"You have to respect your ingredients. You have to respect the food." This according to Top Chef Ilan Hall is the recipe for success. Other advice to amateur foodies included the typical "start at the bottom, even if it means peeling garlic." And then keep a clean workspace. However his brief answer left me wondering what does it take to be a top chef?
Being that I was at the Barilla Interactive Cooking Lunch, which was hosted not only by Ilan but also Top Chef winner Hung Huynh, and the editor of Food & Wine Magazine Gail Simmons, this would be the perfect place to see if I had what it takes to be a "Top Chef." Lunch was to consist of three courses, two of which we the guest were to cook ourselves. Each table was equipped with a single burner, two souse chefs, and ever flowing bottles of wine! The top chefs stood upon a stage wrought with product placement, giving directions to for the table chefs to follow.
Our first course was gemelli with Gulf oysters and eggs. The oysters were cooked until firm in a bath of garlic and chicken stock. While swimming in pasta, they oysters begin to firm up and fill with flavor. While waiting for the pasta to cook, I was engaged in a conversation with Dex McCreary the merchandise director of wine, beer and spirits for Sam's Club. He enlightens me about the changing market place for wine, the shift of expensive to cheap without a loss of taste. The importance of marketing for these wines, including in store tasting along with simple wine and food pairing notes on the bottles, had created a dramatic shift in the marketplace. Through all the wine talk I sip my Franciscan Sauvignon Blanc waiting to dine on the oysters that now fill my plate.
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The dish itself is something of a gourmet taste without the gourmet skills. I personally would see myself making the dish when wanting to impress without trying to hard. The pasta cooked just right combined with delectable oysters is a great way to make people think you're sophisticated, when you probably are not.
Our second course was entitled "Florida citrus with fennel and ginger and sautéed Gulf shrimp with lemongrass", which does not leave a whole lot to the imagination. However the Asian inspired shrimp tossed over a complex salad was nothing short of delectable. The salad consisted of Fennel, Arugula, a mix of citrus fruits, Chef Hung's favorite fish sauce, ginger, olive oil and lemon juice. Simply, the salad ingredients were mixed together, and then put on the bottom of the plate. The shrimp itself was cooked in a mixture of ginger, garlic, oyster sauce, cilantro, hot sauce and scallions. Sautéed over medium heat then tossed with the sauces the shrimp came out plump and flavorful. This was my favorite dish of the afternoon.
Following the meal came pre-prepared chocholate and raspberry petit gateau, being that I had no hand in making it, I have no idea how this delicious addition was made.
Although Chef Ilan thinks it is being able to respect food, manage other chefs, and keeping your counter top clean, is what makes a good chef. I think it is making some damn good food that makes you feel full and accomplished. I may not be a top chef but with my Barilla gift bag full of pasta, a free trial Sam's Club membership, I sure as hell can pretend I'm one.