The Day I cooked for Jacques Pépin

I recently had the honor of being a chef volunteer at the 5th annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. I first caught wind of the idea through a west-coast based family member, “uncle” Kent, who I’ve just been getting to know over the past 2 years.  You might remember a blog post from the early days of UMK titled; A life without cheese, is not a life worth living!  when I first met Kent in his cheese shop in Carmel, CA.  Kent, a former Hawaiian native, professional sommelier and serious cheese intellectual has the friendliest personality west of the Mississippi, not to mention he’s a natural born networker and knows everybody.  

When Kent first mentioned the PBFW was coming up in April of this year, he said “hey maybe you want to come? I can probably put you in touch with the event organizers and perhaps they can get you volunteering in the kitchens”  Really?, I thought to myself. How cool! I immediately planned to be there.  After sending my resume around and having a phone interview with the head Chef Liasion, Dorothy… things started moving.  I was offered a position to come work and she told me she’d do her best to ‘take care of me’.

It wasn’t until 2 weeks before the event when I found out what she meant…

Holy Sh*t. Eyes wide, mouth dropped open, nervous laughter begins… Jacques Pépin. How? what? me?!

When I arrived at the Spanish Bay club to meet Chef Harvey Wolff, Jacques Pépin’s tour/chef manager on Thursday morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited.  Upon meeting Harvey, he was an energetic guy, with a lovely British accent, adorning cigarettes behind both his ears. As we waited for our other chef volunteer, Janet, to arrive, Harvey and I engaged in small talk and found we had quite a lot of things in common, this comforted me, eased my excited nerves and got me ready to work!

Once Janet arrived, we made our way down to the kitchens. One minute it’s a quiet, peaceful, California sunshiny day and with one swing of the door we enter a chaotic, busy kitchen; pots clanking, the sounds of dish washer spray, rolling carts of products, dishes being stacked, Spanish, English, French speaking flutters about.  I love this.  We locate our rack of product and head to find a kitchen.

As we prep our mise en place and put together our plan of attack, Harvey puts Janet and I in charge. We are given two student volunteers, with the hopes of receiving a few more. Prepping 1000 pieces in 8 hours seemed doable…and then we got started.

  • 45 lbs of tuna, filleted and small diced
  • 3 crates of cucumber, mandolin sliced paper thin, and cut to fit each .5 oz tuna tartare
  • 24oz of pressed caviar to be rolled paper thin and stamped out into 1000 circles
  • 1 lbs of shallots, brunoised
  • 1 lb of garlic, brunoised.
  • 1 jug of horseradish
  • 750 ml red wine vinegar
  • 4 volunteers total

We quickly realize we have a daunting task in front of us, but this was the job and this was for Jacques Pépin.

When we finally began working it was already 11am, by then we had luckily secured one other student volunteer making us a team of 5.  Time to get started! Janet and I filleted the tuna, Dominique rolled, pressed, and cut the caviar. Nathan worked on the cucumber slices, and the other student who was as slow as molasses helped out wherever she could. By 1pm we only had 100 pieces prepped on a sheet tray and they weren’t even wrapped in cucumber or garnished with the caviar yet. With one glance, Janet and I both knew we had to get moving!

This hors d’oeuvres, although wonderful in concept was a nightmare in execution. All pieces needed to be worked on quickly and stored back in the walk in, handling raw fish, caviar and cucumber does not last long if out of refrigeration for too long.  We found ourselves making small batches of tuna tartare, rolling and slicing the extremely delicate caviar and rushing it into the walk in. Attention to detail along with time and temperature control was of strict importance.

By 2pm, we had another 150 done.

At 4pm we were only at 500…

Service was to begin at 6:30 and we were IN.THE.WEEDS.

With 2.5 hours to go, our kitchen became fluttered with other chefs such as, Michael Chiarello, Daniel Joly, Michael Cimarusti, Daniel Boulud, Michael Symon,  and Anne Burrell, PLUS their assistants and teams! All of a sudden space became public enemy #1.

Adrenaline was pumping, my hands were starting to shake due to the lack of food and low blood sugar, but I was too involved with my job at hand to be star struck.  Here I am calling shots, moving trays, garnishing, slicing cucumbers and cleaning up my work station simultaneously in between Michael Cimarusti (Top Chef Masters guy, hello!) and Michael Chiarello (tv Celeb chef). Very cool, but totally unphased.

Plating began at 6pm, and we only had 850 pieces nearly finished. Setting up an assembly line in the midst of chaos was interesting, but we made it work. Michael Cimarusti helped give us more room, we stacked our pieces on top of sinks, rolling carts, and other peoples food! Whatever it took to get these out to the guests while still cold and delicious.

Between 6pm and 9pm we were making Tuna Tartare with pressed caviar and chive blossoms a’la minute. Hectic. Fun. Beautiful looking and… worth it.

Finished product: Tuna tartare, wrapped in cucumber with pressed caviar, chive blossoms and garlic aioli.

Jacques station and caviar promotion

Around 8pm Jacques and Claudine came into the Kitchen. The commotion around us quickly slowed down and the other chefs in the room took notice.  Chef Pépin is a happy older man, who’s a well respected icon. His presence is fascinating to all who are in the room.  He comes over to thank us for our hard work and to give us credit for making his dish well. He and Claudine are clearly pleased of the outcome and of the buzzing guests on the floor mentioning “the wonderful hors d’oeuvres by Jacques Pépin!”  He graciously shakes each of our hands, looks us in the eye, and wishes us well with our future culinary adventures.  Claudine comes up to me and says “Your Kent’s niece right?”  “Yes” I say, then she goes into what a wonderful guy Kent is, how happy she is to meet me and have me here, and then calls “papa” over in her lovely french accent to come take a photo…

An epic moment

One of the most exciting moments of my life.  I’ve met a few celebrities here and there, but no one person has been more influential and inspiring than of Jacques Pépin. It was an absolute pleasure to work my butt off for him, to go a full day without food, to learn high end production in an over the top, chaotic, environment. It was the best learning experience this budding culinarian could get in a days work.

I also learned a lot about myself on this particular day which is far more beneficial then the actual work we did.  I learned that I can do this. I can kick butt in a kitchen. I can give direction, and can take it. I can motivate others.  I looked at the situation, mapped it out quickly in my head, and got it done;  precisely, efficiently, timely, safely and confidently. But the biggest piece I take from this was that I was able to earn the respect of those around me.  After all the work I’ve done in school over the last 18 months, this moment made it all worth it and it was the first real experience that made me realize I made the right choice to follow my passion.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them- Walt Disney

Next up: Los Angeles Food & Wine August 9-13!

Better-than-your-favorite-Asian-take-out: Pork Dumplings.

I love dumplings.

They are little presents full of happiness for your mouth and almost every culture has their version; pork, fish, beef, vegetables or sweets can be baked, fried, steamed, or boiled. What a versatile food! But when I think of dumplings, I think of Asian pork dumplings, my favorite.  Savory, spicy, and a tad sweet all in the same bite.  I didn’t realize until I started making them the other day that I’ve never actually had homemade dumplings; I usually just order them at restaurants. And lets be honest, they probably pull them from a cardboard box in the freezer.

I have this great little Sushi place a few blocks up from my apartment called Zen, and until the other day they had my all time favorite pork dumplings. Well Zen, I’ve found you out and I have an even better recipe. My dumplings have the same flavors, but with actual chunky ingredients, not a solidified ball of meat, which makes them a slam dunk.

Skip the take out tonight, and whip up these little pockets of love, you will thank me.

INGREDIENTS:

Blanching the Bok Choy:

  • 8 oz Bok Choy
  • 2 qts water
  • 2 tsp salt

In a small pot bring water and salt to a boil. Once a boil is reached, add bok choy stems and blanch until tender (about a minute).  Shock in cold water.  Next, add the bok choy leaves to the pot and blanch until wilted, about 30 seconds. (this will happen quickly so keep a close eye) Shock the leaves in cold water.  Remove the bok choy and pat dry on paper towl, set aside.

Making the filling:

  • 1 lb Lean Ground Pork
  • 2 egg whites, whipped until frothy
  • 2 oz soy sauce
  • 1 oz sake (optional)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1.5 oz sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup Scallions, diced
  • 8 oz bok choy, diced
  • 2 tbsp Ginger, minced
  • 2 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp, pepper
  • 2 tsp, red pepper flakes

In a mixing bowl, whip the egg whites until frothy. Combine the pork and mix in the soy sauce, sake, sugar, sesame oil, and mix well together with hands or a fork.  (*Having a box of disposable kitchen gloves nearby is good for a project like this).  After the liquids are mixed, add the ginger, scallions, garlic, pepper, red pepper, and bok choy. The filling is now ready.

Why make pot sticker wrappers when you can buy them! No brainer. A package of gyoza wrappers contains 40-50 wrappers and will cost around $3. Boomski!

To start making the dumplings, line your work space with a piece of parchment paper, this will minimalize the gyoza wrappers from sticking to the bare counter.  Also, place a piece of parchment paper in a sheet tray, this is where you will place your ready-to-be-cooked bundles of tastiness.

Lay out 5 or so wrappers to start on your parchment lined work space. In the center of each dumpling add about a 1/2 tablespoon of filling. This will be trial and error.  I started off with a full tablespoon and quickly found out that the wrapper could not encase that much, but 1/2 tbsp was too little.  You’ll figure it out. Using a finger, dab in a small cup of water and run it along the edge of 1/2 of the gyoza wrapper, fold in half and secure the seams with a few good pinches, pressing the dough together.  Try to make sure to get most of the air out. Reserve on the parchment lined sheet tray and begin the process again with the remaining wrappers and filling.

Cooking the Dumplings:

Flash steam/boil them 4 or 5 at a time in a saute pan filled with about 3/4″ boiling water. This will take about 1-2 minutes.  Pull them from the water and let sit on a parchment lined sheet tray. In a second saute pan add enough cooking oil to coat the pan, around 1/2 inch and heat just until the oil begins to smoke. Make sure the dumplings are fairly dry before tossing in the hot oil.  Scorching hot oil and water do not get along.  Pan fry until golden brown on both sides and serve with my dumpling dipping sauce.

For the sauce:

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp ginger, finely minced

Let me know how yours turn out! Thanks for reading- xo, G

Sweet Potato Black Bean Cakes with Chili Lime Yogurt Sauce

This dish started as an accident.  My Chef Instructor at school told us to pick a protein and work with whatever we had in the walk in.  It was Friday and our order from purchasing got lost or misplaced, so a mystery box challenge began.  It started off much like the initial mad dash for product on Top Chef, so I instantly knew this was going to be fun.   Pork tenderloin, gone. Beef shoulder, gone. Trout, gone… pshh I don’t need it anyway, I went straight for the black beans.

I completely surprised myself and this dish came out so freakin’ good. As a main dish or an appetizer, your taste buds will thank you, and I highly recommend you try this out.

Ingredients
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and grated
  • 1 can of black beans, rinsed
  • 1 Serrano chili, seeded and minced
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup bread crumbs
  • 8 cloves of garlic, minced **See awesome garlic trick below!
  • 6 green onions, small dice
  • 1 tsp salt (might need more depending on your taste)
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1.5 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp onion power (optional)
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • olive oil
Chili Lime Yogurt Sauce
  • 1 cup Plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • zest of half of a lime
  • 2 tsp serrano chili, seeded and minced
  • 1tsp salt

In a saute pan, combine 2 tbsp of olive oil, green onions, and serrano chili; briefly sweat and toss in garlic for last 30 seconds of cooking, remove from heat once slightly cooked. In a large bowl, grate sweet potato, mix in the beans, egg, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, cumin, onion powder, red pepper flakes, mash beans with hands or fork. Combine the cooked onions and garlic, and mix together.   Form cakes, should make about 9 and reserve.

For the Chili Lime Yogurt Sauce combine Greek yogurt, lime juice, lime zest, salt, and serrano chili. Mix well and taste. Adjust seasoning and refrigerate.

In your reserved saute pan, add about 1/2 cup of frying oil. Just enough to fry the cake, probably about 1/4″ from the bottom of the pan. Do not submerge.  When oil starts to smoke it is hot enough, start by frying one cake to test. Turn heat down if needed, you don’t want the oil to continue to smoke. Fry for about 1 minute on each side until cakes are golden.  Repeat and salt immediately after frying, place on paper towel.

Serve immediately on a plate with a dollop of the Chili Lime Yogurt sauce and a wedge of lime for a garnish.  Voila- Delish! I hope you enjoy.

Thanks for reading, xo-G

** Hate mincing garlic? I sure do, especially in large quantities like this! Get out your micro-plane grater and go to town quicker! Careful not to snag your fingers.

Honey Lime Chicken Wings

Who doesn’t love a good chicken wing?  If you’re looking to impress your friends this Superbowl weekend, then watch-out! These chicken wings will knock your sox off. Chicken wings are typically a very cheap buy.  Roughly $1.50 for an 18 wing package, this fowl limb can be done in hundreds of combinations. Here’s one way I particularly like to eat them.

Ingredients:  (double or triple recipe if feeding a large party)

  • 18 whole chicken wings, cleaned and split
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon grated lime zest
  • 2 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoons of fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 quarts vegetable oil for frying

Directions:

Fry Directions: In a large bowl, mix together the honey, lime juice, lime zest, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, salt and ground black pepper.  Reserve half in a separate bowl.  In a zip lock bag or shallow dish combine 1/2 of the mixture with the wings and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. When ready to start preparing, drain off chicken wing marinade and pat dry. Place the flour in a plastic bag and begin shake the chicken wings in the flour to coat (you could do this in batches).

In a large skillet, fry the chicken wings in hot, 1 inch deep oil until cooked through. Place the cooked wings in a bowl with the other half of the the honey/lime mixture and toss to coat well. Serve immediately and garnish with lime wedges.

Grill Directions: Season the  raw chicken wings with salt and pepper.  Arrange on the grill and cook until lightly browned and mostly cooked through, then begin to brush on the sauce.  Allow to grill about 10-15 minutes more or until a crispy amber crust begins to form.  Remove from heat and serve immediately with lime wedges.

Either cooking method will yield delicious results. Grilling is obviously the more healthy way but not always accessible or weather permitting.  Enjoy!

Parmesan Artichoke Dip

Ready for another crowd pleaser? This is dangerously good, and on Superbowl Sunday, let’s be honest, eating healthy is usually not in the cards.   My mom use to make this dip for all sorts of occasions when we were kids.  Football parties,  New Years parties, family get-together’s, etc. and it has always been one of my favorite tastes. The smell of it just coming out of the oven brings back happy memories.  Whip this up in 10 minutes or less and you will find yourself the talk of the party.

Ingredients

1 (14 ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, peeled
40 green chilies, drained (canned is fine)

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
Place the artichoke hearts in a food processor and process until smooth. (leave a few artichoke hearts out to rough chop and add at to the mixture just before baking -texture!) Process the cream cheese, Parmesan cheese, mayonnaise, garlic and dill with the artichoke hearts until the mixture is smooth and well blended.  Stir in the chilies and chopped artichoke hearts, then transfer to a baking dish (the same dish you will be serving in so pick out something nice).
Bake in the preheated oven 15 minutes, or until bubbly and lightly brown.

Serve warm with toasted pita points or thinly sliced and toasted french bread, deeeelish! * For added flavor rub a garlic clove on the bread before toasting.

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