Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Inside the world of Celebrity Chefs
We all have our little fantasies and slightly guilty obsessions; mine are mostly centered on celebrity chefs. No dirty smirks, please, I am in it only for the food. As uncool as the Food Network has become to the really ‘Serious Foodies” (I hate that word), I am still a sucker for the likes of Alton Brown, the Iron Chef Series and Chopped. Basically my interest borders on masochism because I am reasonably sure that I will never get to taste any of the food these chefs make, mostly because their restaurants are impossible to get into and not to mention expensive.
I think I can consider myself a pretty dedicated fan, I mean I try their recipes, I cheer for the folks, I watch the Next Iron chef competitions with my kids with an enthusiasm of a World Series… I deserve to at least once, once, try what the hype is all about. This was pretty much the argument I gave my husband, when he had an immediate allergic reaction to the price of the ticket to the kick-off of the Next Iron Chef at the NYC Food and Wine festival. Then I pleated and whined and offered to go alone, and as he asphyxiated more and more, I went in for the kill “But we get to eat the food!”, and he reluctantly agreed, because secretly he is as much of a sucker for all the hype as me.
In reality, I had no idea if we were in fact going to eat anything, as the on-line blurb about the event was rather vague. Something about the un-named Iron Chefs or Iron Chef Hopefuls and Alton Brown hosting something. I figured for over $200 dollars a pop, they need to entertain us somehow. I tried keeping my expectations low, hoping against hope that it will not be so bad that my husband will never agree to attend something similar with me in the future, and that they will indeed feed us something, anything….
Apparently I was not the only one completely confused about the format of this thing, as what seemed like half the city was lining up by the strange looking warehouse type structure in the Meat Packing district, wondering murmurs could be heard through the crowd. And then the doors opened and the crowd spilled into a massive brick-faced space adorned by the light projected Food Network logos and most exiting, an open bar and booths manned by the celebrity chefs themselves. Each participating chef has prepared a byte and was serving it out to each guest, personally, interacting with a crowd. I wasn’t sure of what the rest of the agenda entailed so I felt like I did at the Arab spice market, rushing to see and taste all, before this magical opportunity is taken away. Gobbling up byte after byte, without tasting just for the bragging rights of having had it, snapping pictures and not talking to the chefs because they looked pretty damn busy. I was also star-struck and intimidated like a little girl at the Back-street Boys concert. After some time, once we realized that no one is taking the food and drinks away, we were able to relax and re-taste some of the better offerings and actually interact with all of these famous folks. So here are some highlights.
First of all, let me tell you, that if I had as much help as these folks do, I could probably rule the world. Each chef had at least 3 sous chefs with them, and at the most the chef did nothing but to hand the ready plates out or just garnish them. Michael Symon did a wonderful job tossing a few mint leaves on his plates. Some just interacted with the crowd and posed for pictures, except Morimoto who was all business the first hour, head down actually cooking.
Some of the food was exceptionally memorable and some was surprisingly mediocre. Knowing all of these chefs from the past completions, I was actually bias, but my bias was now confirmed. Having an actual taste in my mouth and an actual personal interaction to put together with TV face was the best part of the experience.
So for the food, the most memorable dish of the evening was Nate Appleman’s spicy meatball. It was done is some sort of green curry sauce and was served with a pickled vegetable salad which provided a great contrast in texture and cooled your palate. I am not a fan of Nate Appleman’s but had to admit, this was the best dish.
Some other great tastes were from Alex Guarnaschelli, who served two dishes, a steak crostini with a horseradish mayo and a wonderful sponge cake with chocolate mouse and wined figs, it was like a deconstructed yule log and screamed of fall flavors ( I am totally stealing both… sorry, Alex). As good as her food was, she could have been friendlier and taken a page from Amanda Fraitag’s book, who was like your best friend. You just wanted to keep on chatting with her and go out for drinks after.
Amanda served a spicy meatball with Greek yogurt sauce, which was good, but not as good as Nate, I am still totally rooting for her to be the next Iron Chef.
Spike’s sweetbreads and Marcel Vigneron's braised beef cheeks were great, but celebrated Mehta’s Indian street burger was a mushy, tasteless mess with too much brioche.
Elizabeth Falkner looks and acts even more fake in person than she does on TV. I think she may be made out of plstic. Sorry for the bad quality of the picture but it kind of matches the quality of her dish, this was mushy and fairly flavorless pasta. Just to think that both Chef Mehta and Chef Falkner were the last runner up in the completion. Eric Greenspan, despite having the quirkier personality didn’t really put any love into his grilled cheese sandwich. I think he may understand Russian as within his earshot that hobby makes better sandwiches, I think he got offended. Oh well, I still think he is hugely entertaining and keeps the other chefs on their toes if not with his cooking, than with his jokes.
The Iron Chef’s stations were separated into another area of the space and were much more pompous than the “Wanna be Iron Chef’s” booths. The same room also hosted a huge line of folks being allowed to the sacred body of Alton Brown who was heavily guarded by a few guys the size of King Kong. One guy was literally large enough so that he could eat Alton Brown in case of emergency.
But Alton himself was nice and accommodating, no wonder he is the most beloved personality on the FN. He wrote a personal message for my daughter, who told me not to bother coming home without his autograph.
The Iron Chefs were everything an Iron Chef should be, serving great food and lots and lots of personality. I so admire these folks, not only are they good cooks (a lot of folks are) but they have made entertainment empires out of a very un-glamorous profession and a hellish industry.
Marc Forgione was serving an everything bagel profiteroles with gravlax ( until they run out of lax, so on the second passing we just got the bagels). It was beautifully garnished with some kind of pickled greens and was wildly creative if only marginally delicious.
Geoffrey Zakarian was serving a perfectly composed byte of glazed pork belly with slaw type salad. It was delicious and I pretty confident I can re-create it.
Chef Garces did a very homey soup with hominy and although it lacked the beautiful presentation of some of the other dishes, was truly delicious.
Chef Masaharu Morimoto C (who, according to Alton Brown, left his mother’s womb as a fully formed Iron Chef) served a yellow tail sashimi slider with white truffles on a soft Korean bun. It was as confusing as it was delicious, paring truffles and raw fish would not be my first expectation but it worked beautifully.
I really wanted to love Mike Symon’s food, after all he is my favorite, but his duck liver terrine was overpowered by the spicy mustard it was served with. He made up by taking this lovely picture with me.
By the end of the evening we were stuffed (all those one-bytes really add up), liquored up (did I mention the never ending open bar with the good stuff) and feeling like the entry price was worth after all. Having a bit of the obsessive fan experience and taking pictures and getting autographs were fun. Eating was even more fun and now watching the next Iron Chef season will be more exciting than ever, because now I am actually permitted to have biases and dislikes.
I also carried out a lot of confidence in my own food; I can and will re-create most dishes we sampled. I can guess what was in them and I can do just as well, provided I am outfitted with a dozen helpers… It would be nice to throw on a bit of parsley and just had out the ready plate.