February 27, 2010
What better way to celebrate twenty years of culinary advancement advocacy than with over thirty offerings from some of New York's top chefs and restaurants? Thirty-four, to be exact.
There are times when I am convinced that I am secretly cut out to be a competitive eater, and the only thing holding me back is my collection of evening gowns. These periods of temptation come in the form of grand tasting galas, where many culinary gurus band together and offer their services to support a common cause. Since these events are generally for charity, the cost to your pocketbook and waistline are justified. What you might not expect is how much you stand to gain in return.
I received a generous offer a few nights ago to be a friend's guest at the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP)'s 20th Anniversary Benefit, celebrating the efforts and achievements of Marcus Samuelsson. I still refer to his restaurant, Aquavit, as the defining place that tipped off my fine dining adventures, though he has gone on to explore other ventures. C-CAP upholds an admirable goal to "prepare underserved students for college and careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry" all over the United States, by offering scholarships, internships, donations, and other opportunities to help students follow their passions. According to Nation's Restaurant News, C-CAP has given over $28 million in scholarships to high school students in these laudable twenty years.
On Wednesday, February 24, more than thirty of New York's most respected chefs came out to support C-CAP, the list of which you can find here. I've had the good fortune to have attended a few grand tasting events before, but there were a few details that made C-CAP's version particularly unforgettable. Indeed, the food was heavenly, the event was well organized, and Pier 60 provided a breathtaking view over the Hudson river with Jersey's distant lights. There was a silent auction with tempting food or travel related prizes, and Zabar's provided gift bags at the end.
I've never recorded my previous experiences at these type of events because all the technical details usually become a blur after the tenth, twentieth, or in this case, thirtieth dish. Nevertheless, I'll do my best to share snippets of some of my personal highlights from the event.
Alfred Portable of Gotham Bar and Grill served up a Cauliflower Custard with Santa Barbara Uni, Trout Roe, and Soy Vinaigrette that was easily one of my favorite dishes of the night. Seemingly mild ingredients were paired beautifully together to highlight the surprisingly vibrant flavors and textures that built upon one another to make each component pop. Even after making all the rounds, I still managed to make room to indulge in a second plate of this.
I was unfamiliar with the restaurant Beacon, but after trying their Herb Marinated Lamb Chops with Garlic Parseley Crumbs, I'm convinced that I need more open-fire cooking in my life. Juicy, tender, succulent pieces of lamb that I agree taste better when eaten off the bone, are proof that good food can be created even in a limited environment.
The chill from the cold air outside was instantly alleviated after a taste of Telepan's rustic Fallen Polenta Soufflé with Hominy and Mushrooms. Simple and elegant, this was truly a dish that celebrated down-to-earth cooking with fine, fresh ingredients. Another addition to the winter cure was a surprising wild card. Pier 60's catering crew made a hearty Wild Fowl Potpie that stuck to the ribs in the best way.
I'd been meaning to try Gilt ever since I saw the breathtaking photo of their dining room on the website, but plans always kept changing. After a sip of the Sunchoke Velouté with Cream Cheese, Pumpernickel, and Dill in a petite porcelain cup, I'm now set to dine there in a matter of days. Pumpernickel has a very strong, slightly sweet, yet sour taste of rye, which makes it a bit of an acquired taste. Then again, this is also coming from someone who dislikes cucumber because it's "too refreshing". Fortunately, a mark of great food is when you're compelled to eat it and end up enjoying it despite existing personal taste preferences.
Anyone who has asked me for some of my favorite restaurants recommendations knows that I adore Park Avenue Cafe, also known as Park Avenue Winter|Spring|Summer|Autumn. The restaurant transforms its menus and entire decor to usher in each new season, respecting the color themes and seasonal ingredients that make each short three-month period as fleeting and precious as the last.
It's no wonder then, that I was instantly enthralled by the display of flowers that acted as a precursor to Park Avenue Spring. I had to search around the art piece to find their edible offering, Crispy cones of Peekytoe Crab with Avocado, Citron, and Ginger. Although I love some of the root vegetables in the wintertime, this reaffirmed my anticipation for the bountiful spring harvests. Chef Craig Koketsu eased that anxiety by letting us know that March 16th is the official first day of Spring, so mark your calendars.
Of course, from the very beginning of the event, my sugar-loving self was already anxious to see the dessert options. Amongst the thirty-plus booths, there were only a handful of dessert options. I suppose I'm still in the minority for craving sweet above savory. Fortunately, that left more room and attention for the ones that were on display.
A lighthearted poke at traditional desserts by this Faux Carrot Cake from Olives. Accompanied with a scoop of Werthers Candy Sorbet and adorned with a line of cheesecake and crunchy cereal balls, it had me feeling like a kid all over again.
Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel of Daniel created this elegant chocolate sculpture, though it was his Chocolate and Peanut Butter Ganache Praliné Feuilletine that stole the show for me. The layers of rich Valrhona chocolate, smooth peanut butter, and the slight crunch from the praliné made this a bite-sized delicacy that disappeared quickly before I even thought to take photos. The next plate met a similar fate.
On a final note, I was pleased to see cupcakes represented by Sarabeth Levine's Black Beauties, individual chocolate cakes with ganache. I considered them to be cupcakes, but it's open to interpretation.
I wish I had the capacity to talk about all of the other wonderful showings that night, but alas, I had fallen into a food coma near the end. I'm sure I could go on and on about each and every dish, but that's not my ultimate goal here. Most of the food you can find in its full form at the restaurants, but it's the collective experience that can't be replicated. I thoroughly enjoyed meandering through the crowds of fellow food-lovers, admiring the inventive dishes, and getting a chance to chat with the chefs behind the brick-and-mortar embodiments of their achievements. I could finally tell them how much I enjoyed dining at their restaurants, while at the same time getting a sense of which restaurants or restaurateurs to visit next.
But perhaps what was even more exciting than getting to talk to the masterminds behind some of New York's best restaurants was the mystery of meeting the bright faces of future chefs, those of the students staffing the event. I tried my best to remember each student's face, give a little smile, and wonder when I'll see their names again as that of Chef de Cuisine at my new favorite restaurants in years to come.
So while these events are undeniably fun in the moment, what's gained in the long run is a deeper appreciation of how food empowers and inspires us, and what the culinary community can do to give back and support the newer generation of talent while celebrating the previous and the current. Hopefully, this recap is enough of a teaser to sway any fence-straddlers' opinions about attending the next food-related benefit. I'll see you there.