Sunday, November 29, 2009

NYC - Day 2

One of my favorite things to do in New York is to just walk the city.  There is so much to see and it is truly the best example in the world of "melting pot".  There are people from every corner of the globe.  The shops, restaurants, carts, museums, and most of all people are so varied and so different it causes me to wander around aimlessly just watching and observing.  Maybe it's because I'm a small town mountain boy from northern New Mexico, but I never tire of this show.  The sea of humanity....

My culinary wanderings took me to a most refined mall eatery.  Bouchon Bakery.  There are few "malls" in the country like the one at Columbus Circle and there are few "mall" restaurants like Bouchon.  Created by big papa T. Keller, it is comfortable, easy and light.  I took in the view of the circle and central park while eating a most elegant grilled cheese and tomato soup.  From there I walked halfway down Manhattan to meet up with some very beautiful dinner dates.   Dinner was at Lure Fishbar, a fantastic seafood restaurant designed to look like the interior of a yacht.  The chef, Josh Capon, is a most animated fellow.  He personally delivered each and every morsel of super fresh fish and shellfish to our table.  He was also heavy on the jokes and shouting.  Turns out it happened to be his birthday, and as soon as the plates were out he was with his buddies doing shots.  Awesome guy, awesome restaurant and awesome dinner companions.  

No boozing for me tonight.  Tomorrow morning is my appearance on Martha Stewart.  I will need my energy and my wits.  She runs a tight ship from what I remember...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

NYC - Day 1

I flew to NYC this week to appear on the Martha Stewart Show.  The show was on Wednesday the 18th, but I arrived on Monday with the goal of eating and drinking my way through as much of the city as possible.  

I landed mid-afternoon and checked into my hotel.  A short walk from the front door and some questionable halal chicken serves as my first of many street treats.  I got a hold of some friends and made my way to Freeman's for some more bites and some fantastic cocktails.  A few bar snacks and some amazing mezcal cocktails later and it's time to move.  

Next stop:  DBGB by Daniel Boulud.  My long time friend (and former roommate) Jeff is the manager at this new sausage-friendly downtown spot.  He invited us to sit down in their amazingly crowded space and sample some of the kitchen's specialties.  To my surprise, my buddy Mike (who used to work for me at Jax) is the sous chef of this 9 month old space.  The room is beautiful and simple.  A very open space, it showcases tall dark wood shelves packed with copper pots from the best chefs of the world.  The walls and mirrors behind the bar are covered with quotations of all kinds.  
The menu is also straightforward and simple:  14 types of house-made sausages, a few burgers, sides and some assorted entrees.  The beer list and wine list are astounding and offer some perfect libations to wash down the food. 
We sampled an array of sausages - we may have had all of them...I kind of went into a pork coma halfway through.  A few belgian beers washed it all down as we people-watched some of NYC's hippest diners.

After stuffing ourselves, we went to Inoteca for some late night drinks and a few more bites.  Truffle egg toasts is Jeff's late night guilty pleasure and he was nice enough to offer up a bite.  Yum!  Time for bed...and another big day of eating!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Say Cheese!

Saturday and Sunday the 13th and 14th of November were the dates for the inaugural Colorado Cheese Festival.  Hosted by Jackie Rebideau, the owner of Fromage to Yours, the event was a huge success.  There were over 600 attendees (twice the expected number), hundreds of cheeses to sample, cheese making demos, and a grilled cheese challenge.  The event raised money for Food Bank of the Rockies, so we got our cheese and ate it too!  ahem...

I competed in the grilled cheese challenge.  I was paired with MouCo Cheese Company, a fantastic cheese maker from Fort Collins.  They make a Camembert cheese that is to die for.  It starts of creamy and mild, and as it ages gets nutty and more complex.  It is best tempered to room temperature.  I wanted to showcase the texture and flavor of this cheese with my sandwich, so I didn't go crazy with the ingredients.  But it was a damn good sandwich!  In fact my little 'wich was named "best tasting" grilled cheese.  I eventually lost the overall award to my boy Michael Long (yes, I voted him best overall two nights before at the Wine Fest, but that's not important here) with his over-the-top presentation of his crab and tomato monstrosity.  Some of the other competitors were:
Chad Clevenger, Mel's
Samir Mohammad, Pesce Fresco Bistro
Tyler Skrivanek, Duo
Daniel Asher, Root Down
Scott Parker, Table 6

My sandwich was MouCo Camembert with prosciutto, sliced green apple, roast pear mustard and sourdough bread.  I bought a little panini press for the event and pressed the sandwich to make it "grilled".  I also served a mizuna salad with stewed cherries and port. 

What a fun event!  Who doesn't like a grilled cheese?  And the cheese companies who brought their samples really came with some excellent choices (truffle tremor?!?!).
I can't wait until next year!  And if you're looking for a good gift, check out Jackie's shop, Fromage to Yours, she's got some really cool stuff over there!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Denver International Wine Festival

This is one of those events that happens annually in our state and just doesn't get enough press.  DIWF (here) is a fantastic wine and food festival that brings together some of the world's best new wines and some of Colorado's best chefs.  The wine festival actually spans a few days, but the coolest part is the "Taste of Elegance" chef's competition.  The chefs are invited from all over the state and the roster is top notch.  Yours truly was involved in the competition and didn't do too bad (Overall Winner 2007 & 2008 and People's Choice 2009).  

The rules are simple:  create two perfect dishes to pair with each of two different award-winning wines given to you by the organization.  The chefs have a few days to come up with their dish and then make bite-sized samples to pair with small sips of the chosen wines.  This year there were 14 chefs and 28 wines, so I emphasize the SMALL portions.  There are approximately 400 guests at the event, so it gets pretty crazy.  But really really fun.

I was asked to participate as a judge this year.  I was with Amanda Faison (5280 magazine), Claire Walter (blog), and Teresa Farney (Colorado Springs Gazette).  We were asked to judge on taste, presentation, originality and wine compatibility (pairing) in order to name this year's Best Chef and Most Creative Chef.

The task was grand and it's hard to remember every detail of each of the chef's dishes.  We shuffled from table to table, eating the food and chatting with each of the competitors.  I realized quickly that I was in a precarious position.  I know a lot of these guys (and girls!) and I don't want anyone upset with me because they didn't win.  At least there were four of us and I can claim "mob mentality"...
The chefs who competed were:

Jeff Bolton, Second Home
Chad Clevenger, Mel's 
Austin Cueto, Restaurant Kevin Taylor
Robert Corey, Sandoval's Kitchen
Eliza Goodwill, 221 South Oak
David Harker, Meritage
Daniel Joy, Mirabelle 
DeWayne Lieurance, Clandestine Chef
Michael Long, Opus
David Olivieri, Farraday's
Eric Riviera, LaLa's
Eric Skokan, Black Cat
Jeremy Thomas, Parisi's and Firenze a Tavola
Jean-Luc Voegele, Westin
Kelly Yepello, Yepello Chocolates

Overall the food was amazing.  There were some really amazing dishes and some real creativity out there.  Anyone who still doubts that Denver and Boulder are not up to speed with the culinary big dogs of this country need to come here again!

After much deliberation (and a stomach ache to follow), we came up with some conclusions.  It was tough, however, since some of the chefs made one dish that was amazing but the second fell short.  Or, they had amazing pairings, but the food was just ok...or vice versa.  There were some highlights that didn't win (Austin's ravioli, for instance - sublime).  But when we added up the points and took all of the factors into consideration, we had our winners:

Michael Long - Best Chef
Robert Corey - Most Creative Chef
Jean-Luc Voegele - People's Choice

And that was that.  It was kind of strange for me not cooking and not competing.  I suppose my job was much easier this year, but I have to say....I am more comfortable behind the stove trying to win, than behind the microphone naming a winner.  I guess I'll always just be a chef at heart.  
See you next year! 

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Orleans Day 6

This is goodbye...

Spent my morning wandering around the Quarter.  The hurricane had passed and the skies were clear.  Walked along the Mississippi and made my way to Cafe du Monde.  It may be a tourist trap, but sitting in the shade, listening to a street musician strum his guitar, sipping on a cafe au lait and eating beignets is pretty much a perfect ending to a legendary trip...

New Orleans Day 5

It is my humble opinion that New Orleans has some of the best food (and by extension, chefs) in the country.  I had the honor and privilege of spending my last day in the city with two of the city's best:  Susan Spicer and Donald Link.

First stop was Cochon.  This restaurant is only a few years old, but feels like it's been there forever.  Maybe that's because Chef Link's family has been making and smoking sausages for generations.  He has taken this legacy to new heights with this pork palace.  Not everything on the menu is charcuterie (there are great salads, soups, seafood, etc.) but I one would be remiss if they didn't sample the house made boudin, sausages, terrines, or any number of creations being made in the back of the restaurant.  He also has The Butcher, a retail shop displaying and selling many of the treats being crafted there.  Among the many meaty offerings, there are also mustards, hot sauces, books, sides, etc. to peruse, sample and purchase.  A carnivore's heaven.

I had a fantastic time touring the kitchens, dining areas, and butcher shop.  Chef Link and his chef/partner Stephen Stryjewski put together a spread of deliciousness that I plundered for lunch.  Then I waddled out the door in search of some more food.

Next stop was Bayona.  Susan Spicer is the incredibly humble and sweet proprietor of this legendary restaurant.  The place is small.  The kitchen is really small.  I couldn't find a place to stand where I wasn't in someone's way.  You can see what the years have done to the tiny space.  It felt like I was back in my 15+ year old kitchen.  But a customer in this quaint little house in the French Quarter would never know that the food wasn't made in a brand new massive high end test kitchen.  The dishes are simple yet perfect.  Nothing is in the wrong place, nothing is added for flair, and everything is prepared with care and precision.  The flavors are true and addictive.  It's a reminder for me that the simplest food can often be the best.  It must be made by someone who has the experience and the confidence to really let the ingredients shine.  I was so happy to have seen this first-hand.  And I want to spend every day with Susan!

Over?  Not even close.  Now it's time to see another of John Besh's new joints, Domenica.  It was everything Bayona wasn't:  big, shiny, showy and loud.  The place was packed.  It sits in the newly renovated Roosevelt Hotel which is a must-see for anyone spending a little time in the city.  It feels old and new at the same time and it is very very luxurious.  Alon Shaya is the young chef in charge of the kitchen and his years of experience (and working with Besh) show in this Italian masterpiece.  We stuffed ourselves once again and enjoyed the people-watching.

To settle the food of the day, I decided a little time in Harrah's was in order.  We had some fun, some good laughs and looked back on the week.  I am so happy to have made this trip.  New Orleans is one of my favorite places to be and I can't wait to make it back again...

New Orleans Day 4

When I was in NoLa back in May, I did a lot of cooking.  We had some students from the Louisiana Culinary Institute assisting us.  They were really great, easy to work with, and energetic.  

I was asked by Charlie Ruffalo, the director, to come back later in the year and spend some time at the school.  I was more than willing to take him up on the offer to spend some more time in Southern Louisiana.  The school is in Baton Rouge and it's a bit of a drive.  Charlie picked me up at 5:45 (yes, in the morning...after the game...) and we drove to the school.  The place is beautiful.  Not huge, but very well designed and CLEAN!  We spent a few hours getting some food ready, and then I presented two lectures - each just under two hours.  We talked about the business, being on TV, seafood, sustainability, work ethic, molecular gastronomy, and anything else the students wanted to know.  Had a great time, and I felt like my trip was not just about me, but being part of the place.  

Drove back to the city in the late afternoon, just as Hurricane Ida was making landfall.  
Now I've experienced New Orleans:  great food, great music, the Saints, and now a hurricane.  CHECK!

That evening we went to August Restaurant for dinner.  It's John Besh's flagship restaurant and it still kicks ass.  It was hands down the best dinner of the trip.  

New Orleans Day 3

Game Day!

I live in close proximity to Denver.  We have some rowdy fans.  We have some loyal fans.  I have never seen anything like what I experienced in and on my way to the Superdome to watch the Saints defend their undefeated record.  Hooked up with Preston for breakfast at Mother's - one of the oldest and most visited restaurants in Nola.  Speaking of loyal, they had a line down the street and a frighteningly busy interior.  "Get the debris!" was shouted to me by a passerby who could somehow tell (despite my newly purchased Saints T-shirt) that I was obviously not from here.  Needless to say, it was worth the wait.  Nothing but quick, messy food served on old chipped plates, Mother's has the heart and soul of the city that refused to die after being nearly drowned to death by Katrina.

We made our way towards the Superdome and picked up some friends along the way.  The streets were filled with marching bands, the smell of grilled food, lots of booze, and the screams and shouts of some very proud residents of this fine city.  I looked hard could not find a single soul not wearing some (if not way too much) gear representing the New Orleans Saints.  OK, there were a few Carolina fans among us, but this sentence has already wasted enough energy on them.

Long story short, the Saints win - reaching 8-0.  It was an especially tense game as they only took the lead late in the game.  "WHO DAT!?!?!?!?"

My friend Rachel asked us to meet her in the 4th quarter down near the field.  We had the thrill and pleasure of watching the end of the game from behind the goalpost.  That would have made it an unbelievable experience as it was.  But there was more....
"Do you want to meet the Saintsations?"  Um....

Friday, November 13, 2009


My friend and fellow family member of the Big Red F, Taige Smith, passed away last night.  He was one of the most outgoing, friendly, sincere, happy, and nice people I have every had the privilege of sharing a day with.  He will be forever missed but not forgotten.  He leaves in his wake a group of people saddened by his passage but uplifted by his spirit.  Always one to share a smile and a hug, Taige leaves us with the lesson to be good and kind to your fellow man.
God bless you Taige.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Orleans Day 2

I have the feeling every day is going to start off with some very strong chicory coffee to shake off the evening before....  Not such a bad thing.  Got up and wandered the French Quarter.

Found a hole in the wall cafe and sipped coffee and ate some andouille and eggs.  A band started playing outside so I sat on the sidewalk for about 20 minutes and listened to them jam.  My buddy Preston called and we met up at Napoleon House for lunch.  The place is very very old and he showed me a building across the street that used to house slaves.  New Orleans has such a rich history - some of which is very frightening.  He also pointed out about five different haunted houses and the OLDEST BAR IN AMERICA!  So of course we had to get a beer to go....

That evening Joyce brought me to the grand opening of the National World War II Museum.  It was a really amazing event with live music, live performances, movies, great food and even fireworks.  I felt really lucky to have been here, especially during the weekend preceding Veteran's Day.  I met some really really cool old soldiers who had nothing but great stories and anecdotes.

One of my heroes, John Besh, was also debuting his newest restaurant, American Sector.  We had a sampling of appetizers and (surprise!) a few cocktails to go with it.  Next stop was the newly renovated Roosevelt Hotel for some (surprise!) cocktails to finish the night.

New Orleans Day 1

I LOVE THIS CITY!  Where else do you get off a plane, hear live jazz music, eat oysters from the half shell, get a beer to go....and you haven't even left the airport yet?!?

The sounds of Louis Armstrong filled the air as I ventured out into the Crescent City.  I checked into my hotel and got ready for dinner.  Met up with dear friends Charlie (Louisiana Culinary Institute) and Joyce (director of New Orleans Wine and Food Experience) and we headed to Commander's Palace for dinner.  I haven't been there since Top Chef and I forgot just how large this restaurant is.  They have at least 7 different dining areas and a fleet of well-heeled staff.  Chef Tory McPhail and his kitchen crew sent us out course after course of amazing Creole inspired fine cuisine.  It was amazing.  My favorites were the foie gras and pumpkin appetizer and the duck confit amuse.  The food, cocktails and great wine almost put me to sleep.  However, I was treated to some great live music and a very lively scene at Mimi's bar - apparently I was the only non-local there.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Jax 15th Anniversary

Can you believe it!?!?  15 glorious years...
I can't take responsibility for the entire life span of the fishy food temple, but I can say I've made my mark here for the past third of it.  I started at Jax on January 1st, 2004.  For the first four years, I cooked my heart out and tried to improve on an already well-oiled machine.  I came into a restaurant with a superb reputation and a staff that was untouchable.  Not a bad gig for a young chef with a lot of energy but not enough experience to start his own place.   Everything changed for me (and perhaps for Jax) a year ago when the first episode of Top Chef Season 5 aired.  I went from being a well-know chef on Pearl Street to a TV personality.

If it wasn't for the success of Jax, the generosity of owner Dave Query, and the support of the hard-working staff of this fine restaurant, I don't think I would have ever been on the show.  Needless to say, the incredibly busy 60-seat restaurant got even busier.  And when I was announced as the winner, can imagine the impact.

This week, Jax Fish House has been offering throwback dishes to mark all of the wonderful years of innovative and fresh seafood served.  The last two nights, I offered up remakes of the final three courses of food I made on Top Chef.  We had a very full dining room and what seems to have been a lot of smiling faces.

My dishes:
1)  Sashimi Trio of Hiramasa, King Salmon, and Ahi Tuna with shaved fennel, avocado, grapefruit, candied grapefruit rind, soy "noodles", fennel pollen, and ginger-citrus vinaigrette
2)  Seared Scallop and Foie Gras with cardamom pain perdu, star anise preserved apples, crushed spiced pecans, apple gastrique, foie gras foam, and raw apple salad
3)  Porcini Crusted Venison Loin with chestnut-celeriac puree, wild mushrooms, haricot vert, micro celery, and blackberry demi glace

I love this restaurant and I love everyone who has made an impact on it.  From the dishwashers to the hostesses to the managers to the regular customers - Jax is a family with many members.  We all have made our mark in some way.  Some have made food, some have served cocktails, and some have caught a fish and put their picture on the wall.  I am just so proud to have been a part of such a magnificent place for the past six years and I can't wait to see what the next 15 years of Jax brings!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

James Beard Dinner - Dallas

Aaahhh, back to the lone star state....
I used to arrive in Dallas every summer to spend a few fun-filled weeks with Grandma Rosalie.  Of course it was so long ago that mom could actually walk me on the plane and kiss me goodbye before strolling the tarmac back to the terminal.  How times have changed.
One thing I didn't miss was the humidity.  Fortunately for me, this trip didn't come with the overwhelming heat that I remembered as a child.  That happens in the middle of the summer.  October 2009 has brought central Texas some heavy and constant rain.   The rain wasn't really a problem, however, as 98% of my time in Dallas was spent indoors.

After leaving the two and a half fresh feet of snow covering Colorado, I arrived in Dallas.  I called up my boy Nate who just happened to be visiting his lovely girlfriend and we met up at III Forks Restaurant.  Chris Vogeli, the chef-owner, greeted us and showed us around his massive restaurant and kitchen.  This place is the epitome of the Texas Steakhouse.  They have a cooler filled with red meat and a kitchen crew that rocks out thousands of pounds of potatoes, corn, bread, and everything else that goes well with an 18oz prime strip.  The crew there is fantastic and everyone made room for us as we prepped for our dinner.
Of course I had to make a little time for my favorite band in the world, the Drive By Truckers (dbt) who just happened to be playing at the House of Blues that night.  Suffice to say, whiskey may have been consumed....
Nate and I got up earlier than we should have Thursday morning and went to work.  We prepped all day and put out two passed apps and three courses of a six course dinner.  The event was part of the Celebrity Chef Tour - Benefiting the James Beard Foundation (tour) run by my friend Jeff Black.  We sold about 90 seats and the dinner was a blast.  Everyone ate and drank their fill and had a huge private room to themselves.
Two James Beard Dinners in one week.  I feel very lucky and honored indeed.
What a great trip...

The apps I served were:  Blue Point Oysters with chile-cucumber mignonette and American Sturgeon Caviar with roast fingerlings and creme fraiche.

My three courses:

Hiramasa Sashimi with avocado, grapefruit and fennel pollen

Seared Duck Breast and Confit Leg with butternut squash, brussels sprouts and pomegranate

Porcini Dusted Venison with gnocchi, wild mushrooms and blackberry demi glace