For reasons I can only begin to fathom, The Ohio Pork Producers Council invited me to participate in their annual “Taste of Elegance” chef’s competition in Columbus last week.
Seriously. Celebrity. Pork. Judge.
What a riot. There I was, in hastily ironed khakis and a blazer that still harbored cocoa stains on the lapel. I felt completely specious being led so graciously into the heart of an elegant venue at which I almost certainly did not belong. Not to mention seated at the center table in full view of the invited guests – all of whom I hoped would not notice the fact that I can barely drink a glass of water without dribbling it all over myself. The smell of the room, however, made me considerably more comfortable, as two of the three chefs had chosen to to complete their food production in open view. which gave me a chance to chit-chat a little bit and relax.
I learned that this year’s event represented a bold departure, an attempt to reach out both geographically and gastronomically. Chefs were traditionally invited only from the Columbus area and worked within a set of judging criteria geared toward more supermarket-friendly cuts of pork. This year, brilliantly, the Council became a little more creative. They invited chefs from each of Ohio’s three large cities (Socio-Geographic-Culinary Sidennote: isn’t Ohio incredibly lucky to have three vital, growing food scenes?)
and asked the chefs to prepare three mini-courses each.
Likewise, there were a total of three judges, one each from each of the “C’s,” which I thought was prescient – my fellow judges consisted of a professional chef and a journalist – not someone from specifically the pork industry, and this subtly encouraged the three chefs involved to take more risk. This opportunity was by no means lost on the participants.
The first chef to present his courses was Jonathon Bennett, chef at Cleveland’s Moxie, the Restaurant. I really enjoyed the restrained, yet slightly irreverent verve of his dishes. It was obvious he was passionate about his pork products (he was wearing a “praise the lard” tshirt like this one, which of course rendered him my new best friend), and gave some thought to how he would structure his three courses. His idea was a “pork tour” that took us to Asia, to Spain, and back to the Carolinas, the later being an obvious influence.
His first offering was a pork belly steamed bun with a quick pickled Japanese cucumber, and fresh cilantro. It was garnished with house-made hoisin sauce.
I loved how the hoisin didn’t overpower the rest of the ingredients like it often does, and the pork belly struck a needed balance - enough salt and richness to amplify everything around it, without being overly greasy or fatty. There was a harmony here I was pleased with, which seemed perfectly appropriate for an “Asian” appetizer.
Next up, pork deckle pinchitos, parsley almond salad, piquillo aioli
In my notes I jotted down how impressed I was by the details: the parsley almond salad really sang – it was bright and ever-slightly tart, a perfect foil for a rich bite or two of pork. Also, as Julie will attest, I get a little bit animated about aioli, it’s not the easiest thing to pull off – the garlic can easily be harsh and bitter, but this one was sweet, and the piquillo pepper offered sass. The pork itself was juicy and toothy – which could not have been easy given the thin cut or the time constraints involved.
His third dish was a crispy smoked pork shank, giant butter beans, and baby onions.
Again, I loved the harmony. This had all of the elements of a perfect bean soup without a dulling of the palate. And this picture does no justice to how caramelized and sweet the baby onions were.
Now, as much as I enjoyed Chef Johnathon’s dishes, I am obligated to point out the following. Without belaboring the point, he cheated! offering us a “bonus” course of his, “Papa Bennett’s pork skins. I am similarly obligated to point out that his fiendish ploy totally worked. Principles of fairness would have dictated that the judges dismiss the pork rinds at the completion of Jonathan’s three courses, but the words “Please take these tasty peppery pork skins away from me” do not spill out of my mouth so easily. The other judges were of the same mind.
To recap: Pork Skins. Cold Dead Fingers. You betta bring it.
Next up was Bill Glover, chef at Sage American Bistro in Columbus. Each of his three dishes was visually stunning, and often contained provocative, daring elements that I really enjoyed.
First up, braised pork cheek, beet puree, chive dumplings, fennel marmalade, balsamic reduction.
I thought this was the most visually appealing dish of the nine. The pork cheek needed only the slightest nudge of my fork to fall apart, and the beets had this almost paradoxical way of being bright and earthy at the same time. I didn’t really think the otherwise tasty marmalade fit in so well. The sort of vegetal/citrus touch might have worked really well on a burger, but less so with a more delicate slow-cooked cut already supported by vibrant flavors.
Next up was a sous-vide pork-tenderloin, pig tongue sausage, stewed lentils, and bone marrow foam.
While I might have quibbled with the combination of elements here, every component on this dish was a surprise and, even in some small way, a delight. While I would have once questioned the necessity to sous-vide an already tender cut of meat, the method allowed the chef to fully take advantage of a slow cook, but still have the flavor of a medium/medium rare tenderloin, which was nice. The sausage had a subtle, lingering piggyness that snuck up on you as you chewed. And the foam was a fun touch, it allowed the intense flavor of bone marrow to spread and mellow.
Chef Glover’s last dish was a desert, a bacon and chocolate candy bar, with passion fruit soy ice cream.
I really…REALLY wanted to like this, but I think it was the only course out of the nine that genuinely disappointed. While the soy ice cream was tasty, lacking any of the cloying over-sweetness of most every soy dessert I’ve tried, the rest of the elements, at best, clashed severely. I didn’t care for the pairing of chocolate and passion fruit, the latter just violently intruded into the foreground, like the guy on the bus who won’t stop yelling loudly in your ear about the government. The bacon added nothing to the pastry and seemed to snap off the bottom under the slightest untensilary ministration.
Already we were pretty full. One of my fellow judges, Joe Crea, Food and Restaurants Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was clearly a pro at this and had judiciously tasted only a few bites of each offering. I lacked forethought, and was ready to be rolled back down High Street toward my bed, but there was one more chef – Cincinnati’s Owen Maas, of Cumin Eclectic Cuisine.
I had talked to Chef Maass briefly before the event about his immersion circulator, and in the course of a few seconds I was struck by his infectious passion and utter food-nerdery. And while Chef Bennett was smiling and affable and Chef Glover was warm and approachable, Chef Maass was borderline giddy – at being given the opportunity to engage the full breadth of his talent, unfettered by the realities of cooking pork for a tricky restaurant market If nothing else, it was a treat to watch him circulate around his cooking station as the night progressed, with a sheepish grin on his face, like a young baseball player who knows he just knocked one out of the park.
Which, of course, he did.
He appeared table side to explain his three courses – which centered around a theme of “A Pig’s Life.” Already we were laughing, but his insouciance would be nothing if not backed up by a profound and well-honed mastery of his craft, which immediately was on full display.
First Up, “Birth” – Milk Braised Pig Tails (pigtails, get it!??!) local greens, buttermilk vinaigrette. julienned granny smith apple sticks, which aren’t pictured.
As full as I was, this was the first eyes-rolling-into-your-sockets course, the first time I’d feel okay using my already tired word “unctuous.” Already, it was clear Chef Maass deeply cared about detail – pig tail is extremely difficult to source (most farmers dock the tails because the lil’ piggys chew on each others tails until they draw blood, which can lead to severe pig-on-pig violence), and the hossup greens, a more unusual choice, led the perfect peppery bitterness to a rich, savory, melting pork dish. I also really liked how he dared pair pork and apple, as if to dare us into pointing out it’s an ancient, classic combination. Favorite dish by far.
Second course, “Adolescence.” sous-vide pork shoulder, savory custard, blood sausage, local sorrel, farro.
What struck me here was the execution: the technique took advantage of the ingredient, creating a rich yet tender piece of shoulder, while the blood sausage was thinned out with beet juice so as not to appear overly dense. The farro hung on to its natural nuttiness and the greens again offered a pleasant counterpoint.
Chef Maass’ last course was “Death,” named not so much for the ingredients, I think, but, for the idea that I could die happy after such a meal.
Nonetheless, the individual elements here do seem scattered, at first. caramel apple glazed pork belly, peanut butter & bacon mousse, bacon ice cream, apple crisp, chocolate popcorn, barley sponge.
But after a few bites, I realized how little it mattered… it seemed like the chef had identified seven or eight flavors that went together in just any combination… chocolate, caramel, bacon, apple, peanut butter, cream… even the barley added a nice autumnal note to the ice cream. I just found myself mixing and matching and every bite i took just seemed to make sense.
I was relieved to know all four of us (we were joined at the table by the affable Mike Sanson, editor of Restaurant Hospitality magazine) had judged the evening the same way, with Chef Owen the runaway favorite. The diners themselves also awarded him with the “people’s choice” award for the event.
I was proud on so many levels.
Obviously, this was Chef Maass’ night, and I was proud for him and for Cumin, which I can’t wait to go back to. I can only imagine how much effort went into concepting and carrying out a mutli-stage meal with so much grace and seeming effortlessness. And I don’t want to begin to fathom how many long nights behind the line, how many cuts and burns and tears go into honing a talent like Owen’s – and to see that he still had a playfulness and joy about him as he talked, it meant a lot.
The event also made me proud of Cincinnati, something I do not often express. I don’t mean to sound like I’m channeling Bob here, but we are starting to notice how so many people are choosing to stay in this city and pursue their passion – and actually survive, if not thrive. I can only hope that we city dwellers continue to support the talent that we have.
Again, I feel incredibly grateful to have been a part of this – being able to chit chat with journalists with a keen understanding of their craft and chefs who understand the intricacies of cooking pork for a tricky populace. Makes you think.
One disclaimer, it should be fairly obvious that I did not take these pictures on my little duct-tape bound point&shoot. All photos in this post are courtesy of Quinton Keeran, Manager of Communications for the Ohio Pork Producers’ Council.
Also: Donna Covrett of Cincinnati Magazine had her own write-up, here.