Basking in the glow of Mario’s orange clogs

A fresh leg of Iberico ham being trimmed

After Katsuya’s Pop Up, I watched the last few minutes of Jordan Khan decorating a tree limb with food elements on the main stage while being accompanied by a five string ensemble.  Very bizarre and yet totally mesmerizing.  Earlier in the day I had run into a former co-worker’s ex-wife and she told me that one of my star student’s was the sous chef at a new popular restaurant in Brooklyn.  Brooklyn is where it is at in the NYC dining scene right now.  I asked her for the name of the place and she texted her ex and told him to text me.  His text said “Gwynett St.”  I wrote him back “what’s the name of the restaurant?”  He text’s back – “that’s the name it’s Gwynett St.”  I call Owen (my former student) and get us a reservation for that night.  He tells me that a whole posse of chefs are also coming in – including Sean Brock.

Mathias Dalgreen and Marcus Samuelsson

I stayed for a presentation by Mathias Dalgreen which was MC’eed by his good friend Marcus Samuelsson.  One of his chefs put a bunch of broken up pieces of flat breads in a rock garden and filled a rock platter with quenelles of different types of fat – butter, cheese, pork fat etc. and then proceeded to tell the audience about integrity and  standing behind what you are doing, citing this fat tasting that clients get at the beginning of the meal as an example.  I don’t know about everyone else in the crowd but I found it to be a painful presentation that offered very little.  There is no doubt in my mind that he must be brilliant (he was a Bocuse d’Or winner) but it must only come out in the kitchen.  I decided to cut out of the presentation and head downtown.

The dinner at Gwynett St was awesome.  My former student, Owen Clark, is the sous chef there and the plates were polished and very flavorful often focusing on one ingredient cooked in different ways.  We ended up ordering one of each dish on the menu.  On the way home, we ended up on the same train heading back to NYC as the Sean Brock contingency.

The following day, I had a morning seminar on Côte Rôtie that presented by Michael Madrigale the sommelier of Boulud Sud.  There were some amazing Côte Rôties in Michael’s selection, even if it was hard to swallow such big wines at 10am. Fortunately there were some great charcuterie items to go along with the Syrah from the small growing area of Côte Rôtie.

I went back to the Product Fair and noticed John Besh was on the main stage.  I couldn’t watch it as I had to catch the Somm Slam finals.  It was going to be a battle of the ladies.  The finalist were Julie Dalton of “Wit and Wisdom” in Baltimore and Mariya Kovacheva Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach.  I was able to hang out with both contestant a little before the competition.  I asked Julie how she prepared for the competition with such a broad scope of wine regions represented and she mentioned that you know when you sign up who the sponsors are so you have the ability to cram on the theory knowledge and taste as many wines as you can until the competition.  Nonetheless it is no easy feat especially when you throw Greece and Georgian wines into the mix.

On the final day the challenge heats up and is the most interesting to watch.  Now when they are presented the blind tasting wine, they have to evaluate it in front of everyone with a timer running.  It is very educational to listen to how they dissect the wine and the terminology used.  The same methodology is used in the Master Sommelier exam. The olfactory evidence leads each of them to similar conclusions – though still the wrong one.  Dalton guessed it was a Georgian white and Mariya a Greek Assyrtiko.  It was in fact a Tuscan Vermentino.  Blind tasting is one of the hardest skills to develop and is really a process of elimination. The Somms know what is left on the selection table but then they have to quickly eliminate which wine it isn’t.  This all done by looking at the color, body, aroma, taste, acidity, alcohol, minerality etc.

The contestants were then given a jar filled with a spice blend and told to dissect the ingredients in the mix.  We each got to evaluate the same mix and I inadvertently snorted some up my nose which sent me reeling into an aroma overdose.  With my nose burning and my eyes tearing up, I was able to quickly establish that cayenne was in the mix.

Then came the wine pairing section of the competition.  Dirk Flannigan who was at the Jordan Khan Pop Up, was the chef plating up the food for the sommeliers. The first dish he plated up was super high seared octopus that was then covered and continued to cook on high for around an hour.  I couldn’t understand how that wouldn’t burn the octopus but I have to say they were the most delicious tentacles I’ve ever eaten.  He plated this with compressed melon and watermelon and black pepper cream.

Octopus and melon

Julie paired Stag’s Leap Chardonnay with it and Mariya went with a Georgian white.  Both were great pairings, but for me the Stag’s Leap accentuated the melon flavor and provided enough acid to complement the octopus.

The final pairing was a smoked lamb tartare with the vindaloo mix I inhaled and fat washed cider vinegar gastrique.   It was a super subtle flavor profile that would be a challenge not to overpower.  Here the two contestants pandered to the sponsor providing the prize of a trip to the Côte Rôtie and chose two Côte du Rhône reds.  Here I felt that Mariya made the smoothest choice.  The competition ended with an intense wine trivia contest that I am sure put Mariya Kovacheva slightly over the top.

After the Somm Slam I decided to hit the main stage for the last two presenters. The first was this Italian chef named Davide Scabin who owns a restaurant named Combal.zero.  He was very entertaining as he put together 6 dishes in the short time he had on stage.  Some of the items were pastas that were already cooked and held in cryovac bags then plated in a very minimalist fashion.  It was a very modern interpretation of classic Italian fare and looked delicious.

Mario Batali entered the stage area and a quick line formed to get their picture taken with the man with the orange clogs, blue vest and thinning long hair pulled in a pony tail.

Mario Batali, Melissa Clark, Davide Scabin and Mario Carbone

The final panel featured Davide, Mario Batali, Mario Carbone and Melissa Clark.  It was an ad hoc discussion on the future of Italian cuisine.  I was impressed with how eloquent Mario is and though the discussion really didn’t draw any important conclusions other than Mario is a great businessman who has translated the regional dishes of Italy into an impressive empire of restaurants helping to navigate the U.S. away from a meatball and gravy view of Italian cuisine.  The Italians really haven’t taken to the modernist wave started by Spain and instead with few instances have stayed faithful to the traditional.

Another Starchefs Congress ended and even though I ventured even further from the main stage, I still came away with a lot.

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