We really, really did not want Marcel Vigneron to win the cook-off last weekend.
I was in Milan (MY-lun), Ohio at the Chef’s Garden Food & Wine Celebration, the annual fundraiser for Veggie U, a program to teach elementary school kids how to grow vegetables. It’s a great cause, you can’t argue with it at all, and the Jones family, which runs Chef’s Garden, are such nice people that you want to help them. So when they asked me to help judge the cook-off, I said I would.
Of course, they provided transportation and accommodation. And in fact it was transportation on Viking Corporation’s private jet, accommodation at the Cleveland Ritz-Carlton. So it wasn’t a sacrifice.
Veggie U’s a charity, but Chef’s Garden isn’t. It’s a very high-end purveyor of precious little herbs and vegetables. We (six other passengers and I, including two guys from the The Food Network, journalists from Saveur and Food Arts, chef Joël Antunes and my fellow judge, Jody Eddy, who is the brand new editor of Art Culinaire) were picked up by Bob Jones, the family patriarch, who sets the aw-shucks tone of the family.
The entire Jones family persona, you see, is so folksy and down-to-earth that it would be a parody if they weren’t absolutely sincere about it.
Bob said something to the effect of “Hi folks, gosh I’m sure glad you’re here. I’m just a senile old man who’s come here to pick you up. My kids don’t let me out too often, so I hope I don’t mess this up.”
See, Bob Jones is the founder of this multi-million dollar company that has something like 130 employees and charges a king’s ransom for tiny little microgreens and precious little vegetables. And many, maybe most, of the top chefs all over the country gladly pay for it. They use top-of-the-line technology to analyze their soil quality, have designed their own ergonomically sound farm equipment for ease in working the land, and are starting to do DNA testing for dangerous types of salmonella and e. coli.
They have weeding machines that shield their laborers — Mexicans who are paid about $11 an hour, have work visas and are flown by Chef’s Garden to and from Mexico annually — from the sun as they lie on their stomachs inches above the soil and pick weeds as the machines move over the crops. It’s quite cool.
It was Bob’s idea, after his more conventional vegetable crop was wiped out by a hailstorm and he was driven to bankruptcy, to rebuild by growing food to the specifications of chefs.
That’s the story told by Lee Jones, Bob’s son and the face of the company, whom I’ve written about here before. His brother, Bob aka Bobby, does the planting while Lee does the marketing.
Lee seems still to be under the impression that he’s helping to run a small family farm. Again, this would be crazy if he didn’t believe it.
So that’s the Joneses, this was the Veggie U Food & Wine Celebration (held near Chef’s Garden, which is in Huron, Ohio, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute — a sort of chef’s retreat and test kitchen), and Jody and I (and a chef and writer named Fred Mensinga) were judging a cook-off.
Okay, actually, the day before the fundraiser was the Chefs Summit, which is mostly a series of 20-minute cooking demonstrations by chefs, including Will Goldfarb, pictured here with his almost-three-year-old daughter Lulu, who was helping him. So was the local volunteer, pictured on the right. It’s worth noting that nearly all of the chefs who did demonstrations did something with molecular gastronomy. Will did many things with molecular gastronomy, but that’s part of his schtick. He and Lulu made a pomegranate-beet mousse using some of his hydrocolloids, his point being that using great products and the latest techniques are in no way contradictory but in fact go hand-in-hand, and that by using a few grams of powder you can really highlight those products at their most pristine (unless you just eat them raw).
And it’s so easy a three-year-old can do it.
While all of this was going on, I got the chance to get to know Joël Antunes, who recently moved from Atlanta to New York to be the chef at The Oak Room, which is scheduled to reopen later this year.
The picture of Joël, on the left, is an old one that was used in the 2001 profile that my former colleague, the late, great Jack Hayes, wrote of him.
But he looks about the same now.
Joël (his surname is Basque, and is pronounced an-tu-NESS) spent much of his childhood in sub-Saharan Africa, where his father worked for Michelin (the division that makes tires, not guidebooks) and bought rubber. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, he spent about four years in Bangkok, where he worked at The Oriental hotel, at Le Normandie restaurant, in the same position that Jean-Georges Vongerichten held before him. There he raced motorcycles and otherwise enjoyed himself before returning to the West. He’s very cool, and I’m looking forward to The Oak Room opening.
Jody Eddy is very cool, too. She was a cook, and among the places she worked was The Fat Duck, so she has an opinion about molecular gastronomy. She pointed out to me that it could take Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal and his team two years to develop a dish. Other chefs try to rush the process, which is why the results are sometimes so bad.
But she doesn’t seem to take that very seriously, and she has a chef’s stamina for partying, sleep deprivation and salty language. We were engaging in the last of those while much of the cook-off was going on, the one that we (and Fred) didn’t want Marcel Vigneron to win.
Because Top Chef is stupid. Well, okay, maybe not stupid. It’s entertaining enough if you like that sort of thing, but we don’t. It’s the celebrity chef phenomenon at its most banal, its fans seem to care more about personalities than food, so the show (or to be fair, its fans) fosters the sort of celebrity chefdom that degrades and distorts what working in a professional kitchen is all about.
And he was competing against the delightful Celina Tio, who is just now leaving The American Restaurant in Kansas City to open a place of her own in Charlotte, to be called Julia(n), and the well-respected Don Yamauchi of Forte, in Birmingham, Mich.
The three chefs were on stage, frantically cooking, while emcee (and chef) Bob Waggoner, along with co-emcee, tie-breaking judge and local celebrity chef Michael Symon entertained the audience and Jody, Fred and I sat on a dais in back of the audience and chatted. I also nibbled on the cardamom shoots that were one of the ingredients the chefs had to use (the others were black cherry tomatoes — another Chef’s Garden specialty — and the pork tenderloin and grass-fed beef filet provided by the sponsors).
Then we went on stage (that’s a picture of us on stage), tasted the food and commented on it while marking our score cards, hoping to hate Marcel’s food. But what can I say? His food tasted the best, and we’re all judges with integrity, so he won.
The competition followed the fundraising tasting event, which was also a competition of sorts, as the chef that one of the sponsors liked the most was given a free trip to Spain to eat at elBulli.
And the winner was Aaron Deal, the chef of Tristan in Charleston, S.C.! Can you believe it?
Well, sure you can. Aaron’s a good chef and a nice chap. Here he is, on the right with Lee Jones and sous chef Wes Grubbs.
He made Manchester Farms quail with carrot purée, baby carrot, and Benton’s Bacon.
The chef who was cooking next to him at the tasting event, Craig Deihl of Cypress restaurant in Charleston, took the grease from the bacon and used it, instead of oil, to make bacon mayonnaise.
I recommend that you try this at home.