Foie Gras Sliders: Sun Winefest 2010

This weekend I was given an incredible opportunity through Johnson and Wales to attend the 2010 Sun Winefest at Mohegan Sun for their celebrity chef night.  Around 38 students boarded the special functions bus yesterday afternoon to head down to Connecticut, all carrying our perfectly pressed chef's coats on hangers so they wouldn't get wrinkled on the way there.

Upon arriving, we were escorted down a long corridor behind the scenes at Mohegan Sun.  Servers and kitchen staff with carts of mis en place hurriedly shuffled around us.  We were each craning our necks trying to peek into the kitchens to get a glimpse of the chefs we had come to see.  But first things first.  We were taken to an office where we were asked to drop off our coats and put on our chef whites.  And afterward, more waiting ensued.  To ensure that we wouldn't eat all of the delicious food that the celebrity chefs were preparing, the coordinator wisely satiated our appetites in the employee dining room which was nothing more than a mediocre cafeteria. 

Finally, the moment had arrived.  We were brought into one of the wings of the banquet hall where we were greeted by the executive chef of Mohegan Sun, Michael Luboff, and the executive pastry chef of Mohegan Sun, Lynn Mansel.  (Fun fact about Chef Mansel - He currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest wedding cake.  It was large enough to serve 59,000 people!)  They were both very welcoming and seemed happy to have us there to help.  Assignments were then handed out.  With 17 celebrity chefs and 38 students, we were grouped into twos and threes to be sent to various chefs.  Luckily, I was grouped with my friend Amanda who I've known since early last fall.  The two of us were placed with Chef Ben Ford of Ford's Filling Station in Culver City, CA.  Oh yeah, and he's Harrison Ford's son.  Pretty cool, right? 

Amanda and I were the only assistants that Chef Ford had at his station in the main banquet hall, so we spent around 3 hours assembling and plating his dish: foie gras sliders.  The foie gras was seared off before being placed onto a french-toasted brioche bun with candied leeks, caramelized onions, micro greens and a special tomato jam from Maine.  We prepared and assembled several hundred of these for the guests, and many of them came back for thirds and fourths.  I tasted one, and it was absolutely delicious.  The flavors melted together perfectly.

Since Chef Ford did not have any other help at his station, Amanda and I had little time to wander around, but in my few spare minutes, I made the rounds.  I spotted Bobby Flay, Govind Armstrong, Chris Schlesinger and others.  If I had known that was going to be my only time to mingle, I would have taken pictures with them.  But alas, when our bus arrived, we were given little notice and were quickly herded together for one last group picture before being sent out the door.  Along the way, Amanda and I were able to swing by Robert Irvine's station for a quick photo.  (Robert Irvine is host of Food Network's "Dinner: Impossible".) 

It was an incredible experience being in a room with chefs of that caliber, and it is a memory that I will treasure.  I just hope that I'll be lucky enough to attend another event of that nature soon!


More Pictures

I forgot to mention that I added a new album link on the right sidebar titled "Where can I find the frozen peas?"  There are a few additional pictures from my labs which are not included in the blog.  I will continue to update pictures there so check back often!

Taste Everything.

It's been over a week since I've given an update on my classes. As you may recall, I have been in Principles of Beverage Service. Or perhaps I should say that I was in Principles of Beverage Service. I completed the class yesterday and was not sad to say my goodbyes. I can't remember if I've mentioned this before, but here's an interesting fact about Johnson and Wales: the campus is a dry; however, alcohol consumption is allowed in certain Johnson and Wales classrooms by law in the state of Rhode Island. This means not only is the classroom the only place where drinking is allowed, but it's also legal for the 17-year olds in my class to drink.

We devoted one class period to coffee, one to white wine, one to red wine, and the last class day before our practical focused on beer.  After sitting through a lecture for several hours on the production of the aforementioned beverage, we set up our tables to begin tasting.  As you can see above, we had a few cheeses, crackers and fruits to sample with our beverages so that we could learn how to pair food with wine.  For each varietal, we had to describe it's clarity, aroma, and taste in great detail.  Although I don't care for really sweet wines, it was interesting to see how well the sweetness of a riesling paired with the creaminess of goat cheese or the intensity of bleu cheese. 

Now I'm sure that sitting around sipping on wine doesn't sound stressful, and of course it was far from that.  The nerve-racking portion of the class took place on our practical day.  Each of us was required to make 12 drinks randomly selected drinks in 12 minutes from memory.  For an experienced bar tender, that's a joke.  But for us it was fairly taxing.  Our instructor watched and took notes if a martini was shaken instead of stirred.  After finishing the drinks, each of us was called individually to our bar station for questioning.  The instructor came around and asked "What are the ingredients in your Mai Tai?", "What's the procedure for preparing a Brandy Alexander?"  I hate being put on the spot, so I was impatiently waiting for it to end.  Next on the practical agenda was wine service.  We were called into the beverage lab in pairs to serve wine to an empty table.  I thought that I had performed well, but apparently when I presented the bottle to my invisible host, the bottle was higher than his invisible head.  I think I would have done better had there been people at the table.

Yesterday was my first day of what I think will be my favorite class, Nutrition and Sensory Analysis.  Here we will be primarily poaching and steaming, but more importantly, the instructor wants us to focus on developing complex flavors without adding fat or salt.  How do you do that?  "Taste everything.  Even your ingredients."  That sounds simple enough, right?  Then he through us a slight curve ball.  He asked, "How many of you know what pink peppercorns taste like?  Or better yet, how many of you have eaten a plain pink peppercorn?"  Not surprisingly, no hands were raised.  He passed around the container of peppercorns, and as a class, we each ate plain pink peppercorns.  They were surprisingly sweeter than I thought they would be which is exactly the point he was trying to make.  Just because you've tasted an ingredient mixed with other ingredients does not mean that you know what it tastes like. 

For our first day of production, we split up into groups, and he assigned each group one ingredient and a dish to prepare, but we were give no recipes.  Our group had black beans so we made a black bean dip.  I wish that I had written down amounts of ingredients so I could recreate it because it was delicious, and our instructor agreed.  And as I said before, we weren't allowed to use salt.  So at the end of production, we tasted each of the dishes with and without salt.  Unpredictaly, nearly all of the dishes tasted better without salt because the salt masked some of the other flavors.  My new mission is to prepare all of my food this way.  I will only add salt as a last resort when the flavor cannot be improved any further.



It's funny to me how a restaurant experience can really set the tone of a trip at least momentarily. I went to Boston for a night last weekend with a friend from Johnson and Wales to visit a friend from home who just moved there. When it came time to pick a restaurant for dinner on Saturday night, we researched online and were excited to head out into downtown Boston . Upon arriving at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which is where our destination lay, one of my friends said, "There are only 2 guarantees when you decide to eat in a tourist district: bad food and high prices." She was absolutely right. The food was overpriced, overcooked, and lacked originality. All of us left the restaurant cranky and flustered. My same friend also made another valid point when it comes to restaurant decision-making: "Don't ever pick a restaurant where you can make the food." While I agree to an extent, I think that what she meant to say is that you should never pick a restaurant where you can come up with the idea for the food. So much of the excitement in food comes from looking at the food pairings within dishes on a menu. As culinary students, we're always eager to find inspiration in restaurants, TV, cookbooks and whatever else we can get our hands on.

After a round of disappointment, we researched further and found a wonderful restaurant for brunch on Sunday. The menu was a Caribbean-Mexican fusion, and our taste buds were not let down. Located in Cambridge, maybe a mile from Harvard, East Coast Grill delivered a wonderfully satisfying meal. Between molasses-glazed grilled bananas and avocado omelettes, each of us sat somewhat impatiently waiting on the kitchen's next creation. Perhaps my favorite idea that I picked up from the restaurant was one of our appetizers: banana rellena. It was a roasted banana stuffed with smoked pork and topped with their house-made hot sauce which they called inner beauty.

Wow. It definitely had a kick given that the hot sauce was made with habanero peppers, but the balance of the sweetness from the banana with the smokiness of the pork was surprisingly scrumptious. I plan to experiment with roasted bananas soon so I'll let you know how it turns out.


Bartending 101

Although Bartending 101 is not the given name for the class I am now in, it sort of feels like it should be. I began Principles of Beverage Service last Wednesday which is another one of the front-of-the-house service classes required for my degree here at Johnson and Wales. The class is divided into a few segments, the first of which (for my class) was mixology. We've spent the last 3 class days learning the basics of bartending, the responsibilities of a bartender, and of course how to make drinks. We're only responsible for memorizing the ingredients and procedures for preparing 20 popular drinks, and for my practical next Wednesday I will have to prepare 12 drinks in 12 minutes and be prepared to answer questions about them upon completion.

The room is filled by 20 bar stations, and the walls are covered in mirrors which makes the room look 4 times its actual size. And the ambiance is set each day for practice when my instructor dims the lights and turns up the music (which has included everything from Nelly to Shanai Twain.) The pressure of preparing the drinks quickly enough is a little stressful but also sort of exhilerating. Don't worry though. We're not wasting bottles and bottles of liquor each day. All we get to practice with is mere colored water. You can see from the pictures that it looks pretty real though. And given that no one in my class has ever bartended before, you can only imagine the number of glasses that we've broken. I think that one guy in my class knocked a whole shelf over last week. Since yesterday was our last day in mixology, I can only hope that we're prepared for that portion of our practical next week.


America's Next Top Butcher?

If this show really did exist, I would definitely not make the cut (no pun intended.) Yesterday was the end of my nine day segment of meatcutting, and I was more than ready for it to end. Don't get me wrong. I learned a lot about meat, but butchery is not my forte. The other day, my meatcutting instructor came over to check my veal cutlets which had some holes in them. (FYI - Veal cutlets are not supposed to have holes.) He checked them and said, "It's okay. We'll just send these to the Pope. I hear he likes holy cutlets." At least he was able to make a joke out of my failure.

The class focused on the primal cuts, breakdown, and merchandising of poultry, beef, veal, lamb and pork. And we thoroughly covered every topic. I saw enough meat in the last 9 days of class to push me to the verge of becoming a vegetarian. The other day, my instructor put me in charge of the meat grinder. I processed around 150 - 200 lbs. of ground beef. That's a lot of hamburgers. And last Thursday, we covered lamb. A whole lamb. And here's the picture to prove it:

My instructor broke the lamb down into its primal cuts and then subprimal cuts so that we would have a better understanding of where each of the cuts of meat come from in the animal. The instructor performed comparable breakdowns of beef, veal, and pork over the course of the class, but we didn't start with the whole carcass. (Thank goodness!) Each day we gathered around the meatcutting tables for a breakdown demo, and it looked something like this:

Following the instructor's demo, each of us was allowed to break down one of the primal cuts or clean up a subprimal cut. On the day we covered pork, each of us broke down a pork loin from start to finish. We cut off the tenderloin and boned out the rack to yield a boneless pork roast and some baby back ribs. Here's a picture of me and my partner ready to get started:

On the last day of class, the instructor asked each of us what we would remember the most from his class, and almost everyone said they would remember either the lamb carcass or the picture below. Yes, it's a frozen pig's head. On pork day, my instructor showed us each of the primal cuts of the pig to give us an idea of how the animal fits together, and he also felt that it was necessary to show us a pig's head. I'm pretty sure it was only for effect.