A delicious day on the slopes
[Editors note: Leah Greenstein served as one of the judges of this years Northstar Chefs Races.]If youve ever been to a restaurant and got the feeling that the staff was having more fun than the guests, last weeks Chefs Races at Northstar would prove you right.Dressed in drag and ready to play, the notoriously debaucherous industry-folk straggled into Northstars new Village at the un-cheflike hour of 8:30 a.m. for Bloody Marys. The diverse list of competitors included chefs from Truckee restaurants Blue Coyote, Moodys Bistro, OBs, Coyote Moon golf course and Pacific Crest, Northstars Big Wave Burrito, Sugar Bowls eponymous restaurant and Tahoe Citys newly independent Jakes on the Lake. There were two main components to the Chefs races, a ski race and a cook-off. The ski race took place off Vista chair where the chefs had to ski (or snowboard) down Surprise carrying everything they would need to cook: oils, spices, utensils and clattering bottles of wine. Still shaking the snow out of their pants and skirts, the teams then headed to the sun-soaked deck in front of the lodge to set up for the cook-off. The winning ski team, Coyote Moon, was first to arrive, setting up a mini-Titleist bag full of ice to keep bottles of Rombauer Chardonnay and Veuve-Cliquot cold while they cooked. All sorts of kitchen accouterment appeared, knives, camping stoves and even a mini-Robo Coupe, the industrial version of your household Cuisinart. With the mini-kitchens set up, it was time for the cook-off to begin. None of the chefs had any idea what they would be preparing, since no one knew what the ingredients would be. Organizers brought out large trays to each team in 10-minute increments and then wandered around policing, to make sure that no team had an unfair advantage. The ingredients were eclectic and posed a fun challenge. The chefs were given a beef shank, filet of sole and pork rind for their proteins. Cactus, enoki and oyster mushrooms, a blood orange, Brussels sprouts, chocolate, tamarind, eggs and a plum were among the varied other ingredients on the tray. Chefs sniffed at baggies and portion cups, identifying less obvious ingredients, concocting recipes in their heads.
Then everyone got to it head chefs dictated the recipes, sous chefs and line cooks quickly picked up their knives and pans, assuming their responsibilities of chopping, peeling and sauting. Everyone continued to have fun, drinking beers and shots of tequila as they prepared their meals, but occasionally there were moments that smacked of the intense focus in a busy restaurant kitchen. If youve eaten at any of the participating restaurants, youd quickly realize that most were cooking in their establishments style, though Blue Coyote joked around that they were a bit at a loss without their trusted deep fryer. Special props goes out to Big Wave Burrito who proved their mettle by preparing dishes most unlike their establishments actual menu, which consists of hearty, quickly-prepared burritos and wraps. Their lettuce wraps were particularly good, with pan-fried sole, topped with a salsa made from cactus, blood oranges, tomatoes, basil and garlic and served with fried plantain chips. They paired the food with a bottle of Calina Reserve, a 2003 Chilean Chardonnay that was sweet, with just a little malolactic fermentation to round out the passion fruit flavor.
It was exceptionally hard to pick winners, but eventually it had to be done. Top honors went to Mark Estee and the Moodys Bistro crew, for dishes that were inspired, tasty and beautiful. Estee remarked that the team tried to use everything on the tray, actually coming up with four dishes instead of the requisite three. The salt-baked sole with a ragout of black truffles, enoki mushrooms and lentils melted in your mouth. The smoked romaine with braised belly topped with tomato confit, wilted Brussels sprouts, leeks and poached egg on a crostini was a textural delight, blending crunch with the silken eggs and fibrous vegetables. Next was a fire-roasted plantain with a tamarind pork stew that had an amazing kick thanks to some habeero peppers. But perhaps the most standout part of the meal was the dessert, a chocolate and blue cheese polenta with red wine jelly, plum and raspberry sauce topped with slivered almonds and whipped cream. The pungent blue cheese was a striking contrast to the chocolate and the polenta texture, just slightly gritty, that came together surprisingly well, not too sweet, not too unusual. Everything was served with Some Like it Red, a Syrah/Pinot Noir blend from Californias Red Car Wine, which had amazing cranberry and raspberry fruit and a lush, long finish.Second place went to Jakes on the Lake, out from under the thumb of T.S. Restaurants. Their head chef Scott Yorkey got a chance to shine, particularly in the area of presentation. A little lemon carved into a fish almost stole the show, but their main course, polenta encrusted sole stuffed with red, yellow and orange peppers, enoki and oyster mushrooms served with a melted leek, lentil, barley and rice trio was an awesome contrast of color and shape, swirling up on the plate looking almost octopus-like. The polenta on the fish was just crisp enough and the grain trio complemented it perfectly. Their starter, a beef and bacon salad with a blue cheese herb sauce over crostinis was a delicate blend of powerful flavors: salty pork, seasoned beef and the piquant blue cheese. Dessert was a chocolate mousse with raspberries served with caramelized plums, figs and ginger on a skewer, both sweet and spicy. Sugar Bowl came in a very close third with their esteemed chef Steve Anderson practically preparing five dishes, since both the starter and the dessert were done two ways. The first course, sole two ways offered the option of either a savory, soft polenta cake with the sole wrapped in blue cheese and spinach topped with mushrooms or a bruschetta with peppers, tomato and basil, with a flaky, delicately poached sole. The main course was a Pork and leek Caesar-style fajita with black sesame mole and a habeero pico de gallo served with Spanish rice. The mole on this was amazing, lightly nutty and chocolaty and very smooth. Dessert was a Pavlova two ways. Pavlova is baked meringue traditionally topped with whipped cream and fruit. This one was wonderfully light sweet and crispy. The first had plum and plantains cooked with brandy, raspberry and cinnamon, while the second had roasted almond crusted raspberries, clove and a blood orange aioli. All of the dishes were perfectly paired with wines from the restaurants extensive list, but the subtle flavors of the Pavlova really popped with the Billecart-Salmon Brut Ros, which was crisp and lightly sweet.Its enough to make you hungry all over again. The day was a complete culinary success the chefs had fun, the spectators and the judges had fun and maybe, just maybe, youll be able to head to one of the participating restaurants in the next few weeks and find what started out as a Chefs Race experiment has become that nights special.
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