nostrana from Portland, Maine, were serving olive oil-poached tuna with wood oven-baked Zofino beans. They were the best beans Blake has ever eaten–creamy as ever, the skins perfectly formed. Of everything we ate, this was the quiet, subtle star.
We did finally get our hands on that Back Forty cocktail: tequila, lime juice, and fresh strawberries. It’s like a fancy, slushy daquiri, and they mix in black pepper with the sugar for the rim. Definitely worth waiting for.
We just had a cool conversation with Melissa Kelly of Primo Maine restaurants, who is cooking squash blossoms with handmade sheep’s milk ricotta and pesto pantesca. Her restaurant in Rockland, Maine has its own produce farm, pigs, and soon-to-be-installed windmill. “I don’t know if you can ever be totally off the grid,” she said, “but we’re pretty close.”
We were interested to learn, though, that Primo Maine has expanded to Florida, and now Arizona. How did the philosophy of a self-supporting system keep its integrity. How did they keep it local?
“It went hand-in-hand,” she explained, referring to the restaurants and their devoted produce farms for ingredients. In other words, Melissa is so enthusiastic about absolute freshness that she wouldn’t even open a restaurant until it had its own farm nearby.
But why expand at all and leave the pastoral coast of Maine? “To support the restaurant itself,” she explained. Maine has a very short tourist season and they’re at least an hour and a half from Portland, where chefs like Sam Hayward of Fore Street run award-winning kitchens (he’s also here tonight). To make sure she stayed afloat, the other locations were opened. But Melissa has stayed in Maine to run the original kitchen. Local places like Chase’s Daily, another restaurant/farm, share their values, and create what seems to be a Maine ethos.
We set out from the press room to find Maricel Presilla and chat about her Cuban restaurant in Hoboken. We sincerely wanted to know how she’s adapted to having a restaurant in New Jersey while still sticking with local ingredients, even though her cuisine is a world away.
But her table was totally busy and we could barely get a word in edgewise. We introduced ourselves but were left speechless because she asked if we wanted tamales. To eat. Right now. They are topped with a smoky salsa and a salad of fava beans, red onions, and Peruvian corn. Too busy to chat, we had to settle for one, which Nick devoured on the spot. Maybe we’ll catch up with her later.
On our way back to post this, we stumbled on the folks at Bacchanalia, who were putting together delicate little bites of cured trout on bee pollen crackers. They also quick-cured the roe from the trout (who knew you could do that?) which imbued it with with a wonderful complex saltiness.
So they’re feeding us. Slowly. The ceremony is almost over and many hungry people are now milling about wondering where to fill their stomachs. The San Pellegrino and cocktails, for the charming few who find them, flow like wine.
Our first stop was the Osteria Mozza table. Nancy Silverton was just standing around, so we chatted up the ingredients, talked some shop and only then asked if we could have a sample. Nancy wasn’t having any of it, telling us to come back when things were ready. She was proud of her shoes, though, which we were able to get a sneak peak of.
At Chez Panisse they were cutting candied flowers, made by coating flowers in egg white and sugar and left to dry. They were beautiful, but hardly substantial enough to warrant some kind of haggle.
Mustards Grill had a beautiful bowl of micro arugula ready to go on their duck sliders. There grill was hot, but still unused.
Our last stop as at la Casita Mexicana. Jaime Martin Del Campo was stuffing mole into little corn cups. “It is my Grandmother’s recipe, it has 43 ingredients!” They looked beautiful.
With the awards still in full swing, and most of the chefs watching inside, the hallways are pretty bare. Though nearly an hour and a half before service officially begins, we decided to see if we could, well, get a drink.
Our first stop if the Midnight Sky Lounge, sponsored by Delta, which is apparently supposed to remind you of the comforts of air travel. So this is what first class feels like. Blake took a seat and waited for some service, but none arrived. At the bar we joked about a sample cocktail, but were only reminded of the drinks that we could have eventually after the ceremony. We moved on.
Most of the cocktails are conveniently located out on the hot, muggy balcony, where most everyone is still sweating. The glasses are empty, and everyone’s standing around. But no one wants to pour us anything.
The Wild Turkey table had some guy who had never been to Kentucky, and showed us their fruity honey liquor instead of the real aged stuff. He wouldn’t open a bottle. Over at the Don Julio Table, Mike, cocktail manager at Back Forty, clad in a sweaty t-shirt and long wet hair, was getting all of the Red and Black cocktails ready, which have strawberry and black pepper. He commented that he was basically done, and that he should have arrived later and not had to brave such heat. No luck, though: he promised us a great drink when the time came.
Finally, we passed the Puerto Rican table where they were serving all things rum. Before we ever introduced ourselves, they asked US if we wanted a drink. Spoiled for choice, Blake had a Naked Q straight up and Nick had a Lavender Rum Tonic. “We’re from the Island,” they explained, when we let on that they were the only ones pouring anything.
Refreshed and ready to go, we’ll probably have enough courage now to actually talk to some great chefs.
We just left the lobby where all the chefs were lined up neatly in their coats, ready to go single-file into the auditorium to be introduced. This, of course, left all this delicious food totally unguarded. We did all we could to avoid tearing into an intoxicating pork shoulder sitting in a hotel pan with no one nearby. A luscious dry-cured ham sits on a cutting board with a knife next to it — would anyone notice a little thin slice missing? We were tempted to jump ship with the ham and run to Central Park and forget the whole ceremony. Constraint.
While the chefs are away basking in the flash photography, we take the opportunity to speak to a few prep cooks who are in it for the long haul.
The jobs ranged from the menial – the poor preps plucking off every tiny leaf from bags of marjoram – to the physical – major shaking of heavy cream and buttermilk at the Bacchanalia table, destined to become a foam.
Then there was Osteria Mozza, Nancy Silverton’s station, where they seem to be leaps ahead of everyone else. Their leeks already seared brown, artichokes skinned and cooked, and lots of fluffy mozzarella. The preps were basically just guards. Good thing. The mozzarella looks really good.
We’re hanging out in the press room with Bobby Flay and Ted Allen drinking Pommery Champagne and sampling cheese. Everyone’s a little quiet and polite, maybe even nervous. Dan Barber is standing around, Bobby Flay is splayed out on the couch answering questions into a microphone.
In the corner they’re pouring Champagne and pulling espresso shots–take your pick. The cheese table is manned by Artisanal Premium Cheese, and everything on offer is from American producers.
The friendly guy manning the table goes through the exhaustive definitions of precisely where the cheese comes from and how it was made, then casually mentions Wabash Cannonball from Indiana. We asked where exactly in Indiana it came from he said that it came from a town just 20 miles north of Louisville that was so small it didn’t have a name. That happens to be remarkably close to the small town Nick grew up in some 45 miles north Louisville.
Brilliant cheese, by the way. A soft goat cheese with a dry texture and a thick richness. It has an ash and mold rind. We’re heading into the fray to check out who’s cooking what.