The Wine Curmudgeon knows how to be a good loser. I am, after all, Chicago Cubs fan, so if I had not learned how to lose I would have long ago run screaming into the darkness. But I am not taking my team's second-place finish in last night's Le Cordon Bleu Challenge well.
Apparently, we finished second by one vote, and we finished second by one vote to the team that included former Dallas Cowboy Everson Walls. Which leads to the question: If the winners had not had Walls, would they have won? I think not. I suppose there is something Dallas residents love more than the Cowboys, but I don't know what it is. Or, as I told our very disappointed (and talented) team leader, chef Nikki Bodamer of the Dallas Cordon Bleu, the loss was probably my fault. She needed a more famous guest chef than the Wine Curmudgeon.
Because our effort -- chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese, pecans, shallots and garlic, with fried spaghetti squash garnish, couscous with dried fruit, grilled asparagus, and a stunning red wine demi-glace -- was damn good. And I say that as someone who is not particularly fond of stuffed chicken breasts or goat cheese.
After the jump, a few thoughts about my experience in a professional kitchen with professional chefs, preparing dinner for 20 in an hour.
My other colleagues were Dallas Cordon Bleu graduates Sonya Hoduett and Humberto Virgen. Sonya's looking for a job -- I'd advise anyone in Dallas to scoop her up. She is patient, professional and makes a mean couscous. Humberto, who is the executive chef at the DeGolyer Garden Cafe at the Dallas Arboretum, was one of my students when I taught the wine class at the school. It turns out I taught him something -- he doesn't like Robert Parker's style and loves cava, Spanish sparkling wine. He's still a little weak on Texas wines, but we'll work on that.
So what did I learn?
• The process in the kitchen was not unlike what we used to do every night when I was in the newspaper business, working on the sports copy desk (though we didn't have any sharp objects at hand). There is a crescendo of activity that intensifies as you get closer to the deadline, and the last couple of minutes are truly frenzied. I was watching Walls, by the way, and he didn't look too comfortable as the deadline approached. It's a rush when you're done, but it's a rush that I don't miss. You have to really love the work to do it.
• Don't ask for a pot holder in a professional kitchen. I cut and baked the spaghetti squash, and then scraped out the strands so they could be deep-fried (which Sonya graciously handled, since deep fryers and I have an aversion which dates to my days as a teenager working at the Burger King on Skokie Road in Highland Park, Ill.). When I went to get the squash out of the oven, I had to borrow a couple of kitchen towels. There are no pot holders in a professional kitchen -- one uses the towel tucked into one's apron, and I had neither towel nor apron.
• Speed matters. I prepped the asparagus, and I started to do it like I do at home. I took off the rubber bands and started to break each stalk at the bottom, which gets rid of the stringiest part of the asparagus. I won't say that Nikki and Sonya looked aghast when they saw what I was doing, but they were quick to point out that we didn't have time to do it that way. Line the stalks up and cut them toward the end, they said, which will get rid of the tough part of the stalk and ensure that each stalk is more or less the same size. Because, in a professional kitchen, you want the stalks to be the same size.
Did I have a good time? You bet. Do I want to do this again? Nope. I had my hands full doing the squash and asparagus, plus running here and there to help the other three. And the most important lesson I learned? Leave professional cooking to the professionals.
Now, if we could only so something about the judging.