Tag Archives: Alvin Schultz

A FRANK Tale: NYE 2013

Many of my readers have said they love my FRANK blogs more than any other, so I’ll try to blog about every FRANK dinner so you can all get a hint of what the experience was like for our diners.  Please note that there are only a few photos of plated dishes on this blog…Jennie, who is a food stylist, normally photographs the final plating on the final night, but her phone decided it didn’t want to live any more last week, so we lost all those photos.  *sigh*

We try to do FRANK on most major holidays that people celebrate by dining out, and that definitely includes New Years.  Since our menu on NYE 2012 was Italian, we figured we’d keep that tradition around, since both Jennie and I love Italy and the cuisine there.  This was our menu from 2012:

We wanted to draw inspiration from our previous menu, but also introduce some new elements and additional courses, including some of our now-signature housemade cheeses.  We were just coming off the tails of our 3-seating epic Bread-themed menu from Dec 13-15 and had less that 2 weeks to dream up the menu and cook for 4 holiday seatings Dec 27-29 and Dec 31.  We had never done 4 back-to-back FRANKs before, but that extra prep day on Dec 30 would definitely help, and our Dec 31 menu would be expanded from the menus on the previous weekend because we were asking for a higher donation for that seating due to the holiday.  That didn’t leave us much time to conceptualize before we’d have to start sourcing and preparing, so as soon as we finished wrapping up FRANK business on that Monday, we headed out to The Truckyard, a funky outdoor dining spot new on the Dallas scene, where food trucks cycle through what is basically a playground for adults, with a massive treehouse (complete with bar), and people bring their dogs and get food from the trucks and drinks from the bars and have an amazing picnic.  The weather was impossibly gorgeous for mid-December, and Jennie and I brought about 50 pounds of classic Italian cookbooks to begin dreaming.  We knew we wanted the theme to be The North and The South…an exploration of how vastly different the cuisines of Italy are between these two regions.

As a very special treat, we flew in our buddy Adrien Nieto, who you’ll recognize as the 2nd place winner from our season of MasterChef.  Our normal sous chef, Natalie, was out of town for the holidays, and we needed someone brilliant and skilled.  Then, to our surprise, the incomparable Alvin Schultz notified us that he would be in Dallas for NYE, so we pre-empted him to help with that night.  It turned into a spontaneous MasterChef reunion.

We didn’t finalize the menu until after we had begun cooking for this one, but it came together so beautifully.  (This is the expanded menu for the special NYE seating, the 3 dinners the previous weekend didn’t include some of these components and courses.)

We knew we’d have to do oysters again for the amuse-bouche.  It’s so traditional for NYE, and our oyster purveyor always has such an amazing selection.  And Italians love oysters, especially in the South.  But instead of the typical French mignonette (a tangy sauce for oysters with shallots, Champagne and vinegar), Jennie decided to Italianize it by adding some minced basil and using Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) instead.  And while it’s customary to serve oysters with Champagne, we decided to offer a special cocktail this year…a play on the classic “French 75” which is gin, Champagne, lemon, simple syrup, and bitters, but we turned it into an “Italia 75” by using vodka, Prosecco, lemon, simple syrup, and a very, very special housemade bitters we’ve been working on.

Yours, Truly, with an ancient tree

Some of you have seen my videos visiting the oldest trees in the world, the Bristlecone Pines.  These trees live on high desert mountaintops in the American Southwest in California, Nevada, and Utah.  Because they live in a hostile environment, high above the tree line where other trees stop growing, in blasting winds and with as little as 3 inches of rain a year, these trees grow very, very slowly for incredibly long periods of time.  The oldest Bristlecones have been alive for over 5,000 years, meaning they were already 500 years old when the great pyramids of Egypt were built!  They have witnessed virtually the entire march of human civilization.  (I have to place a disclaimer here, because someone is going to claim there are much older trees alive in both the US and Scandinavia, but these are clonal trees, meaning their root systems may be 10,000 to up to 1m years old, but the actual trees you see above the ground live no more than 500-600 years.)  So when you approach a Bristlecone Pine, you’re looking at a tree that has been alive for many thousands of years.  If you haven’t watched my videos on them, you can watch this short one, and there’s another one here.

So what does this have to do with our FRANK menu?  On a recent trip to Burning Man this summer, my buddy Ross and I stopped to visit the oldest grove of Bristlecone Pines, high atop the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest in remote eastern California near the Nevada border.  And as you saw in the video, the trees were producing cones that were overflowing with sticky, pungent sap.  I gathered a few downed cones and did a double extraction on them with grain alcohol…first, an 8-hour extraction to remove that rich sap, resulting in a golden, piney tincture…and then a 3-week extraction to remove woody, bitter compounds from the cone wood itself.  I combined these two tinctures carefully with 2 other tinctures I made from Texas juniper berries (from the trees in the park behind my house) and from Cascade hops I grew in my garden.  And thus was born what may well be the most epic bitters ever made…Bristlecone bitters, the essence of the oldest trees in the world.  (With NO harm done to the actual trees, I must emphasize!!!)  So this very special cocktail accompanied our oyster to complete a Southern Italian course for the amuse-bouche.

For the next course, we wanted to do a salumi plate.  “Salumi” is the Italian word for cured meats.  (You may be more familiar with the French word “charcuterie” which means the same thing.)  One of our mentors at FRANK is the legendary French chef André Bedouret, famous in this part of the country for his classes on meat curing.  Chef André was present at the very first FRANK almost 2 years ago, and we can always rely on him to give us his very French (ie…VERY honest) opinion about things!  He always challenges us to move to new levels of competence and vision.  We were incredibly fortunate to acquire some of his spectacular cured meats to serve for this course.  The first was lonzino, which is the cured loin muscle of the pig.  This lean, tender cut cures out to an incredibly silken texture, and Chef André used some warm spices like nutmeg in the salt rub.  The second was coppa, which is more commonly called cappicola here in the US.  This muscle comes from the neck of the pig, and has big regions of pure white intramuscular fat which balance the texture of the neck muscles which are frequently exercised (and can therefore be tough, but incredibly flavorful…and when sliced thinly, renders one of the most extraordinary types of salumi).  And the last was a spicy cured sausage, the most challenging of all meats to cure properly, somewhat similar to salame, where our English word “salami” comes from.  Each one of these meats was truly incredible, and when we called for a vote each night on which was the crowd favorite, a solid winner never emerged…they were THAT good.

We served the salumi with a housemade cheese we’d been curing for several months, in the style of an Italian ricotta salata, or “salted ricotta.”  This is NOTHING like the ricotta you’re familiar with…this is an aged, firm cheese that begins its life as fresh ricotta, and is then salted and pressed, and carefully aged.  In fact, because this cheese starts out as a fresh cheese that anyone can make at home, this is an excellent starter cheese if you want to learn to make aged cheeses.  You can read my blog post here on how to make it.  Traditional ricotta salata is not flavored with anything other than salt, but we added a liberal amount of cracked black pepper to the cheese before pressing it, and then we cured it on the outside with a bleu cheese mold to transform the flavor and texture.  We called the resulting cheese “black and bleu ricotta salata” and our diners loved it.  And, as with so many ingredients at FRANK, the only place in the world you can taste it is…at FRANK.  This course was typical of southern Italy.  While salumi is made all across the country, pigs tend to be raised more often in the warm south, where cattle are rare, and salumi tends to be more boldly spiced.

As you may have read, our soups at FRANK tend to garner the most votes as people’s favorite course, so Jennie and I have become obsessed with making sure each soup surpasses the last.  Our soup at Bread Frank was the runaway favorite: a silky-smooth garlic soup thickened with sourdough bread toasted in garlic oil, so we had big shoes to fill for this FRANK.  After reading countless traditional Italian soup recipes, we still didn’t feel we had found the right one, so we invented a new soup based on several traditional Italian soups: porcini, chestnut, and parsnip soup.  Each of these 3 ingredients is revered in Italy, and are seasonally appropriate this time of year in the US.  Porcini mushrooms look like this:

They grow exclusively in the wild and no one has figured out how to cultivate them, so every porcini mushroom eaten anywhere in the world was found in the wild by a mushroom hunter.  In the US, porcini are called by a portion of their scientific name, boletus edulis, or more commonly, boletes.  They are found most commonly on the west coast, and this is the prime season for California boletes.  However, because of the awful, unprecedented drought happening there, not many boletes are being found this year, so we used dried boletes.  (Many species of wild mushroom lend themselves very well to drying, boletes and morels among them.  And this is the only way they can be used outside their normal growing season.)  Boletes can also be found wild all across the US, including Eastern and South Texas, primarily in the spring.  Many, many people believe that boletes or porcinis are the most delicious of all wild mushrooms species, with their earthy, spicy flavors.

Chestnuts are a fixture in the holiday season here in the US.  They pop up in the song lyrics we hear all season: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” and “We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop, at the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop!”  In northern cities, people look forward to sidewalk chestnut vendors during the winter who serve these creamy, rich nuts freshly roasted.  In Texas, however, chestnuts aren’t nearly as prevalent, so my very first taste of chestnuts was in New York in my mid 20s.  All it took was one taste to fall in love with these extraordinary nuts, which are typically imported from either Italy or Korea.  Chestnut trees used to be widespread in the US, but in the early 1900s, a disease called chestnut blight wiped out nearly all of the 4 billion trees across the country.  Today, it’s incredibly rare to run across a mature chestnut tree, though genetic scientists are engineering a blight-resistant tree with genes from Asian chestnut trees, and new domestic chestnut orchards are being planted.  (Unfortunately, this means that if you find US-grown chestnuts in your market, they are genetically modified.)  If you’ve never tasted a chestnut, you don’t know what you’re missing.  They must be roasted or boiled before eating, and I actually prefer cooking them the way my partner’s mother taught me: in my pressure cooker, and the extra moisture that method contributes to the nut fixes my only criticism of dry-roasted chestnuts…I find the nut meat a bit too dry with that preparation.  Chestnuts are highly perishable, unlike other nuts, and are ONLY available fresh during the late fall and winter months.  But chestnut flour (roasted, dried, and ground chestnuts) is available year round.  Chestnuts are very sweet, with a creamy texture and unusually robust thickening power…a perfect base for a thick, luxurious soup.

To bring together these two unique ingredients, we felt like the perfect bridge would be the parsnip, as it is both sweet and creamy, and earthy and spicy.  So with our sacred trio, we pushed forward with this creative soup, finishing it with olive oil, celery leaves, fried leeks, and a dollop of luscious housemade mascarpone cheese.  And although it had some competition on the first 3 nights, on our New Year’s Eve seating, the majority of our diners said it was their favorite course and they had never tasted anything like it.  The ingredients in this soup are all typical of northern Italy’s mountainous, cool climates, where porcini grow in abundance, chestnut orchards are common, and parsnips mature slowly in the long, cool autumn months.

Chestnut, Porcini, and Parsnip Soup with fried leeks and housemade mascarpone

Now let’s stop for a moment to talk about mascarpone, because most Americans are in dire need of a pronunciation lesson.  There is one, and ONLY ONE, proper pronunciation for this Italian cream cheese:

“mahs – car- PONE – eh”

The rampant mispronunciation “mar-sca-pone” came from I-don’t-know-where.  The “r” comes AFTER the “sca,” not before.  But Americans seem to love randomly moving letters inside words, much the same way they move the “l” in chipotle, thus rampantly mispronouncing it “chi-POL-tay.”  (The only correct pronunciation of chipotle is “chee-POTE-lay.”)  So make me a solemn promise that you will only correctly pronounce mascarpone from now on, okay?  Thanks!  I love you.

Imported Italian mascarpone is ruinously expensive, but you can make it very easily at home by bringing a quart of heavy cream to 190F  in a heavy pot, stirring constantly with a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pot and prevent scorching.  Once the cream reaches 190F, add 2/3 cup of fresh lemon juice and stir constantly for 10 minutes.  Then remove from the heat and let the mixture sit for 30 minutes.  Pour it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl to collect the whey, and refrigerate for 24 hours.  This will yield slightly over a pound of mascarpone, so you can halve the recipe if you want less.  If you’re someone who’s mad for mascarpone, I’ve just saved you A LOT of money!  You’re welcome.  *grin*

Next up was a polenta course.  Jennie and I both love polenta so much, we just have to serve it any time we have an Italian menu.  Polenta is similar to our Southern grits…coarsely ground corn cooked slowly into a hearty porridge, then traditionally finished with a cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Polenta is typical of the south of Italy, where corn is grown in the long, hot summers, and we decided we wanted to serve it with giant prawns, a common food in the Mediterranean regions.  We were lucky to be able to source truly massive ones, nearly 1/4 pound EACH!  But cooking a shrimp that big is challenging, because by the time the meat in the center of the shrimp is done, the outside is overcooked and incredibly rubbery.  Really the only way to perfectly cook a shrimp this size is sous vide, or cooking it inside a vacuum sealed bag in a temperature-controlled water bath.  But before this, we gave them a 30 minute brine to get the meat seasoned perfectly and incorporate a bit more water into the meat to ensure even cooking.  Then they were vacuum sealed with olive oil, tons of garlic, and spicy red pepper flakes, and immersed in a 132F water bath for 45 minutes.  This cooked them through perfectly.  Then we chilled them overnight before peeling and de-veining, and finished them in a pan briefly with some olive oil, garlic, and black pepper to get a nice sear on the outside just before serving.  That’s a LOT of work, but with prawns this big and beautiful, it’s really the only way to do it!  Very few of our diners had ever seen shrimp this big before, and they loved digging into a lobster-sized shrimp on top of ultra-creamy polenta filled with black winter truffle (a classic Italian ingredient) and Parmigiano-Reggiano, with some arugula folded in at the last minute.  It was truly divine…one of my favorite courses we’ve served at any FRANK so far!

Many Italians will tell you that the secret to perfect polenta is to stir, stir, stir constantly while it is cooking.  But I learned from a Sicilian grandmother famous for her polenta that the real secret is the EXACT OPPOSITE.  Don’t stir it.  At all.  Put it in the oven on low temperature, and let it bake…low and slow…for hours…and don’t you dare touch it!  Not only does this result in a polenta with a far better texture than a stirred polenta, it’s way easier, as well!  So all our FRANK polenta is now served this way, thanks to her!

While we’re on the subject of prawns vs. shrimp…there is officially NO distinction between the two in terms of vocabulary.  The words can be used interchangeably to describe any size or species of shrimp.  Colloquially, the term “prawn” tends to be more popular in Australia and the UK, and “shrimp” is more popular in the US.  Here we tend to refer to really big shrimp as “prawns” even though that’s an erroneous association on our part.  Some people call fresh-water shrimp species “prawns” and those that live in salt-water “shrimp,” though the official name for what we served is “tiger prawn” and they are raised in salt-water or brackish water and can’t survive in fresh water for very long.  Female tiger prawns can grow up to 3/4 of a pound and more than a foot long!  Now that’s a real monster!

Now it was time for a palate cleanser, because we’ve passed a LOT of intense food to our diners in those first four courses.  We love limoncello sorbetto and served it at last NYE FRANK, but this year we took it a bit farther by pureeing some fresh basil into the sorbetto and then serving it with a fresh baby basil sprig on top.  Limoncello hails from Sicily in the south, the “football” island at the tip of Italy’s boot, where the world’s best lemons are grown.  It is a pungent, strong, very sweet liqueur that many Sicilians make at home.  It made our sorbetto bright, lemony, and unmistakably Italian with that basil flavor coming through.  Basil is part of the mint family and, while most people think of it as a savory herb, it is equally at home in desserts.  (I make a basil ice cream that is to die for!)

Limoncello Basil Sorbetto

Forming Uova da Raviolo

After that lovely break, it was time for a course we’ve always wanted to serve at FRANK, but were a bit scared to.  But with Adrien and Alvin for reinforcements, we decided now was the time.  Uova da raviolo, a giant ravioli with a barely-cooked egg yolk inside, and when you cut into it, the yolk runs out and mingles with the sauce…about as decadent as any pasta gets.  This pasta is not easy to make.  To be truly sophisticated, the dough must be rolled paper-thin, which makes it challenging to work with, especially when made with semolina flour…the traditional flour for flat pasta sheets in Italy.  Semolina is a lovely golden color, and is ground more coarsely than the “00” flour used to make other fresh pastas.  After rolling, the pasta sheets have to be kept in a humid environment to prevent them from drying out while you cut and fill the ravioli.

The filling we made from a variety of wild mushrooms, sauteed in butter with shallots, and then we folded in Taleggio, a pungent, soft cheese from the Lombardy region of Northern Italy.  (Complementing the also-northern wild mushrooms and shallots.)  Taleggio is incredibly stinky when you smell it, but when you put it in your mouth, the scent disappears and it becomes creamy, mild, and fruity.  It’s absolutely gorgeous with mushrooms, and this creamy nest of earthy goodness became the throne for an egg yolk from my backyard chicken flock.  The edges of the pasta are then moistened, and a disc of pasta slightly larger than the bottom disc is placed on top, the air is carefully pressed out, and the raviolo is sealed around the edges.  Then the raviolo is blanched in olive oil and water just below the simmer for exactly 2 minutes, resulting in a yolk that is just barely cooked and will run when sliced.  Due to the risk of the raviolos breaking apart or sticking together in the water, you have to cook them only 2 or 3 at a time in a huge pot.  This is no easy process, especially when you’re feeding a crowd of 18!  If you’d like to try your hand at the queen of all pastas, my recipe can be found here, though our filling and sauce was different at FRANK.

Alvin and Jennie carefully blanching raviolos for service

We served the raviolo with an anchovy shallot sauce, pungent and salty, but when the egg yolk met it…absolutely breathtaking.  Definitely the most complex dish we’ve ever served at FRANK, both in terms of preparation and flavor.  It’s so amazing you tend to want more than just one, but it’s so rich and explosive in flavor, one is all you can really handle!

Uova da Raviolo with Taleggio, wild mushrooms, and anchovy shallot sauce

USDA Choice vs. USDA Prime ... The only difference? Prime = More Fat

Next up was the “main course,” as if anyone needed more food than what came before!  But when it’s this amazing, you find a way to make room.  Braised USDA Prime beef short ribs from Vintage Farms, the farm owned by the family of our friend Clark at Arrowhead Specialty Meats, who often supplies us with incredible meats for FRANK.  (He does sell to the general public, though you’ll have to buy a whole brisket, pork shoulder, tenderloin, etc. and you won’t be able to buy just 1 or 2 steaks.)  This meat was truly the best beef Jennie and I have ever worked with. The USDA grades beef exclusively by the amount and quality of intramuscular fat distributed throughout the muscle tissue.  The higher the grade, the more fat content, and the better distributed it is throughout the muscle fibers.  (This is called marbling.)  And while many people equate fattiness with something bad, virtually EVERYONE would choose a Prime steak over a Choice steak, because it’s BETTER.  So let’s dispense with the fear of the word “fatty” when it comes to meat.  If you choose to eat beef, you’re choosing to eat something that’s high in saturated fat, so let’s realize that we’re indulging and not be negative about it!  These were the fattiest short ribs I’ve ever seen, and while we rendered and skimmed off most of the fat from the ribs (I’m going to make candles with it!), the braised rib meat was so succulent it basically dissolved on the tongue.  We braised the ribs at 200F for 8 hours with onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips and turnips, for a wonderful wintery taste.  Then, after defatting it, we reduced the braising liquid to concentrate the flavors.  We picked over the meat, removing the bones and reserving them for stock, and setting aside the gelatin-rich connective tissues that would ordinarily be a little chewy.  These we pureed in the Vitamix with the reduced braising liquid to make a gravy thickened, not with starch, but with gelatin from the animal itself.  It was just downright sinful, silken and impossibly rich.

Chef Jennie making risotto rosso

The braised short rib sat on a bed of risotto rosso, a Northern Italian specialty.  Rice is grown in the north, so risottos are common there.  (Cows are also raised in the mountains of the north, but are rare in the hot south, so this was decidedly a Northern Italian dish.)  Risotto recipes commonly call for white wine, but a risotto rosso uses red wine, tinting the dish a lovely dark pink or light purple.  To deepen the color and flavor, we reduced a couple of bottles of red wine (a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) down to the 2 cups of red wine normally called for in the recipe, and then folded in a truly ridiculous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the end, resulting in a stunning red risotto to match the short ribs in flavor and richness.

The unearthly, sensual texture of the 63.5 degree egg

As if that wasn’t enough, we topped the dish with a 63.5 degree egg.  If you read my last blog, you learned about this extraordinary preparation for eggs.  Proteins in the egg begin to coagulate (ie “cook”) at 63C or about 145F.  But we typically cook eggs at FAR higher temperatures, closer to the boiling point at 220F, or even higher if we fry or scramble them in a pan.  This means we’ve been overcooking eggs for all these centuries.  New technologies in the kitchen like the Immersion Circulator allow us to poach eggs inside their shells at a very precise, appropriate temperature far lower than we have done historically, meaning we can cook an egg properly for the very first time in history.  When you cook an egg at just above its coagulation temperature for an hour, it becomes this delicate, uniform, custardy texture all the way from the white through to the yolk.  It’s sinful, and our guests are responding to it as if they’ve just learned that there really IS a Santa Claus.  Putting this indulgent egg on top of everything already going on in this course…there’s just so much about this dish that’s so, so wrong yet fundamentally, universally, hedonistically right…I’m honestly not sure we’ll be able to surpass it with other FRANK main courses.  It wasn’t incredibly complex…just traditional and simple, but with the finest of ingredients.  A truly magical plate.

Rich, housemade ricotta for making Pastiera Napoletana

And finally…dessert.  While Italy is known for a wide variety of desserts, none of them really rise to the level of indulgence and sweetness as American desserts.  And FRANK tends to be known for some fairly indulgent desserts.  But we wanted to stay traditional and feature something that very few Americans would be familiar with, so we chose pastiera, a unique cheesecake from Naples in the south of Italy.  Pastiera is a lightly sweet ricotta cheesecake with wheat berries baked into the cake.  It is typically only served at Easter in Italy, but in MY Italian-Brazilian family, they serve it during the holidays.  We used spelt instead of true wheat…spelt is a very ancient relative of wheat indigenous to Central Europe, and hasn’t been heavily genetically modified, like most of our American-grown wheats.  We first soaked the spelt overnight, then cooked it in the pressure cooker until it was soft.  Then we simmered it very slowly for a few hours in cream and sugar, and the berries swelled and grew sweet and rich.  We folded this into a housemade ricotta with plenty of eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest, and baked it in a very nontraditional chocolate crust.  Why chocolate?  Well, we just didn’t have the heart to present a NYE dessert without ANY chocolate on the plate!

Pastiera Napoletana, a ricotta cheesecake with candied wheat berries

Adrien bruleeing a layer of sugar on top of candied figs

We topped the pastiera with a decadent salted caramel sauce, and served it with candied, bruleed figs and fresh grapes doused in a very special cold-pressed olive oil from a friend’s family orchard in Sicily.  It wasn’t so rich you felt terribly guilty after eating it, but many of our diners said it was their favorite course and just couldn’t get over the unique texture of the ricotta cheesecake with the candied wheat berries inside.

Our NYE guests were also given a special parting gift…Sourdough Chocolate Panettone.  Panettone (PAN-uh-TONE-eh) is a traditional holiday sweet bread from the Milan region.  It is baked in a round mold, so it looks more like a giant muffin than a loaf of bread.  Historically, it has been made with sourdough starter, but commercial versions are not.  Well, ours certainly was!  While traditional panettone contains dried fruit, the most popular panettones these days are filled with chocolate, so we folded dark chocolate into the dough from Valrhona, a French chocolate manufacturer that produces what is widely recognized as the best chocolate in the world.

Ultimately it was our most ambitious menu yet, 8 full courses including the amuse, plus a parting gift, and our thoroughly-stuffed diners toasted the New Year with us with a beautiful prosecco that won Jennie and I over after tasting dozens.  Exhausted, we collapsed for a few hours before spending the day wrapping up so that Adrien and Jennie and I could get on the road for the west coast the next day…but that, as they say, is a different story!

Please feel free to comment below, and if you’re interested in dining at FRANK, please visit our website!  To read more about FRANK, click here for a list of blog posts about our more interesting menus!

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.”


“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.


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!

A MasterChef 4th of July

Many of you have been asking about the relationship between the contestants during and after the show, and I’m happy to report that we all pretty much adore each other.  We grew VERY close during the filming and have remained extremely tight since.  Just in the past month, I’ve been to LA to visit Adrien, Esther, and Alejandra, and to NY to visit Derrick.  (Max was out in the Hamptons, so I didn’t get to see him.)

Then, over the 4th of July weekend, I hosted Tracy and Alvin back-to-back, with the lovely Jennie Kelley driving the 30 minutes that separates us on quite a few occasions over the long weekend.

Tracy and Jennie arrived a few moments apart on Thursday afternoon in time for us three to get in my kitchen and start cooking.  After welcome hugs and tears, we did just that.  And I can’t really explain how cathartic and healing it felt to be in the kitchen with these two dear, dear friends, cooking for the first time without cameras or time limits or mystery boxes.  I cook because I love people.  That’s the only reason.  I don’t cook for the process itself…for the ingredients or the finished plate.  I cook because it’s the best way I know how to show the people in my life that I love them.  And many moments throughout those hours, tears welled in my eyes as I looked over at Tracy and Jennie, cooking in my kitchen next to me, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

I made my signature Chicken Parmigiana…a dish many of my friends were shocked to see me NOT make during the chicken challenge under which the top 18 were selected.  But I made myself a promise that I’d do everything possible to AVOID making Italian food for Joe Bastianich, because he’s such a purist, and my chicken parm is anything but traditional.  Still…it’s YUMMY!  I’ll post the recipe soon.

I also made an overnight loaf of spent-grain sourdough bread, using the barley that I had used the week before to brew some grapefruit ginger IPA.  I threw some rosemary and garlic in for good measure.  I had planned on firing up my wood-burning pizza/bread oven in the backyard, but it was almost 110 degrees outside, and I just wasn’t in the mood to stand in front of a flame-belching oven in the heat.  That oven’s not gonna get much use until the temps drop below 90 here in north Texas.  Late September, perhaps?  Ugh!  So I just baked the bread in the oven and it came out great.

Jennie had some across a rare selection of FRESH morel mushrooms, which are among the yummiest things on the planet!  (She swore me to secrecy about her source.)  They weren’t local, I don’t think, but I could be wrong.  (Morels DO grow all over Texas, and careful, knowledgeable foragers can find them in late spring.)  With the morels she made a delectable mushroom risotto…one of my favorite ways to eat wild mushrooms.  She had also brought some fresh burrata, which is a type of fresh buffalo mozzarella that is filled on the inside with a rich creamy combination of cheese and cream.  Over that we poured some amazing, rare olive oil from the vineyard my partner’s sister lives near in Sicily, and that combined with the bread was mind blowing.

Jennie also whipped up a salad of baby spinach and arugula and feta cheese, with a vinaigrette of jalapeno and mint.  I had never tasted a salad like that before…it goes down as one of the most delicious I’ve ever had!

Tracy had just driven in from New Orleans, so we spared her any menu conceptualization, but she jumped right in and made my chicken parm for me.

It should also be noted at this point that my fridge decided it no longer wanted to live during the middle of dinner prep.  OH well…just another thing to add to the urgent to-do list that’s about 5 pages long.

After an amazing dinner with my friends, we settled down on the couch with some of my homemade beer and talked until the wee hours.  Laughing and crying, like we’d known each other since we were kids.  And to think that 5 short months ago, we didn’t know of each others’ existence!

After another incredible dinner at the Meddlesome Moth on Friday (pork belly, veal sweetbreads, bone marrow, mussels with tarragon and gorgonzola, pate and pickled okra, followed by fireworks at Grapevine Lake, Tracy headed to Los Angeles and I had just enough time to clean up the kitchen and buy a new fridge before the great Alvin Schultz arrived.

Sunday afternoon we went to all my favorite ethnic grocery stores in the area, and tossed a couple of briskets on the smoker.  Alvin had brought his sous vide immersion circulator, courtesy of PolyScience, and into it went about 10 pounds of pork belly.  (At the Mexican grocery store, we didn’t see pork belly in the meat case, so we asked the butcher if she had any.  “Maybe, how much would you need?” she asked.  “A lot,” replied Alvin, as she disappeared into the back…to return with AN ENTIRE PORK BELLY.  “Maybe not quite that much,” Alvin retracted.)  He cooked that pork belly at 70C for 14 hours, then smoked it for another 3, the crisped the fat cap under the broiler.  It was ridiculous.  I threw together my mom’s potato salad, and a big batch of my homemade barbecue sauce, which has like 100 ingredients, and then we settled down for a night of chatting.

Monday morning Alvin made a deconstructed Spanish tortilla for breakfast.  Normally, a Spanish tortilla is like an omelete or frittata, shredded potatoes cooked in a layer with egg.  But Alvin had made some 63C Degree Eggs the night before (basically an egg delicately poached inside its shell to a custardy consistency), which he placed in a glass, topped with potato foam, and finished with crispy fried potato hash and carmelized onions.  It was MIND BOGGLING.  SO delicious.  I tossed together some banana nut muffins to go with it, and one of the better breakfasts my kitchen has seen was served to a hungry crowd.

The rest of the day we finished preparations for the big July 4 dinner.  I made some BBQ beans.  Alvin made an incredible strawberry lemon sorbet that he froze in my KitchenAid using dry ice!

Alvin Schultz from MasterChef freezing sorbet with dry ice

Alvin, Freak-Genius, freezing sorbet instantly with dry ice

I got out my antiquated ice cream churn and made some coconut ice cream to go with the sorbet.  It turned out lovely, too, but took 30 minutes to freeze, whereas Alvin’s sorbet took around 1 minute.  Sheesh…

Then we packed up all the food and headed to our friend Kellie’s house for the party.  We had around 20 people show up, including Tudie from MasterChef.  She is one of the funniest people alive, it was great to see her.  Jennie Kelley came with her partner Evan, who I adore, and she whipped up the BEST fried okra I’ve ever had in my life.  (She cuts the spears in half lengthwise, rather than cutting them into rounds.)  She also produced some truffled deviled eggs, and I popped 3 of them into my mouth hole before she could even set down the tray.

I really feel like Jennie never got a chance to adequately show the world her talent on MasterChef.  Literally everything she has touched since we came back from filming has been stunningly good to me.  I guess the format of a limited pantry, limited time, and forced themes certainly allows a versatile chef to strut his or her stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily allow for a wide-open freedom of culinary expression.  Or Jennie would probably have won.

Much beer and food later, floating in the pool and watching the fireworks, I am captivated by this amazing country in which we live.  We must NEVER forget all the brave men and women who both lived and died for our country.  Not just soldiers.  Flight attendants and pilots, too.  Civilians at work in skyscrapers or going on vacation from Boston to the west coast.  Presidents.  Activists.  Artists.  Teachers.

Our country may be divided by political polarization.  But it is STILL the best country in the world.  We have a long way to go, but we’re headed there faster than anyone else.  Let freedom ring!