One of the things that I enjoy the most about moving to the other side of the culinary events table, from merely writing about them to participating in them, is that I get to work with some amazing chefs and to have tons of fun doing so. This weekend, I was part of the team that took part in the Food Systems Network NYC‘s annual chili cook-off. We created the entry for Jimmy’s No. 43 for ChiliFest 2014, a beef, pork, and black bean chili that we topped with a cilantro lime crema, fried scallions, and a bit of pickled hot peppers. Here’s an abbreviated look at how it all came together, from picking up our donated meat to the end of the event:
Dickson’s Farmstand Meats was a partner and sponsor of this event. Chef Annette Tomei and I stopped by their store in Chelsea Market last Monday during a food shopping trip and picked up the dry-aged beef that each of the cook-off participants had to use in their dishes.
When we got to Jimmy’s No. 43 on Sunday morning, still a bit on the early side, it was quiet, dark, and quite chilly inside. Angela Dimino, a former instructor of mine from the International Culinary Center, with whom I’d worked on the NYCWFF Burger Bash last fall, had joined Annette and me to try to create a winning chili recipe.
After turning on the burners, oven, and flattop to try to get some heat going in the kitchen, we pulled all the meat out of the walk-in refrigerators and started assembling all the groceries that we’d bought for this event so that we could get the chili-making started.
After a brief strategy meeting, we each went into motion, picking up our selected tasks to get the chili components cooking. Black beans were rinsed and put on the stove to cook. Beef was taken out of the Cryovac bags and put into hotel pans to cook in the ovens. The same was done with the pork that we’d bought at the East Village Meat Market around the corner, keeping with our local-ingredients theme.
Once the beef and pork were cooked, they were mixed together and set aside until ready to combine with the other ingredients.
The various peppers that were chosen to make the mystery blend were opened up and re-hydrated. They had varying degrees of heat and sweet with along with other flavor notes, which would help to make the final dish have layers of tastes.
Then, Angela puréed each set of peppers individually. She and Annette put their heads together to create the exact flavor profile they wanted the final dish to have, adding ladlefuls of the chilis in various combinations. I stood by lending my tastebuds to the process, as well.
To add some moisture to the chili, we put a bunch of onions (that I had the pleasure of chopping into fine pieces) on the heat to soften. We poured in a can of tomatoes and let the mixture simmer for a bit to concentrate the flavors before adding the chilis so that they all melded into one rich, incredible-tasting sauce.
Then, the real fun began, as all the chili components that had been prepared separately were mixed together to create the final blended dish. With Angela’s cousin, Cristina Lemos joining us, the chili crew was complete.
To get just the right mix, the beef, pork, beans, tomatoes, onions, and peppers were all divided into two bus tubs and blended by hand. Then, it was allowed to sit for a few minutes, while we tasted it, debated the seasoning, tasted it some more, and then decided on our next steps. We thought that it might need a bit more cooking time to concentrate the flavors, so the chili was returned to a pan on the stove.
Here’s the hotel pan full of chili, just before we packed it up to head over to Chelsea Market. Even now, a few days later, it looks so delicious I could just dive right into it.
After a bit of deliberation, we decided that we’d pack up all the chili into gallon-sized resealable plastic bags, double-bag them, and then pack them into the bus tubs to transport them over to the event. Alexis and Cameron from Jimmy’s staff were also coming with us, so we had plenty of hands available to cart everything over there.
We all crammed into the SUV to make the trip to Chelsea Market. Once there, we entered via a side doorway marked for the chef teams to load-in.
While that last comment might have made it seem as though we had some specially-decorated doorway to great our way to the chilifest, in reality, this is how we went into the event. It was a really good thing that we’d packed up everything into as few containers as possible to make it up the stairs and around the garbage skips to the entranceway.
We checked in with the organizers and then made our way to the table marked for Jimmy’s No. 43. Chelsea Market was eerily quiet with just a low hum of all the chef and their teams getting set up, the organizers making sure we had our own chili tasting mugs and beer cups, and that we knew how the judging would happen.
As soon as we found our table, we started arranging everything to set up our station. Cristina created a display of ingredients that we had used in our chili to brighten up the table and to make sure our People’s Choice coin box was in clear view for the attendees.
Angela started breaking open the bags of chili to get it set up in the chafing dishes. The event organizers had set us up with chafers, hotel pans, and sterno to keep everything nice and hot.
With the chili loaded into the chafers, the decorations all displayed, and all of the toppings for the chili portioned into serving bowls, we were ready to great our first guests. There’s this odd calm that takes hold before the storm at these events, a few moments to pause.
It’s quiet except for some last-minute banging around, you and your fellow chefs joke around a bit, take a stroll around to see the other tables and find your friends who are also working the event. Maybe you grab a beverage or head to the restroom one last time. Then, the first folks arrive, and it is pretty much just a whirlwind from there until the last plate is served or you run out of food, whichever happens first.
I’m not sure how many portions of chili we served up in the end. We cleaned out at least two hotel pans and then started in on a third. In the middle of the event, we had to swap out the pans midstream and heat up another couple of bags of the chili. Fortunately, we have a crack food events team, so we could nimbly switch gears to keep the flow of service going while a couple of us handled the chili re-filling duties. It was great to get lots of thumbs up from the attendees who enjoyed our dish and to see people come back for seconds.
After the chili tasting portion of the event was over, we all headed over to hear the judges’ decision. Our team didn’t take home any trophies on Sunday night, but we had a fantastic time, hanging out in the kitchen all day, chatting, swapping cooking stories, and laughing lots as we pulled together our dish. It had been quite a while since this group had cooked together, so it was almost like old times.
After that, we made our way back to our table, broke down our set up, and loaded out (this time via the public exit) and returned to Jimmy’s No. 43 to drop off the remaining food and to have a drink to celebrate the evening. Jimmy Carbone was there, at the bar, ready to hear our stories of the event and to thank us heartily for putting together a chili to compete in the event for his place. We’d left behind some chili to put on the menu this week, so if you head on over there, there might even be some of it left to try.