Tell your friends you’re going to eat at a gastro-pub tonight, and the likely response will be “gastro-what?” “Gastro-pub” is a British term for a public house (“pub”) that specializes in high-quality food a step above the more basic “pub grub.” Gastro-pub was the theme for last night’s party. That winds me up because I love fish and chips as much as the next guy, and the idea of pub food put me in a beer frame of mind.
The chefs I invited had one interesting thing in common: all were self-trained. Most chefs have restaurant training or culinary education, but self-taught chefs learned by doing or by turning a hobby into a profession. Some of the most famous celebrity chefs you see on TV are self-trained.
Competing were: Chris Calcagno, Executive Chef of Café Amici in New Jersey; Janet Kim, Chef at Gordon Ramsey at the London in New York City; and Kevin Gaudreau, Executive Chef at the Pier Restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island.
Chris has worked mostly in mom and pop restaurants, but is known for bringing New York City flavors to the table. His signature dish was a Blackened Mahi Mahi fillet with Citrus Shallot Beurre Blanc, Sweet Corn Mash, and Sautéed Spinach. Beurre Blanc is a classic French butter sauce. The taste of a good beurre blanc can make you moan with pleasure. It’s a simple emulsion — a reduction of shallots, wine and vinegar, and an absurd amount of butter. By “absurd amount,” I mean there is so much butter involved that you could use the leftovers to grease the axles of your car. Beurre Blanc can be terribly fragile if you don’t follow a couple of basic rules. The butter should be cold and go in slowly. The emulsion, once bonded, needs to be kept at the right temperature. If you let the sauce boil, it will separate, or “break.” I think that’s what happened to Chris’s beurre blanc.Janet clearly has a passion for cooking. She quit doing postgraduate work to cook and has since worked with a lot of well-known chefs. Janet made Spicy Korean Barbecue Pork Chops with Kimchi, which is fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, in a pepper sauce. Fermented veggies don’t sound like the most attractive culinary proposition, but Koreans eat it with almost every meal, and nutritionists may soon be recommending that we do the same. Recent studies have found that this spicy dish may stop the replication of cancer cells in the body. But the list of the vegetable's credentials doesn’t end there. Low in calories, Kim chi is also high in fiber, and is a good source of vitamins A, B and C. Thanks again to the lactic acid formed in the fermentation process, the vegetable has more good bacteria than yogurt, meaning that it aids the digestive process and is good for the intestine walls. But I don’t think Janet’s little bits of kim chi would be enough to supply all that nutritional power. OK, nutrition lesson over, I need to add that I’m a huge fan of Korean flavors, I have to get my fix a few times a month or I’m not happy. I was in hog heaven when I found out what Janet was making for her signature dish. I didn’t like everything I put in my mouth, but her pork was over-the-top delicious.
Kevin was an interesting guy. His culinary career spanned dishwasher to chef, but not before serving our country in the Marines. He fixed a popular appetizer often served at his restaurant: Shrimp and Grits with smoked bacon and leeks. His goal was to layer the dish with flavor, but I thought it looked like a plate right off an assembly line at very large restaurant. Looks are one thing, but taste is another. Kevin’s signature dish was outstanding.
All three chefs did an amazing job, but one missed the mark: Chris. Buerre blanc is something we as chefs learn from day one, so I couldn’t believe he had screwed up something so basic. It cost him the party, and he was out.I awarded the Signature Dish Challenge to Kevin, but warned him to leave the engineer mentality at home, and show me he can cook with heart. To Janet, my advice was similar: think less and feel more.
Kevin and Janet got fired up about the Gastro-Pub Dinner Party theme. Janet loves British fooda, nd I explained that their menus had to be pub-grub but cooked to a really high, creative standard.
Their décor choices couldn’t have been more different. Both chefs kept true to a British pub ambiance, with Janet doing an edgy punk-rock look in the intimate dining room (did you see those kinky napkin rings?) with a dart board, and Kevin created an ambience as close to an English pub as you can find. The minute I stepped into it, I felt as if I’d been warped into London suburbia. The roughhewn table draped with butcher paper, the menu on the chalkboard, the exposed brick wall with British paintings, and the chairs with comfortable upholstery -- all so typical of a classic English pub.
Broken record, I know, but how many times have I mentioned I am always looking at whether a dinner party succeeds on its own terms? And it is not all about the food, if it was, people would just stay at home and cook. Normally, it’s a social experience; it’s about setting up the right vibes, and serving up a wonderful time for guests. Invited to this week’s party were:
Amanda Hesser, New York Times food writer. That has to be the second most fun job in the world, next to being a chef.Ken Oringer, Chef and gastro-pub owner. I was delighted to have a real expert at the table and Ken provided some great commentary on this cuisine.
Christopher McDonald, actor. You know Christopher from the hundreds of movies he’s been in, including Thelma and Louise, The Perfect Storm, and Leave It to Beaver (he played the iconic Ward Cleaver.)
Frank Carfaro, founder of DESIRON Furniture, a highly-celebrated luxury furniture design company.
Raven-Symone, actress. Remember her from The Cosby Show? She’s grown up a lot since then and has acted in many movies. Raven doesn’t eat pork, meat, or organ meat of any kind, so the pressure was on Kevin and Janet to appease her tastes and do it deliciously. (Both chefs rose to the occasion with culinary mastery.)
Cat Deeley, host of So You Think You Can Dance. I was glad she accepted my invitation; Cat is British-born and bred and knows all about true pub food.
Janet’s dinner party went first. She started us off with her version of pub chips: Bacon Chili Crisps. Ken initiated us with a quick lesson on how these babies are made. The flavor components come from bacon fat and maltodextrin (a compound derived from starch that make fat turn into powder) to create bacon-flavored “crisps.”
Her next course was Pimm’s and Lemonade Beet Salad with Candied Pine Nuts and Wesleydale with Cranberries. Pimm’s and Lemonade is a popular drink in the UK; Janet turned it into vinaigrette for the salad--– very ingenious.Course number three was interesting: Bone marrow with Stilton Cheese. A little explanation is due here. Bone marrow is not pretty to behold. Like certain other parts of the creatures some people might eat -- think intestines and feet -- bone marrow tends to make a lot of people squeamish. But it’s gaining acceptance and showing up on more tables. Janet served the bone marrow elegantly with dainty, tiny spoons to slurp up every creamy globule. If I had to eat a last meal, bone marrow would be on the menu. (Raven received a delicious-looking tiny fondue of cheese and onions.)
Janet’s main course was a heart-stopping Beer Brisket with Cheddar Yorkshire Pudding, Crispy Peas, Currant Chutney, and Onion Puree. Yorkshire Pudding. This was pub-grub with a touch of finesse. The magic of Yorkshire pudding is that it’s a thin batter that, upon contact with fat in a hot pan, puffs up into a sort of rich popover.
The one disappointment was dessert. It got mixed reviews: Rose Mascarpone Cloud with English Cucumber and British Tea broth. Cat, who is British, wasn’t familiar with British Tea Broth. Was it even a pub food? I don’t know; I don’t even know what it is. To enlighten myself, I googled “British Tea Broth.” No hits. But I do know that tea broth simply means you use steeped tea as part of a soup base.
Well, I guess we could argue semantics all night, but let’s move on to Kevin’s dinner. Kevin runs a bit of a militaristic kitchen with the fervor and gusto of a drill sergeant, banging out orders to the waiters like a culinary boot camp. You can take a guy out of the Marines but you can’t take the Marines out of the guy, or something like that.Kevin’s English Pea Soup with Crispy Proscuitto was soul-warming hot, with enough bite to make you want more. But by this time we were all approaching food overload so it was on to his pub-classic Fish and Chips. Kevin put a new spin on the chips -- Truffle Chips, an amazing piece of delicious!
Kevin served Lobster Pot Pie next. Earlier, he and I had an intellectual discussion between chef-buds about lobster. Most people -- and most chefs -- discard one of the best pieces of a lobster. It’s the tomalley, the lobster’s liver (a greenish looking glob in the body cavity.) It’s considered a delicacy. When I make lobster bisque (my favorite food), I leave in the tomalley in the body to flavor the stock. If Kevin were to discard the tomalley, well, pans would have been flying. Fortunately, Kevin and I are on the same side of the soup tureen when it comes to the tomalley. OK, back to the Lobster Pot Pie. Kevin pinched it with too much saffron. It’s always best to use saffron sparingly. What was he thinking? Too much can leave an unpleasant medicinal or bitter flavor that is overpowering, even unpalatable. It tasted like “licking bathroom tile,” according to one of my guests, after her first mouthful. Conversation came to an abrupt stop when I offered to step into the bathroom to make a comparative analysis.
Next scene, please: Kevin served his Roasted Lamb Tenderloin with Seasoned Baked Beans and Swiss Chard to mixed reviews from my guests.
Kevin added yet another entrée-like course: Seared Liver and Caramelized Onions. Very risky. You may have the world's most sophisticated palate, but that doesn't mean all of your guests will appreciate the finer points of liver. After a few mouthfuls, some of my guests broke the silence and said it was really good, even as good as what a few people had tasted in England. Hey, was that a burp I heard? Now onto dessert: White and Dark Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding. For those of you keeping score at home, you’ve seen how many tantalizing, gooey, scrumptious-looking, loaded-with-more-calories-than-I've-eaten-this-year bread puddings I’ve scarfed down. But what the hell, I decided to have one last fling with this heavy, hearty food. That scale had better be merciful in the morning. Honestly though, I didn’t eat that much of it. No one else did either. No one really like the way Kevin “deconstructed” it.
That’s a word tossed around a lot last night. It’s chef-speak for taking individual components in a recipe and are arranging them separately, or plating them in a different way. So in Kevin’s dessert, he took the banana out of the bread pudding and put a sliced banana on the plate next to a little glob of bread pudding. Sure, the dish made for interesting visual appeal, but I was sort of ambivalent about the actual taste of the dish -- or even the idea behind it, because as a diner, you have to take your fork and reconstruct the dish anyway, so what’s the point? I’m into flavor -- that’s been my hallmark as a chef -- and you can’t really fuse flavors if you’re going to take things apart. I’m a very liberal chef, but when it comes to deconstructing stuff, leave that to the guys who are remodeling my kitchen.
Although Kevin’s last impression wasn’t his best impression, my guests had the best time at his dinner party. They loved the very-pubby British atmosphere of his room, they loved certain parts of his menu, they just had a freaking good time, and I could feel it. The competition was so close, but in the end it was Kevin who produced a gastronomical experience for everyone.