A MasterChef Reunion in Houston

A perfect storm of events happened last weekend that resulted in my need to be in Houston for a few days.  (Mostly to visit a dear college friend who was having much of her liver out.)  Houston takes 2nd place to Austin as the best foodie city in Texas, though I don’t like to admit it.  Dallas runs 3rd, but soon we’ll be taking the top spot if things continue to go as they have been.  (I mean, with restaurants like FRANK, how can you be any other that the top?!?  Ha ha ha…)  So it’s not much of a surprise that so many MasterChef contestants live there, including the season 3 winner, Christine Ha, and my own MasterChef roomie, the culinary genius Alvin SchultzMichael Chen, who now lives in Dallas, was going down to arrange paperwork for a visit to China.  Also living there is Jason McConniel, or “JayMac” from season 2, and while he wasn’t featured heavily on the show, he’s a pretty interesting guy.  (He collaborates with Alvin on a regular basis, and he’s pioneering the urban farming scene in Houston.)  And season 4 Texan James Nelson also lives there.  So I was excited about a cross-generational MasterChef reunion.

I first arrived at Alvin’s place, and I’m embarrassed to say that, as often as Alvin has visited me in Dallas, this was my first visit to his home.  If you follow Alvin, you know that he’s a “freak-genius” (the term Gordon applied to him on season 2), and splits his culinary love affair between Modernist cuisine (which some people call “molecular gastronomy”) and the complete opposite end of the food spectrum…authentic “peasant food,” street food, the food of the people.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to see that his kitchen looks more like a science lab than a kitchen.  Here he is pulling off a carafe of liquid nitrogen to do an instant-freeze on ice cream in the Kitchenaid.  Look at that device to his right.  That’s a rotary evaporator, which he uses to make pure extracts and distillations.  Next to it, off camera to the right, is a cryovac…a high powered vacuum chamber that can be used for a variety of purposes, from instantly hydrating pasta dough, to sealing meat for cooking en sous vide, to pressure crushing vegetables and fruits to change their texture, or saturate their cells with a marinade or liquor.

It was “Sunday fish dinner” at Alvin’s place, where several of his foodie friends get together for a potluck consisting of dishes FAR more sophisticated than anything you’ll ever find on MasterChef.  Despite arriving very late, I was fed very well.  And put to bed.  And awakened to breakfast in bed.  Cold pizza.  But “Cold Pizza…Alvin Schultz style!”

As you know, Alvin loves to explore Modernist cuisine…the use of contemporary technology to transform ingredients into something new and extraordinary.  The star of this dish is an heirloom tomato sorbet…nothing but the juices of heirloom tomatoes, perfectly seasoned, and flash frozen with liquid nitrogen into the smoothest texture you can imagine.  Below it is dehydrated pepperoni “sand,” pizza crust “dust,” basil flowers, a foam of fresh mozzarella, and the rendered oil from the pepperoni.  It may not look like pizza, but it tastes like the freshest pizza you can imagine.  And yeah…he made that for me for breakfast.

Pho was for lunch, and that evening we met up with Michael, Alvin, and Jason in Houston’s bustling Chinatown for a sumptuous Chinese feast at Confucius Seafood, a family-style traditional Chinese restaurant.  And, of course, joining us was the woman, the legend, Christine Ha, along with her amazing hubby John.  Confucius is a neat place.  The tables are massive and seat 12-14, with a huge lazy susan turntable in the middle of the table, so that family-style plates can be brought from the kitchen and be easily accessed by all the diners.  We basically ordered “Feast #2” which was a sampling of the kitchen’s favorites, including Peking duck, chicken and jellyfish salad, Dungeness crab fried rice, crispy pork, whole roasted haddock, squid and scallop with cabbage…one by one, the plates arrived, and by the 10th or 15th, even Alvin’s eyes were registering disbelief and astonishment, as there seemed to be no end in sight.  12 of us stuffed ourselves silly and probably only got through 2/3rd of the food.

“You guys are ready for dessert, right?” Christine asked, cheerily.

I’m never ready for dessert, unless it’s what Christine described.  “Vietnamese ice.  They freeze blocks of green tea and stuff like that, and then shave it off in thin layers.  It’s really good.”  Frozen green tea sounded light enough to be the perfect nightcap, so we headed to Nu Cafe for this “thousand layer ice.”  The presentation was pretty impressive and definitely unforgettable.  And the texture was totally different than I expected…far firmer and more solid than normal shave ice.  It almost has the texture of lightly sauteed baby spinach, except that it melts on your tongue.  They serve it smothered in the sauce of your choice (sweetened condensed milk is the most popular) with any number of sides (here, mango and grass jelly).  That made it too desserty for me, I’d have preferred just the plate of ice.  But I’m a weirdo.

Is this what they call cross-generation love?

We wrapped for the evening, as Michael and his boyfriend Stephen and I had a MasterChef-early time call for the morning: 430am.  Michael was taking us to fish for blue crabs, a ritual his family has enjoyed since he was a baby.  Neither Stephen nor I had fished for crabs before, and Michael insisted we needed to be there shortly after sunrise to catch the most crabs.  Personally, NO amount of crab is worth getting up at 430am for.  But friendships are, so I begrudgingly set my alarm.

We were on the Galveston/Bolivar ferry just after sunrise and I enjoyed teasing the seagulls on the short trip over to the Bolivar peninsula, to the Chen ancestral crabbing grounds, which we found surprisingly close to the ferry dock.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics of the crab fishing, because it was too much fun, and you don’t keep your phone in your pocket when you’re knee deep in coastal waters.  But here’s what you do:

You take a chicken leg, preferably a fairly pungent one that’s been sitting in a hot trunk for a few days, and tie a string very tightly around one end.  In your other hand, you hold a net.  You toss the chicken leg out into the water and you wait until you feel tugging on the end.  Then you gently drag the chicken leg toward your submerged net, which is lying on the sandy bottom.  Once you have the crab lured onto the net, you quickly lift the net, and the wiley crab is caught.  You transfer him to a cooler with the other angry crabs, and you lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s very easy and incredibly addictive…especially when you don’t get that massive blue crab just in the center of the net before you lift it, and you see your prize-winning monster crab teetering on the rim of the net and then plummeting back into the water.  (I tried to catch him again the rest of the day, but he was too cautious.)

We had a fairly decent haul, about 25 blue crabs of varying sizes, and we headed back to Christine’s house to watch Michael cook them up the traditional Chen way.  The smaller crabs were broken down, cleaned, and cooked with ginger and garlic and you basically just sucked their juices and nibbled the larger bits of meat.  The bigger crabs were steamed whole and enjoyed that way.  It was a veritable feast, and Christine can crack a crab with the best of them.  (Many jokes about the Flavor Elevator assigning her whole crab during her season thinking it would trip her up.)

We finished eating about 9pm, and were lounging on her floor watching MasterChef when Christine mentioned something to her hubby John about “kimchee fries.”  My ears perked up.

“Kimchee fries?  What’s THAT?!?”

She looked dumbfounded.  “Ben, you’ve never had kimchee fries?  It’s french fries topped with sauteed kimchee, pork belly, scallions, and a spicy cream sauce.”

And even though I had gorged myself on crab a few minutes before, I have a separate stomach for things like kimchee fries.

“Where do you get them?”

“Well, there are several food trucks that have them, but the best are from Chilantro.”

“Chilantro?”

“Yeah, their name is like a mashup of kimchee and cilantro.  John, where are they tonight?  Look up their schedule.”

John jumped on the net and on Twitter, but it appeared that Chilantro is closed on a Tuesday night.  So Christine sends out a tweet to them saying that they had made MasterChefs who wanted kimchee fries sad because they were closed.  And they tweet back saying they are on their way to her house for a private tasting, all they need is the address.

WHA?!?!?

So around 11, a full fledged food truck pulls up in front of Christine’s house:

They invite us on board for a tour, and let me tell you, this kitchen is as spotless as any I’ve seen.  Lots of folks seems dubious about the cleanliness of food trucks, but you can actually SEE the kitchen when you buy from a food truck, and you can’t do that at most restaurants.  And these days, the contemporary food trucks are run by this generation of rabidly-passionate young chefs, perhaps too “green” or too “artistic” to qualify for the massive financing required to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant with a full staff.  Food trucks are providing them with an affordable way to launch their careers and create experimental cuisine and take it directly to the people, rather than having to have the people come to them.  But it’s no walk in the park.  The chefs told me they’ve measured the temperature inside the truck kitchen at 160 degrees during the peak of Houston’s summer, and working an 8 hour shift in that will nearly kill you.  Chilantro is furthering the new Korean/Mexican fusion rage, which began in LA and has spread like wildfire across the country.  Their menu:

And specifically, the reason they had come:

And that may SOUND good…but when it comes out, hot and steaming, under your nose:

Image courtesy of John Suh

And then you actually put it into your mouth hole, and you look like this:

Ignore the open fly...apparently I REALLY love food.

Man.  I’ve had a few impressive spins on topped fries.  Of course, for years I’ve been a fan of traditional Quebecois “poutine” which is fries with melted squeaky cheese curds and brown gravy.  Then I discovered “carne asada fries” at Peace Burger in Grapevine, TX, fries topped with grilled beef, queso, guacamole, and jalapenos.  And then, even though it’s not on the menu, I force the poor kitchen staff at Rooster’s Roadhouse in Denton, TX to regularly make me fries topped with smoked brisket and queso and onions.  But this…this is something entirely new.  And as crazy as I am for kimchee (it’s one of my FAVORITE things), it just took this whole concept of topped fries so far over the top, I don’t think I’ll ever come down from it.

Chilantro makes other things, of course.  Amazing tacos.  A pork burger with a sunny-side-up egg on top.  (ANY burger is better with a fried egg!  Shoot, a fried egg on the kimchee fries would be even MORE epic!)  So you lucky sods in Houston and Austin can find their trucks around town.  Follow their Austin Twitter or Austin Facebook or Houston Twitter or Houston Facebook to get their schedule, or check out their website.  Go support these AMAZINGLY creative chefs.  You’ll curse me after you taste those kimchee fries, because you’ll be craving them at 2am every night.  (Luck for you, they’re usually open until 3am on weekends.)

Seriously, THANK YOU to Chilantro Houston for packing up the truck in the middle of the night to deliver a private tasting to us measly little MasterChef survivors.  Fans were saying it must have been super cool for you guys to meet us, particularly Christine.  For the record, I am flabbergasted that you would think so highly of us to bust out the truck in the middle of the night and chug way out to the burbs, and you made us feel like LEGITIMATE celebrities:

Image Courtesy of John Suh

We staggered upstairs, stuffed out of our minds, feeling like rockstars that such a bad-ss food truck would come in the middle of the night at Christine’s beckoning, and we laughed until our sides hurt.

And, for an instant, I waxed poetic about the fact that none of us would know each other had our lives not been star-crossed by MasterChef.  What a miracle.

Thank you, Alvin, Michael, Jason, and Christine and John for an amazing weekend.  We ALMOST got to see James from Season 4, but he had a wedding and a big catering event that week.  Next time, James!

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