It was déjà vu, only better. A year ago, on the evening before the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, guest chefs took over two kitchens from the John Currence family of restaurants in Oxford. The meeting’s theme last year was The Global South, and I ate a delicious meal prepared by an Indian chef from New York City. The only downside of that meal was of my own doing. I didn’t make a reservation until the day of the event, thus ended up eating alone in a crowded restaurant (hum sad music here) at the oyster bar. And I don’t even like oysters. The meal was memorable, however, and worth the sacrifice of any dignity I may have once enjoyed.
This year I was far better prepared — I learned my lesson. I made a reservation weeks in advance, and was seated with three other symposium attendees who had come all the way from New York City. The chef was also from the Big Apple. Alex Guarnaschelli, one of the regular judges on Food Network’s “Chopped”, host of her own show, “Alex’s Day Off”, and chef at Butter restaurant in NYC, developed a special menu for the evening she called the Green Goddess Dinner. I have no idea what that means, but how many chances do you get to eat a meal prepared by a Food Network chef? For me — not many, so I jumped at the chance.
The meal began with a mixed charcuterie plate. The first of these appetizers to grab my attention was called “chicken livers with caramelized onions”. That’s how the menu described what was actually a little piece of toast with a brownish-gray pate’ slathered on top. I have to be honest — for an appetizer, it wasn’t considerably appetizing, aesthetically speaking. But I was fooled. The chicken liver and onion pate’ had a nice tang to it (we decided it was from vinegar), and I would have eaten more than my share if I’d been eating alone at the oyster bar, for sure. There were also pickled collard greens, a nice change from the usual way I eat collards. Perhaps the oddest of the charcuterie contestants were the slices of duck breast mortadella. I had eaten mortadella overseas, but there it was mostly just a fancy name for highly-processed meat — similar to bologna, but not as good. This was better, and well, it was made of duck. The best thing on the plate that night was the smoked bacon with curry. The bite-sized chunks were about half an inch thick — fully cooked, but tender rather than crispy. On top was a drizzle of creamy curry sauce. One of these things is not like the other — I know the song — but it was incredible. The waitress asked if she could take the plate before serving the next course, but there were several bites left, so we asked her to leave it.
The next course was Lauren Farms Delta Prawns with spicy red cabbage, turnips and apples. What stood out to me in this dish was the tenderness of the prawns. Oftentimes these crustaceans get a springy texture even when cooked properly. These were not springy, nor were they mushy — just tender — perhaps the most tender I had ever eaten. There was not a lot of added flavor to the prawns themselves, but the veggie-apple mix was spicy enough to give the dish plenty of kick (as well as crunchy texture) on its own. The server returned to take our plates, and asked if she could take the charcuterie board — there was still bacon left, so we were a bit sterner in our suggestion that she leave it yet again.
The main course was called North Carolina Poulet Rouge au Piedmont with a stout mustard glaze, Lafayette County mustard greens, and parsley breadcrumbs. It was served family style on a big platter, and there was plenty to go around. I didn’t note any individual component that stood out; the French name made it sound like something fancy was about to come our way, but it was just a well-cooked chicken dish with a mustard sauce on a bed of local greens. Delicious, but simple. After cleaning that plate, the waitress was sure she could take the charcuterie by now – I mean, it was time for dessert. My new NYC buddy was polite when he asked her to leave it, but the look in his eye said, in a strong Brooklyn accent, “Don’t touch the bacon, lady.”
Dessert was baked apples with toasted pistachios, honey and sherry – all served warm atop an ice cream the flavor of which I couldn’t completely identify. I was a bit underwhelmed – it just wasn’t my kind of dessert – but my New York buddies raved about it, one even calling it their favorite course of the evening. It just goes to show that just like on “Chopped”, one judge’s favorite can be the other’s nominee for the chopping block.
With dessert behind us and the charcuterie plate finally back in the kitchen, I asked the hostess if they would fetch Chef Alex from the kitchen so I could meet her. I have no shame, and they were happy to do so. She was a very pleasant person to talk to, and stayed around the rest of the weekend as an adopted Southerner.
As I write this, she has made it to the top four in the Next Iron Chef competition, and if bacon shows up as the secret ingredient, she’s a shoo-in to win.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .