I think I heard about this event through Food in Jars, but I can’t find the twitter to prove it. But somehow, news came through the ether than Philadelphia has a new food thing going – where completely amateur chefs can take over a professional kitchen for one night only and serve amazing food to 70 people or so. Just say, “Open Chef-A-Me.”
How could I resist? So I bought a subscription (since no matter how bad it could be, it would definitely be completely different the next time).
Last Monday was the first one. I switched my work schedule to daytime hours and I hopped on a bus over right after work… and found the venue, Ava with plenty of time to spare.
A little wandering around South Street (and, more interestingly, Bainbridge) later, and I popped back in only 20 minutes early. And there were still only a handful of people. I ended up randomly joining a couple at a table and having one other woman join us later. As one of the guys of Chef-A-Me explained, that’s part of what’s cool about the way Chef-A-Me is framed – with tables large enough that probably at least two groups of people end up merging and talking to each other, but small enough that you can form actual conversations. This is one of the rare events that has made a conscious decision to chose smaller venues even though demand for their tickets has been increasing.
So let me tell you about my nifty dining companions first, and then I promise I’ll get to the food and the chefs. There was an architect, her techie/literary husband, and a freelance writer, who writes a bit for CitySearch. Turns out the other three had all done graduate work at Northwestern, and two of them in the journalism program. While they were discussing the various merits of alumni associations, I praised the Johns Hopkins one, which I have quite enjoyed even though I didn’t attend the school. And then it turns out that three of us had all participated in their youth nerd camp! It really was a joy to get to meet my dining companions.
And the chefs:
Langoustine Buzara (from Tim): Here’s a picture of the serving, but a lot of the yellow tones are washed out. It looked much tastier, and I ate at least 4 of them! It had lovely tender flesh with a slightly muskier taste than lobster. I tried sucking on the biggest limbs, but that plan didn’t work. Each serving also came with a basket of garlic toast on a lovely sesame crusted bread, which soaked up the juices beautifully. I didn’t have a lot of luck sucking on the heads, but scooping them out onto the bread worked well. The light tomato and onion broth was, also, just as tasty and promised. And I did use up a few more bread pieces soaking up the sauce – and then spent a decent amount of time worrying whether I’d be able to fit the rest of the meal in my stomach. Here, have a recipe that is not at all dissimilar
Shrimp Guacamole (from Sarah): So the introduction to this dish was confusing, with Jesse (the spokesman Chef-a-Me guy) saying that it was flavored with shrimp juice and Sarah clarifying that it was flavored with the liquid in which the shrimp had been marinated and that her vegetarian friends thought this was still okay for vegetarians to eat. If it’s just the same ingredients as the marinade, sure – but if it’s the actual liquid in which raw shrimp have been sitting then not only does that not sound vegetarian to me, but also it sounds a bit dodgy food safety-wise. And the guacamole did have a distinct flavor of shrimp. That said, and having heard the spiel, I ate it anyway and loved it. I think shrimp-flavored guacamole is a wonderful, beachy sort of delight. And what a perfect touch with the roasted poblanos – it hit exactly on the line of tingly without being spicy. It was served on top of a tostada, and was plated close enough to serving that it stayed crispy all the way through eating. And it was topped with a single shrimp. If Tim’s part of the first course had not been so extravagant, the single shrimp would have been too few, but for that meal it was plenty. The tequila part of the marinade was not particularly noticeable.
Braised short ribs with grilled corn, pepper, and onion relish (from Tim): Okay, so the corn relish? That was amazing, and I wish the recipe were up on his food blog for me to steal. It was spicy, lively and versatile. It was, perhaps, not the best pairing for the short ribs, however, because it made the ribs seem to have less flavor in comparison. Don’t get me wrong – the ribs were distinctly tender and delightful, but it was hard to single out the joy of their particular seasoning and sauce with the roasted corn salad jumping up for attention and love.
Spicy Quail (from Sarah): described as quail marinated and glazed in brown sugar, soy sauce, clover honey, jalapenos, and garlic and then roasted. It was not spicy hot, but it was spicy flavorful – and so beautifully caramelized, it was just a minute or so short of burned – apparently consistently, because all I heard was joy from people eating it. Half a quail was just the right portion, and luckily we had abandoned table manners back with the langoustines so I could just pick up the little legs and gnaw the meat off. It was served on top of a slice of crusty bread topped with what seemed like fig and balsamic vinegar jelly, but I could be wrong. It was tasty, though, so I’d love to know the real answer. And then it was served with chickpeas cooked down with lime, purple onion, cracked pepper, and lots of thyme. \o/!
The two chefs had to collaborate for the dessert course, and Tim generously told the story about how he had insisted on making something showy and made it rather hard to come to a balance that would showcase both of their talents. But the end result was delicious!
Strawberry Shortcake-esque – Tim make the base out of tres leches cake, and Sarah added both the freshly whipped cream and the strawberries, having been marinated for 24 hours in basil and brown sugar (though not much brown sugar because they were not too sweet). The end result was gooey and melty and awesome.
Oh, and I have to thank my dining companion Tara, who brought wine from Norton vineyards, which she had learned about while traveling in Argentina. Their Chardonay was unlike any I’d had before – it had a deeper, round taste that was as if the grapes had been harvested just before they would have been too ripe. But this odd wine went well with every course, from the seafood to the ribs to the dessert – strong work!
The next one will be August 24th, and I suppose I might see you there.
ETA: Philly.com has a behind the scenes article on the event here with some of Tim Crowe’s recipes.