This past weekend, I attended a great event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium called “Cooking for Solutions”. It’s an annual event in its ninth year, featuring celebrity chefs doing cooking demonstrations and speaking on sustainable food efforts. The events lasted all weekend, but I signed up for the cooking demonstrations on Saturday morning with chefs Anthony Fusco, Kevin Gillespie, and Gerald Hirigoyen. Each Chef presented a seafood-based recipe, answered questions, and spoke about their commitments to local and sustainable food sources in their respective restaurants.
Chef Anthony Fusco, formerly of Harbour Restaurant in New York City, was up first, and showed us how to make Scallops Crudo, an appetizer similar to ceviche using passion fruit vinaigrette instead of citrus to marinate the scallops. Chef Fusco explained the various unusual ingredients in the dish and what they meant to the balance of flavors, such as adding cocoa nibs for an earthiness and shiro dashi for smokiness.
Both he and Kevin Gillespie waxed poetic about the olive oils and vinegars from Katz & Company, a Napa Valley artisinal oil and vinegar company that supplies great restaurants throughout the country. He emphasized that it is important to know where your food comes from, and who is making it.
I hadn’t heard of Anthony Fusco before this event, and unfortunately, his restaurant, Harbour, closed in December. He is working on opening a new place in New York called Carmela’s, scheduled to open at the end of the year. Chef Fusco was very engaging, and spoke lovingly of growing up in an Italian family in Brooklyn where Sunday dinner lasted all day. His father, a “Wall Street man”, was sitting behind me in the audience, beaming with pride at his son. He said their favorite dish was a simple pasta with garlic, anchovies, olive oil and red pepper flakes.
Aside from his love of seafood, Fusco seemed to hold a particular reverence for bacon. “Popcorn cooked in bacon fat will change your life,” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd (and for me, the desire to go home and try it). He invited everyone to come to Carmela’s when it opens, and assured us that “there will be pork on the menu.”
I had seen Chef Kevin Gillespie on last season’s Top Chef, and of all the competitors, his food was the most appealing to me (must be the Southern roots). His recipe demo was made up on the fly, a few hours before the demo, and consisted of a risotto with black olives, salmon poached in olive oil, with smashed English peas. One tip he gave for making risotto was not to stir it constantly, so that the individual rice grains stand alone, rather than lumping together like rice pudding. He cautioned against using farm-raised salmon, since the farming practices often lead to ecological destruction of wild fish due to releasing sea lice and other parasites into wild habitats. He also stated that the flavor of the fish is dictated by the diet of the fish, so wild caught salmon generally taste better.
Chef Gillespie’s restaurant in Atlanta is called Woodfire Grill, and is one of the leading restaurants in the country for local, organic fare done in a fine dining setting. The restaurant has been in business for a number of years, but he has been part-owner for about two years. He is known for fresh, seasonal fare, with an emphasis on local products. The menu features a “blind tasting” each night, in which diners are served 6-7 courses in rapid succession without being told what they are. The dishes are served rapidly, to blur the lines of the courses. At the end, diners are told what they just ate. “I can’t believe people let me do this,” he said. After seeing what he cooked up on the fly at this demo, I would gladly submit to it.
Gillespie was hilarious, and his demonstration went by far too quickly. He was asked about his experience on Top Chef by someone in the audience, and he said that it was an arduous process. The most difficult challenge for him was the “Restaurant Wars” episode in which the chefs teamed up to open a restaurant in only a few days. He said that because he runs a restaurant, he knows how it should be done. He also said the barbecue challenge, in which the contestants had to cook in the desert in 115 degree heat was also grueling.
I may need to make a trip to Atlanta just to eat at Woodfire Grill. I’m sure I can find an excuse one of these days.
The third chef up was local Gerald Hirigoyen of Piperade and Bocadillos in San Francisco. Chef Hirigoyen is from the Basque region, and his cooking is steeped in the traditions of his homeland. He prepared a calamari salad with black-eyed peas, a recipe taken from his new book on Basque tapas called Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition. I have to admit, I find the idea of cleaning my own calamari a bit intimidating, but his step-by-step instruction made it seem pretty simple.
Chef Hirigoyen’s emphasis in his talk was on respecting the local traditions and customs relating to food. He mentioned that many of the young chefs in Spain are involved in the molecular cuisine movement, but without a firm rooting in the traditions of the region, the food is not unique. Too much emphasis on the technique without the tradition and the dishes, he said, would be the same whether you were in the Basque Region or Tokyo. In order for molecular cuisine to be successful, the chef needs to understand the local history of food, the culture and the cuisine. Like the other two chefs before him, food seemed steeped in childhood memories and the emotional appeal of food, rather then just on tastes and textures.
I bought a copy of Pintxos and had him sign it after the talk was over. It is beautifully illustrated, and although the dishes are not something I would normally cook, they sound intriguingly delicious. Some of the ingredients might take a little work to find, but I have a feeling it would be well worth the search. Even better would be a drive up to San Francisco one of these days to have him cook it at either Piperade or Bocadillos.
I really enjoyed listening to all three of these chefs, and seeing them prepare interesting food made from local ingredients. I will have to save up so that next year I can go to the other events. I think it would be a worthwhile investment.
Some cooking and dining tips from these amazing chefs:
- Stay away from bluefin tuna. It’s over-fished and runs the risk of becoming extinct.
- Serve ceviche the traditional Mexican way–with saltine crackers.
- Use a pinch of cinnamon to round out a tomato/chili sauce to add some punch into the sauce.
- Try “unilateral cooking” of fish by gently cooking in liquid from the bottom up.
- Use sea salt to season sea food, following the adage that “things that grow together go together.”
- Simple dishes can be made into great dishes by proper seasoning and freshness of the products that go into them.