I’m flippant about foodie culture, but in all sincerity it was a huge deal to be asked to participate in such an amazing event. I’ve got some pretty crazy life experiences that just kind of appeared, so while I can chalk this one up to my usual dumb luck, other than Dave Crum’s massive crush on me and Dolly Wood being cool as hell I have no idea how this materialized. I have a weirdly high level of insecurity when it comes to my place in the world, so I figured this was a matter of “let’s throw the poor Make-A-Wish kid a bone”. That’s just how my mind works. And the awesome byproduct of that gaping hole in my psyche is always being “ON”….completely balls-out or zero….no game but my A-Game. When I commit, I fucking commit. When Dave asked if I’d be Alex Pope’s sous chef, there was almost zero hesitation. A friend whom I respect asked me if I’d do something super cool that could have a positive impact, so not much thought needed. The only hesitation I had was that, as a FOODIE, my livelihood is in no way tied to the food community…I’m just along for the tasty ride. Even though they were looking for “civilian” sous chefs, several friends came to mind that may have been able to benefit from having CCVI Food Fight on their list of accomplishments. To be honest, I didn’t go beg their case, I was too floored to have been asked in the first place and immediately flew into balls-out mode to prepare. But in general, that’s how I try to approach this whole thing and why “foodie” has creeped me out….as someone skilled in the arts of bullshit and yapping away, it’s important to me to be authentic in my relationships. I’m not saying that anyone who simply beams under that moniker is immediately inauthentic, but self-proclaimed titles have a way of allowing someone to bypass the consistent behavior that would normally be the path to high regard and respect. I live my life according to a program that breaks it all down for me. I am lucky to count so many great people as friends. That point was driven home to me when I read the list of all of the chefs and restaurants involved in Food Fight…no matter how stupid I ended up looking, I would get to look stupid in front of my friends.
Looking stupid was actually task #2. Task #1 was to drive my chef crazy with my shocking lack of skill. Oh, I’m a great home cook. Give me enough time to prepare and a cookbook and I can make almost anything. And if it’s something I end up sucking at, I’ll just keep doing it until I get it right. No such luck with Food Fight. I emailed Alex and basically said “I have nice knives and no knife skills, but I take direction well”. But he’s a pro, a crazy busy chef who took the time to put my mind at ease. The plan was…think of things we can cook quickly. In an hour there’s only so much you can do, and my initial thought was that if I could stay out of the way, expedite simple tasks and handle some dessert prep, I could add value. In addition to getting my knives sharpened and practicing basic cuts on mirepoix and potatoes, I thought that a couple of doughs that don’t require yeast could be handy for sweet or savory preparations. Alex mentioned he was bringing a deep fryer, so I tried finding a recipe for funnel cake/fritter batter. I tried one that was a huge failure, but I also practiced on some pate a choux to make gougeres or profiteroles without realizing the shit fries up like a champ. So going into Food Fight my entire plan was to bring sharp knives, parchment paper, a Japanese mandoline, my own apron and cutting board, piping bags with tips already attached, rubber gloves, various tools like peelers and thermometers, and to practice choux dough enough times for it to basically become a reflex action. Oh, and to be an ambassador for Pointer Brand jeans and clothing….100% American made products that are a fitting rebuttal to Baldwin Denim for the poor and/or fat crowd. Pointer Brand. Quality and Affordability, Made in the U.S.A.
A bit of knowledge for future CCVI Food Fighters…cooking in a space that isn’t normally a kitchen is different from cooking at home. Biggest differences? No running water, a lack of large gas burners and ovens, and you don’t have all of the same kitchenware and serveware that you do at home. If you have giant, blinding spotlights pointing at you at home already, then boom….you’re one up on the competition immediately. I am missing those at home, so it took some getting used to. Another advantage is if you already have four or five top local chefs milling about your kitchen. A constant reminder that you do not know what you are doing provides a backdrop of nagging doubt that builds character. I am a master at smiling and nodding when food talk goes over my head, but there’s no such thing as being TOO good at that. Even if I know what something is, when I have a lot of terminology coming at me from different sources, it takes a few seconds for me to gauge how deeply I should commit to a conversation about saucisson or vadouvan. Usually, if you just shut up you can piece it together from what’s being said. But if you seriously have no clue whatsoever, the earlier you can admit that and ask a clarifying question the better off you will be in the long run.
Another thing I learned was to be honest and to the point when Alex would ask me “you got that?” or “you get what I’m saying?” There isn’t a lot of time to discuss technique or basic philosophy when you forget basic things like…adding water. Chopped sweet potatoes and piloncillo cooking down too thick too quickly? Add a little water. Those same sweet potatoes bunching up at the top in the blender and not mixing? You may want to consider adding a little bit of water. I could theorize that a liquid may facilitate the process, but what kind? Some sort of broth? A simple infused syrup? What would they use at Joe Beef? When I’m forced to think on my feet and act quickly, I forget things like water exist to help you, and which side of a peeler is the sharp side. But my pre-tipped piping bag, and identical backup piping bag (redundant systems), looked fabulous over by the blender that was top-heavy with large sweet potato chunks. Chef Pope is a real pro, these guys could do something like this in their sleep, so when I did not wreck anything beyond the power found in adding more water, I felt very successful. My main concern was whether or not I’d be any help to my chef, because being in front of a crowd, speaking in public or being onstage have zero effect on me. And speaking of crowds, the place was packed, so it was actually a relief to have a comparatively vast expanse of space to work with on the stage.
The format is part Iron Chef part Chopped. Upon arrival you’re welcome to investigate the pantry as well as a cooler full of mandatory ingredients like cod, skirt steak, walnuts, piquillo peppers, salami and cheese. Then right before the cooking begins they let the cutest child alive unveil the secret ingredient…sweet potato. So there was a decent amount of time to get some sort of game plan together and hope that the secret ingredient didn’t destroy it completely. As Alex was going over what he thought would work, the aforementioned smiling and nodding came in handy. When a scaleable multi-course plan is required on demand, you leave it to the professionals. A tartare first, followed by sautéed cod, and then funnel cakes. I was on the hook for dough and working the secret ingredient into some whipped cream cheese. Normally that wouldn’t be a scary plan to me, but everything leading up to this sentence should let you know how that became a scary plan to me. With the addition of sweet potatoes, chips were added to the tartare, sautéed potatoes and onion to the main, and a puree to the dessert. Normally I’d have an annoying breakdown of each preparation along with exhaustive tasting notes, but shit went fast and in the end I think I had one bite of a funnel cake and I shared a Jacobson meatball with Howard. In the end, Doug Frost broke out of his Moscow on the Hudson impersonation long enough to praise the cod dish, and Debbie Gold was all about some funnel cakes. Everything up to that point was a blast, so to have Alex win was an insane bonus to the evening. A special thanks to Reames Photography for capturing proof that my emotional range is larger than pissed off and/or sarcastic….
If I had to offer praise to foodies, I would say that they generally take more chances than I do. They’ll take a chance and investigate whether or not a place like Mestizo is about as shitty as one would imagine with that concept in that location. I will not take that chance. At least not until I hear first hand from someone I trust that it’s worth investigation. Because I keep my circle very tight and build outward very, very slowly. Not because I’m special, or because I’m cool, but because I value things like loyalty, trust and friendship in a way that makes me someone with lifelong relationships that are very rarely disturbed by needless drama. I take that with me into the world of dining and procuring goods, and again, have managed to build what I hope are lifelong friendships that also remain undisturbed by dramas or agendas. If I’m cool, or fun, or funny, it’s because I’m able to be comfortable as myself and not a caricature that shifts with the trends and current places to-be-seen. The amicable bullshitter persona is part of the package, for better or worse. I don’t practice that or consciously think about it, it just exists. But with all of the solemn omerta-ish duty to authenticity comes the tendency to be a total fucking control freak who simply expands his comfort zone rather than ever just get out of it. An event like Food Fight helps me to remember a saying I have lived by less often than I should in the past four or five years….always have something in your life that makes you wonder what in the hell you are doing. Foodies are probably better at that than me because they lack the insane vetting process I have and just go with the flow, taking the hits and the misses. I still rule though, I mean, come on.
The bottom line is, the list of things that I love has to become larger. The place in my life meant for others has to become larger. The asshole with a heart of gold schtick, and years of ministry, allow me to skate by without putting in real work. I’ve had a few years to get my shit together, and things are going better than I ever dreamed. Marriage and fatherhood are the life for me. I’m always going to help drunks, and I’m always going to be helped by drunks. That is as natural as breathing at this point. But it’s not the end game, it’s just part of the expanded comfort zone. A friend contacted me out of the blue just a few days after I was asked to take part in Food Fight, and they asked me “as the restaurant guy, if I knew people who would want to get involved with a charity”. I’ve been asked that question before, and should have done more before now, but this time it struck me differently. The path that my life has taken, and the resulting laundry list of miraculous moments and fantastic people, is equal to the debt that I owe. Now, I don’t have a bug up my ass to go and die from not being able to shit like Emile Hirsch in “Into the Wild”…..I’m not about to launch into reckless self discovery here…I’m just a lucky guy who should do more. I’m good with people and I know a lot of people. Something like helping with CCVI Food Fight in whatever capacity they need me (I won’t be a valet, not because it’s beneath me, I’m just not running back and forth) from now on is a no-brainer. The organization my friend works for is another path to investigate. Unexpected moments that are out of your control can be great practice at working towards a meaningful impact. Broth is great, but sometimes water will do just fine.