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?

Advertisements

Dinner Lab: Antico E Moderno

As I reflect on my third Dinner Lab, experience a single word comes to mind, synergy.  It was a truly collaborative effort of creative minds and local leaders.  And it was pretty exciting.

Dinner-Lab-St. Thomas

The location of the September event was the most interesting of all of the Cleveland dinners so far.  The site was St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, a sanctuary that won’t be around much longer.  Brickhaus Partners intends to turn the property on Lake Avenue into a collection of luxury townhomes, and call it 95 Lake.

Photo courtesy Brickhaus Partners Instagram

Photo courtesy Brickhaus Partners Instagram

So as part of the experience, the developer, Andrew Brickman, and Cleveland City Councilman, Matt Zone, were on hand to talk about the big plans for the neighborhood.

Dinner-Lab-band

And as an added bonus to the evening, there was entertainment this time.  City Councilman, Kevin Conwell and his band, The Footnotes, played during cocktail hour and through most of dinner service.

Dinner-Lab-Mytro-menu

The menu and the concept belonged to Chef Matt Mytro, (coincidentally, the same guy behind our Chef’s Table from last weekend.)  He and his partner at Flour Restaurant, Paul Minnillo, like to combine old school Italian cuisine with the occasional modern touch.  Mytro took this opportunity to take his modern approach to the next level.

Dinner-lab-burrata

First course was a warm burrata (a fresh Italian cheese made with mozzarella and cream) with vanilla infused potato chips and pickled chili.  Innovative and tasty.

Dinner-Lab-beet-salad

The second course was a mock beet salad with pistachio, whipped ricotta, dried olive and sorrel.  It was definitely a favorite at our table.

Dinner-Lab-John and Dani

My friend, Dani and I were still admiring the beautiful presentation when we noticed that her boyfriend, John, had already polished his off and was asking for seconds.

Dinner-Lab-swordfish

Course number three had easily the most tender swordfish I’ve ever eaten. Had to look up what “Alla bagnara” meant to understand how it was made…steamed in a garlic broth.  Aha!  That’s why is was so fantastic.

Dinner-Lab-rigatoni

The fourth course was hearty and satisfying.  Chef Mytro said they made the corn rigatoni fresh that day.  But to me the lamb neck sugo (a rich tomato sauce) was the star of this dish.  I could’ve eaten several bowls of that!!

Dinner-Lab-panna-cotta

Dessert was a familiar treat.  The panna cotta sweetened with cereal milk that we’d enjoyed at Mytro’s restaurant, Flour, on Saturday.  This time there was a toasted marshmallow, always a good idea.

Dinner-lab-jen and ben

I love these dinners for a score of reasons.  But I appreciate them because they give me a reason to sit down through a relaxing service and enjoy my husband’s company, as well as those of good friends.  Can’t wait to see what’s next. 

My Spectacular Spanish Feast: Tapas at Curate

Sometimes you have such an out of this world meal, you gotta write about it. My lunch at Curate Tapas Bar was that kind of experience.


I travelled to the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina to spend the weekend in a stunning cabin for my sister’s bachelorette party.  I’ll spare you the details of that portion of the festivities.  Let’s talk about the food in this tourist town!  The bride has been trying to dine at the popular Spanish tapas restaurant, Curate Tapas Bar every time she visits this charming city.   

Finally upon her third or fourth attempt, we scored seats at the bar where I got to watch our tapas being crafted right in front of us.  My favorite part played out before we even swallowed a bite.  Stunning Jamon Iberico shaved right in front of me. It instantly took me back to my time as a study abroad student in Pamplona, Spain.


We dove right in to the extensive and authentic menu… and admittedly over ordered out of pure enthusiasm and deep hunger.  I crave the kind of freshly cured olives that you get at a classic tapas bar. So I was very pleased when they tasted just as I hoped, beautifully marinated in lemon, rosemary and thyme.


Round one also included an ensalada verano with sheep cheese and pressed watermelon, and a Russian potato salad (another item I remember seeing on nearly every tapas menu in Spain) 

Next came the melt in your mouth Jamon Serrano Fermin.  Sliced thin, the salty, smokey goodness took me away to the land of bull fights and flamenco. Such a nostalgic treat for a me!  The bars in the neighborhood where I lived in the Navarre region had legs of this stuff hanging from the ceiling by the dozens.


Since it was a warm summer afternoon, we couldn’t resist ordering a bowl of refreshing, creamy gazpacho.  I was pleasantly surprised at how delicate the garlic flavor was in this cold tomato and cucumber based soup. Oftentimes restaurants make the garlic element of this iconic dish far too overpowering for my taste. Not Curate. For me, they nailed it.

  
Two other dishes we sampled were new to me and worth trying! The lamb skewers were cooked to tender perfection and accompanied by cunchy pickled cucumbers. And the grilled red peppers stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with parsley purée were decadent. I’m sure these are more modern liberties the chef was taking with tapas, but I didn’t mind.

It wouldn’t be a Spanish feast without croquetas either. These creamy fritters were filled with shredded chicken and cheese. Just rich and crispy enough.


We finished the meal with their most popular menu item, sautéed shrimp with sliced garlic in a sherry broth. And with what can only be described as the classic Spanish tapa, the tortilla espanola.  The egg, potato and onion dish is something I like to recreate on occasion. It didn’t disappoint!

When it comes to authentic Spanish cuisine and a tapas bar atmosphere, I have pretty high standards given my history.  Curate sets the (tapas) bar!