Behind the Scenes: Precision-oriented prep work
Ryan Summerlin February 9, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment.Chef John Besh is so Louisiana! He even influenced our January Rocky Mountain weather during last month’s Beaver Creek Food & Wine Festival. After weeks of frigid, dry conditions, the weekend looked to be wet and unseasonably warm. Despite Mother Nature’s cruel joke of finally giving us precipitation without cold temperatures to turn it into snow, everyone was ready for some good eats. Nothing she threw at us could dampen spirits at Beaver Creek’s Allie’s Cabin on the day of Besh’s dinner.For the second consecutive year, Allie’s Cabin executive chef Kirk Weems provided Besh with a kitchen away from home for his culinary festival event. The two chefs and their teams spent weeks blending their culinary ideas, and they were now ready to delight diners with a collaborative menu. Besh and his New Orleans team of brother-in-law Patrick Berrigan and executive chefs Erick Loos (La Provence) and Brian Landry (Borgne) spent the day enjoying the less-than-ideal skiing conditions. But it didn’t seem to bother them – at least we had snow. Two months earlier, that seemed doubtful. In the meantime, the Allie’s team busily prepared their three hors d’oeuvres, amuse-bouche and salad items that would set the stage for Besh’s three courses.
Amuse-bouche is a small gift chefs provide as a “mouth amuser” at the beginning of a meal. It’s meant to awaken the gustatory senses for what’s to follow. Often this is when I see the most creativity. Chefs loathe wasting food, but often they have just a little of this or some of that they want to use. An amuse-bouche presents a great opportunity for culinary creativity. For his palate amuser, Weems created potato leek soup with osetra caviar. Prepping and helping to plate it fell to me. I lost count of how many fat leeks I cleaned, quartered and cut. Let’s just say, enough to give me my very first knife blister. I was so proud! After I filled two fourth-size hotel pans of thinly sliced Julienne leeks, it was time to prep the potatoes. Weems designed the dish as three half-inch by half-inch disks of potatoes topped with a small spoon of creamed leeks and caviar in the center of a 3-inch-wide bowl surrounded by soup. Cutting the potatoes evenly was important to get the proper shape and to balance the toppings. It was tedious, but I competed with myself to see how many clean batons of pulp I could get out of each medium-size red potato using an apple corer. I’m a food rescuer, so my mantra is “Waste not!” The difficult part was cutting the batons into some semblance of equal lengths; that required precision. I’m not very good at precision. It’s a Sicilian thing, I think. Perhaps that’s why I love it when a chef says, “Not to worry, it’s rustic!” But Weems didn’t say that. Next time, I’m bringing along a ruler! After losing count more than once while I prepared 125 pieces, I finally finished. No telling how many tasks the others completed while I battled with the potatoes. Chef Besh and his team popped in during the afternoon to say “Hi,” giving my hands and eyes a little break. Finally, Weems blessed my pan of potato disks and I was merrily on my way to the next task, toasting brioche triangles for the chicken pate hors d’oeuvre. Another chance for a battle scar! Note to self, use mitts and not kitchen towels when removing a sheet pan from a hot oven. Live and learn. Allie’s sous chef Tabitha Phillips and cook Bryce Danner, a Colorado Mountain College sustainable cuisine student, were busy with other projects, including the venison forestiere hors d’oeuvre. The venison appetizer came to Weems while he was cooking, as do most of his ideas. He had previously made a similar soup and decided to try it as an appetizer – sans liquide – served on a potato gaufrette (potato chip) and topped with bacon-onion jam and port wine.
People often pigeonhole chefs from great food regions and expect them to prepare only food from that region. I am not one of those but, truth be told, I was somewhat disappointed not to see crawfish, shrimp or crabs on the Besh menu. I’m still tasting Besh’s shrimp and grits I enjoyed at last year’s culinary weekend Grand Tasting. That night, Besh’s culinary efforts paid homage to the hearty cuisine of France, notably Dordogne, in the southwestern part of the country. A major challenge of on-mountain dining, particularly in winter, is the logistics of getting food to the venue. Besh’s product began its journey in New Orleans and was shuttled by snowcat to Allie’s. The New Orleans team arrived after a day on the slopes, pulled everything from the walk-in, set up shop in the kitchen’s prep area and went about opening vacuum-sealed packs of fresh Louisiana duckling, beef, cassoulet and lobster. The smell of Perigord truffles quickly filled the air. Most of Besh’s food was cooked onsite. Although much was prepped in the Big Easy, work still remained. Pasta was boiled and lobster poached for the deliciously sinful lobster mac and cheese to accompany the Wagyu beef slow cooked in a sous vide bath. Cassoulet full of delicious duckling confit and par cooked in New Orleans spent a few more hours on the stove until tender. Chappapeela Farms duckling breasts were readied for searing. Later, I watched in amusement as Besh grumbled about having to slice the seared duckling while his chefs chuckled. Must be an inside joke! Later, the cassoulet, plated in small copper pots, would be topped with duckling breast slices.
At 7 p.m., diners arrived in two snowcat-drawn open sleighs. Servers welcomed guests with flutes of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV. Hors d’oeuvres that had taken weeks to design and hours to prepare were plated and quickly whisked out of the kitchen. Executive chef Vishwatej Nath, of The 10th restaurant on Vail Mountain, arrived earlier to lend a hand as the pace of the evening quickened. All the while, dishwasher Levy Contreras continued the crucial process of washing and recycling dishes, pots and pans as he had done all day. I learned quickly last summer that Contreras is a kind, gentle and smiling soul, but don’t put dirty dishes in the wrong place in the dish pit! Once guests were seated, the real fun began in the kitchen. I love it when everyone joins together, each with an assigned task and with one goal in mind: to produce beautifully plated dishes that delight diners before they engage their taste buds. The eyes are crucial in gastronomic pleasure, so presentation is key. This is the time egos are banished and teamwork begins in earnest. For me, it was my first close quarters work I had with Besh, Loos, Landy and Berrigan the entire afternoon. First up was the amuse-bouche my blistered hand helped produce. Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, chambellan provincial of the Southwest Region and bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com