Thursday, April 14, 2011

Taste of the Nation is a taste of now

The men in the white coats came to take me away Wednesday night. About time, right?

It was my annual stint judging Taste of the Nation, the annual hunger-relief fundraiser at the Wells Fargo atrium. For most attendees, it's a real eat-drink-and-tarry event. For me, it's a annual spin around the room with chefs in white coats. I'm always placed on a judging team with a couple of chefs, which is always enlightening, and the chefs who are representing their restaurants are competing to top each other. Also enlightening.

I almost always pick up a trend or notice something new. That's the first place I had seared pork belly, long before it became a fine-food cliche. Another year, chef-instructor Joe Bonaparte led students at the Art Institute table to produce pig head. Not a crowd-pleaser, maybe, but impressive.

This year? One of the winning dishes was The Gallery At Ballantyne's chicken pate (it's in the bottom picture): Softly cooked balls of Baucom's Best chicken rolled in pecans and local honey and served in a little pool of sauce made from Junior Johnson's cherry moonshine. Clever, but also wonderfully delicious. Another winner was the ceviche sushi from Enso, which also had an eye-catching display involving an ice table with their logo.

Other great dishes: Gene Briggs at Blue did a beautifully cooked short-rib tagine with ginger chickpea puree and Marcona almonds, and Mimosa served a hollowed-out hush puppy filled with a spicy seafood sauce. The picture at the top is coconut shrimp ceviche from Vida Cantina, which also had subtly spiced pork carnitas served on corn tortillas from a local tortilleria. Nice touch.

But here's what grabbed my attention. I was judging with AI instructor Mark Martin and CPCC instructor Pamela Robertson. At one table, I struggled to scribble down the dish name, which was one of those typical chef mouthfuls: Braised something something with a fennel puree something and a rhubarb something else. I whined to Martin, "why can't chefs name a dish without including everything down to the detergent they used in the dishwasher?" He laughed and agreed. Robertson chimed in thoughtfully, "That's changing though. Simpler is the way to go."

A few tables later, we encountered the perfect example. At Ember Grille's table, they were using eye-catching, two-sided bowls to serve a poached local farm egg topped with a crisp sheet of pancetta sliced as thin as paper, a Parmesan truffle vinaigrette and a finger-long strip of brioche.

Gutsy move: Cooking perfectly poached eggs for hundreds of people at a folding table takes courage -- and a water circulator. Basically, it was a sous vide egg, brought up to a precise temperature so each one was perfect. When we tasted it, using spoons to break the pancetta so it fell into the egg, we were all silent for a minute, just admiring. It was simple, it was elegant, it let the egg and the hint of bacon shine. The softness of the egg and the crispness of the circle of pancetta brought texture.

Nicely done, chefs. When you keep it simple, food shines.