Tuesday, August 25, 2009
A homegrown taste-off
If Iron Chef was run by Alice Waters, I think it might go like this. Sunday I was a judge for Buffalo’s new chef competition, Nickel City Chef. It involves 4 Buffalo “top chefs” and 4 challengers. For each match-up there is a different secret ingredient and the two chefs make 3 dishes each, using it.
But here’s the twist. The secret ingredient and many of the other pantry items are locally grown or produced in Western New York. For the competition I judged, the secret ingredient was locally produced White Cow dairy products: yoghurt, cream, and quark (a fresh cheese, NOT the obsolete page design program). In addition there were freshly harvested heirloom tomatoes, corn and peaches as well as locally-made sausages and other products.
And the chefs? Two of our best: Paul Jenkins of Tempo and Bruce Wieszala of Verbena, So it had to be a thrilling experience, right? Well, yes and no. There was a lot of waiting around—I arrived far too early—and while the audience seemed to be having a hell of a time, the judges could not drink and socialize. We were sitting at a table, watching the chefs make the food and then we had seconds to taste it and pronounce on it, as the 2 sets of 3 dishes were quickly brought out and placed in front of us, with a microphone soon to follow. I was still chewing the first time, but then I wised up and got the food down in time to talk. Meanwhile, the audience could walk around, hang out by the chocolate fountain and swill wine and beer to their hearts' content. But on the other hand, they couldn't taste what we tasted.
The food was amazing. It kind of makes me wonder what would happen if all chefs tested themselves to this degree every day in their restaurant kitchens. You can see all the dishes we had here. My favorite was a trio (top): mussels in a saffron/sausage broth, fried eggplant stuffed with ground lamb, and cucumber gazpacho. All the dishes used the secret ingredients, but the nice thing was that cream and yoghurt are not likely to overpower or dominate a dish. They simply added richness and—in some cases—the tang of yoghurt. I also loved the 8-ball squash stuffed with corn risotto (above).
The lesson of Nickel City Chef is not about who wins (Jenkins did in this case), but how wonderful our local food is, no matter who prepares it. It kind of made me want to grow vegetables—almost. It will surely impel me to the farmer’s market more often.
Photos courtesy of Nickel City Chef.