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Give Me Just a Second

November 19, 2012

“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.

Authentic?
Check.

Adaptable?
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.

Check.

Affordable?
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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2012 11:09 am

    Congratulations on a job well done — looking forward to getting the recipe!

  2. November 19, 2012 11:22 am

    I know exactly how you feel. I was left with similar questions in my head… especially after at least half of the judges, the DDK folks, and most of the audience (and even the guy who won!) told me they thought my dish should have won. It came down to the fact that the guy making the decisions about the restaurant decided he’d rather have a lamb dish instead of beef to “round out” the menu. I was sad :( But the winning dish was really delicious, and the person who won was so nice, it was hard to be upset for too long.

    But here’s some good news: You walked away with more loot than I ever got! I was invited to come and teach, as well, but I didn’t get a fancy lasagna pan. I really would like a fancy lasagna pan.

    Your dish was really excellent, and I’m hoping you’ll come out to the farm at some point to teach me how to make those beans. As someone who DOES NOT like beans, I really liked those beans.

    And if for nothing else, I’m really proud of you. My little heart was beaming for you in the short time I was at DDK. You’re a winner in my book (wah wah waaaaaaah).

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    November 19, 2012 11:26 am

    Congratulations, Daniel.

  4. November 19, 2012 11:59 am

    Man, there is so much that is GOOD AND DELICIOUS about true, Tuscan pork (especially wild boar) that it’s a shame this didn’t win, especially the roasted pork loin that is covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. That fat layer gets are crispy and crackle-y. Slow-roasted pork butt (yes, I’m a child, and like Daniel I also giggle when I order it) is one of my favorite winter dishes, and I’m totally psyched to try this after we get down with the Tedious Turkey folks insist on trotting out (heh, I made a funny) between now and New Year’s. Congrats, Profussor, you goal of small, incremental changes to the Capital District food scene is taking root.

  5. -R. permalink
    November 19, 2012 12:48 pm

    Congrats Mr. Fussy – a fine showing. It sounds as if they were looking for a ‘safe’ dish that fulfilled the typical American palate and notion of what Italian cuisine is all about – pasta, a sauce, and some anonymous ground meat thrown in: yawn. In fact, the foods of Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche and Lazio (all central regions) are filled with pork dishes (hell, all the stewable meats are well represented, especially wild boar, venison and rabbit). Ironically, the go to fast food of choice in these regions (you’ll see them in the main squares and markets, by the train/bus station, etc: porchetta. All I can say is that for 5 euro, you’ll have a chance of having the best sandwich you’ve ever eaten in your life.

  6. Debra permalink
    November 19, 2012 12:58 pm

    Congrats Mr. Fussy – a win is a win is a win & you are a winner! Enjoy your new pan. Can’t wait to see the recipe.

  7. Elyse permalink
    November 19, 2012 1:59 pm

    Can’t wait for the recipe- I need to use more of my fennel pollen!!

  8. Raf permalink
    November 19, 2012 4:11 pm

    “…filling in the gaping pork hole…”

  9. November 19, 2012 5:12 pm

    [FLB Note: I asked Bellini's for some feedback on the scores and I got the following response earlier today via email from Marketing Director Stacey Warrings. For those who had a chance to try the dish on the day of the contest, I welcome your reactions.]

    If you are looking for constructive criticism on your dish I can offer the following from James Kavanaugh:

    “Overall, I felt his dish needed a couple more components to tie eveything together. The beans were a little firm and could have had a bit more flavor. Individually the three items were good (beans, pork, slaw) but together it needed something else to enhance the flavors.”

  10. enough already! permalink
    November 19, 2012 6:08 pm

    Congratulations, profussor. Your dish sounds delicious and provides a true example of what Tuscans eat. A loss for bellini’s customers, but we get the recipe! Yay.

  11. November 19, 2012 9:14 pm

    First of all, you should feel pretty good about coming in second. All the finalists in the Table Hopping article look pretty righteous, but you and one other entrant took away the loot. And the other recipe was solidly in the Bellini’s zone while just different enough that they can merchandise it. By any standard you did about as well as you could possibly have expected.

    Second, please do post your recipe and Deanna please post yours too (on your site of course with a link from here)! It would be great to get an alternate universe collection of recipes that didn’t win at Bellini’s but should have.

    Third, looking at your linked post are you planning a series of “cooking for dummies” classes for folks like the fellow who thought making hot chocolate from scratch was too complicated? That’s a worthy endeavor but I bet it will be a challenge convincing people who think they can’t cook or that it’s not worth the bother that they can, and it is. Please keep us posted on your progress in merchandising this. Well, I guess you will, won’t you?

    • November 20, 2012 11:56 am

      Hey Otis – Thanks for the interest in my recipe!! HERE IT IS. The only real variation I use at home is that I use canned, crushed tomatoes that I put-up from my garden. When I was in the contest, we were required to use one thing from the Hannaford line of products… I chose the tomatoes.

      As to the cooking class for dummies, I find it really interesting why people come to these classes. I recently taught a “Farmhouse Mornings” class at DDK, where we made biscuits, sausage gravy, hash browns, a seasonal frittata, a quick table jam (then learned about how to care for cast iron and wooden cutting boards/utensils). Nothing there was particularly hard, but the people in the class were really intrigued by basic concepts and techniques, like dicing and onion, making a roux, etc. Some folks at the class even said they don’t know how to cook, and came specifically to learn one particular dish (biscuits, in this case) I think people would be more interested in the “Cooking for Dummies” than you would expect! It just has to be marketed correctly.

      Lemme know if you make the short ribs, I’d love your feedback!

      • November 20, 2012 6:36 pm

        Deanna, I love short ribs and will definitely try this recipe and report back… thank you!

        I’ve also been involved in some cooking classes where people were eager to learn very basic skills. Fussy’s challenge is harder because that guy who doesn’t know how to make hot chocolate also doesn’t want to learn. What to do about that?

  12. November 20, 2012 5:02 pm

    I haven’t the faintest clue where you’d get fennel pollen or if it would be worth buying to try your dish, but it sounds promising, especially since I imagine that a long-cooked meat dish would work in a slow cooker.

  13. Kate D. permalink
    November 25, 2012 12:37 am

    Congrats, Mr. Fussy – the dish looks wonderful.

    Having grown up in an Italian (Sicilian) family, I was blessed to have aunts, uncles and grandparents that cooked meals based on ingredients that they either grew themselves (everyone had a garden), raised (mostly chickens) or purchased from local farmers/shops.

    Meals were prepared the way they had been prepared back in Italy. Based on this background I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of what comprises genuine Italian dishes, and pork was frequently on the menu. Pasta was more of a side dish and was not drenched in red sauce.

    People that think places like Olive Garden (and even many non-chain Italian restaurants) serve dishes that represent the best of Italian cooking do not realize (and will probably never realize) that pasta is not the most used component of Italian recipes – it’s fish, pork, vegetables, beef, seafood – basically, depending on the region of Italy, it’s whatever can be grown, raised or caught. And of course, lots and lots of fabulous wine (in my family, some of it was home made wine)…

    I applaud you for trying to bring a better understanding of Italian cuisine to the area.

  14. December 11, 2012 2:38 pm

    Congrats on your 2nd place finish – well deserved. I happened to be in the store when the judging commenced that day and decided to stay for the results. Your pork dish was good, but there are a few reasons why I think the other dish came in first. Here are a few comments from people who teach restaurant development:

    Foodies are not “normal” consumers- you may think you are, but 90% of the population does not hold food in the same regard. Don’t get me wrong, I am in the Foodie camp, but Albany is certainly not Berkeley. It’s getting better – but we have a long way to go.

    Which brings me to my second point, you really have to know your audience. Do you go to Bellini’s often? Did you check out their customer base? What were most people ordering? How are they dressed? What kind of cars do they drive? What do you think they average check is? Average entree price? Did you back into a 32-35% food cost on your dish to see what the retail price would be? Organic cold-pressed Spanish olive oil is very expensive – and from a time perspective, no efficient kitchen wants to take the time to strain pork flavored olive oil and store it – and you need to have another use for it on the menu. Think about the value proposition for the average Bellini’s customer… “potatoes cooked in pork oil?”

    Bellini’s does well because they know their audience. They are not perceived as a “chain”- especially in Clifton Park, which is packed with chain restaurants. You mentioned that you wanted to give the restaurant a chance to offer “something new [versus] more of the same”. Well, “more of the same” is making Bellini’s big profits.

    Time after time, I have been taught that anyone who tells you that they want to open a restaurant because they “like to cook” should steer clear of this line of work. Running a restaurant is a business and there is a clear bias toward profit margin. I think the other gent won because he created a very tasty dish that probably provided the right margin, was very easy to make in advance, held up well, and was really something the Bellini’s customer could relate to.

    Had the target market for this event been a more upscale restaurant, I think you would have done well. I know you are trying to be an advocate of change, which is great, but I would suggest you research your target market extensively and try again next year. Best of luck to you.

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