Friday, October 7, 2011

chefs are cool

Anthony Bourdain has portrayed the world of cooking as a bunch of rascally, ridiculously cool people hanging out making sexy food.

This is totally, totally true I think.

Chefs, bartenders, restauranteurs, whatever, are just… cool!

For the second year in a row, I attended “World Fare: A Street Food Festival”, a fundraising event for Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. The philosophy behind that group is that while women are 70% of restaurant employees, almost none of them attain the status (and income) of high status chefs. So, this group supports women who are working their way up the rungs and gives scholarships to women to attend culinary school.

I went for the cause… and for delicious food and beverages :D

The event was held at Willow, a very cool restaurant in Arlington with two all star women at its helm: chef and co-owner Tracy O’Grady and pastry chef extraordinaire Kate Jansen. Willow is also awesome because of its focus on seasonal, fresh, and (whenever possible) local food. And it’s pretty and serene!


Let’s start with the dranks.

I am not a frequent drinker, for many reasons… not wanting to turn into an alcoholic, not wanting to grow a beer gut, and also just feeling totally clueless about what’s good and what I like. That last thing, however, is solved through EDUCATION. And what better way to educate oneself about alcohol than chatting with bartenders?

A disclaimer: I am just going to say I TASTED, not DRANK, all of these. Like two sips of most of them. That was my general theme for the evening to avoid feeling like I was on an episode of Addicted to Food.

First I went up to the beer guy and said, “I don’t like beer. My friends try to convert me. What’s a good beer for people who want to be converted?”

He said Fat Tire.


“Do you like food?”
”Uh… yes!”
”Do you like bread?”
”Do you like… deep dish pizza?”
”YES!” (I explained my first taste of love)

Lo and behold… the Fat Tire did indeed taste like deep dish! In a weird way! Bready and pleasant!

Hilariously enough, I realized when I got home that I was wearing the brewery cause I was rocking my T SHIRT SKIRT!

Guys, how cute is this?!


(Yeah, okay, I was multitasking when I took this picture).

So my godmother is one of those talented crafty types and her sister in law is even better. I was lucky enough to be bequeathed a t-shirt skirt, one of Michelle’s specialties. You can turn a large tshirt into a totally cool skirt (I get so many compliments on it!).

And this was apparently Fat Tire! Go figure.

(Pretend you’re looking at it backwards :D)

Back to beverages :D Everything made by the featured Women Chefs and Restauranteurs had a menu label detailing the extraordinary ingredients within.

Next, a whacky frozen drink:


You were left with a takeaway taste of SOUR! But pleasantly so. If you like margaritas, you’d like this :D

I kind of had a vague inclination that mezcal had to do with agave. The bartender explained that mezcal is smoked, in underground pits (!) which gives it a special flavor. She likened it to “The Scotch of tequila”. So there you go.

The next drink, as the bartender explained to me, she thought of when she heard how people in Vermont tape the maple trees for syrup and then, as it falls out onto the snow, just eat the snow off the ground.


The walnut infused cognac was the craziest thing- you take an initial sip and taste alcohol, and then as the flavor lingers on your tongue it very clearly goes WALNUTS! They infuse it themselves.

I really enjoyed talking to Megan (because, as I’d mentioned, chefs and their ilk are very cool). I was asking whether you have to be extroverted to be a bartender, because I thought that it sounded like a fantastic job and a great way to meet people but am myself incredibly awkward. She said it was good. You just needed to be able to read people and diffuse tension. For example, if there’s an awkward drunk person, wait til they go to the bathroom, and say diplomatically to their “cool friend” that the cool friend should probably talk to the drunk friend in a gentle way to tell them that they are annoying everyone.

The most fun thing was watching the nutmeg get freshly grated!


There was a rep from Foggy Ridge cider- like beer for kids! (God I love My Drunk Kitchen so much!), classy fair trade coffee, classy WATER, even, all infused with fresh fruit sheesh.


But of course these things are nothing without the FOOD!

You walked in and were immediately greeted by the all-star people at Willow (the restaurant hosting the event). They had an expansive, Mexican-inspired fiesta set out.

The menu:


Yes, I was about to eat pork belly, current darling of the culinary and food blog world.

But of course there was a condiment bar, and I had to go crazy on those first.

Beginning with a  delicious variety of sauces. As in everything at this event, I asked them what they recommended, cause hello… food experts. She liked the green sauce on the pork, the green sauce with the crema on the beans.


There was also a lovely variety of sprinklies; sunflower seeds, herbs, corn nuts!


Split this plate with my mom.


Thoughts on my first pork belly?

I found it… really really fatty and intense. I am just not a huge slab-of-fatty-meat person. I want my short ribs and bacon in pasta, not straight up.

The beans, however, wowsa :D



Lousy picture, unfortunately. Love that it was served on little bamboo plates! Stylish and eco-friendly!


The sweet potato in the biscuit was subtle, the barbecue was sweet and soft, contrasting nicely with the crunchy slaw.

Also outdoors was a contingent from a high school culinary arts program! Very cool. I took Culinary Arts for a year in high school :D Actually our school had the option of an advanced program, which took up two class periods. I ran into a guy who did that- and then went on to graduate from CIA (!)- at this event last year. He’s a proper chef at Willow! So cool!

They had tamales, so obviously that was awesome.


There was also a food truck (food trucks are exploding in DC, just like everywhere else). This one had a lovely tropical vibe, complete with luau-ish music drifting outside from the tuck.


Your options:


Not knowing the origins of the pork, I decided to eat rice with a side of pasta. It was obviously a fantastic choice. I loved the seasoned salt that got sprinkled on both things- I’ll have to try that at home. And every time I eat sticky rice I’m reminded of how much I like sticky rice. It’s just so wonderfully carb-y!


Spring roles and their ilk played a starring role this year (last year sliders reigned surpreme).

They were represented at the whirlwind of activity that was the table of L’Academie de Cuisine,


  As well as from the gals at The Majestic, who earn extra points for giving out temporary tattoos! Such a fun idea.


Also on an Asian note, a chicken satay on green papaya salad from 15 ria. The volunteer serving this didn’t know the origins of the meat but I remembered the conversation I’d had with the very nice chef there when I went last year and I was confident that, with her restaurant’s emphasis on local food, the chicken would be something I’d be proud to eat.


It was good, but I still remembered her mushroom crepes from last year and oh man.

Continuing in the food-on-a-stick theme, Casa Nonna offered grilled quail sausage with yummy fruits and veg on a stick with saba.


What is saba, you ask? Good question!

From the gentle interrogation I gave them, it sounds like it’s a relative of balsamic reduction but made rather than balsamic vinegar, vinegar made from muscat grapes. This one was also enhanced with truffle oil, ooh la la. Honestly, the quail didn’t do it for me (holy flabby fatty skin), but the plants on the stick were great :D

We are now entering the WINNER’S CIRCLE.

Let’s start by talking about Ris.

Ris is both a person and a restaurant: Ris Lacoste is a chef who has worked in the DC area for many years now, and just debuted her self-named restaurant a few years back, to rave, rave reviews. It’s a fancy place but it’s also a place that calls meatloaf one of its signature entrees. Their website has staff bios that mentions what everyone is reading this month. Ris is very involved with DC Central Kitchen, a really awesome nonprofit, and super devoted to farmer’s markets.

She is so cool! She’s also really nice and I was all “you’re so cool!” when I introduced myself and she shook my hand and was really friendly.

Also, her cooking is amazing. This was a grilled octopus salad on a yummy crunchy bready thing. Incredible description, I know. It was one of my favorite things I tasted. Beautiful combination of flavors and everything in it- the bread base, the not at all rubbery octopus, the subtly delicious vinaigrette, each tiny leaf of the greens- was perfectly executed.


The next dish didn’t have one of those little cards describing it- it had an entire sheet of paper.


Going clockwise from the top, we have

Grilled pastured beef filet and farmstead Swiss on open-faced biscuit with creamy ramp mustard

Valley apple, surface-ripened/Washed-rind farmstead tomme [or cheese, for those of us who have no idea what tomme is], and country bacon on grits crostini

Dooryard figs stuffed with farmstead rosemary chevre fromage blanc wrapped in country ham


In laymen’s terms:

Up top we have an adorable mini roast-beef melt with cheese and super delicious mustard on top

On the right we have a fig wrapped in ham and stuffed with cheese [which, the general consensus in the women’s bathroom agreed, was most people’s favorite bite of the evening]

Back around on the left, quite possibly the most tasty joke ever, was totally a gourmet incarnation of a MCMUFFIN! You bit into it and tasted bacon, cheese, and a wonderful grits-y base. So good!

Another favorite was one of the few restaurants I had actually been to: Pizzeria Paradiso! There was an awesome variety of pizza available.


I asked her what her favorite was, and she said her first favorite wasn’t being served that night (which is understandable, since it involves FRIED EGG on top! Sounds great but difficult to execute at this event!) but that her second favorite was the potato and pesto:


Holy amazing. I’m going to need to make this at home.

Hank’s Oyster Bar gets points for being just so FUN!

Oysters (with a rockin’ Asian-inspired drizzle atop), champagne, and CARAMEL CORN!


DC Central Kitchen gets points for being an awesome organization and serving sweet potato fries, because when do I not want to be eating sweet potato fries? Served with some fun lemony aioli thing.


For those of us who are locavore geeks, there was lots of good stuff.

Equinox is somewhere I aspire to eat and I totally geek out over the owners, Todd and Ellen Gray. They pioneered that now so popular idea of seasonal, local food in DC.

At their table, one of chefs at Equinox who is a woman who didn’t appear to be that much older than I was passing out this lovely thing:

Equinox- slow cooked lamb- FENNEL


Lamb shoulder. Seared to caramelize fat. Cooked three hours with fennel (ooh, intriguing!). Perfectly cooked veggies. Rice. Comfort food at its finest.

Also great and local, a restaurant I want to visit soon despite its geographic indesirability (driving to Silver Spring, yeurgh) was sampling I didn’t photograph but just imagine this making your mouth really happy:


The congeniality award definitely goes to the chef-instructor from Stratford, who remembered me from last year (!) and remembered who my mom was and was incredibly friendly and spoke to me about coming in to one of her classes to teach students about blogging (!)

Her table also had yummy lentil fritters and HEAVENLY, super-concentrated, cardamom-bliss chai.


I kept turning around and seeing Carla Hall from Top Chef (and now The Chew!). Giving what had to be one heck of a pep talk to awestruck culinary students…


And being an awesomely animated auctioneer going through some of the VIP prizes (at VIP prices; all went for more than $1,000!) like an all-star-oysters-and-champagne night.

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At one point she had everyone laughing as her rapidfire auction speak- “I have 700, can I get 800? Got 700, want 800. Who has 100 more?”- turned into hilarious nonsense- “Rub a dub dub in the tub! I don’t know what I’m doing! Bid more!”


Now obviously what we have all been waiting for is dessert.


I knew from last year that Vidalia was going to produce something delicious, which they did in the form of:


Did you want a closeup? Don’t mind if I do.


As explained to me by the chef who made it, it had a bottom like a graham cracker cookie, then a layer of flourless chocolate cake, a chocolate mousse with 66% cacao, a peanut butter mousse on top of that, and finally a homemade and lightly torched vanilla marshmallow.

Ahh. Everyone was talking about it.

One of my favorites was actually quite inconspicuous looking- a fig and almond tart from the intimidatingly cool pastry chef at 701.


She has pbj- based dessert I desperately want to try (homemade brioche, peanut butter mousse, homemade concord grape jam!) and mentioned a chocolate dome with thyme-infused caramel and beet ice cream (!) and told me that if I was into whacky desserts I should email her and come to the restaurant and she’d make something up.

Um… sign. me. up.

The culinary students at L’Academie de Cuisine had clearly been working overtime making beautiful macarons and meringues…


Since reading about the event I’d been stoked for something they’d hinted at in the ads: Moorenko’s Ice Cream’s pumpkin cheesecake sundaes.

Pumpkin ice cream, a wonderfully tangy sour cream sauce atop, and crumbled ginger snaps.


Equally fantastic was their orange-ginger-pineapple sorbet which apparently was flavored with ginger juice (?! who knew that existed)

This being Willow, it meant that their faaaaaaaaaaamous pastry chef Kate Jansen was going to make some seriously incredible cookies.

And cupcakes…

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(that one on the right was like a pineapple upside down cake with unbelievably delicious caramel drizzle atop)

Oh did you want some more cookies…


Yeah, I went ahead and got a whole assortment. And sat down at the bar :D


Highlights included that inconspicuous flat beige one which was kind of grapefruity I think?!  Buttery and citrusy. The raspberry crumble and that nutty brownie were also great. Kudos to a super famous pastry chef for acknowledging that cookies are delicious and an entirely respectable form of the culinary arts.

I tasted all, I finished none. I feel really good about how I ate actually- I indulged in every single thing I wanted to try but didn’t get a tummy ache!

While I was getting all up on my cookies, I started chatting with the woman next to me who turned out to be someone who had brought GREAT JOY to my life!

Anyone who has read this blog before will know of my ongoing love affair with my local farmer’s market. I am particularly fond of its visiting chefs series, in which chefs from prominent local restaurants (including Willow) come to the market, pick out some fresh produce from its vendors, and prepare a seasonal, delicious dish using the bounty of the market. And give SAMPLES!

Well, this lady STARTED IT!

Check out her blog here: Falls Church Farmer's Market Chef

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve started rereading Kitchen Confidential :D More cool chefs!

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