Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Jimmy Canora

Jimma Canora sheds some light on cooking at 35,000 feet.

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Like many of you, the Top Chef episode "Snacks on a Plane" kind of fascinated us because we're ashamed to admit that we had no idea what went into conceptualizing, executing, and serving aircraft food -- often derided, rarely appreciated. But the times, they are a changin', and one of the people already making a difference is Chef Jimmy Canora of the Continental Congress of Chefs and owner of NYC Culinary Events, a special event and catering company. Chef Canora was kind enough to answer some of our questions and hopefully shed a little light on his culinary career, including his time at NYC's Tribeca Grill.

1. Why did you become a chef? Describe your culinary life before going to school.

I grew up in the family food business and started to prepare and cook food at 12 years old in my father's neighborhood supermarket and catering store. It was there I learned how to properly handle and care for fresh produce, meats, and fish, and realized the importance of food in all of our lives.

2.You attended The Art Institute of New York -- did you ever consider not going to culinary school?

I actually didn't go to culinary school right away. I got a real estate license first and did that for two years until I decided I hated it!

3. What led you to the Tribeca Grill and what was your experience like there? What other restaurants did you work at?

I went directly from culinary school to the Tribeca Grill as an internship and worked for three months for free before they hired me full-time. It was the still one of the hottest restaurants back in 1993, packed with celebrities and anybody else who could actually get a table or a reservation. I stayed there for 11 years and worked my way up from salads to the No. 2 chef. I never worked in any other NYC restaurant, and frankly, didn't need to work anywhere else. I received the best knowledge and experience that any cook, sous-chef or chef would ever need to succeed in this business -- not to mention trained by some of the biggest names in NYC.

4. What made you decide to go the catering route instead of staying in the kitchen at the Grill or somewhere else? Do you ever sometimes just want to stay in a kitchen? And how did NYC Culinary Events come about?

Well, I didn't actually go with the catering route -- I started NYC Culinary Events first as a food consulting/special events firm and second as a catering firm. I never aggressively went out after catering jobs and I only cater to a very select Manhattan clientele -- all of whom were celebrity contacts from the Tribeca Grill. All my business is by word of mouth and recommendation and I personally cook at every event, if you can afford to have me... As for staying in the kitchen, my former chef and mentor, Don Pintabona (Tribeca Grill), spoiled me the last three years at Tribeca Grill and took me around the world to every national and international food event (of course I did most of the work too ), and it was then I decided never to get stuck in one kitchen again. My life is special events!

5. OK -- what's Robert De Niro (Tribeca Grill co-owner) like? Ha!

Bob is a genius! He is not only an actor, producer, director, real estate mogul and restauratuer, he is a visionary among many other talents. He hardly gets a free moment in his life, and when he does, he prefers to be left alone with his family, very private. Can you blame him?

6. How did you get involved with Continental Airlines and the Congress of Chefs? What's the group's goal and why is it important to you?

Chef Don Pintabona was their Celebrity Chef before me, and I went many times with Don to menu creation and development at Continental's headquarters in Houston. After Don moved on from Tribeca Grill, they naturally gave me the title. The congress's goal is to provide the best possible product that we can to our clients, and it is important to me because the Airline trusts my judgments, decisions, and ideas, and really respects and appreciates our input.

7. We only saw a glimpse on Top Chef into what goes into creating reputable "plane food," What does it really take? How's it changing?

It takes a lot of planning and skill to serve "quality food" on a large scale on any vessel ( boat, train), but especially in the air. You have a small budget (in coach class), small storage space, small ovens, and a lot of room for mistakes from the time the food leaves the catering kitchen until the time it is served. Our food service staff are highly trained professionals, and more importantly, our flight attendants are highly trained and take much pride in the food they plate, especially in the first class cabin. It is the flight attendant that can overcook or undercook your meal once it is on the plane, so in the end, they make all the difference in it's presentation and appeal. They do a really great job.

8. What do you wish people knew about plane food? That a lot of time, money, and thought goes into the process of what food will actually work at 35,000 feet, (like for instance, nothing fried), and that we are constantly evaluating and changing our food to keep our menus current with the trends and to satisfy our clients tastes depending on the domestic or international destination we are flying to.

9. You worked with some heavyweights at the Tribeca Grill -- which chefs inspired you and continue to inspire you? First and foremost, Chef Don Pintabona, an internationally trained and acclaimed chef, then many others that I had the honor of working together with at the many special events we all attended or organized: Micheal Mina, David Burke, Douglas Rodriguez, David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Gary Robins, and Rocco DiSpirito...need I mention more?

10. What has been your most memorable event? What event are you dying to cater? Wow -- there are so many. [My most memorable would] probably would be the $5000-a-plate-lunch DNC fundraiser for President Bill Clinton at the home of movie producer Jane Rosenthal at "The Dakota." There were as many secret service men as there were celebrities. Other than that the 39th & 40th annual Grammy awards when they were still in NYC. [I] would love to cater the Oscars, but Wolfgang Puck has the lock on that!

11. You are referred to as a "chef to the stars" -- can you name names? And how is cooking for celebrities different? Really shouldn't mention, but a few in the past would be Bob De Niro, Harvey Kietel , Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall, and Liv Tyler. The only difference is you have to be VERY discreet, be careful not to let delivery men know who's home they are dropping off rentals or ice to, keep a select wait staff and kitchen staff that know not to bring cameras, ask questions, or ask for autographs. You have to respect the clients privacy at all times, or there won't be a next time!

Every feature in this series will ask the chefs the same five questions. Here are Chef Canora's responses:

1. What would you want your last meal to be? Anything cooked by Daniel Boulud. He is the master.

2. Is there any food that you won't try or that you steer clear of? Worms, bugs, snakes, rats, or anything else that Chef Anthony Bourdain would eat -- It takes a very courageous chef to eat those things. Other than that, I am fine.

Are you allergic to anything? NO -- thank God! It must be terrible to have fish, nut, dairy, garlic, or any allergies.

3. What's your least favorite word to hear in the kitchen (besides "fire")? "86" because we ran out of something on the menu, or "Re-fire" because a cook overcooked or undercooked a person's dinner -- that's just uncalled for!

4. Sweet or salty? Neither. I personally can live without dessert or ice cream at the end of a meal -- there's never any room because I'd rather eat food. Salty to me means chips, dips, pretzels, and snacks, and I stay away from them as well. If a cook's food is salty more than once, he'd be fired as well....

5. Is there anything that you'd want people to know about you? People should know that I love what I do, and that life is one big party when you are a chef that is always at a "special event", whether it be here in the U.S. or across the globe in Australia. I have been very lucky in my career, mostly because I made the right choices and went with my heart and never went for the money. Stay the course and do what you love, and the money will come later....

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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