Give Me Just a Second
“You took second place in a cooking competition!”
It sounds like something out of Monopoly or The Game of Life. But this is what happened to me last Saturday, when I competed in the Bellini’s Italian Eatery “Calling All Cooks” final showdown at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Stuyvesant Plaza.
Man, I wasn’t expecting that to be so much fun. Getting to cook in their kitchen stadium was a thrill. I had all the tools I wanted at my disposal, and the store even had their staff on hand to clean up dishes and wash out the pots. What a luxury.
And while the dish I presented took a long time to cook, there wasn’t really a lot of active time until the very end. So most of the day was as relaxing as a walk in the park, surrounded by fellow food lovers, wonderful smells, and prosciutto snacks.
The only tense part was once all the cooking was completed. The contestants were called up to the front of the kitchen to hear the results of the judging. My initial reaction to placing second was one of intense disappointment. However, when the ultimate winner was announced, I felt much better. Not because his dish was better than mine, but by making this choice the restaurant made a very clear statement about their priorities.
Look. Entering this contest was never about the prize money. Rather it was about challenging the conventions of Italian food in the Capital Region. And I understood going in that this was an uphill battle.
The dish I presented was an adaptation of a Tuscan classic. It was pork shoulder that braised in olive oil for over three hours, served with aromatic white beans, and topped with a shaved red cabbage slaw. There was no tomato sauce, no pasta and no cheese.
My goal was to get this on the menu so food like this could have a wider audience. But really I wanted to put this dish in front of the restaurant chefs and owners who are on the front lines of taste in my community. I had a glimmer of hope that if they could fall in love with a dish outside the realm of Italian-American staples, then maybe we could open the door to the great diversity of Italian cuisine in at least one corner of the Capital Region.
Thanks to Steve Barnes reporting for the Times Union, I have the following quote:
“We’re looking for the authenticity of the dish, but it also has to be adaptable” to being made quickly and consistently in multiple restaurant settings, said Marello. Further, he said, its ingredients needed to be affordable enough for the restaurant to be able to offer the dish for the family-friendly pricing at Bellini’s.
Well, I had the chance to explain to everyone involved with the restaurant, that this pork recipe was an ancient means for preservation. That means, you can make it in a large batch and it holds. You just need to heat it through, and your done. Beans hold well too. They just need to be warmed in some of the pork oil, salt and peppered, and given a squeeze of lemon. The shredded cabbage can sit through service. It gets hit with a little oil, some vinegar, salt and pepper. Quick and easy.
When Steve was interviewing the finalists, he asked me about this. And I think the dish suffered from the perception that it used expensive and fancy ingredients. It did. But that didn’t make it unaffordable. As I explained to Steve, those ingredients are used sparingly and to great effect. For over two pounds of meat there is only a half teaspoon of fennel pollen and just about a tablespoon of high quality red wine vinegar. And yes, it uses three cups of olive oil, but for the most part those are not only reclaimable, but super delicious to use on roast potatoes, carrots, and a whole host of other dishes. Plus the bulk of the dish is made of some of the cheapest ingredients in the market: cabbage, dried beans and pork shoulder.
A qualified check.
But really I think the most telling part from the newspaper piece was what I knew deep down inside all along. When talking about the winning dish, a plate of two cannelloni stuffed with ground beef, ground pork and sausage topped with a butternut-squash bechamel and crisped prosciutto, the corporate head chef had this to say:
“We all agreed from the first bite that it was a great combination of flavors,” said Kavanaugh. “A big part of our decision was if we can sell it in the restaurant. This definitely fits in with the menu.”
I wanted to give the restaurant a decision between something new and more of the same. And they made their choice. My feeling was that this pork dish fit into the menu by filling in the gaping pork hole. While Bellini’s may have dishes with prosciutto, sausage, or some other pork element, there still isn’t a single pork dish on the menu. It’s astounding. People love pork, and it’s very Italian.
Honestly, I don’t believe there was agreement among the judges that the cannelloni should win. It’s just a hunch. And I’d really be curious to see the scoresheets to see where I fell short and with whom. Because the dishes were scored on a 50 point scale, and I’m perplexed based on the criteria about where my dish was bested. The breakout was 10 points for looks, 10 points for taste, 10 points for the use of fresh ingredients, 10 points for originality and 10 points for adaptability.
It doesn’t matter much anyhow at this point. But I would like to know who around the judges table was in my camp. Again, I have a pretty good guess.
For what it’s worth, I’m thrilled with the prizes I received. The cookware for taking first place was a bunch of stuff I already have. But as the runner up I got an All-Clad “lasagna pan” which is effectively an awesome heavy duty stainless steel roasting pan, and something I’ve wanted for such a long time that I forgot it was still on my list. It also happened to come with one my favorite cookbooks on Italian food which I’m really looking forward to giving away to some lucky reader in the near future.
Even better still, Different Drummer Kitchen is interested in having me come in and teach those very basic cooking skills classes I’ve had on my mind recently.
Plus there’s the big consolation prize. Since it didn’t win, my recipe for Tonno del Chianti is still mine. That means I can finally post it on the FLB. Seriously, the more I think about it, the better I feel about coming in second.
I hope you are excited about the recipe. Not only is it delicious, but it’s crazy easy. Still, I’m going to hold onto it until next week, because as far as I can tell, for the next few days everyone is going to be contemplating whether or not they should change their plans and spatchcock their turkey. I’m not even going to touch that one.
As long as we are in the season of thanks, let me just offer one last thank you for helping make my participation in this cook off a reality. I couldn’t have done it without your help in the semi-finals. It was awesome. You are awesome. And even extra awesome were those of you who took some time to come by kitchen stadium and cheer me on.
Despite losing the contest on a real head scratcher of a call, I’m feeling very lucky.