Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, April 10, 2016

In For A Nickel

Some dishes are of such indisputable excellence that their appearance alone is capable of arousing a level-headed man's degustatory powers. All those who, when presented with such a dish, show neither the rush of desire, nor the radiance of ecstasy, may justly be deemed unworthy of the honors of the sitting, and its related delights - Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
I have often described the Western New York restaurant community as small and incestuous. It is. But, at the time I started my cooking career, there were few opportunities to hang with other cooks. They’d gather after shift at places like Mother’s, a downtown location. That included my Chef, Dan Welch. But I lived in the suburbs and was a cook at suburban restaurant. I often walked to work.

My after shift activities with local co-workers was heading to Rooties for beers and Wings (and to my mind they were the best Wings in Buffalo – and there was a really HOT bartender)

However, there were a few times that local Chefs would pop out to DACC’s. It was clear to me that they all respected one Chef more than all: Mike Andrzejewski, then of Oliver’s. (luckily for spellcheckers, he is generally referred to as Mike A.). This is a man who began his cooking career at the age of 16. A guy who worked his way up through the kitchen to take the helm at some of the area’s finest restaurants. Mike was part of an all-Buffalo team invited to cook at the James Beard House, and some years later he was a quarter-finalist for the Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast.

I met him on a few occasions where Chefs gathered – Among them Taste of the Nation, and a benefit for the Albright Knox art gallery when I was the Sous at Warren’s (where he had been Chef at one time). He was always friendly, even to a newbie like me. Soft-spoken, even self-effacing, he was someone you not only respected but liked. It is no wonder that when he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, the restaurant community gathered to throw a benefit to defray his medical costs. We are all friends of Mike A.

I am under no illusions about my skills as a cook. I am good – as good as, if not better than the Chefs I worked for, but I will never be great. Mike is great. For me to go mano a mano against Mike in a test of cooking ability? That would be like a semi-pro running back going up against Bruce Smith.

In short, Mike is a Chef whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate.

The reference to mano a mano is the theme here. In the last twenty years things have changed. There are many more opportunities for the local food community to gather and get to know each other. Fundraisers such as The Big Fuss and the Iron Event. Industry Night – a gathering of food and beverage professionals hosted by Mike at Seabar. Most (if not all) have been created by, or had an assist from, Christa Glennie Seychew – and that’s a ripe topic for another post.

I think my favorite might be Nickel City Chef (Think Iron Chef with a Buffalo Flavor). A stable of four of Buffalo’s finest cooks facing equally talented Challengers. I had gotten tickets a few times – I even brought Ellie to a bake-off – and really enjoyed it. The crowd always includes friends from the restaurant family.

This year I was lucky enough to see all four competitions. The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is one of the sponsors, and I was asked to represent us there. All four competitions were a hoot, but the last one was special. Mike has been the co-host for all eight seasons.

This time he was the Challenger.

The Nickel City Chef was Edward Forster of Buffalo Proper, an amazing Chef himself. Just to add a little spice to the competition, Ed was Mike’s opening Chef at Mike A’s at the Lafayette (now Bourbon and Butter). Very interesting.

The Judges were the other three Nickel City Chefs. The secret ingredient: the wonderful eggs of Plato Dale Farm. Mike won the coin toss, and chose to present second.

Ed’s offerings were:
    • Whole Egg Averna Flip, Fresh Nutmeg, Soft Boiled Yolk, Whipped Crème Fraiche, Bacon Sorghum Jus, Parmigiano Cheese Churro, Omelette, Parmigianno Cheese, Chive, Black Truffle
    • Charred Baby Gem Lettuce, Soft Boiled Egg Yolk Dressing, Onsen Egg, Cured Egg Yolk, Anchovy, Toast
    • Yolk Tortellini in Black Yolk Pasta, Spring Ramp Broth, Crispy Meringue, Pickled Ramp, Fresh Cream
Photos courtesy of Nick Guy and Nickel City Chef
Mike countered with:
    • Egg Noodle Carbonara
    • Egg Hopper, Seared Lamb Tartar
    • Bourbon Caramel Souffle, Frozen Tonka Bean Custard
Mike A
Photos courtesy of Nick Guy and Nickel City Chef
Every phase of the dishes was executed with the greatest of skill. The Judges, each a highly talented Chef in their own right, were blown away. So was the crowd. In the end, the competition was a two-point difference (one, if you discount the audience vote). Mike won.

I immediately thought of Edward G. Robinson’s line to Steve McQueen at the end of the Cincinnati Kid: “You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best”. Twenty years later and Mike is still on top of his game.

Go back in time to 2002, and that fundraiser for the Albright Knox. The featured Chef was Buffalo’s own Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill and his crew, supported by a collection of Chefs from the area. I have never seen that much caviar assembled in one place.

The after party was at Jimmy Mac’s. Mike was talking to my boss (and his previous boss) Sue Warren about his soon to be opened restaurant, Tsunami. Sue commented that he was such a great Chef. Mike’s response: “Nah, I’m just a cook”.

Good enough for me.

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -