Adventurous foodies and food lovers alike ascended upon the Museum of Broadcast Communications on May 9 for the Key Ingredient Cook-Off 2014. Local alternative weekly publication, Chicago Reader, presented this event for the second year in a row where nearly twenty of top chefs were challenged to make a dish using one of five unusual ingredients featured in past Key Ingredient feature columns, which included honeycomb tripe (organ meats from the stomach of various animals), chestnut flour, miso, sheep’s milk and tamarind. The Cook-Off event is somewhat of a live-action take on the Reader’s award winning Key Ingredient series.
Last year’s winner, Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice, along with Aaron Arnett of Davanti Enoteca, Dana Cree of Blackbird, Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe, Joseph Rose of Lockwood, and others all vied for the chance to win bragging rights for best overall dish. In the end, Duncan Biddulph of Kinmont was named best of the best.
Mike Galen chef de cuisine at The Bedford specializes in modern American small plates. However, for the Cook-Off he was challenged to use sheep’s milk as a key ingredient. His dish was sheep’s milk ricotta filled profiterole with pistachio tarragon glaze and rhubarb jam. He said that what he likes about working with an ingredient that he may rarely, if ever, use is that it gives him a chance to get out of his comfort zone. Galen added he likes the challenge.
Kevin Atkinson, executive sous chef at theWit, and Chris Teixeira, executive pastry chef at Homestead on the Roof, felt the same way in regards to being up for the challenge with an unusual ingredient.
Atkinson said that he likes getting something they normally wouldn’t serve in the restaurant and then making it approachable. “We have a bunch of adventurous eaters tonight, so we’re ready to play with it.”
Atkinson’s ingredient was honeycomb tripe, and he used the stomach and tail of the cow. This was served over rice porridge with fennel, carrot, pickled garlic, and shallots. This was the second year for Atkinson participating in the Cook-Off.
Teixeira mentioned that he likes to take a classic dish and put a new spin on it. He did so with his key ingredient, chestnut. The traditional dessert, mont blanc, was made for this evening’s purpose as a chestnut flour cake with candied chestnut mousse and a chestnut macaroon filled with chocolate ganache.
The evening was not only about eating, drinking, and being merry. A portion of the proceeds for the evening were donated to Chicago based charity, Common Threads. Common Threads is a non-profit organization that teaches youth of underserved communities how to cook wholesome and healthy meals using professional led, curriculum-based, after-school programs. Founded in 2003 by Chef Art Smith (former personal chef of Oprah Winfrey) and artist Jesus Salgueiro, Common Threads currently has roots in Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the Bay Area.
Robin Hoffman, vice president of operations, and Robin Vance, events manager, were representing Common Threads at the Cook-Off. The organization seemed to be a great match as this year’s charity of benefit because of their prominence in the chef community as well as Chicago’s communities.
Specifically, the organization does a lot to educate and benefit students in Chicago. They provide nutrition and cooking classes, as well as work with 75 schools in the Chicago Public Schools system and partner with health and nutrition people throughout the public school district.
“We teach elementary and middle school aged kids everything that they need to know about how to create a good meal for themselves,” said Hoffman. We teach them about nutrition and culture and we provide several programs that we do in-school and outside of school. We also have a summer camp where 100 kids go for three weeks.”
She added that they work in communities where schools have greater than 90% free and reduced lunch programming.
Food deserts and access to nutritional foods has been a major social and economic issue in Chicago in certain neighborhoods. When asked about how Common Threads has approached this topic, Hoffman said that they advocate for access to more foods, but they also try to teach youth how to work within their own communities.
“One of the things we do is a grocery store tour where we take them to their local grocery store and teach them how to shop healthily within their community. Healthy doesn’t always have to be fresh, it can be frozen fresh. Sometimes in these communities they only have access to frozen fresh. So we teach them that those items can also be purchased.”
Hoffman further said that Common Threads tries to create an environment that is conducive to the students’ communities. In order to make sustainable change, you have to affect the kids, teachers, the schools, the parents, and the community that they live in. They strive to address this in all of their programming.
Common Threads also embraces family and culture, incorporating that into the curriculum for students. They teach kids how to “re-do” recipes that are part of their culture that might have originally been made with not so healthy ingredients.
Hoffman stated, “A lot of us come from cultures where the food wasn’t always prepared very healthy, and they love to eat that food. So we have a family cooking class where we have the families bring in their recipes from their parents, grandparents, and other relatives and then show them how to make that dish in a healthier way, without losing touch with the culture and the background.
The overall sentiment is that Common Threads believes that food creates a better life for kids, in terms of personal health and engagement in education.
Vance very succinctly stated, “We have a lot that we do, and we are the only organization that truly does all that we do.”
For more information about the Key Ingredient series, visit www.chicagoreader.com.