Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The visit to the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC

This past Tuesday, my main grocery provider sales rep invited my lovely wife and I to the famous Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC where there was an annual food show and restaurant speaker event going on.

We arrived late Monday morning to enjoy the sites and maybe do some shopping. If you've not had the chance to visit the Grove Park Inn or even Asheville in Western North Carolina, you're missing out on an amazing treat.

Our stay began with a flawless check in and our gasps when we saw the views from our room. Snow-cap-covered Blue Ridge Mountains, an amazing golf course and light flurries of snow falling. The room alone was amazing. Closest to the most amazing bed we've ever slept in! (not as good as the Westin Hotel Beds, but I concur, lol).

The food was insanely good, albeit pricey, but it's worth it for a treat like this. We explored all these nooks and crannies all around this old place. Tons of pictures of past presidents and other famous people hanging on the walls, so much history, just awesome.

We went downtown and visited a couple places for lunch. A mediocre muffaletta at Mayfel's followed by an incredible chocolate cafe called "French Broad Chocolate Lounge" where we had a couple truffles (cayenne, dark chocolate truffle and a fennel olive oil ganache truffle), a pot de creme (which is like the best pudding you'll ever eat), wife had a real hot chocolate made with ganache and I had the best espresso I've drank since this Italian espresso cart at the Hethrow airport in London, England. I mean, this entire dessert experience was an awesome relief from the bitter windy 20 degree cold outside.

Enjoy a few pics.

Cayenne pepper and fennel truffles, whoa.

Pot de creme and the best espresso to wash it down :)

The golf course covered in a flurry of snow

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the balcany

Grove park facade

View from our room

Fireplace you can stand in! They kept this thing blazing the entire time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This mornings latest food competition at Myrtle Beach

I arrived late yesterday afternoon to drop off a very full speed rack worth of stuff to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. You see, this morning, I had the pleasure of, once again, competing with my fellow chefs at the Us Food Service Food Show. It was a modified F3 (or W - Wild card) where you had access to a common pantry and didn't know what your protein would be until your start time. For me, I was given Red Snapper (not the freshest, mind you, but good enough for the local ACF chapter to offer, apparently, lol).

I'd like to back up a little for a minute and whine about my horrible hotel first. I got on the web and googled "hotels near the Myrtle Beach Convention Center" and The Boardwalk Beach Resort came up on one of the travelocity web sites. First of all, it was ON the ocean and cost under 80 bucks a night, which should have been a red flag. Second, its about as much a "resort" as the single wide trailer my neighbors live in. I asked for a non-smoking room and they put me in one that kinda smelled like my old bachelor pad first thing in the morning after a really rough night. The elevators smelled like vomit and french fries and the hot water took about 10 minutes to make it up to my shower. The place was rotting around itself in the "kitchen" and the drain was so clogged, the water filled up to mid-shin by the time I finished my cold, eventually scalding, shower. A couple homeless dudes were living in the lobby and doing their laundry in the guests washers, and so on...BUT!!! if you can get past the cigarette smell, butt burns on the furniture and the sticky alarm clock (eww), the room did have a really nice view of the ocean (its saving grace, apparently). This has GOT to be the only reason this shit hole is still open. Partying college kids on spring break could care less about a clogged tub drain or smelly elevator, they just need a place to puke and sleep in.

After further review (I should have done is BEFORE I booked, but live and learn...) Here are a ton of negative reviews I found on their web site.

Anyway, the receptionist was nice, lol...

Back to the competition. After a restful 4 hours sleep in my smelly hotel room, I did stumble upon a God-Send Starbucks a block away from my hotel. I ventured out in the 30 degree/ 40 mph wind gusty streets to grab my hot Venti Bold that gave me hope.

Arriving at the convention center about 30 minutes early gave me time to acclimate myself to my surroundings. I got to meet a couple of my fellow competitors, shake a few hands and enjoy my coffee breakfast.

At 6:45, I set up my station to my specifications. You know, knives in pans on a side towel, my cooking utensils like so, sanitizer buckets filled with a ton of side towels, and so on. Once I got organized, slugged down the last gulp of my coffee, I was in my element. Organization and a slight humming in my head from caffeine always makes me feel sane, lol.

The protein was handed to me at 7:00 am, I wrote my menu which was a bit like this:

Pan-seared red snapper with roasted mushroom risotto, root vegetable medley and basil pistou

I handed that to the floor manager and she rushed it off to the judges and in like 5 minutes, returned with a nice fresh printed version of my menu for my records. At 7:15, I was off!!!

Blink-blink-blink, my one hour flew by and it was time to plate up at 8:15 sharp. 7 minutes later, my hot plates with hot food on them were whisked off to the picky-ass judges that (ok, get ready for another rant... lol)...

I've been to about 10 of these mind numbing events and every time there are different judges and every time they want something different based, mostly, on preference. The fat ones usually complain about not having enough sauce. Doesn't matter what it is. Could be freshly made marinara, chocolate syrup or cough medicine. If the judge weighs more than 300 pounds, he, or she, will ALWAYS complain about not having enough sauce. If the judges are from anywhere near Europe, they will judge you and your food based on "standards" that no one has practiced since the Brady Bunch drove that huge brown station wagon. Mainly because of their lack of practicability or American palate. The EU folks always expect you to have the Escoffier book memorized and if you don't, you suck, end of story. If they're in any branch of the military, or were at one time, they complain about the fact that you can't make 500 of whatever it is you are trying to show off to them. It never fails. Every judge is just that, a judge. Most of them hadn't stood a foot in their own kitchen or held a knife for a living since Nixon but have all the answers, covering them up with acts of mentor-dom (is that a word?). I would pay double the price of a ppv event to watch these old coots compete under the stresses and so-called "competition standards" they put us through. Shit, their damn hips would pop out of joint, most likely.

Wow, tangent, lol, back to the competition. I rant like that, mainly, because I'm still smarting from the crap these dudes complained about this morning. The double standards. I look at the food that they consider gold medal worthy and I think, "Yeah, looks good, but not better than mine!" lol.

I have hope and faith that, one day, I'll have the perfect combination of working clean, hot plates, properly cut veg and the right amount of sauce to appease the masses and WILL get that damn gold medal. I've been chasing that stupid thing for over 10 competitions so far! With entry fees and cost of food and travel, that's a lot of money invested just to hear Mr. Saur Kraut from Belgium whine about how much risotto I should put on my damn plate!

Anyway, I did, however, have a great time (believe it or not). At the end of the day, it's all about the creation of food. If I can learn something along the way and win a medal while I'm at it, its that much better. I just cant wait to finally please these dudes, lol.

Thanks to the program chair person and my apprentice for helping me through all this! Thanks to my employer for shelling out the entire $100.00 for sign up fees all on their own, lol. Thanks to all the free coffee samples (does anyone really like that "coffee on demand stuff?" just curious). Thank you, Father, for getting me there safe through the crazy rain and back home through the even CRAZIER wind (was like a hurricane man!).

There's another competition coming up in April, think I'll pass on that one, I need a break...


My winning soup recipe...

Not sure what happened, but I completely forgot to blog about winning a recipe contest for a local TV show/ foodie web site called "The Chefs Wife". Its a "cooking" show where the wife of a chef asks her chef husband what he's doing and why he's doing it so that the average home cook could understand what he's doing. Great concept.

Well, no big deal, really, me and a couple others sent in random recipes that were based on our birth month and the top three "best" won. First prize was $250 bucks, second and third, I think, won chef coats.

Kinda funny, I just randomly sent in a recipe for a soup I make quite often with roasted butternut squash. It's based on my birth month of November in which butternut squash is in season. Kinda reminds me of the cold winter days growing up in NH and the comforting effects of hot soup!

After being chosen as the winner, they came by my place and took a few pictures, ate some soup and left. Nothing too exciting. The free money was nice, paid for a few gallons of gas for my thirsty truck, lol.

Here are a few pics they took. Learn more about the contest here.

Monday, February 01, 2010

My adventure with Sous Vide

Up until just about a year ago, I've never really had any interest or knew too much about cooking sous vide (French for "under vacuum", it's a method of cooking that is intended to maintain the integrity of ingredients by heating them for an extended period at relatively low temperatures. More info on that here.)

A few months ago, a chef I worked for bought two immersion circulators to start cooking this way and adding these food items to his menu. Each unit cost about $800 bucks! That made absolutely no sense to me, but I was intrigued. They were shiny and had red flickering lights, a couple knobs and just cool looking in general.

Eventually, we started experimenting with it and had a blast. We put chicken breast and marinade into a bag, cryovac'd it and cooked them at a low temperature for a few minutes. We did that same thing with steaks and duck breasts and the results were incredible! Of course, before serving, we had to sear them on a hot pan to create a nice crust and to crisp up the skin. Wow! Tender and juicy and just insane.

Fast forward about a year and now and I'm in the position where I want to use this process but don't want to blow all that money. Knowing for certain that I just CAN'T be the only frugal chef out there that would like to sous vide, I went on a quest to find a cheap(er) alternative to this amazing cooking process.

Well, after a good bit of searching, I found the answer to my dilemma and all for the low price of around 40 bucks!

I found the "PRESTO KITCHEN KETTLE MULTI-COOKER/STEAMER FRYER" on eBay for 30 bucks (after shipping) as the heat source. Apparently, they are known for their ability to stay at a constant low temperature consistently. In order to keep the water "circulating", I grabbed an 8 dollar fish tank bubbler at Walmart and 2 bucks for an instant read thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. Total investment, right at $40.00!

As soon as it arrived in the mail, I took it to work and we started to experiment. Since I am pretty new to this, I went to my favorite online book store and bought a couple books on the subject; Under Pressure by Thomas Keller and Cooking Sous Vide by Jason Logsdon. Upon a little reading, I found some really useful info on this interesting cooking technique and went on my way.

On our first run, we've done the following:

Two types of duck breast (one marinated in ponzu sauce, garlic, sesame oil, fresh herbs and honey, the second in green tea leaves, olive oil, pink and black pepper corns, bay leaves and herbs)

A piece of hickory smoked salmon (smoked in house), marinated in roasted garlic, fig puree, olive oil, soy sauce and herbs.

All of the above was done at 140F for about 20 minutes for the salmon, 30 minutes for the duck breasts. With a nice hot pan-sear to achieve a crust and a crispy skin (yum), everything was perfect! The salmon texture was soft and perfectly medium in the middle and the duck breast had a perfect medium rare center and an amazing mouth-feel behind that crispy duck fat.

Next, we did fingerling potatoes marinated in veal stock, roasted garlic, shallots and butter and baby artichoke hearts in the same marinade. Both went for about an hour at 185F and cooled over night in the cryo-bags. I hadn't had a chance to eat either yet, but I can only imagine how yummy they're going to be.

SO, I guess this experiment proved one thing; that one does not really need to spend 1000 bucks for a sous vide experience. I spent forty. Granted, I can only do like 3 pouches of food at one time (which is not much in a restaurant, but plenty for the house). I do plan, however, to create a larger sous vide bath so that I can make enough portions for a dinner special a couple nights a week, which will entail a giant crock pot and a temperature control device (total cost should run me about 125 bucks +/-). More on that later!