In my last post, I told you all about two food-related experiences I had recently, both of which I thought were extremely cool. Little did I know, that within one short week, they would both be trumped by a third, very, very cool event.
A couple of weeks ago, two of the kindest and most charitable people that I know, Mr. and Mrs. Louis and Manette Mayberg, hosted a fundraiser in their home for a wonderful organization called Shalva. The amazing folks at Shalva provide support and programming for mentally and physically challenged children, and their families, in Israel. The amount of resources and help that they provide is truly awe-inspiring.
I will admit, that before two weeks ago, I had not heard of this organization, and honestly, the only reason I was initially interested in this fundraiser was a selfish one. You see, I heard through the grapevine that the big draw for this year’s benefit, was that Chef Todd Aarons was being flown in to cook for those in attendance. If you’re reading this blog, and you haven’t heard of Chef Aarons, I’m officially giving you a public scolding right now. If you have heard of him, and have been lucky enough to dine at his restaurant, Tierra Sur at the Herzog Winery in California, as I have, then I’m certain you understand why this news caught my attention. Anyone who knows a little bit about the kosher restaurant can tell you, that Tierra Sur is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best kosher restaurant in the world.
Eating at Tierra Sur three and a half years ago was the first time I ate at a truly amazing restaurant, and it set a bar that has not been reached by any other place in the years since. The decor, the service, and most importantly, the food, were all perfect. Oh, and the pricing was most definitely not the highest I’ve seen at an upscale kosher restaurant. That award goes to The Prime Grill in NYC, a fine steakhouse in its own regard, but not near the level of Tierra Sur.
The food I ate at Tierra Sur was crafted with a perfectly simple, rustic elegance. It was not flashy; nothing was made with liquid nitrogen or cooked sous vide. If you follow Top Chef, it was more along the lines of Kevin Gillespie than Richard Blais. Both are amazing chefs, who cook what seemed to be fabulous food, but they have widely different styles and philosophies.
As soon as I found out that Chef Aarons would be in my town, cooking for a benefit hosted by a family I know, I knew that I had to do whatever I could to be in that kitchen. Luckily, doing whatever I could only meant having to send an email explaining my request to Mrs. Mayberg, who then passed it along to Chef Aarons. To make a long story short, I got to spend roughly seven hours in the kitchen with Chef Aarons and his sous chef, Gabe Garcia.
I could tell that they were busy as soon as I walked into the kitchen. After all, they had a day and a half to prepare a six course meal for fifty people, using a kitchen and equipment with which they were unfamiliar. It’s not an easy task to acclimate to someone else’s kitchen. I was glad to offer my help in any way that I could, but I understood why they might have been apprehensive to have someone they didn’t know, and who possibly knew nothing about food, hovering around observing them in a cramped kitchen. Instead of making me feel out of place, however, they were both shockingly welcoming and friendly. I spent most of the evening helping in any way that I could, and being shown techniques and discussing our common passion, making kosher food great. Here’s a copy of their menu-
Sounds incredible, right? It surely was. And I got to try everything!
I made sure to take this picture, because one thing I’ve learned from experience, is that organization is key to operating as a chef with maximum productivity. Clearly, you can see, they knew what they were doing. Lots and lots of their tedious prep work had been completed the day before, and into the early morning, so that each dish could be finished with relative ease when the banquet started.
The chef’s toolkit–
Never leave home without your Microplane!
One thing in particular that I was sorry to have missed, was the breaking down of this venison saddle and the removing of the tenderloin.
A skill that home cooks, such as myself, are sorely lacking, is the ability to properly butcher meat. (We’re not alone. Apparently some Top Chef entrants can’t do this either! Side note, that dude getting kicked off made me very happy.) I mean, why should we have to? None of us cook in the type of volume where buying a whole side of a cow is necessary. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable skill.
So, onto the food. I do apologize, both to my readers and to the chefs, for not taking the greatest pictures. While we were plating, things got a little hectic, making it difficult to take my time to set up each shot ideally.
This was the molasses cured salmon, after hors d’oveures service ended. It tasted nothing like the lox that you and I are used to eating; it wasn’t pungent in that weird, off putting way. Instead, both this, and the cold smoked hamachi were rich, smooth and not at all fishy. I found all the hors d’oveures to be incredibly balanced. I especially loved the way the smokiness of the hamachi played off of the pickled beet and aioli, and the kick of the preserved lemon in the tuna was very refreshingly delicious.
Here you can see just how big the kitchen was. I was standing in the far corner of the room for this picture. It’s a beautiful kitchen, but I would have found the task of cooking a meal of that size, banquet style (where everything goes out at the same time) to be unrealistic, had I not seen firsthand just how easy Chef’s Todd and Gabe made it look.
Plating the pate en croute
On that plate was the pate en croute, preserved Chanterelle mushrooms, fresh hearts of palm, and lightly dressed fresh herbs.
From left to right:
Duck legs and gizzards stuffed collard green, quince, and seared duck breast.
This one right here was my favorite of the night. I had never tried beef cheek before, and I was surprised to discover how meaty and rich it tasted. It had been braised in stock with prunes and Ancho chiles, which gave a nice measured kick to the aftertaste. The cheek was served with a mole sauce (that should be pronounced molay, not to be confused with the blind, tunnel digging animal. I just don’t know how to make that little squiggly line atop
the “e”) and rounded off with some eschebeche style potatoes, carrots and onion. It was superb.
Here you have a terrible picture of the intermezzo, a palette cleanser of butternut squash consomme, with carrot and ginger. I found the flavors to be clean and bright, and I loved how they served it by rimming the bowls with some lemon zest and thyme (not pictured.)
This plate of sheer beauty right here, was the venison loin. Believe it or not, I had never tried venison before. I do know, however, from repeated viewings of Top Chef, that venison loin is supposed to be served rare. Sadly, too many people do not like being served a piece of rare meat, and in a few tragic instances, plates were sent back to be made, *gasp!* well done! That just gave me violent thoughts. But I suppose the hallmark of a good chef, as these chefs are, is to give the diners what they want, even if those diners are culinary morons.
The venison was supposed to be served with a gooseberry sauce, but, since gooseberries couldn’t be found by the local help, a blackberry sauce was made instead. Buckwheat spaetzle and sauteed brussel sprouts rounded out the plate, along with some drizzled venison jus. I tried two pieces of the loin side by side, one cooked rare, and one well done (which is the most misleading description, if you ask me.) It should be obvious to anyone with taste buds that rare is the way to go.
Finally, for dessert, the pear and frangipane crostada–
The rosemary creme fraiche was really supposed to be a rosemary gelato, but the ice cream machine wasn’t working properly. I loved this either way. In Chef Todd’s words, “This dessert is all about the rosemary.” There was finely chopped rosemary in the dough, and in the creme fraiche. I love it when herbs are used in fruit-based desserts. I love it so much so, that I managed to sneak down three or four of these, when the chefs were being introduced to the diners, and I was left alone in the kitchen.
I really don’t know what could have made this evening any more spectacular of an experience for me. I didn’t expect to be doing anything besides quietly observing, instead, I was asked to help prep for the banquet. I didn’t expect to taste any of that food, instead, I ate lots of everything. And I surely didn’t expect that such busy, talented chefs would take their time to include me in their work and turn a busy night into a teaching opportunity, but that was exactly what they did, and for that I am tremendously grateful.
If you’re ever in California, do yourself a favor and go visit Tierra Sur. Oh, and while you’re there, see if you can pick up some more of this for me–
But don’t worry. If you can’t manage to sneak any of this home with you, I’ll be making about twenty pounds of it in the near future!
All the best,