Victory: Winning the Papi Tino’s New Chef Challenge

At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Cooking a still relatively unfamiliar-to-me cuisine and doing it with animal protein, something my vegetarian culinary school never discussed. But then I consulted with some experts, read up on Mexican cuisine (real Mex, not the “Tex” variety), and tested some recipes. Then I chose an outstanding collaborator for the finals, my fellow Natural Epicurean alum, Chip Singer, who is himself a pro at Latin cuisine and a terrific creative mind.

We were faced with a mystery box for the final round and we were up against students from the Escoffier and Cordon Bleu cooking schools here in Austin, both larger and if I understand correctly, much more established on the national scene (although Natural Epicurean has other locations in the works, including Portland).

Our protein draw was ground pork from Richardson Farms, which made me glad because I’ve visited Richardson Farms and I think they probably raise animals for food as honorably and sustainably as any commercial purveyor you could find in our area. We also had peanuts and sweet potatoes, which played perfectly into the only concept I had done advanced testing on – a roasted potato puree with peanut and lime – and which we were able to produce for the final dish. I had no plan for ground pork, however.

I did some research using ye olde iPhone and found a concept we could build on, with modifications. Chip and I got chopping, roasting, blending, pickling, browning, pureeing, and tasting. We spent a few good minutes finalizing the plating. All the while we bounced ideas off each other regarding flavors and pairings. Chip brought a tremendous confidence to the table with his knowledge of Latin cuisine that was invaluable. I remembered that no culinary effort at this scale is a one-man effort. In this kind of task, you’re better off finding support and using your collective knowledge to accomplish the mission. Chip was a great partner and I’m really glad to have worked with him (we also work together at Green Island Catering, a local vegan caterer and meals-to-go company).

I have to give big time credit to my wife, also. She listened to me whine about how nervous I was and told me to imagine myself winning. She’s been a great support through this whole culinary enterprise I’ve been on for the past several months.

Below: The scene at Papi Tino’s (Photo: Vess Consulting).

Big thanks to The Natural Epicurean for donating a big load of fresh produce to the competitors via Farm to Table. I felt like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games getting help from unseen sponsors in her life or death match. We ended up using some limes and green leaf lettuce from that delivery. Of course it was all available to everyone and I’m sure the others made good use of it, also.

The prize for the victory is a 6-month contract to work at Papi Tino’s. It would be a great chance to continue my exploration of Mexican cooking. I’m not sure I have the time to make that happen, but just having the opportunity is nice .

Uchiko Internship: Complete

I finished 80 hours of internship hours at Uchiko, a highly regarded restaurant in Austin. In addition, it’s among the most highly regarded restaurants in the Southwest US. I’m glad I chose Uchiko, but in retrospect it may not have been the best choice for me. And I’m glad I decided to cut my time there in half.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place with top tier talent. The systems are excellent and their standards are high. I learned a lot and in the fullness of time, I may realize that I learned even more. But it just wasn’t me. I never quite felt like I fit the mold of the prototypical Uchiko staff member and although I love Asian food and LOVE Uchiko as a customer, it wasn’t quite my style of cooking. And I kind of knew it before starting.

Part of it was I was fairly intimidated to be among the best. And living up to the (sometimes confusing) standards was difficult. And I am too ponderous and insecure for my own good sometimes. But in retrospect I would have been more motivated had I felt the environment were more applicable to my needs and interests. But when was I going to get a chance to work with people at this level? Never. And even though I didn’t really enjoy myself, I suppose I can’t regret it either. I worked with ingredients I never would have seen otherwise. I got to experience a pressure I’ve never had before. I got some good advice on how to work more quickly, which is good for any cook. I got exposure to recipes which will be useful to me.

For future culinary students, I say go with your gut. Go to the place that excites you. Where you will be hungry to learn. Go to the place where you will impress them with your desire and inquisitiveness. And if you go somewhere and realize it isn’t right, that’s okay. Move on to the next thing. Just like Grant Achatz left Charlie Trotter’s and found The French Laundry, you will find a place to thrive.

Below: The original Uchiko-meter.

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Below: One guess as to what’s in this box. Hint – you won’t see it on display at Whole Foods.

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Below: Frozen balls of some kind of confection concocted by Philip Speer, the dessert/pastry mastermind of the Uchi/Uchiko enterprise.

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Below: Huckleberry glass.

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Below: Not sure what this is, but I cut them up.

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Papi Tino’s Cooking Competition

Some behind the scenes shots from the competition Wednesday night.
The competition was for new chefs. Chip Singer and I were pitted against each other in a “battle Royale” as Alton Brown would say. In this case, we weren’t in Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef, but we were in Papi Tino’s snug cooking space on East Sixth Street here in Austin.

Below: The night’s menu.

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We had about 4.5 hours to prepare 50 portions of each dish. I think it went pretty smoothly, thanks to Chef Lalo’s outstanding guidance and team. He provided help all along the way, especially with practical issues like keeping food warm during service. He made an emergency run to the store when my lentils ended up overcooked.

Chip and I both did meat-free selections for the guests, who had paid $35 a head for the three-course-plus-drinks evening, which was sponsored by Wahaka Mezcal and Vess Consulting, a local events organizer/marketing company.

Below: Chip plating like a champ.

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Below: My original plating layout.

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Below: Chef Lalo’s plating (the one we used).

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Below: Chef Lalo, me, Chef Marko from The Natural Epicurean/Balcones Springs Resort, and Chip Singer.

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I was lucky to have won by a slight margin. Now I’m going up against students from other cooking schools in Austin on September 26. Come out and show your support! I’ll be developing a new dish for that night.

Here’s an Austin Chronicle article about the evening – http://www.austinchronicle.com/blogs/food/2012-09-07/culinary-school-students-compete-at-papi-tinos/

Catering Job

I catered a small party tonight. Time was tight but got the food on the table with help from my client and his friends. Also had my friend Amy assisting.

I was worried about having enough food but it worked out fine, although some people brought in more food.

I used a recipe for making feta “cheese” using tofu and it was awesome. It’s my new favorite. All it takes is a cubed block of tofu, a quarter cups of oil, some miso, and Italian herbs.

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A Rolling Chef Gathers No Moss

Another busy week is complete. I am definitely living like a rolling stone, gathering no moss. What I am gathering is good times, a little bit of money and experience, to name a few.

Papi Tino’s New Chef Competition

I’m participating in a cooking competition for new chefs at Papi Tino’s on September 5. We had a preliminary meeting at the restaurant with a tasting of Wahaka mezcal. For more info on tickets for the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/199666736830125/

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Below: A bit rough looking, but my competition dish in the testing phase.

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Other Stuff

I went to a launch party for a new cooking app called Cooking Planit. It helps people plan and cook meals using step by step instructions.

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I’ve also been doing some marketing for Green Island Catering meals to-go. Here I am at Central Market.

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Below: Testing vegetarian paella for a personal chef gig.

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Below: Cat bonding time.

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Yesterday I helped Green Island Catering host an awesome party barge float on Lake Travis. We hosted 100 vegans and veg-curious people for a delicious plant-based buffet. I met some awesome people and we had a great time.

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Monday’s personal chef gig went exceptionally well and I’m planning for next week. I think I’m going to need to start planning a couple of weeks in advance to stay ahead of the deadlines. Also, I want to figure out how to label the food I store in the fridge. The masking tape method was effective, but not very elegant.