I spent last weekend in Napa Valley in the company of chefs. Lots of them. I was one of two non-chef judges for the "Almost Famous" chef competition. Sponsored by S. Pellegrino, the mineral water brand, the participants are students at top North American cooking schools.
Judging the competition reinforced a couple of points in my mind. One is that there is no substitute for experience. As good as these young chefs were, it was clear why the contest was called Almost Famous. None of them could be described as a wunderkind. That doesn't mean they lack promise. A few did impress me.
For the record, my favorite dish was by the consensus champion: Ranbir Batra of Kendall College, located outside Miami, Fla. He riffed on his Indian heritage for a dish of tandoori-spiced roasted lamb with lamb sweetbreads in a piquant tamarind sauce, served over crimson lentils with perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts on the side.
He edged out Pidor Kem, from California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. She wrapped halibut in prosciutto and served it with mascarpone polenta, very nice but not as totally satisfying as Batra's dish. She won the first day's market basket competition, in which all the contestants had to make something using mahi mahi, butternut squash, Belgian endive, pancetta and celery leaves. She flavored a squash puree with cinnamon and set the pan-roasted fish over it, sprinkled with chopped pancetta. She made a refreshing slaw from the endive and celery. My only improvement would have been to grill the fish, which was a bit bland.
(Several of the other young chefs attempted squash risotto. None of them got the texture right. Advantage Pidor.)
Among my fellow judges were Ken Frank, chef of La Toque in Rutherford; Greg Cole, chef of Cole's Chop House and Celadon in Napa; Victor Scargle, chef of Julia's Kitchen in Napa (and soon to be executive chef of Go Fish in St. Helena); Joey Altman, a trained chef who hosts Bay Café, a food program on San Francisco television; and Sara Moulton, who has her own show on the Food Network and runs the test kitchen at Gourmet magazine.
None of them was shy about sipping wine with the dishes as we tasted.
After we finished scoring the final-round dishes of the 10 entrants, the conversation in the judges' room meandered into the advanced technology cutting-edge chefs are using. Somehow Ken Frank, who runs a country-style kitchen in Napa Valley, knew about everything. The other chefs listened raptly. "I run into this stuff when I cook with other chefs at charity events around the country," he laughs. "Sometimes I find something I can use, like the chef who showed me how to wrap shallow baking pans tightly with plastic wrap to make an insulated surface for scooping out ice cream."
(Chefs who serve at big charity dinners are always looking for ways to make a lot of servings at once, preferably in advance, without compromising the quality of the food. If you're going to put a scoop of ice cream on a dessert plate for 100, you don't want to be scooping it one plate at a time. The air trapped between the plastic and the tray bottom acts as an insulation and a slick surface the ice cream won't stick to. The plastic-wrapped trays can go into the freezer with the scoops of ice cream lined up on the plastic surface. Then it's a matter of sliding a spatula under each one and transferring it to the dessert plate.
"The last scoop is almost exactly the same temperature as the first," says Frank. "If you scooped them directly onto the trays, the metal in the pans conducts enough heat to start melting the first scoops.")
Frank also chuckles over the way some chefs were making ice cream at a recent gig. "I asked them where the ice cream machine was," he says. "They laughed. 'We don't use ice cream machines any more. We use liquid nitrogen.'"
He says they buy the liquid nitrogen from welding supply shops. It comes in a very thickly insulated container, called a dewer, to keep it below -320° F. But a teaspoon or two added to a mixer full of ice cream batter will freeze it to the right consistency in seconds.
"What if you put too much in?" Coles asks. "I guess it would freeze up everything, maybe break your mixer," Frank responds. That may be one reason why Frank doesn't use it. "I have a machine that makes ice cream in five minutes," he says. "That's fast enough for me."
One high-tech invention Frank does use is sous-vide, the suddenly popular system of vacuum-packing food in plastic bags for cooking and reheating. Frank joined a group of eight chefs, led by Josiah Citron of Melisse in Santa Monica, who hired the French inventor of sous-vide to teach them the intricacies of safely using the process.
"He's more about the industrial applications, and it's phenomenal for preserving very delicate food for a week or so," says Frank. "That's perfect for first-class meals on airlines. I like it more for long, slow cooking without diluting flavor in liquid. You get amazingly gelatinous textures, even with fish. But I serve the food the same day, and I only use it for one, maybe two dishes on a whole menu."
But he learned a high-tech solution to the vexing problem of how to tell whether the food inside the bag is hot enough without opening it up and losing the vacuum. He Super Glues a small disc of dense plastic foam onto the outside of the bag. Then he can slip a needle-sharp temperature probe through the bag into the food, and the foam keeps the hole from leaking.
This is exactly like winemaking, I think to myself. Technology does not make wine bad or good, any more than high-tech toys make a chef great. It just helps the winemaker, or the chef, get exactly what he or she wants.
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