February 27, 2010

34 Tastes for a Cause: C-CAP 20th Anniversary Benefit

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.

Faux cake

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.

February 18, 2010

Celebrate with Cuteness

Question: What do you think the above creature is?

Of all the food-related drafts I have backed up, I find it amusing that I dug up my old artwork instead. It's an distant part of my life that has gotten shoved to the wayside in light of my recent food adventures. Because well, a girl needs to eat every day, but not draw. That's changed recently with the onslaught of holidays - Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day, Mardi Gras/Carnivale - thus it's been rather mind-numbing to decide what to draw in celebration. A tiger? A pink tiger cupcake? A heart-printed tiger eating a cupcake, covered in beads? It's not for lack of trying that I ended up scrapping everything.

I suppose this all started up again when I was jokingly challenged to "prove" that I was an artist. To put my paintbrush where my mouth was, so to speak. That's when I realized that I only had 3 drawings amongst 750 iPhone photos, and my DeviantART gallery is pushing 5 years' history with no recent activity. I've been in private art classes since I was 8, have never skipped a single year of public school art education from K-12, and used to enter numerous art competitions. So what happened? Did I open my mouth, expand my stomach, and chop off my hands?

It really took someone saying, "I'LL PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE IF YOU DON'T DO SOMETHING WITH THIS TALENT!" to jolt me awake. That certainly felt like a verbal punch to the face, in the best way. It made me start thinking more about why I wandered away from art, and if it really was an act of sacrifice. Food blogging and digital illustration don't strike most people as an instant fit, especially since I don't draw food, and photography is not my artistic strong point. I know I enjoy and take pleasure in doing both, even though it's hard to compare the skill level or audience feedback between the two.

After considering it for awhile, I don't think that I necessarily gave one interest up in place of another. I think there are certain basic elements that remain the same, such as having a distinctive voice/style, pouring passion into the work, acceptance and even anticipation of unknown results, and above all, the desire to share and delight to the best of your abilities.

Ever since I boiled it down to that simple list, I've been progressively more open about my artistic background. I even drew manatees the other night for Robyn, a catharsis which might've been just as pleasing as the food (though piling plates of pork belly are hard to dispute). What I'm really wondering is if anyone else has gone through the same dilemma. In pursuit of one particular, seemingly incompatible passion, did something else have to give way? Does one role necessarily have to be stripped away to take on another, or was this due to neglect or laziness?

In any case, the image up there is an old drawing of mine that popped out to me from my dusty files because it seemed fitting for this recent slew of holidays. So here's to nostalgia, following passions, and uh, bunnies.

Answer: It's a "Celebration Dimples", the name of a bunny-like mascot for my now defunct Minishop.

February 3, 2010

My Not-So-Secret Obsession with French Macarons


Most of the people who know me naturally associate me with cupcakes, because of my role with Cupcakes Take the Cake. But I have a little secret: cupcakes are not my personal favorite dessert. French macarons are*. I'm talking specifically about the French ones, not the mounds of coconut shreds that are so-called American macaroons. Precious, delicate, and frustratingly hard to bake without precision, they are worth the steep price tag in my opinion. To me, French macarons should be a 2-1 ratio of cake to buttercream filling, with a crispy but not crunchy exterior that maintains a little chewiness. I've tried so many in New York and still have yet to find a favorite, though I'm always on the lookout. Heck, I have a Yelp list about them!

So imagine my utter glee when a new macaron online bakery, Panna Dolce, offered to send me samples. They claimed to have perfected the French macaron, right down to the shipping of such a fragile item. I was intrigued, especially by anyone who boasts a comparison to France, which is where I remember tasting my very first macaron with no prior concept of what it was. The company began after a similar gastronomic experience 5 years ago at the infamous Parisian macaron altar, Laduree, sparked a passion that spiraled into a business and grew from there. Inspiring, no?

Words cannot describe the excitement of waiting for a special snail mail delivery, especially one that's food-related. I feel the same anticipation of a little kid looking forward to Christmas, for that joyous moment of tearing open the packaging to reach the prized center, although nowadays the risk of an "Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS)" is much lower. Unless you're into that kind of thing, which by that measure you've come across the wrong blog.


When the moment of arrival came, I instantly dove through neat layers of pink tissue paper to discover a tube of button-cute French Macarons, and a row of cookies and brownies. There was even a helpful legend with pictures to help decipher each product's flavor. I nibbled at the first macaron. Again, to be sure. Then I pondered.

Now, I don't know if it was due to my taste buds having been spoiled by a box of French macarons my boss gave me after his recent trip to Paris, or maybe that the goods had taken some damage from the shipping period, or perhaps my judgment was impaired when I sampled them at 1A.M. in the morning, but honestly these macarons didn't quite do it for me.


Vanilla Rose French Macaron. There's a nice ratio of filling to cookie shell, but it was a tad sweet and I prefer a softer, almost chewy cake inside the crunchy exteriors. There was a myriad of fruity and creamy French macarons, from conventional flavors like Chocolate Buttercream to more adventurous ones such as Almond Butter and Strawberry Jelly. The flavor of each macaron was pronounced, though the texture was where it fell a bit short for me. But for those who prefer crunchier cookies and a strong sugary taste, I suppose there is something to be said about individual differences.


But there were still other products. The different types of "Overloaded Cookies" are Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Raisin Walnut, White Chocolate Macadamia Cranberry, and Toffee Pretzel Peanut Butter Crunch. The cookie dough part of each cookie was on the dry side, but the mix-ins really stood out. The Toffee Pretzel Peanut Butter Crunch reminded me of the Momofuku Compost Cookie and other "Trash cookies" that have been part of the recent crazily overloaded cookies trend.


Then there was the brownie, or what they call "The Brownie to End All Brownies". With a name like that, anyone would be curious to put it in the boxing ring. According to the website, they "combine the richness of flourless chocolate cake with the flavor of toasted chocolate to get (what we humbly call) THE Brownie..." It was the only product that stayed moist inside the plastic wrapper, which made the center seem even almost raw and gooey, with an intense salty chocolate flavor. Was the brownie of my dreams? Perhaps not, but I had no trouble polishing this one off.

So I guess what matters is that, whether I got a faulty batch or faulty taste buds, Panna Dolce still has a passionate story and team behind them that will keep churning out the products they believe in. There is always room to grow, as long as there is the capacity and spirit to keep doing what you love. And as for me, well, I am still on my quest to find my perfect French macaron.

*Actually, it's a toss up with Tiramisu, another dessert that I haven't found a favorite version of yet.