Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My New York Culinary Experience - Raw, Uncut and Delicious

This past weekend, I had the immense honor of being part of the 3rd Annual New York Culinary Experience, organized by New York Magazine and the French Culinary Institute.  I respect both institutions and had high hopes for the event, which proved to be a wonderfully interactive learning experience that entailed lots of interaction with top culinary talent and a great opportunity for networking with peers. 

The roster of cooking classes was impressive and the the caliber of chef talent teaching these was the cherry on this already rich sundae.  Each person got to participate in 4 interactive classes (2 per day) as well as 2 Q&A luncheons with renowned culinary leaders from all walks of life.

In addition to learning a lot valuable cooking and baking skills, I was also intrigued to have prime access to the chefs, which we foodies consider to be highly revered celebrities.  Though truly fascinating and respectable, I saw a common thread that connected us all at the core - our immense and intense love of food.

Day 1:
I arrived eagerly and slightly unsure of what to expect, rushing off to my first class, Autumn in Italy taught by Babbo Pastry Chef, Gina DePalma.  I've read quite a lot about Chef Gina and felt as if I already knew her through the vivid description I read in the book, Heat by Bill Buford.  Here's what I got out of the class:

Autumn in Italy by Chef, Gina DePalma - Chef Gina's class was invigorating and highly ambitious.  She introduced us to three new rustic Italian desserts that I've never tried making or eating for that matter.  She demoed everything before we got to it and it was fun watching her in action, as she offered tons of vivacious commentary infused with her sarcastic humor.  People were really into it and interacted with her by asking questions and her personal opinion on various baking matters.

We made 3 desserts including a rustic apple, fig and almond cream crostata, a spicy chestnut cake called Castagnaccio and finally, Mostarda, a very unique pear syrup reduced in mustard seed oil that's delicious when served on top of cheese. I'll post the recipes for all these goodies at a later time.

Hearth Classics by Chef, Marco Canora - I found the afternoon class taught by Chef, Marco Canora of Hearth and Terroir even more enlightening.  Before meeting Chef Marco, I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with him and his cuisine.  But it didn't take long for his electric personality to make a lasting impression.  Besides being a talented Chef, Marco has a knack for teaching.  If you ever have the opportunity to take a class with him, I'd highly suggest it because he's clear in his instruction, breaks down complex skills into easier tasks and engages with his audience on a deep level.  I think it's safe to say that by the end of the class, we were all Marco converts and have probably made our Open Table reservations for one of his restaurants.

The two things we made with Chef Marco were homemade gnocchi and a braised rabbit stew.  I personally benefited from both dishes because I'm a huge gnocchi lover and have been meaning to make them from scratch.  And in terms of the rabbit...well learning how to break down this delicious animal was a good skill to learn and knowing how to cook it appropriately was useful too.  The sauce we made with the rabbit stew can be done with any other protein too, making the recipe very adaptable.  Again...I'll post the recipe specifics at a later time.

Here are 3 videos of Chef Marco prepping the dough for the gnocchi:

Video 1
Video 2
Video 3

Day 2:
After a successful first day, I couldn't wait to see what day 2 had in store.  I was taking an Australian Cuisine class in the morning with Chef, Shaun Hergatt of SHO Shaun Hergatt and then a pastry class focusing on the uses of brown butter with Le Bernadin's pastry Chef, Michael Laiskonis.  Experimenting with brown butter in desserts...need I say more?

Australian Cuisine with Chef, Shaun Hergatt - Even though I'm not a complete novice when it comes to Australian food, I've been more exposed to comfort pub food rather than sophisticated cuisine.  Chef Shaun's class was the perfect outlet for learning more about Australian fruit and spices that elevate an ordinary dish to the next level. 

Everyone seemed to really enjoy Chef Shaun's class and although he started off very serious, he warmed up quickly.  I loved all the personal attention he gave to each student by walking around, critiquing, tasting and in some cases (like ours) correcting.  His manner was friendly and easy going but at the same time, you knew he meant business. I appreciated his devotion to his art and I learned a lot of useful techniques.

The two things we made in Chef Shaun's class were Ocean Trout in Kalamansi dressing and Wattleseed ice-cream.  Both use unusual ingredients that we're unfamiliar with in the States, but it was fun to try new flavor combinations that awoke our senses.  The Ocean Trout was actually a tartare, which I've never made before.  It was challenging and precise and by the end of the class, I felt like a pro, with my beautifully formed tartare round with bright orange roe on top.  I was proud of myself to work up such a complex dish and might even try it at home.

The Allure of Brown Butter with Pastry Chef, Michael Laiskonis - Naturally loving all food with butter, the topic of this class spoke to me.  I was excited to meet Chef Laiskonis, who was very organized and methodical.  A very thorough individual, he had a map of everything that we'd cover in class on PowerPoint slides. I had to giggle to myself when I saw this because I sort of felt like I was at work, only covering a way more interesting topic.  My only criticism of Chef Laiskonis' class is that he wasn't as interactive with the students as the other chefs had been.  He relied more on the French Culinary Institute volunteers and chefs to help us, which was fine, but a bit less exciting.

Chef Michael's agenda was also ambitious, as we made 4 desserts including two types of Financier cookies (my favorite of the day and pictured above) including brown butter and pistachio.  I just loved the color of the pistachio cookies and we all agreed that they had more flavor.  The other two items we practiced was making a brown butter ice cream base and also roasted white chocolate that we made from scratch. Very cool and super indulgent - almost like dulce de leche.

Overall, the New York Culinary Experience was  a memorable weekend that taught me to further appreciate the simplicity and craftsmanship of great food and the amazing culinary geniuses that make it happen.

To view pictures from this year's event, check out NYCE's FB page.

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