Ultimate Culinary Clash

Cleveland culinary students valiantly took on San Francisco counterparts and competitors from as far away as Mexico City in this week’s Ultimate Culinary Clash at The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in The Bay City. 

Following the regional competition at Table 45 inside the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland, the local team headed west to compete against culinary teams representing other Intercontinental properties. 


The stakes were high, $5,000 scholarship money to the team with the winning appetizer and entree combination. 

Meet the competitors: 

Luce, representing the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. This crew presented a menu of Tostones with Soffrito, and Aji Amarillo. 


The Nob Hill Club, representing the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, also in San Francisco, made Asparagus Veloutee and Glazed Pork Belly with Fennel Pollen Grits and Dandelion Greens.


Cafe Urbano, representing the Intercontinental Hotel property in Mexico City, put out Drunk Salad and Tekuani Beef. 


And my home town team from Table 45, the culinary team from the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland, presented an Aleppo Pepper Roasted Pork Belly and Miso Roasted Sable Fish. 


Janice Campbell, a culinary student at Tri-C, and her Sous Chef, Cynthia Rice, put together a menu that plenty of people at the event were talking about. They should be proud of their efforts! 


I served as a judge along with several San Francisco food authorities and a representative from Mexico City. Each station thoughtfully prepared their dishes for us, and the crowd, which was also asked to judge their plates (for taste, seasonality, presentation and creativity). In addition, the students were judged on their engagement with guests and their ability to present and sell their dishes. 


The students weren’t the only ones on the spot. The executive chefs from the restaurants they represented were also challenged to put together passed appetizers incorporating sponsor product, Kikkoman.  


In addition, they had to develop a burger for the Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project. Each of those sliders had to contain 25% mushrooms, in an effort to curb meat consumption and foster more sustainability. 

Lots of eating and lots of judging. I was up for the task. The toughest category for me to judge was seasonality. I am not very familiar with what is in season in Mexico City or San Francisco. But I know good food when it hits my lips.  Among my favorites, were Student Chef Campbell’s marinated sable fish and the Cafe Urbano team’s drunk salad made with salt cured cactus leaf and a tequila vinaigrette.


In the end, the team from Nob HIll was victorious, taking home bragging rights and the scholarship money.  But the Cleveland team made food that had the room talking.  This was surely excellent real world, working kitchen experience, alas well as excellent exposure for all involved.  The culinary team from Table 45 showed the heavy hitters from the major culinary mecca that is San Francisco, just how great the food can be coming out of  CLE.

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Recipe Testing for Chef Jonathan Sawyer’s new book!

Pucker up! There’s a new cook book in the works from one of Cleveland’s most celebrated chefs, Jonathan Sawyer.  And boy, does that man love vinegar. It’s the centerpiece of the his second cookbook that he is readying as we speak.  The working title is “The Sixth Taste,” with publisher  Ten Speed Press.  I had the honor of recipe testing for the Greenhouse Tavern, Noodle Cat and Trentina founder. 


 His social media team gathered some fellow foodies and avid home cooks in the Chef’s circle to put his chef inspired recipes to the “real home cook test.” The Chef’s assistant says they shared a post on social media asking for the public’s help and the response was overwhelming. She tells me they got hundreds of responses within hours, a testiment to the excitement over this latest project. There were fans selected at random plus friends of the Chef’s that also pitched in.

“Being professional culinarians we, chef and I, can lose sight of what is easy to execute in a kitchen. Making a pan or emulsified sauce is second nature to us. We can execute it without much thought. We wanted to be sure that what is organic to us wouldn’t be beyond the ability of even the most novice home cook,” said Chef Jeremy Umansky, a pivotal member of Team Sawyer.

I joined my co worker, and partner in all things food, Amanda, for the adventure. We met up at Team Sawyer HQ on the near east side where the team turned the studio into a make shift commercial kitchen.


There was a pantry, produce, kitchen gadget and utensils station all laid out for us. It took a bit of time to get our bearings, but we’re excited and eager to get after out “assignment.” Amanda and I were tasked with working through the veggie burger and pickeled romaine recipes. 

While we worked on that, the beans and rice were cooking for the veggie burger patties. That was a bit more of a challenge, given the cooking conditions and “first draft” form of the recipe. What’s really cool about the concept of this burger, is the color and texture. By incorporating roasted beets, the patties closely resemble ground beef.

It also had mushrooms and fennel, yum! As we progressed through the recipe we started to noticed there were things like the yield, and cook time for the rice, that were not accurate as written. But that is the reason why we we’re there! It was fun to talk through and work through the bugs with Chef Sawyer…who couldn’t resist popping in on the group to check on our progress.

recipe testing discussing with Sawyer

The testing gave Team Sawyer a chance to taste the dishes as they would be prepared by a home cook.  They could then see and taste what needed to be tweaked. Some recipes needed more vinegar. Some needed longer or shorter cook times. Some needed a dash more salt. 

“The testing was a huge success and gave us invaluable data that we needed to fine tune the book,” Umansky said.

recipe testing finished veggie burger

 “All the recipes survived the testing, which was our goal. There’s always a reserved fear that something won’t be well received. We were fortunate that every one was a success,” Umansky said.  On top of that, Umansky says the testers appeared just as excited about the recipes as Team Sawyer is. 

The recipe testing was conducted over a two day period…three groups the first day and six groups the second day. And as a group, we cooked through 30 recipes! 
Chef Sawyer’s book is due out late this year or early 2018. Can’t wait to see these recipes come to life on the page and know that I played a SMALL role in the development.  

 

recipe testing group shot

 

Brewing up something new in The Flats

Ambitious trailblazer, Chef Zack Bruell is taking on two new projects much different than his previous endeavors. The restaurateur is entering into the brewery business, launching a new brew pub in the old Cleveland landmark, The Watermark, on the East Bank of the Flats, just a stone’s throw from his oyster bar, Alley Cat.
The name is TBD, but the establishment will have instant street cred, thanks to his partner on the project, Luke Purcell. The Great Lakes Brewing Company veteran is leaving the Godfather of the local brewing industry after more than 20 years for the chance to brew out of his comfort zone.
julian-bruell

Source: Facebook

Bruell is also bringing his son, Julian into the mix in Cleveland. But this is by no means a passing of the baton, or changing of the guard. And Bruell tells me this is not the beginning of a succession plan. The chef tells me his son can teach him things about the front of the house that will help elevate the service and overall experience at all of his restaurants. Most recently, the younger Bruell has worked as the General Manager at Sauvage, and the service manager at Jean George’s in New York City, places with multiple Michelin stars.
Chef Bruell says after handling the tough crowd of NYC diners, his son is fully prepared for his role in Cleveland. He also admits, it was hard for him to accept and understand that service is more important than the food itself. But he now believes that it is. Bruell tells me he’ll put his food up against anybody’s in the country. This move, he says, will help take the restaurant group to the next level.
For starters, 27 year old Julian will be spending a month at a time at each of Bruell’s properties (Parallax, Chinato, Cowell& Hubbard, Table 45, Alley Cat Oyster Bar, L’Albatros Brasserie) to assess and raise the service and front of the house. The elder Bruell expects his son, a millennial, to relate to staff better than he can, and in turn, help recruit, train and retain good talent. That’s something he and almost every other chef in the city has been struggling with during Cleveland’s restaurant boom.
Then, the younger Bruell will contribute to the new brew pub. Chef says he doesn’t profess to be a beer person. For that, he’ll lean on Purcell.
luke-purcell

Purcell, right, will join Bruell in his new brew pub business.  Source: Facebook

What’s really interesting about this partnership is that traditionally a brew pub’s menu is developed to compliment the beer. But this time, Zack tells me, they’ll be developing beer varieties to compliment and cut through the richness of his food, much like wine usually does.
Purcell tells me he is looking forward to thinking in reverse. He expects to be working on wheat varieties with more of a tart finish, and some sours, very on trend now, to provide the acidity his partner is looking for.
Right now they are shooting for an April opening, which would require them to start brewing come February. Purcell knows it’s an aggressive schedule, but he is excited and eager to work on something so different. The Watermark is being gutted as we speak. Can’t wait to see what they brew up.

The Fabulous Food Show

My favorite food event of the year is always the Fabulous Food Show, at the I-X Center.  It shines a national spotlight on all that the Cleveland food scene has to offer, to 30,000 people over the course of a weekend.  Vendors, purveyors, artisans, chefs, foodies, students and avid eaters gather for three days celebrating all things FOOD.

ffs-steak-cake

This year they offered new things like a Baking Pavilion, Cocktail School and Friday night fund raising event, Savor Cleveland, to raise money for No Kid Hungry.  It was a fun evening attended by some of the celebrity chefs in town for this dynamic event.  The floor was also peppered with samples, and special offers for everything from salsa, to knives, to artisan cheese.  The neighborhood stage was a great showcase for local talent to demo techniques and recipes.  And the main stage offered presentations and Q&A from celebrity chefs like Aaron Sanchez, Daphne Oz, Michael Symon, Damaris Phillips and Melissa D’Arabian.

Once again I was honored to participate on a main stage event.  CLE Cooks for a Cause was expanded this year to include 8 teams of two, a local celeb and a local chef-going head to head in a “Chopped” style cooking competition.  Each team selected a charity to compete for.  The show itself donated $500 to each of our charities, plus donated the proceeds from reserved seating.  I was playing for the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland.

It was a rematch.  Chef Matt Mytro, of Flour, and I went back at it against Matt Fish, of Melt Bar & Grilled and Jeremiah Widmer of Q104 FM. We’d been ribbing each other for the better part of the year since the last time we cooked against each other at the Fabulous Food Show last year.  But Mytro and I wanted to take the title away from Team Melt.

We were given beef as a protein and the chefs set about rapidly raiding the back stage pantry for something they could pull off in 30 minutes, and still impress judges like Damaris Phillips, and former White House Chef, Sam Morgante.

Chef Mytro conceived, executed and plated a beautiful sirloin steak with a celeriac puree and a punchy salad on top.  He tasked me with making a perfect meatball, and braising it in some marinara.  His bold flavors and my comfort zone worked in our favor.  WE WON!  The judges were very complimentary of Mytro’s flavors and my ability to get the meatballs done in such a quick amount of time.  It felt good to win!  (especially because Matt told me his partner threatened to take his chef’s coat away if he lost a second year in a row!)

ffs-mytro-and-jen

To watch the entire competition from the perspective of the stage, click here for my Facebook Live broadcast.

I also scored, with some one on one interview time with three of the biggest celebrity chefs featured in the Fabulous Show.  It’s always an honor and a blast to talk to Cleveland’s own Iron Chef, Michael Symon.  Great to catch up with him about plans for Lolita, progress at Mabel’s and his yearly opportunity to show off the CLE culinary scene.  To watch my entire one on one with Chef Michael Symon, click here for my Facebook Live broadcast.

jen-and-daphne-oz

Chef Symon brought in fellow cast member from The Chew, Daphne Oz.  I loved visiting with her about tempting toddlers with healthy food, and her new cook book, The Happy Cook.  She is stunning in person and remarkably relatable.  To view my entire interview with Daphne Oz, click here for my Facebook live broadcast.

jen-and-damaris-phillips

And one of the newest members of the Food Network family, Damaris Phillips was also in town.  Phillips, of Southern at Heart, is as sweet as pecan pie and a ton of fun.  She is a great resource for those trying to please a variety of dietary needs, especially come holiday times.  She’s a southern meat-eatin’ gal who married a vegetarian!  My entire interview with Damaris Phillips can be viewed here.

The Fabulous Food Show is my happy place (one of them) it combines the energy of the Cleveland food scene, with incredible talent, learning opportunities, cutting edge products, fan favorites and delicious food.  Mark your calendar and get there next year!

Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge

What is it they say at the beginning of an Iron Chef competition? “So now America, with an open heart and an empty stomach, I say unto you in the words of my uncle: ‘Allez cuisine!'”  The phrase calls the chefs to the culinary battle.  And what a battle it was at the Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge.

I felt like a distinguished Food Network judge (along side Eric Williams and Tricia Chaves), sitting atop an elevated stage, ready to sample the hard work of up and coming sous chefs from Marriott properties all around the region.

I thought I’d be walking in to a generic corporate ballroom modestly put together to accommodate the competition.  But I grossly underestimated the production value of this event!  There was staging, and lighting and music, a live video feed of the action on large screens (thanks to Rock the House), and a real Iron Chef America Judge, Mario Rizzotti.

Eight talented and up and coming Marriott chefs advanced from hotel-level cook-offs, to compete here.  These are hourly associates and supervising chefs, at the top of their game.  They were tasked with a pretty daunting challenge: make something delicious, in 45 minutes, incorporating four mystery ingredients.  Those were lamb liver, monk fish, pickled green tomatoes and coffee.  I don’t know about you, but those don’t sound like an appealing group of ingredients to me.

When the clock started, the judges were encouraged to walk around the room, not only to chat up the chefs about what they were making, but also to take notes on how they kept their stations.  In previous competitions I’ve judged, we been tasked with ranking them from 1-5 or 1-10 in categories like taste, texture, presentation, etc.  But in this competition the scoring was far more intense, and including things like mise en place and sanitation.

And as if the pressure wasn’t intense enough, Mario was walking around the room interviewing the chefs as they were working.  But everybody seemed to handle the pressure like champs.  When the clock wound down, the chefs presented their dishes on stage and explained how they incorporated all these seemingly incompatible ingredients.

Most admitted they’d never worked with liver before and struggled with the cook on it.  But some used it wisely and flavored things like gravy, sauce or couscous with the sometimes off-putting protein.

When the scores were tallied, it was a unanimous decision to crown Courtney Nielsen, of the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, as the victor.  She cleverly made a spin on dirty rice with the liver, made coffee and used it for the liquid, pan seared the monk fish and whipped up a pickled veg salad.  To me, it was the most harmonious off all the entries.

As the winner, she’ll be sent to Marriott HQ and test kitchen in Washington D.C. where she’ll get to rub elbows with corporate chefs and VIPs.  The brass behind this event say it was created to recognize their young talent and support sous chefs and cooks who do a lot of the heavy lifting in the kitchens of their properties, and while it’s only regional for now, they expect this Farm to Fork Culinary Challenge to be a national event come next year.

cooksmart-winner

What an honor it was to serve on this panel (get my first….and second-eighth tastes of lamb liver!) and help support talented, creative people like these chefs.  They rose to the challenge.  Days later, I still can’t imagine what I would have done with a mystery basket like the one they were presented with.  What would you have made?

Cleveland Garlic Festival

Pass the breath mints.  It’s time to consume garlic with reckless abandon.  The Cleveland Garlic Festival is the annual fundraiser for the North Union Farmers Market. The two day event allows the market to operate weekly throughout the year in Greater Cleveland.  I’ve gone for years.  But this was the first year I got to participate!

garlic fest raw

The funds generated help them administer and expand their educational and charitable market programs, which include Food Stamp enhanced purchases/EBT-SNAP, Music at the Market, Chef at the Market and the Mighty Locavores K-2 educational programming in Cleveland Municipal School District.

As you make your way around Shaker Square, which hosted the festival, you could sample countless varieties of the vampire repellent.  Purple, elephant, you name it.  Plus local producers had samples of the other products they make from it.

Even more popular were the stands that incorporated garlic, like garlic fries, garlic pickles, garlic burgers, even ice cream and cotton candy.

garlic fest chef demo

Throughout the weekend, there was also a series of demos, and competitions, the Top Chef Garlic Grill Off.  Local chefs were asked to bring their A game and feature various combinations, highlighting garlic.  I was asked to judge the pasture raised pork and garlic round.  Don’t mind if I do?!

Everyman chef, Mike Downing, of Garage Cookin’ presented his “tacanini,” or a cross between a taco and a Panini.  The smoked pork had just enough subtle garlic and smoke flavor to it, and it was very tender.  Loved the touch with the pickle, too.

Table 45 Chef Matthew Anderson gave us a dynamite pulled pork slider using pork butt, garlic used three different ways, a carrot slaw and a killer aioli.  Can you tell I liked that one?

garlic fest winning dish

Chef Cameron Krahel, from Canal Tavern of Zoar, took the classic pork and beans to a new level, and even found a way to incorporate garlic in to the peach garnish…a great surprise.  The vinegar-based barbecue sauce that he provided on the side was a better choice compared to a heavier, ketchup/tomato based one.  And the beans were cooked to perfection.

pork tenderloin

Finally, Chris DiLisi, from Willeyville in the East Bank of the Flats, plated up the prettiest dish of the competition, using pork belly and tenderloin, among other ingredients.  It not only packed the boldest garlic punch of all the dishes, but it also displayed many difficult culinary techniques.

The surprise bonus to those watching the competition? There were samples (full sized ones!) of all of the “contestants” provided to the audience in the demo tent. Admission to the festival was only $9, plus a whole meal’s worth of taste tests.What a deal!

We were asked to judge the dishes in five categories (flavor, texture, appearance, creativity and use of garlic). In the end, the scores were quite close, but my fellow judges (Tricia Chaves of Fresh Water Cleveland and ptaom.com, and Michael Feigenbaum of Lucy’s Sweet Surrender) and I chose Chef Krahel as the winner.  The small town chef was genuinely surprised to nab the win, but he deserved it.

garlic fest winner

What a great way to spend a sunny Sunday.  And I have 3 more cooking competitions on my calendar coming up the fall.  Not a bad line up ahead for me!  Think I could make a living with gigs like this??  I’m working on it!

 

 

 

Cleveland Chefs take New York

If chefs are the new rock stars, then cooking at the James Beard House in New York City is like headlining at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a pretty big deal. And who better to rock the house at the famed Big Apple dining room, then a group of chefs from the rock and roll capital of America?  After all, the inspiration for the invitation to JBH was the celebrated Cleveland dining experience, Dinner in the Dark, which is described by its founders as an “open mic jam session for chefs.”

Eight talented local chefs, traveled to New York to eat their way through the city and cook the meal of their lives.  I think they’re still in a food coma, and still inspired by their collective experience.  Brian Okin (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens and Dinner in the Dark), Adam Bostwick (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens), Karen Small (of Flying Fig), Anthony Scolaro (111 Bistro), Jim Blevins (Butcher and The Brewer) Britt-Marie Culey (of Coquette Patisserie) Jeff Jarrett (of Dinner in the Dark) and Chris Kafcsak (of Deagan’s Kitchen) all joined forces last week to prepare a meal for 70 people.  But it wasn’t just any meal.  This one means more than most for this group.

James Beard was a cookbook author, teacher and mentor to countless American chefs.  
His old brown stone was transformed and memorialized and now serves as a restaurant where chefs are invited to cook. Profits from the dinners hosted at the house all go to fund the James Beard Foundation which gives scholarships to young cooking professionals.
“It’s very humbling to be given the opportunity to cook there. With the amount of names that have cooked in that kitchen to be able to cook there and walk in those footsteps is truly inspiring,” said Chef Scolaro.
“After leaving I felt inspired to continue to cook great food and work harder to do it,” he said.
cooking at beard house
Members of the group say getting the opportunity  to cook there validates Cleveland as a culinary player, and destination.  They worked to keep the menu as Ohio focused as possible. Everybody brought their own product, giving them a chance to highlight their favorite producers and ingredients.
“Honey rock melon was the first think that came to my mind.  The fruit is so good in taste, texture, and smell.  I remembered them from days at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal with my family.  I also wanted to showcase items that people are not familiar with in Ohio like, farm raised salmon.  Most people do not even know Ohio is producing some farm raised fish,” said Chef Kafcsak.
rock melon
Menu:
Hors d’Oeuvre
  • Cured Salmon with Honey Rock Melon, Feta Vinaigrette, and Crispy Salmon Skin
  • Frybread with Chicken Sausage, Pesto, Chiles, and Parmesan
  • Fried Ohio Pigs’ Tails with Sweet Corn Johnnycakes, Spicy Ohio Honey, Watermelon Rind Mostarda, and Micro-Radishes
  • Ohio Squash, Zucchini, Eggplant, and Heirloom Tomato Ratatouille with Pepper Jam Gelée and Rosemary–Thyme Tuile 

Dinner:

  • Ohio Artisanal Goat Cheese Study > Fried Goat Cheese; Orange–Goat Cheese Truffle; and Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Del Regno Ohio Honey, Garlic Scape Salsa Verde, and Accompaniments 
  • Cleveland Cabbage Roll with New Creation Farm Heritage Pork, Pork Liver, Beef Shoulder, Smoked Tomato Water, Basil, and Baby Heirloom Tomatoes 
  • Best of Cleveland Harvest Salad > Harris Road Farm Heirloom Tomato Tartare with Bacon, Salt-and-Vinegar Beluga Lentils, Roasted Ramp Aïoli, Spicy Carrot Oil, Red Ribbon Sorrel, and Pickled Cucamelon 
  • Pan-Seared Wild Scallops with Local Corn–Andouille Spoonbread, Stone Fruit–Green Chile Jam, and Local Zebra Tomato, Watercress, and Cucumber Summer Salata  
  • Braised Ohio Beef Short Rib with Sweetbread–Foie Gras Torchon, Crispy Potatoes, Dandelion Tabbouleh, and Ground Cherry Mostarda 
  • Cleveland Cornucopia > Corn Meringue with Sweet Pea Mousse, Pickled Cape Gooseberries, and Peach Pâté de Fruit
local corn sausage spoonbread

Local corn andouille spoonbread. Photo and Styling: Yewande Komolafe

The group had only great things to say about the company they kept, calories they consumed without thinking twice, relationships they built, and inspiration they got out of the experience.
“Some of the best meals I had in my life were on this trip. Not just because of the great restaurants and food they offered, but because of the company of us all. We would go to restaurants and literally order one of everything on the menu,” said Dinner in the Dark Founder, Brian Okin.
There were even a couple Dinner in the Dark regulars who traveled to NYC to support them and join in on their eating excursions. One person in particular has never missed a Dinner in the Dark since its inception 6 years ago.
“We passed the food around and ate off the same plates. It was if we were a tight European family having our regular dinner together. Some people didn’t know each other before the trip, some knew each other very well. There was no rush to eat and go, we went to the restaurant and we left when we were good and ready,” Okin said.
chefs in NYC
The chefs tell me many of their 70 diners at the Beard House say the meal exceeded their expectations.  The diners saw an Ohio themed menu and may have expected to be more rustic or down home, but what they ate was refined and elegant and representative of what Ohio and Cleveland have to offer.
“After leaving, I want to keep focusing on what I am doing and it added fuel to the fire of my drive to cook.  It was a great experience,” said Kafcsak.

The next Dinner in the Dark is September 12th and it’s already sold out.  And no doubt, this experience has helped with regional and national exposure….not to mention how it’s  cemented some life long friendship formed at dinner tables far from home.

Click here for Chef Karen Small’s recipe for the local corn andouille spoonbread she made for this dinner.

The photos in this post are courtesy the Facebook pages of the chefs involved in the Dinner in the Dark night at the James Beard House.