So you want to take your kids to the zoo?

As a parent you try to do for your children, and working together with your spouse usually makes things a lot easier on everyone involved.  So when you plan something simple, like going to the zoo it should be rather simple, fun, and memorable.  However the reality that we live in is that generally speaking, something is going to happen to make you resort to “Plan B”.  All too often we don’t develop a second plan based on what may or may not happen, so when something in the plan goes haywire you have to think on your feet.  Or as in our case last week, you might just be blessed enough to have some guardian angels step in and save the day.

The Columbus Zoo is just under three hours from our house, so waking up early, driving to the zoo and having a day full of fun, then turning around and driving back is not something too hard to accomplish.  We planned the trip out, set aside money, and hopped in the car on Tuesday morning and headed north west.  Our twelve year old had recently been to the zoo so he was excited, but maybe not as much as he was the first time he went.  The nineteen year old had also been before, so he was going to serve as our guide of sorts helping us get to where we wanted to go quicker, instead of wandering aimlessly all day.  The four year old was, to say the least, beside herself.  I think she had dreamed of monkeys, elephants, and gorilla’s for several nights leading up to the trip. The twenty year old was also making his first trip to the zoo, so he had some specific plans on things he wanted to see. One last minute development was that the twelve year olds girlfriend was going to join us for the trip. Excitement at its finest, and most genuine state.
We had just crossed over the bridge and in to the state of Ohio when everyone started to get comfortable in their seats. My wife and I had got everything sorted up front with music, temperature of the car, and who’s drink goes in which cup holder. In the back seat the twenty year old had the earphones in and was jamming to his latest download. The four year old was snoozing, trying to sneak in one more dream about what would he a reality just a couple short hours from now. In the third row seat the twelve year old and his girlfriend were talking away about this friend, or that friend. In the car behind us was the nineteen year old and his girlfriend in her car. Cruise controls were set and we were on our way.
At first I thought I had missed the accelerator pedal. But then there was a sound and I knew that wasn’t the case. Something was wrong with the car, and then every light on the dashboard lit up and the car shut down. I hit the hazard lights and drifted off the road. Since we were on a two lane road I did the best I could to get as far away from traffic as possible. The passenger side tire in the grass was the best I could do. It was a safe distance but kids on the side of the road make you a little uneasy, on top of that we have someone else’s child with us. Someone else had put their trust in us to make sure she made it home safe. At this point getting the car in shape for us to get someplace safe is all that’s on my mind. I’m not sure what’s wrong with the car but I know it’s bad. We open the hood and spend thirty minutes or so trying to disprove the obvious, the engine is blown, the car isn’t going anywhere unless its getting a piggyback ride on a wrecker. So I place a call to emergency roadside assistance and get the ball rolling on getting the car towed, as well as trying to locate a rental. In theory if we can get a rental quick enough, then we can still make the zoo in plenty of time.
As I’m verifying everything with the lady on the phone I see a police car going past us on the road. Now here in West Virginia this is a normal thing. Its accepted that their not going to stop and help you, but we were in Meigs County Ohio, and apparently if people are in a bad spot the folks that live in this area are going to lend a helping hand. We were fortunate enough to have the sheriff himself stop to help us out Mr. Keith Woods.  What we didn’t know at the time was that this was going to be our first brush with a guardian angel for the day.
As soon as he got out of the car he said “how many kids do you have”? I told him a boatload and let him know that they were my main concern. I told him where they were taking the car, and he let me know that the car repair shop and the rental car company were in two different directions. We were in just about the worst spot we could be in. We didn’t have enough room in our one working car to get everyone to one place so he offered to drive three people to the rental car company so that they could rent a car, then they could come pick me up and we could make our way to the zoo. Problem solved, and away they went. Along the way I’m sure he could sense the four year old’s uneasiness, so he made conversation with her continuously, talking about the zoo, and the further they drove the more comfortable she was.  By the time they had reached the rental car company she was laughing and having a great time.  And since the police officer had been so excited about the polar bears, that was on top of the four year olds list of things to see.  Perhaps the officer was just doing his duty, maybe he is just a nice guy.  But for me and my family, on that day and in our situation we couldn’t have asked for anything better than him.  And his simple gesture to kindness made a huge difference in our families safety, and overall attitude in a bad situation.

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Not too long after they left the wrecker showed up and loaded up our car. We loaded up and headed back in the other direction to the repair shop.

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When we got there I spoke to a guy named Larry, he was the apparent owner of the shop and seemed like a great guy. I told him what had happened to the car and he said he could look at it later in the day. There was an older gentleman setting behind the counter with him giving him a hard time about everything he said and did, it was obvious good clean fun and it appeared as if this was the norm between these two.
It was about this time that my phone rang, it was the wife and I fully expected her to let me know she was on the way with a rental, and needed directions to where I was. However she called to inform me that the rental car company didn’t have any cars to rent. That didn’t make much sense to me considering it was a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of nowhere. She had some concern in her voice, along with some frustration so I did all I could to calm her nerves and insure her that I would find a car.
I hung up with her and asked Larry where would he the closest place to rent a car since there apparently wasn’t any cars for rent where my wife was. He named a couple different cities and I quickly looked them up on my phone and started calling. Now I realize this may seem strange, buy the truth is we called a total of seven rental car company’s only to be told each time “we don’t have anything available today”.
It was at this point I knew I needed to explain everything to Larry and see if he could lend me some help. I didn’t even know where I was, much less how far away from anything I was. So I explained to him about the wife and kids, told them where they were and that we were just trying to go to the zoo. At this point the older gentleman spoke up and said “well take my car”, I kinda chuckled and told him I appreciated the offer however I didn’t feel comfortable taking a strangers car.
Larry said he may know someone who would rent me a car and he made a call. The older gentleman insisted that I take his car and, as he said “get them kids to the zoo”. He said he wouldn’t argue about it anymore and that he was going to get his truck so I needed to meet him out front. Larry’s attempt to get me a car had failed, so I asked him what he thought I should do. There was no hesitation whatsoever when he told me to take the old feller up on his offer. He said he was good as gold, and was as serious as could be, and never fails to have a soft spot for kids. So out the door I go to climb in an old beat up Chevy truck, no clue where I am or where I’m going, but believing in my heart that I’m gonna make it to the zoo for the kids.

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I snuck a picture of the second guardian angel of the day as we drove toward his house. I also called the wife to let her know I had found a car and was on my way to get it. I didn’t know what kind of car, and of course she asked and I didn’t bother explaining it to her I simply said that I would explain when I got there.
The gentleman extended his hand and told me his name was John Fisher. I told him mine and shook his hand. I explained that I wasn’t really sure what to say, and I asked what I could offer him for allowing me to use his car. He said there was no need for anything, he just wanted us to get to the zoo and then home safe. He told me he didn’t need the car until Thursday evening, and I explained I was off the following day and would be sure to return it.
When we reached his house I saw setting in the driveway a Buick LeSabre, it didn’t look like a car I have ever owned and didn’t look like a car I ever have plans of owning. But it did look like a safe way for my wife and I to get the kids to the zoo. Mr. Fisher told me to drive it like my own and that I needed to get going.
In a moment of reality it hit me that this man standing before me was making a truly genuine act of random kindness. The following day I would learn that he was only at the repair shop to pay one of the young men working there for some side work he had done for him. The circumstances in which we crossed paths were impossible, and yet they had happened. He was meant to be there, and I was meant to be in need. His basic generosity was moving, and I wasn’t sure what to say or do. So I told him I wasn’t exactly sure what to say to him or what to do. He made it easy, “say goodbye, get in the car and get them kids to the zoo”. So that’s what I did.
Thirty minutes later I was pulling in to a McDonald’s parking lot to pick up my wife and kids. Yes we had some laughs about the car itself, the Barbara Mandrel cassette in the radio and the scenario in general. There were certainly moments when I felt like Clark Griswald in Vacation, and we even joked that we were on a quest, a quest for fun! The most important thing is that  we made it to the zoo and we saw the gorillas and the elephants and even a polar bear.

We had two people cross our paths on this day, and they made a difference.  They took a stranded and more than likely helpless family and made simple gestures that insured a memorable and fun trip to the zoo.  We have good memories and laughs to look back on, instead of a stack of negatives.  When I returned the car to Mr. Fisher the next day he was setting on the porch in a rocking chair relaxing.  He had no interest in checking out his car to make sure it was ok, I didn’t bother telling him that we had woke up early that morning and washed it swept it out and filled it up with gas for him, that wouldn’t matter to him either.  The offer of money was quickly squashed by him as he looked me straight in the eye and said “Mr. Grover, did those kids have fun”? At that point I understood, and perhaps I learned more in that moment than any of the kids did at the zoo.  There are angels among us, and sometimes when you least expect it they show up.  A thank you and a hand shake sometimes go a long way and I’m fortunate enough to have experienced that.

Thank you Sheriff Woods, and Mr. Fisher.  We wouldn’t have made it without you!

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What to make for our kids lunch, when we’re afraid of them eating at school!

It’s no secret at this point that here in the Charleston WV area that our water isn’t usable. With this post I’m not going to get in to what is safe, appropriate, or usable. I’m just going to state that my wife and myself are not using the water that is available from West Virginia American Water. We don’t feel that it is safe for our family to use, so we have chosen not to use it. All of my feelings on this matter would be best covered in a separate post.
This post will cover what we’re doing in order to make sure our twelve year old has something to eat each day when he goes to school. There are a few hurdles to cover with this, as we do not want him eating food that has been prepared by the local water, or eating off of the dishes that are being washed in the local water. He doesn’t have access to a microwave so warm food is out. And we want him to have something of substance so he isn’t setting in class hungry. These are a few of the items we have been preparing for him at home, and he seems to enjoy. There isn’t anything earth shattering, or on the cutting edge of the culinary world. However, if you would like to send food to school with your child, this is a great place to start.

Chicken Salad-
This is one of the recipes that I have used for years in several different restaurants, and it has always been received well. I believe that Chicken Salad gets a bad wrap because of the way it is prepared, so I made some adjustments to the texture of it during the preparation stages and I think it makes all the difference in the world.

Needed:
5lbs Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast
1/2 Red Onion, diced
3 Ribs Celery, split and diced
Herbs de Provence
Salt and Pepper to taste
Mayonnaise
Dijon Mustard
Canola Oil

Notice that on some of the ingredients I do not list amounts. This varies each time I make the recipe and there are a lot of factors as to how much you should use. Going through the explanation process I will explain this in detail so that you won’t run in to issues.

To begin with preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the Chicken Breast on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with a little non stick spray. It’s ok if the chicken breast are touching each other, but try to avoid any overlapping so that everything will cook evenly.
Season the chicken with Kosher Salt, and Black Pepper and then with the Herbs de Provence. This is a mixture of seasonings and it contains Lavender. Lavender can become very over powering if you use too much, so just sprinkle a small amount (Approximately 1/2 teaspoon) on each breast. Then drizzle some Canola (you can also use Extra Virgin Olive Oil) oil on to the breast and place them in the oven for about 28 minutes. The cook time will vary if the breast are really thick.

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While the chicken is cooking is a great time to cut the onions and celery. Once the chicken has cooked remove it from the oven and set it somewhere in the kitchen so that it can rest. There will be a lot of liquid in the baking pan so be careful while you’re moving it. Let the chicken rest for at least twenty minutes, however I recommend thirty five to forty minutes.
Once the chicken has rested you need to cut it up so that it will be the consistency that we want. I normally cut half of the chicken in to small square pieces, and the other half I cut very small to where it is basically minced. This gives the finished product some texture because there are actual pieces of meat to bite in to. Too many times I have had chicken salad that is pureed to the point that there is no texture to it at all, or the pieces are cut so large you would be better off placing them on a skewer and serving them that way. By cutting the chicken to two different textures you’re getting the best of both worlds!

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After cutting the chicken I place it in a large bowl and I add the celery and red onion. I normally do not use all that I have cut. To be honest I just add it until I feel that it is the right amount. This comes down to a personal preference, if you really like onions, add more. If you don’t care for celery, add less. There is no right or wrong.

Now it is time to add the mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. And in my opinion this is the most important step in making chicken salad. Chicken Salad is a mayonnaise based salad. However if you only use enough mayonnaise to hold the salad together you essentially can have a chicken based, chicken salad. I start with about 2 teaspoons of Dijon, and about 3/4 cup of Mayonnaise and fold everything together. You just want a slight coating on the chicken, you may need to add more and don’t hesitate because as it sets the chicken will absorb some of the liquid. I just try to avoid it becoming a bowl of mayonnaise that happens to have some chicken in it. Taste it and see if the level of Herbs de Provence are where you want them. If not then add a little more, just be careful as this seasoning can take over rather quickly and become too strong.

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Place in a air tight container and refrigerate. It will be better after it sets over night.

We made wraps out of this for our son with some lettuce and tomato. Another obvious choice would be bread and to be honest this is really good on a nice thick piece of wheat bread. It’s a good lunch, it’s filling and it isn’t bad for you like processed meat products or toxic water.

Egg Salad-

Not everyone likes Egg Salad, but at our house if I make it, it is usually gone within three hours. This is how I make it, and I hope you give it a try.

What is needed:

30 Eggs
1 Tablespoon Herbs de Provence
Kosher Salt
Black Pepper
1 Cup Mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard

Egg Salad is one of the easiest salads to make, and if you do it right, it can be down right delicious. I start by placing the eggs in to a large pot that will hold all of the eggs, as well as allow them to be covered by about an inch of cold water. Place this on the stove over high heat until the water comes to a boil. As soon as you have a full boil turn the heat off, and note the time. Let the pot set as is for 18 minutes. When the 18 minutes have elapsed pour the hot water from the pot, and put cold water on top of the eggs while shaking the pot. This will crack the eggs and allow some of the cold water to get between the hard cooked egg, and the shell. This will make peeling the eggs a lot easier.

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There are several different ways to peel a hard cooked egg, some people roll them on the counter, others use a spoon, and some just pick them up and start peeling them with their fingers. However it is that you chose to do it, peel all of the eggs and place them in a large bowl. After you have peeled them all, use a mash potato utensil to “mash” the eggs. This will allow larger pieces of egg to remain, but will mash the eggs so that it has the right consistency. If you happen to have a “pan rack” at home that is used for cooling foods on a baking sheet you can also just press the eggs through one of these racks for a quick and easy method of breaking them up for the salad.

Once you have mashed all of the eggs, season them with Kosher Salt, Pepper and the Herbs de Provence. Add the mustard and mayonnaise and mix together. If you don’t feel it is enough mayonnaise then add more. I try to do the same with this as I do the chicken salad. I just want there to be enough to coat the eggs and hold them together. Once you’re finished place in an air tight container and refrigerate. As with the Chicken Salad it will be better after it sets in the refrigerator overnight.

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We made Egg Salad sandwiches for our child on a hamburger bun. You could also use an English Muffin, a wrap, or just regular bread. Also some people like to add pickles, or pickle juice to their egg salad, if this is your preference you would do so at the same time you add the mustard and mayonnaise.

So there are two things that you can make sandwiches or wraps from, but what should you serve with it? What follows are two salads that I have made that pass the kids test over and over and are also very simple to make.

Pasta Salad-

What you need:

1 16oz box Tri Color Rotini
1 Cucumber, diced
1 Tomato, diced
1 Red Onion, diced
1 Green Pepper, diced
1 Bottle Bacon Ranch Salad Dressing
Kosher Salt

Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. As you’re waiting for the water to come to a boil you can cut the vegetables up to add to the salad. Once the water has came to a boil, add some Kosher Salt to the water to season the pasta as it cooks, then add the pasta to the pot. Stir the pasta occasionally so that it doesn’t stick together and cook for as long as it says to do so on the package. Drain the hot water from the pasta and place the pasta in a large bowl that will hold all of the ingredients, and allow room for mixing. You will want to allow the pasta to cool for a few minutes before you introduce the other ingredients.

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Once the pasta has cooled, add the diced vegetables, and the bacon ranch dressing, mix well and place in an air tight container and refrigerate. After the salad has set for about an hour I give it another stir just to make sure everything is coated well.

Other things that you can add to this depending on you and your child’s taste is olives, pickles, capers and even shredded cheese.

Broccoli Salad-

This is one of my favorites to eat without question.

What is needed:

2 Heads Fresh Broccoli
12 oz Bacon (Or bacon bits)
1/2 Red Onion, diced
8oz Shredded Cheddar Cheese
Cole Slaw Dressing

Before we talk about putting the salad together lets go over a couple of the ingredients. With the price of bacon as it is right now, it could be more cost effective to simply buy bacon bits, however if you can find bacon at a good price it is probably better to cook it yourself, then crumble it after it cools. Obviously if you’re using bacon bits you don’t want to use 12 ounces you would just want to sprinkle some in when it comes time to mix everything together.
As for the Cole Slaw Dressing, I prefer to make my own however there are some really good pre-made items available out there. If you chose to make your own and you’re not sure how to go about it, I keep mine very simple by just using Mayonnaise, White Balsamic Vinegar, Kosher Salt, Black Pepper, and Sugar. I do not follow a recipe, I simply just taste as I mix until it taste the way I like Cole Slaw to taste.

So to begin the recipe cut the broccoli down to bite size pieces and place them in a large bowl. Add the Red Onion, Bacon, Shredded Cheese to the bowl, top with the cole slaw dressing and mix together. Once again I just put enough dressing on this to coat the items in the bowl, so start with a small amount of dressing and then add more as needed. Season with Kosher Salt if you like, place in an air tight container and store in the refrigerator.

I realize that none of these recipes are going to win any awards, however as we found at our house you can only fix ham or bologna sandwiches for so long before your child becomes bored with lunch. And to keep a child from eating junk you can buy from a machine, this is what we have done the past couple of weeks. I will add to this as we do new things and share what we’re doing. I hope this helps someone out!

World Food Championships 2013

Now that it’s all over, I realize how fortunate I was to qualify for the World Food Championships (WFC) this year. What started as just a normal day at work with a “Oh why not” attitude ended up being an incredible journey both professionally and personally. A lot of what I got to experience are the normal things that you would expect with something like this, but there were several pleasant surprises along the way. Here I will try my best to share them.

So my phone rings one day while I’m at work, for me this isn’t a surprise as my phone is constantly making some form of noise all hours of the day and night. On the line is my US Foods Territory Manager Brad Davis, and he reminds me about this contest that his company is having called the US Foods Next Top Product contest. The premise is simple, the have Chefs from all over the country submit recipes to their website and through a series of “rounds” recipes advance. When they get to the final eight recipes the people who submitted them get to go to Las Vegas to compete against each other to try and win the grand prize which is $20,000 in cash and prizes.
So why should I not take a few minutes and enter a recipe? Whats the worst thing that can happen? In fact I actually have time to enter two recipes so that’s exactly what I did. After briefly reading through the categories that they were focusing on I knew that I should enter the “sauce” category as that is one of my strengths and I have two very good sauces that we use on a regular basis in one of the kitchens I’m in charge of. I knew them both like the back of my hand, they both had several uses, and from the viewpoint of a Chef they both would be really nice to have on hand for several different reasons. The first entry was a Strawberry Vinaigrette, and it wasn’t the chosen recipe. The second was a Roasted Corn Sauce or as is described in one of my earlier blog post A-Maizing sauce. It was chosen at the Divisional level of the competition and that placed me in the Regional round and one step closer to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.
The regional round was set up as a voting process on Facebook and Twitter. Basically anyone could vote for you each day via these social media outlets. I was up against four other Divisional winners and whomever had the most votes at the end of a six week period would win the Region, and move on to the Finals. This set myself and several other people on a daily mission to obtain votes, and right out of the gate I had a very large lead. It seemed after a few days that perhaps some of the other contestants weren’t even notified that they should be soliciting votes for themselves. Too good to be true perhaps and certainly this won’t last were my thoughts at this point. And sure enough the race would get very interesting along the way. Peach Cookies was a submission from a contestant in South Carolina and it didn’t take long for this recipe to close the large lead I had and make each vote, each day crucial. It seemed each day during work I would get a 3% lead, and every morning when I would wake up it would be back to 1%. When the final day of voting ended. I had a 2% lead, and had won the Region. I was going to Vegas to cook and if I could edge out the other seven regional winners I was going to walk away with $20,000 in cash and prizes. Things had got serious really fast, and I knew that I had a little over a month to do everything I could to make sure I was ready for anything that would get thrown my way.
First things first, my fear of flying and the fact that my wife shares that fear with me. Vegas is over 2000 miles from our house, so driving is out of the question, however I’m going to make this trip and the thought of having a trip to Vegas with someone else paying our way was not going to be passed up by her. Her desire to visit Vegas far outweighed her fear of planes, even though she had up until this point never considered getting on one. For me the answer was simple, I paid a visit to my doctor he wrote me a prescription and I knew I would be ok. For her the anxiety was present until our first flight, when she realized she loves to fly and never wants to drive anywhere again.
Now back to the contest. My first concern was the recipe itself and self doubt would become a daily feeling even though I knew how well I knew the recipe. Two days after winning the region I made three batches of the sauce and that put to rest a lot of my doubts. Now what else could I do to help my chances to win? It seemed to me that if my “product” was versatile it would certainly make it more appealing as a potential product for them to want to sell. I knew there was nothing on the market close to what I was making, so that also helped. So at this point I start to develop more uses for the sauce than what we were or had used it for. And in all I came up with twelve applications that were straight forward and actually did what the sauce was intended to do, bring flavor to the plate. So for this aspect of the competition I felt very confident.
Now what about some other details that I needed to consider? Interviews, there would be interviews and I had not been in front of cameras or large crowds for several years. In this respect I was very fortunate. The Director of Marketing where I work was not only willing to help me prepare of this but really took the initiative to make sure I had a good grasp on anything that could be thrown my way. She along with all of the other Directors at the facility I work at put me through the most difficult interview that I had to endure through this entire process. Then I was able to get honest feedback from her on better ways to handle certain situations. This was absolutely invaluable, and I can only hope to be given the chance to repay each of these people in some way in the future. With all of this under my belt, there was no way I could lose. So now it’s time to go to Vegas and win one not just for me and my family, and not just those I work with and for, but for a lot of family and friends from this area. An area that doesn’t get much recognition for accomplishments very often.

When we arrived in Vegas the excitement was incredible. In reality I’m just a guy who goes to work every day and I try to do my job to the best of my ability. I love my job and everything about it, except for the hours. I love food and everything about it and being a Chef truly isn’t a job for me, it’s a lifestyle. I’m proud of what I do day to day, but the truth is everything I do is for my family. I like to keep things simple, but here I am getting flown to Vegas to compete in the World Food Championships. It was very humbling and the sense of accomplishment that I felt was incredible. I had been given a chance to do something special for those that mean the most to me. I was realizing that all of those long nights at work, the missed school functions, the family time that was spent without me could be repaid to some extent by winning this contest. To be able to return home to those that were going to miss us the most and let them know that it was all worth while was now the only thing on my mind. Yes I would be able to enjoy myself, relax, and be a part of the Vegas experience but when I was told it was time to cook my mind would be nowhere else and my intentions would be very simple, win.
Shortly after arriving at our Hotel and getting registration taken care of for the event the agenda for the next few days was now clear. Meetings, dinners, interviews, and finally some cooking is what I had in store and I was going to embrace all of it with open arms. The amount of detail that was put in to this entire event was extraordinary. Everything was planned properly, the excitement was so thick in the air you could taste it. There were people from all over the world who had came to this one small square mile for their love of food. Chefs, cooks, writers, judges, media, television personalities, all watching the same things, tasting the same foods and being a part of an international event. The folks at the World Food Championships really know what their doing, and it showed in every way possible. The company responsible for my participation in the event, US Foods didn’t just allow what the event was providing for me to be enough, they went over and above with gift packages, an upscale dinner at a local country club, a knife set as well as several other nice giveaways. Nothing was overlooked or forgotten, and my wife and I were treated like celebrities in everything we did.
When the day arrived to cook, one thing had changed. Our cook time had been extended by nearly three hours. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with the time, but one thing was for certain, I wasn’t going to be late turning in my food. It didn’t take long for the nerves to vanish once I started preparing my ingredients. Everything I needed was there, and there was no doubt I would make the best batch of corn sauce I had ever made. My wife was close by watching, and each time I looked her way she would send a beautiful smile to me that would comfort me even more. When I had finished my first batch of sauce, I still had over two hours of cook time left. I placed the finished product in to holding containers and set it aside. When the time to plate grew closer I would gently warm it back up for plating. I started a second batch of sauce that I had no intentions of ever finishing. I knew the cameras and interviews would be making their way through the cooking area and I wanted to be able to not only explain what I was doing, but also be able to show them the actual process.
During this time I was able to talk with one of the people responsible for the contest from start to finish. He informed me that all of the kitchen equipment we were using was going to be cleaned after the contest and then donated to the Wounded Warrior project, and all of the food that was left over from the day of cooking would make it’s way to a local food bank. Once again, every detail was covered and I was proud to be a part of what was going on here. As the cameras approached I tried to make sure nothing was in a position to get burned, scorched, or knocked over so I could focus on answering all the questions properly. In what was realistically a ten minute interview it seemed like it went by in twenty seconds. It went well and I was happy with it, and the best part was when I was finished with the interview it was time to finally plate my dish. Since I had sat down and typed up the recipe months earlier, this was the moment that I had most anticipated. Once the food was on the plates, off to the judges I went and turned everything in with about six minutes to spare. The sense of relief was incredible. And at this moment the true reality of everything became very clear. I had made exactly what I had turned in months earlier, it was perfect and there was nothing that I could have done better throughout this entire process. If I win or not comes down to the opinion of four people that I won’t get to meet until after the process is over. But for my part, and what I could control I had exceeded my own expectations and there was a calmness and sense of accomplishment that came along with that in which can’t be described.
Now it was time to do what cleaning I could before I had go on stage and find out the results. I got a hug and kiss from my wife, and I was the happiest person on the planet. We made our way to the stage, and one by one me and the other seven finalist were called up. Each of us were introduced and the Host exchanged a few words with us, then he went directly to who had won. Black Bean Sliders was the winner. In all of my thinking I had never imagined that being the winner. I had always looked at the marketability and versatility of the products I was going up against and in my mind I just didn’t feel threatened by the eventual winner. On the upside the Chef who won was a great guy, and I have no doubt that his winning recipe was delicious.
The contest was over, and I had lost. But in so many other ways I was the biggest winner Vegas has ever seen. My wife and I had the chance to travel 2000 miles and spend four days together, and that is something that money can’t buy. It was the first time we had left our children for more than one night. With that came a lot of fun, and also an equal amount of heartache. The main reason for us making the trip was to win, and I had fallen short. But the memories that we made, and the experiences that we had the chance to enjoy together made everything worth while. And I wouldn’t trade any of it for the prize that I would have received if I had won. Now that we’re back home to our normal routine, we speak of going back daily and taking our children with us and finding jobs and a place to live. The new doors that were opened for possible career advancements are very exciting, and I can only stay focused on not letting these slip through my fingers like the finals of the contest did. Because in the end I’m just a guy trying to take care of his family. And every day I feel like the ultimate winner for that reason.
Thanks to the people of The World Food Championships for all that they provided. And a special thanks to US Foods for showing my wife and I the time of our lives, and treating my family and myself in the way that you did. Also I would like to thank Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Cross Lanes, WV for giving me a great work environment and being so supportive and helpful throughout the whole process of this contest.
And to my family, I am nothing without you. And the support and love that you show me each day makes what I do worth doing.

Life in and out of a Professional Kitchen

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The following is two different views of one profession.  These are not stories of specific people, however they are no doubt played out by millions each and every day.  An Executive Chef and a Line Cook in a professional kitchen are two different people, bound by one common goal.  And each day when they put their uniform on they embark on a journey that will take two completely different courses but they cross paths several times.

I truly believe that the food business is less about food than it is about people.  What follows is what I see day to day, and what I feel all the time.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Chef-

The alarm clock goes off, and it’s another day.  Another chance to be a Chef, and you would rather be nothing else.  You fix some coffee for your wife, and maybe get to fix breakfast for one or all of your children.  Some days you will have an hour before you have to put the uniform on, some days you will have more time than that.  You know as soon as you open your eye’s that the clock is ticking.  Each moment of enjoyment you get to spend with your family will be ran through your mind on and off for the rest of the day, and most of the night.  Once you get dressed, once you put the uniform on the mental aspect of your duties as a Chef are there, and they won’t go away until you return from work and you’re able to set them aside for a few hours again.  You know in your mind what you have in front of you for the day, however when your Son or Daughter ask you if you have to go to work in your heart you want to say “not today”.  You hop in the shower and you really start to transform from Dad, or Husband into Chef.  The issues you have to take care of during the upcoming work day appear each time your hold your head below the water to rinse the shampoo from your head.  You get dressed and head to work hoping that during the ride to work the radio will keep you occupied mentally so that your brain doesn’t get too tired, too fast.  Before you know it you’re there, and it’s time for your day to begin.

You start your day getting on the computer to check hours and find out who is going to be close to overtime, try to figure out why they stayed until 1:00am on Tuesday night, and why you weren’t informed of it.  As you scroll through the names and numbers your phone is continually making different sounds from the incoming text, emails, phone calls, etc.  Each one of them has someone on the other end that hopefully understands that you may get back to them immediately, or it may take a few hours.  Deciding what is pressing is something of a balancing act that changes from day to day.  You finish looking at the names and times, and write a few notes so that you don’t forget to mention to the Chef De Cuisine that he may be working the salad station on Saturday evening since he hasn’t regulated his hours properly.

As you make your way through the first kitchen you notice a plate with a new dessert and a small piece of beef with some sauce on it.  This is obviously meant for you to taste and approve of make suggestions to.  Upon tasting the dessert you immediately think of the upcoming reception on Saturday night, and you hope that the baker also had the same thing in mind.  Either way, that is what is going to be served.  The beef on the other hand is tough, the sauce is great but the meat wasn’t cooked properly at all.  Hopefully this was just a small piece that was cut off before the product was finished cooking, optimism is a valuable trait to acquire.  The kitchen is silent and empty, you will  come back through here before too much time passes to make sure the beef is treated properly, but for now its time to go across the building.

As you reach to next kitchen you have had a six minute walk to switch gears mentally and reset your brain to think of food in a different way.  The skill set in this kitchen is higher, the expectations are higher, and so are the prices.  The people who work in this kitchen don’t work any harder than anyone else, they just have a better understanding of how to get food to perfection more consistently than the others.  As you go into the kitchen you grab a stack of spoons and immediately head toward the sauce pots that are simmering in the back of the kitchen.  A few taste, and a couple of questions or comments later and you’re on your way to the next person.  This kitchen is in full swing for this time of day.  Service is still five hours away, but the buzz in the room is already evident.  You stop by and address everyone, ask how they are, if there is anything you can do for them.  “How was the concert you went to”, “How is that new baby”, “Let me see that burn you got Saturday”.

Just when you think you’re done in this kitchen you hear “the” word for the first time of the day “Chef; can you come and take a look at this please”? Now the word has been said to you today already.  But there is a difference between “Good morning Chef”.  and “Chef; insert question here”.  You’re called this all day, by several different people all in different positions.  But when a cook, who is doing what they do best and they’re looking for your approval you can actually hear the meaning of it when it is said.  I personally do not require my employees to call me “Chef”.  Those who work in kitchens professionally understand the need, or lack thereof for it.  The people in kitchens who understand it, and respect you for how you do your job, instead of your job title, they are the ones that you can hear in their voice what the term means.

At this point your cell phone has made more noises than you’re comfortable with.  It’s time to get in the office and take care of some of these issues.  You have two text of people wanting reservations, and you know they expect some form of special treatment.  You have a voicemail from a vendor wanting to do business with you.  You put some thought into this and realize that you should call a Chef from another establishment and see if this is someone you can trust, and if their product is something you even want to consider.  At some point before the weekend is over you will be putting your name, and your reputation on the line by trusting a food provider, is this person worth the risk?  Or do you just stay the course inside your comfort zone?  Sometimes this decision can come down to something as silly as what you had for breakfast and how well it is setting on your stomach.  Perhaps if that piece of beef from earlier would have been better to where I wasn’t concerned about it I would be willing to roll the dice, but for now; not a chance.

You open your email to see seventeen unopened mails and unfortunately none of them are spam or junk mail which means that you will need to read them, more than likely respond to them and certainly make three or four phone calls to insure the rest of your day won’t be spent in dealing with these issues.  There will be more to deal with, and this will absolutely repeat itself tomorrow, but the goal is to get through today.  The mission if you will is to please everyone who orders something off of one of your menu’s today, so you need to get as many things off your mind as possible in order to be able to focus on the things that are important.  The tough beef is important, time to walk back across the building.

Your second time entering this kitchen is different than the first.  The kitchen is full now because the team smoke break is over and everyone is back to putting forth an effort to make sure things are right.  You pay attention to the look on everyone’s face knowing that whomever put the items on the plate is looking for approval, the dessert person is easy, the beef that is the question thats the person I’m looking for.  Sure enough my first initial guess is correct, and there is an hour of cooking left, the cook just wanted to make sure the sauce is what I had in mind.  Another problem averted, it’s time to take a walk with the line cook that was two hours late yesterday.  The fear in his eye’s is evident from the moment you say their name and ask them to come with you.  Your first goal is to put them at ease, and make sure all is well with them.  Cooks work best when they can control the things going through their mind.  What happens to them before and after work can control the quality of their work and someone working in fear is more likely to cook food poorly than someone who is focused and confident.  Your hope is that it is something that you can understand and relate to, because if that is the case you will be able to overlook it, comfort them, perhaps even help them.  If that happens to be the case, you will have given this person something to feel good about, something that will help them see that everything they do is important.  The food they cook today will be better, and tomorrow they will come in and give every effort they have to be better than they were today.  The worst case scenario is that he just stayed out drinking too late, and if this is the case there can be no sympathy or understanding.  If he is doing something in his time away from work that is going to affect they way your patrons experience unfolds then the items he is responsible for are going to dissolve to the point where he is better served to be washing dishes until he has his priorities straight and has proven that he can be trusted.  A basic understanding of someone wanting to have fun is easy, but you can’t put yourself in a position that will endanger you and your’s.  Fortunately for you, and him the bus he was on broke down and everything was beyond his control.  His fellow line cooks covered his station prep, and everything was normal at the opening of service.

Before you know it, it is time for dinner service.  There is a noise in a kitchen that can barely be heard from several different places within the room, however all of those walking around in the matching uniforms hear it no matter what their doing.  It’s the sound of the printer as it prints out a ticket telling you what has been ordered by the patrons in the dining room.  Some of these items take twice as long to cook as others, however they have to be placed in the window at the same time.  The expediter takes his ticket and does a visual check on the cooks working the stations, and then calls out to them what is on the ticket.  You as the Chef take a look at the stations and listen to the expediter at the same time.  You see the cooks placing skillets over fires, and steaks on to grills and realize that they’re ready for the day.  You still have time to call a vendor and place an order for the fresh fish you will need tomorrow.

For the previous three days you have had constant thoughts about what you want to run as your special on Saturday night.  You know this is the night that all of the serious diners show up, this is the crowd that expects your best.  These are the people who are coming here because of what you have provided them with in the past, or to test you to see if you’re as good as they have heard.  You’re either trying to make sure someone doesn’t feel like the last dinner you served them wasn’t dumb luck, or attempting to win over someone who no question has a level of doubt in what you can place in front of them.  The fresh trout you have had on your mind is the correct answer to both of these scenarios.  The potato corn hash you have in mind will go perfect with it, and the butter braised leeks will send it over the edge.  The only problem is that the fish didn’t come in to the vendor in a manner than he is comfortable with.  He isn’t willing to sell it to you because it isn’t up to the quality standards that he knows you expect.  You’re thankful that he is open and honest with you, and the decision you made earlier to not call that new vendor makes all the sense in the world now there is no need to risk the relationship you have with the person you have on the phone.  But what about the special?  What does he have that would compare, or do you have to go a completely different direction? The flounder he has on sale sounds great, I will come up with something special with this as the day goes on, perhaps run it by the Chef De Cuisine and no doubt come up with something better than the trout dish I had planned.

You finish up your phone calls and decide to see how the flow of dinner is going in both kitchens.  As you walk through the first kitchen you notice that the salad station cook is busy flirting with one of the wait staff, meanwhile he has two tickets hanging that he hasn’t even looked at yet.  You ask him to step aside so that you can take care of the people that are paying his paycheck and make the salads yourself.  You make them look exactly as you have shown him how to do them in half the time that it takes him to do it.  If you look at him and he isn’t visibly disturbed by this, you know in your heart he will be replaced within a week.  If he understands the nature of his mistake, what just happened won’t ever be an issue again.  You just demonstrated why you’re there to the newest person working a station.  It’s a lesson that all of the other cooks have seen before, they may have let this happen on purpose, or maybe they were just too busy with their own work to notice. But they all know that this member of their team needs to be watched, and from this point forward they will police him for you.  You can put your trust in them with confidence and just make sure that each time you come in this kitchen to pay attention to this station first.

Time to move on to the other kitchen.  This walk across the building is a nice one, you meet a nice couple who have just finished having dinner and they notice you and want to thank you for the special treatment they received.  You have a sense of accomplishment run through you that can’t be described.  And you make mental notes of who you need to thank for this.  The people who physically made this happen always need to be rewarded when something like this happens, a thank you and a pat on the back can go a long way.  You think back to what you felt, and what helped you get through your day to day when you were in their shoes.  And you hope that you can give them the same feeling that you just had.  As you continue your walk you hear a laugh, or a voice that reminds you of home.  Your daughter, son, or wife comes to mind and you remember why you’re here.  The balance of what you do, and why you do it is a constant battle.  Being a Chef isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle; you do what you do for selfish reasons.  In simplest terms you’re a servant and you enjoy it.  You like to pleasure people and you have a passion for taking food from one state to another in order for someone to enjoy it as a meal.  But within that means that you spend too much time away from your family and those that love you the most.  It’s not fair to anyone involved, and the reason you’re home two hours later than what you expected can’t, and shouldn’t be explainable.  When you’re on your day off and at the store and your mind starts wandering off because of the amazing looking plums you saw in the produce department, it isn’t fair.  When you get out of bed at two in the morning because you just realized you need to add two ounces of white balsamic vinegar the next time you make the sauce you made three days ago and it will be perfect and you want to write yourself a note, it isn’t fair.  When you miss a tooth being pulled, a scraped knee, or a time when your wife needs a hug and you know you won’t be home for three more hours; it hurts.  And you just hope that you can make the most of the time that you do have, and be the person you need to be when you are home because that is more important.  The family of a Chef makes a sacrifice every day in order to let the one that they love chase the passion that they have.  There isn’t anything balanced about it, and this is something that makes a Chef as selfish of a person as there can be.  Walking through kitchens and dining rooms you’re looked up to, and respected, the only reason this is possible is because of those who are waiting on you at home.  When you can’t keep that in perspective, you’re not doing your job as a Father or Husband.  Those things can never take a backseat to the pleasure you get from providing the best scallops someone has ever tasted in their life.  There is no comparison, and there never will be.

Reality check in order, you’re now walking in the next kitchen.  Dinner service is in full swing and you stand back a little to check on the line cooks.  The first one you notice is the grill cook turned around to gather a mental checklist from the tickets hanging in front of him.  Sweat is running down his face and into his eye’s.  He has no idea who is walking in or out of the kitchen.  He only hears the expediters voice asking how much time is left on the ticket for table twelve. You can almost feel what his brain is processing, and it almost isn’t fair that you have a clear enough head to realize that the mid-rare filet is ten seconds from being the perfect temp.  In his mind the mid-rare is done.  No more effort from his brain is required for it to be perfect for the patron.  You’re getting anxious for him to turn around and put it in the resting area.  He is trying to get an “all day” count on the ribeyes for the table of twenty who want everything right now and they want it to be perfect.  What they will never realize is that in order to make the perfect medium ribeye it takes more than four minutes, that and that there is no such thing as a medium “no pink”. Just before you say something to him he turns and picks up the mid-rare filet and places it in the resting area.  He knows what he’s doing and he is four steaks ahead of where anyone else would be.  The first three tickets aren’t worth his attention anymore, getting the steaks from the grill to the resting area will be an reflex more than an action.  You call down the line and offer encouragement to all four of the cooks that appear to be performing some special dance that they have choreographed.  They speak in a language that only those who work in kitchens would understand, and all of the food comes to the window when it should.  Having a team work this well together is a thing of beauty and they do this every night, and each night they get better.  The paycheck they get each week could sometimes be considered a slap in the face compared to the amount of effort they give each day.  But they show up every day, and do it again and again and always are able to get a smile from each other from their inside jokes and from talking about the food in their language.

The Chef De Cuisine, comes over to ask how your day is, and to see if the trout we had talked about the day before would be delivered the next day.  When you inform him that it will be flounder instead a huge smile comes across his face as he tells you that he would love to do a proscuitto wrapped flounder over a creamy sweet corn polenta with some of the beautiful asparagus that came in this morning on the side.  You grab a mental picture of it, and tell him to come in early tomorrow so that you can make one just to make sure all of the components work properly.  He will be there, and have everything ready to cook, it’s not something you even need to let enter your mind because he wouldn’t pass up the chance to put this dish together due to the mental effort he has already used on it.

Before you realize it, you have been at work for ten hours.  All of the paperwork you needed to do is turned in, the orders have been placed and dinner service is running smooth everywhere.  You start your journey to the car and get stopped by a server.  No problems this time, he just wants to let you know that the customers raved about the beef dish they had, it was fork tender and the sauce was out of this world, this provokes a smile and a mental note to pass this along to the appropriate cook tomorrow, but for now it’s on to the car.

Should you stop at the store on your way home, is there something one of your kids need you to bring home with you?  No need in wasting time thinking about that because the twenty extra minutes you spend stopping at any store is twenty more minutes you can be there, at home, with them. Your day as the person in charge, the one with all of the answers is over.  Now you’re a Father, and Husband and your feet hurting, and headaches seem to go away.  Bed time for the kids is not far away, and you hope to have a conversation with your wife that will last more than ten minutes, and be about a subject other than food.  By the time your head hits the pillow you have a feeling you will not be able to go to sleep, but before you even get comfortable you’re asleep.

There is that alarm clock again…

The Line Cook-

You wake up and realize that you probably should have went to bed two hours earlier.  The alarm clock says that it is time to get started, but you know you could easily sleep for three more hours.  It’s not that you feel bad, but when you go to set up you realize how tight the muscles in your back are, and you hope the hot water from the shower relaxes them a little.  When your feet hit the floor, you remember that this time yesterday you decided to get to bed earlier the next day so that you could get new shoes before you started your work day today.  Too late for that, you can make it another day on the aching bases that you stand on all day.  Perhaps two pair of socks will help?  No that just makes it that much more painful to try and take them off at the end of the night.  A cigarette and a hot shower follow and you try to figure out if your stomach can handle an energy drink now, or if it should wait until you’re on your way to work.  There is a moment while taking a shower where everything is ok.  The hot water has made your back feel a little better, and you just happened to figure out a way to stand that doesn’t hurt your feet; you enjoy that for a moment, and then lift your head up to let the water hit your face and all the pain comes back.  At some point in the day the true reason you put yourself through this will show itself, it may come about easy, or you may have to really search for it.  But you know that it will be there, so you keep pushing yourself through your routine in hopes that it comes earlier rather than later.  Now it’s time to climb in the car and make your way to work, when you hit the seat new pains reintroduce themselves to you.  It’s time to put the insignificant things aside and start your day, enough is enough, lets get to work.

You pull into your parking area and realize once again that the walk you have to make is far too long.  The fact that you have to walk as far as you do just so the patrons that you will be cooking for can park right next to the door at this point seems abusive.  However for some reason once you enter the building every motion that you make will simply be to please them. This internal fight is something that never goes away, but each time their pleasure wins.  As you approach the back door the sights and smells start to take over and you become what you will be for the rest of the day.  Take one last look at the sunlight, and take your first smell of the grease trap setting beside the dumpsters that were emptied an hour ago.  You enter into a place where you’re comfortable, a place where you belong and a place where you will be the reason why someone will have a memorable experience, something that they will remember for a long time to come.  They will never know your name, but you will know what you did for them and for now that’s all you need to be able to do.

So when you finally make your way to the kitchen, and mentally absorb what all you need to accomplish before the magic hour arrives, there is a rush of emotions that run through your body.  Reality smacks you right in the face when you realize just exactly how much effort it is going to take to get ready more often than not.  The prep list you left for those that have already at work for six hours is complete, except for one thing that is marked as “station prep”.  That means it is your responsibility, and even though you tried to politely ask someone else to do it by putting it on the prep list, nobody has your back today as prep was way too heavy to do a solid for any line cook, only the essentials were done so that quality wouldn’t become an issue. You think back to that twenty minute stretch the night before and reassess your decision to set on a milk crate to keep some weight off your feet, and realize that you should have went ahead and did some prep to stay ahead.  That prep would be enough to get you through the night, but it isn’t done.  You’re feet do not feel any better than they did, they just haven’t taken enough abuse for the day.  And when the Chef walks by thirty minutes before the magic hour, the prep will be done.  It’s the first internal test of the day, you’re making promises to yourself that you have no intentions of keeping.  You haven’t broke a sweat yet, and your sense of pride has no chance of showing up at least until twenty minutes after you have gulped down family meal.

All of the proteins are cut and put in the lowboy, the asparagus is peeled and blanched perfectly, your stomach is somewhat full from family meal/breakfast and it’s 4:15pm.  Just enough time to smoke a cigarette, wash your hands, get you a drink and be back on the line.

You’re about to embark on a six hour dinner service that is going to make your feet hurt worse than they already do, your back will send pain to parts of your body that you normally don’t even think about.  But at some point during the night, you will put a steak in the window and you and the Chef will make eye contact and he will say “Beautiful, perfectly cooked… excellent job” and that makes it all worth it.  For that moment, there is no pain, no sweat, no heat.  That is the moment that makes you do what you do.

Now service is over and you’re starting your cleaning routine.  You know that you will be the person who has to come in the next day and you want everything to be right.  But the thought of a cold beer, or a warm bed starts to creep in your mind.  The fatigue that your body feels is over ran by the adrenaline that your mind has.  There is a certain type of rush, a sense of accomplishment that can’t truly be described.  You just spent perhaps ten hours pouring all that you have in you to please people in a dining room that you will never see or meet. You take the trash out and are reminded of the smell that you noticed earlier in the day, a moment when your clothes were still dry, not soaked in sweat a time when the sun was out and you still felt like a human being. It’s better just to put that memory out of your mind and keep working to put this day to an end. The thought of enjoying a few cold beers, and crawling into bed is what drives you at this point. The protein counts, and prep list being filled out are automatic at this point, the only challenge left for tonight is the walk to the car and that will be easy compared to what the last three hours have been.

When you wake up in the morning you will put your body and mind through the same punishment that you just got finished with. And for an unknown reason at some point between now and then the fact that you want to do better tomorrow than you did today will become a reality.  This is what separates a cook, from a good cook. A cook follows instructions and puts food in the window, a good cook cares about what he or she is putting in the window and takes pride in every action they take.  They don’t treat their bodies as well as they provide for others wants, in fact the wants of others outweighs their own personal needs.

Once you have passed out for the night, you will wake up, take a much needed shower, get dressed and everything will be ok.  Once you put the uniform on, who you are is defined and what you do for the next twelve to fourteen hours is what you live for.

You wake up and realize that you probably should have went to bed two hours earlier…

Corn Sauce- Amaizing? Give this a try!

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Corn Sauce, I realize that it doesn’t sound that sexy.  However this is one sauce that I turn to a lot in the kitchen for several different uses.  What started as a way to bring one more level of flavor to a dish, has evolved in to something that I keep finding uses for.

Where it began- A few years back I participated in a cooking competition in which I had several weeks to determine what I wanted to prepare. It was simple, four courses with one hour to complete them all.  The menu that I had developed at the establishment I was working at had a really nice sandwich on the menu of smoked trout, and a fried green tomato.  It was served with an herb aioli and was pretty popular on our menu.  I wanted to bring this dish to the competition however I wasn’t going to serve a sandwich.  The flavor combinations were good, however I felt that it needed one more component in order to truly make it special.  So after thinking about what would compliment a fried green tomato and trout on a plate I came to the conclusion that a nice fresh ear of corn would be the perfect compliment to what we were already going to have on the plate.  I knew that I didn’t want the judges to have to pick up an ear of corn or fish after pieces of corn on the plate with their fork, so the only answer was to make a sauce that would bring that flavor and not disturb what I already was going to put on the plate.   This is what I came up with, I hope you give it a try!

 

You can use fresh corn, or frozen corn to make this sauce.  I do not recommend canned corn however.

 

What you will need:

1 One pound bag of frozen corn

1 Carrot cut in large pieces

1 Stalk of Celery cut in large pieces

1/2 Red Onion peeled

2 Cloves of Garlic whole

1/2 Pound of Butter

Salt and Pepper to taste

Heavy Cream

 

Use a small sauce pot, or large skillet that will comfortably hold all of the ingredients and place it over medium heat.  Keep in mind through this whole process that you do not want to use high heat.  You’re just trying to extract flavors and bring them together.  Tying to speed up the process with high heat will not help you with the end product in any way.

Place the butter in the skillet that you’re going to use and when it begins to melt pour in the corn, and add the carrot, celery, onion, garlic and season everything with salt and pepper.  Give everything a good stir and just let it come to a simmer.  This may take some time, but it is worth the wait.  Once a simmer is reached, give everything a good stir again and let it simmer for 30-45 minutes.  Turn the heat off and let the skillet set and cool to room temperature.

Remove the carrot, celery, onion, and garlic and spoon the corn in to a blender.  You want all of the corn, and butter in the blender and then blend on high, add a small amount of heavy cream in order to reach the consistency that you want.  Let the blender run on high until the sauce is smooth.  Turn off the blender and taste the sauce, adjust seasoning as needed.  Depending on the application I am going to use the sauce for I will pour it in to a strainer and allow it to drain through.  Most generally I will just use it as is.

In the end you will have a very flavorful sauce that brings a really strong corn flavor to several different applications.

Uses:

Roasted Garlic and Cumin Pork Loin

Grilled Pork Chops (Pictured above)

Fried Green Tomato and Smoked Trout

As an accompaniment to a Black Bean, Red Onion Salad- just toss with the salad and you have a south west treat

Stirred in to Polenta just as it is about to be finished cooking, This makes the Polenta a star on the plate, not an afterthought.

These are all things that I have used this sauce for.  And each time it is received very well.  Corn Sauce may not sound like something earth shattering, however if your goal is to bring flavor to the plate then you should certainly give this a try.

To the plate : Poitrine de Porc (Braised Pork Belly)

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Pork belly is one of life’s simple pleasures if you ask me and, if prepared correctly has a lot of cooking lessons that can be used when cooking just about anything. Braising is one of my favorite cooking methods to use, and this dish shows how it can transform something in to one of the best things you will ever consume.

First things first, realize and accept that if you want to enjoy this dish the way it should be enjoyed you’re going to have to have some patience. And you will have to pay attention to some details as well. But if you do, the payoff makes the wait “oh so worth it”.

We recently ran this as a dinner special at one of the restaurant’s. So I will walk through the steps that we took to prepare it. 

Day one:
We started with the following:
The pork belly
Mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery)
Whole garlic cloves
White wine (we used chardonnay)
Chicken stock
A few bay leaves
Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage)
And of course salt and pepper

We roughly chopped the mirepoix and placed it in the bottom of a large pan to form a flavorful layer of protection for the pork belly while it braised.  Once we had a even layer of mirepoix on the bottom of the pan we tossed a few garlic cloves, the bay leaves, and the seasoned everything well with salt and pepper. 
Then we placed the pork belly right in the center of the pan, skin side up and put the fresh herbs around the side of the belly. Now it was time for the braising liquid. We poured about a half a bottle of white wine in the pan and then chicken stock until the belly was covered. 
After everything was in the pan we used parchment paper to cover the pan and then sealed it up using aluminum foil. Take care to make sure everything is sealed well.
We then placed it in a 250 degree oven for six hours.  When it was finished cooking we removed it from the oven and placed it on the counter to allow it to come to room temperature. It is crucial that you do not break the seal of the foil during this time.  You want all of the steam, liquid, and flavor to stay in the pan. 
After it has came to room temperature place another pan on top of the sealed pan, and then put large cans of food in to that pan in order to “press” the pork belly.  This will press out all of the “bad” fat. Then put everything as is into the refrigerator over night.

Day two:
We removed the weighted pan from the refrigerator and place it on the counter.  Removed the top pan, and then the foil.

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At this point we had a cutting board ready to set the pork belly on, and carefully clean the pork belly off of herbs and vegetables that were stuck to it.

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We transferred the belly to the cutting board and cut it in to the serving size portions. We trimmed the belly to make it in to a large square, then cut six ounce portions for service.
Once we had everything cut the way we wanted then we carefully removed the skin (and set aside) from the top of each piece. And allowed everything to come to room temperature before cooking them.
Using a very sharp knife we cut the skin in to very thin strips, it is very important that they are as thin as you can possibly cut them.

To cook for service:

Heat a skillet and add some canola oil to it.  You want the skillet and oil to be hot, but not to the point of smoking before you put the portion in to cook.
Season the meat with salt and pepper and place it in the skillet laying on the side that used to have the skin on it first.  Just let it cook and brown on this side until it is golden brown, and is somewhat crisp. Then turn it over in the skillet and immediately place it in a 350 degree oven for about five to six minutes.

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At this point we dropped five or six pieces of the skin in to a deep fryer and let them cook for a minute or two.  When their ready they will float, and you don’t want them to become black

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We used this as a garnish for the dish, and its such a wonderful treat.

The finished product was served with fresh kale (that we cooked in butter and chicken stock), tomato concasse and a Ancho Bourbon sauce.

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The result was one of the most memorable dishes I have ever put together.  The pork belly was so tender and flavorful that you couldn’t wait to take the next bite.  The greens provided a perfect complement to the richness of the meat, the crunch of the crispy skin brought wonderful flavor and a nice contrast in texture and the sauce gave you just a little spice if you wanted to drag a bite through it. 
I’m as proud of this dish as anything I have put on a plate in any restaurant I have worked in.  And I look forward to preparing it again in the future.

To the plate: Sea bass

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Sea bass is absolutely one of my favorite proteins to prepare, and consume. And it just happens to be an item we sell a lot of at one of our restaurants at work. Over the years I have prepared it several different ways and I have came to the conclusion that for me the best way is to just keep it simple.

The first time I worked with sea bass it was prepared with a macadamia crust and a raspberry tomato coulis, and I absolutely fell in love with it. That was the way I prepared it each time I had the chance to work with it for a long time. I knew it was good, I was comfortable preparing it that way and since I never had a complaint about it I didn’t feel that I needed to try something new.  Then one day while prepping 20lbs I had one little three ounce slice left over. So I heated up a skillet put a touch of oil in it and some butter, seasoned the piece of fish and cooked it up for a snack.  And when I took a bite I realized how much of a mistake I was making by not trying different ways to prepare this fish. 
Now there are two ways in which I serve sea bass, butter poached and pan seared. And really depending on your mood you can’t go wrong these two ways.

First for the butter poached:

Build a double boiler with about a half an inch of water in the bottom pan, and nothing but butter in the top pan, not clarified, just straight butter. Turn the fire on under the double boiler and after the butter has melted keep track of its temperature until it reaches 180-184. Then adjust the fire to maintain this temperature. 
Season the piece of fish (we use 6oz pieces) with salt and pepper and place it in the butter.  The usual cook time is about 8 minutes. You can use a fish spatula to gently lift the fish from the butter and use a thermometer to check the internal temperature. We serve it at about 140 degrees.  We top it with a clove or two of garlic confit and a lemon wedge and of course some finishing salt.
This preparation give you an incredibly rich and delicate experience.  The fish flakes apart and butter rolls on the plate and simply melts in your mouth. 

Now for the pan seared preparation:

Heat a skillet and pour enough oil in the bottom of it to coat the bottom of the pan (we use a canola and extra virgin olive oil blend). You want the skillet and the oil to both be hot, but not smoking.  Season the piece of fish and place it in the skillet gently then don’t move or touch it, just let it cook. Once you can see the bottom edge of the fish starting to brown add some clarified butter to the pan (about 2 ounces) then gently using a fish spatula turn the fish over. Immediately place the skillet in a 350 degree over and let it cook for about six minutes.  Remove the skillet from the oven and use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the fish (once again we serve at 140).  If it is the right temperature tilt the skillet to one side so all of the clarified butter comes to one side of the pan and use a spoon to baste the fish a few times. Then place the fish on the plate, season with some sea salt and serve with bernaise  on the side. 
Preparing the fish in this way is my absolute favorite.  I highly suggest making sure the bernaise is on the side not on the fish or under it, the crisp seared edges are a nice contrast to the soft creamy center of the fish. You want to be able to maintain that texture and drag a bite of the fish through the sauce when you want that extra little enhancement to a bite. 
Although both ways of preparing the fish just described are not that different they provide two completely different experiences when eating them. However they both show complete respect to the product and allow you to enjoy it for what it is.  Its a very soft and gentle tasting fish that should be an experience in dining and something that is memorable. 
If you haven’t tried sea bass then stop by the FQ sometime and experience it.

Doing french fries at home

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It seems to me that all too often when having fries at home, everyone is always willing to settle for “less than” great fries.  Think about some of your restaurant, bar, or pub experiences and how many times you have thought, said, or heard “man these fries are great”. Having great fries to go along with a burger, sloppy joe, fish sandwich or heck even a bologna sandwich can transform a simple dinner at home in to a great meal that is just the way its supposed to be.
Me personally I have vivid, wonderful memories of eating fries in my grandmothers kitchen just after she took them out of the grease and seasoned them.  Crispy on the outside, soft and tasty on the inside and steam rolling out of them when you take a bite from them.  That’s the way fries should be, they shouldn’t be an after thought or a vehicle of soggy tasteless starch just to fill the void of hunger in your stomach. They should compliment and enhance what you’re having for your meal. 
Now let’s assume you don’t have one of the fancy new small home kitchen deep fryers that are in the market and have been for a long time, that’s ok never fear you more than likely still have everything you need to make the perfect fries at home.  I use a small sauce pot for this at home and yes sometimes I do wish I had a deep fryer like we use in the restaurants at work.  However I can get the exact results I want simply using a sauce pot from the cabinet. The main thing to remember is to not get in a hurry, and don’t fall in to thinking that high heat on your stove will work wonders for you. Hot grease is dangerous, and from the second you turn the burner on you should never leave the sauce pot unattended until it has cooled. 
So let’s look at how I cook my fries at home:
What you will need:
A small sauce pot
Lard
A colander
A large bowl the colander will fit in
Some paper towels
A slotted spoon
Salt
And of course your favorite bag of fries

I start by placing the large bowl beside the stove where I am going to be cooking the fries.  I put the colander inside the large bowl then place a few paper towels in it.
Then I put a few spoon fulls of lard in to the sauce pot and place it on the burner and turn the fire on medium.  Remember there is never a need to use the high setting when doing fries at home. Once the lard has melted pay attention to how much liquid is in the pot, make sure it is below the halfway mark of the pot, an inch of liquid is more than enough.  Wait for the lard to get warm enough to cook the fries, and when you think it is drop one fry in the pot. If it starts to bubble and cook then you’re ready. If it sinks to the bottom then raise the heat slightly and wait for it to start to cook. If it begins to pop and crack and it obviously too hot then turn the fire down slightly and give it a few minutes to cool down some.
Once you have the right temperature place a handful or two of fries in the pot and let them start to cook.  After they have cooked for a minute or so use your slotted spoon to stir them so they do not become a single unit of deep fried stickiness.  The time that they cook depends on how thick your fries are.  Usually we buy the shoestring fries and they take about 3-4 minutes per batch.
As they start to crisp on the outside give them one more stir to make sure they have all been cooked through and using the slotted spoon start taking them out of the pot and putting them in the paper towel lined colander.  Give the pot 30-40 seconds to get back to the proper temperature then place another handful or two of fries in the pot.  While their starting to cook season the fries that just got finished cooking with salt, again this is a personal preference as to how much to use and make sure you try one while the second batch is cooking.  This will let you know if you cooked them too long, or not long enough. 
Continue cooking batches of fries until you have enough for lunch or dinner.  When you’re about to remove the last batch reach up and turn the burner off under the pot so that it can start to cool.  Once it has completely cooled I normally will store it in a jar, or large coffee cup as you can get more than one use from lard, so why not use it as many times as you can?
Now this does take a little more time than a large deep fryer, however if you just take your time, and be patient while you’re cooking the fries they will end up being a side for your dinner that is going to invoke the comment ‘these fries are great”.  And the beauty of cooking at home is you don’t need to hurry, you don’t have customers waiting in the dining room, you have family members that you’re going to enjoy dinner with.  So take a few extra minutes and make some memorable fries the next time you have burgers and dogs at home.