I am so very glad I started Accidental Syrup before reading the book "Julie & Julia" because the fact that I'm not nearly as witty, clever and hysterical as Julie Powell would very possibly have deterred me. She is an absolute RIOT and for the record the movie does a terrible job of portraying her. To be fair, I enjoyed the movie from Meryl Streep/Julia Child angle but the Julie Powell piece of it was all wrong. Please please read the book if you haven't already.
Anyways, I was reading the book when I received an email newsletter from Tristan restaurant- a fixture on the downtown dining scene here in Charleston - advertising a "Julie & Julia" recipe contest. It of course caught my attention for two reasons: 1) I love to cook and 2) who doesn't love a contest? (Though I normally never win any.) John actually took me to a cooking expo that Executive Chef Aaron Deal did at Whole Foods last year and I was very very impressed. I think he was only 28 years old at the time and he was speaking about his focus on fresh, seasonal and local flavors which really inspired me.
He made a delicious and summery Shrimp Nicoise dish that day- John and I have made it a couple of times since. I actually learned from his demo that shrimp, contrary to popular belief, is not intended to be cooked quickly in a sizzling saute pan but rather cooked over low heat, slowly bringing the shrimp up to temperature to ensure that the shrimp are perfectly tender and not tough, shriveled up or chewy. Chef Deal actually starts with the shrimp in a pan before turning the heat on which I'd never seen before.
Ironically enough, when I decided on a whim to send in an original recipe for the contest, I chose a shrimp dish of my own. My Mom has been making this"Oven BBQ Shrimp" since I was just a little munchkin. Honestly, I lost her recipe so I've recreated one of my own that is a go-to for quick and delicious entertaining. I decided I'd send in a link to my July blog entry featuring a BBQ Shrimp and Cheddar Jalapeno Grits dish that I made for some friends. A few weeks went by and I had almost forgotten about the contest entirely when I received a call at work from Chef Aaron Deal himself informing me that I was the winner!!!
The prize was quite possibly the highlight of my year. I got to spend the day in the kitchen with Chef Deal adapting my recipe to be featured that night on Tristan's menu!!!!! AND I got to invite three guests to join me at the Chef's table for dinner. Let me preface this account of my day with the fact that I have ZERO professional training as a chef and I've NEVER set a foot in a restaurant kitchen. I was kind of a bumbling mess but Chef Deal and the whole team at Tristan were amazingly hospitable and made me feel right at home. They suited me up with my very own chef's coat and I got a tour of the whole kitchen area before we sat down to talk through my recipe and to make a preparation plan for the afternoon.
Now my recipe is quite delicious as far as home cooking goes but it's not exactly 4-diamond restaurant material so I was very interested to get Chef's input as to how we could kick it up a little bit. His first idea was to cook the shrimp sous-vide was was so much fun. The equipment costs over $1000 and it's therefore not a technique that you'd ever get to try at home. We made a game plan, a few other tweaks and then he turned me lose in the kitchen!
I first started with all of my prep (measuring my ingredients, shredding cheese, chopping shallots, garlic, jalapenos, etc). I then got to work on the sauce which was exactly my original recipe (though we used fresh thyme versus dried) and then multiplied it to accommodate more servings. We decided to prepare for 25 servings, 5 large shrimp each- I believe there were about 50 people with dinner reservations for that evening. I was actually mortified watching award winning Chef Deal cleaned all 5 lbs of the shrimp for me as I worked on other preparations. I pleaded with him that the blue collar jobs were way more my speed - I was sure he had more important things to tend to - but nonetheless he insisted on helping! (Humble doesn't really even describe it.) Chef also suggested that we cook the sauce for 15 minutes or so over low heat and then strain to further refine it- removing the tiny pieces of herbs and garlic which is an idea I'll actually use at home next time I make it.
Once the sauce was finished, we put individual portions of the shrimp into plastic bags and ladled the sauce over before vacuum sealing them closed. We cooked the shrimp with the sauce in warm circulating water at 130 degrees for 35 minutes until they were just perfectly cooked through. As the dishes were ordered, the bag could be opened, transferred to a saute pan and finished off with some sherry vinegar (as we did a taste test, it was decided that the sauce needed more acid to cut through the richness of the butter) and fresh herbs before plating the shrimp and sauce over the grits.
My original recipe was actually a grit souffle made with quick cooking grits however we chose to go with traditional stone ground grits for a more elegant presentation. It also allowed us to cook the grits in advance. I was sweating the shallots and garlic with red and green jalapenos fresh from the pastry chef's garden, Chef Deal suggested that we whip up some crispy fried shallots to tie in some crunch and another layer of elegance to the presentation. I sliced 4 large shallots very thinly and then made a flour coating with some Old Bay seasoning, salt and cayenne pepper for some heat.
The grits had been soaking in milk for a couple of hours so they went into a large saucepan with the shallots, garlic, peppers and some chicken stock over low heat until cooked through at which point the cheddar cheese was added along with some additional cream to smooth them out. (Chef shared that another trick for making silky, luxurious grits is to finish them with marscarpone cheese... I will definitely try that!)
Next I even got to peruse the china collection to pick the plate that I wanted the dish to be served in. I went with a cool "sleigh" shaped plate to hold all of the delicious sauce in and around the shrimp and grits.
While it sound fairly straight forward, my fumbling around the enormous kitchen and getting into everyone's way as they prepared the rest of the mouth-watering menu for the evening actually took us right up to 5pm! I went home to grab a shower and then I got to experience the meal from the other side of the line which I have to say was equally as wonderful.
Tristan has the line open to the dining room so that you can see the chefs bustling around, plating, etc. (Chef Deal said that this poses adds a layer of complexity to what you're doing in that you have to maintain an awareness of what you appearance, volume (language), etc. This would definitely throw me for a loop in my kitchen!) The chef's table sits directly in front with a perfect view of the action. I have to say I was absolutely giddy the whole evening, it was great fun to be the guest of honor and to wave to everybody that I'd had the opportunity to meet earlier that day. To open the menu and find my very own recipe featured there was fantastic!! John, Tripp and Luci all ordered my dish which was very sweet of them though I told them that wasn't necessary. Not at all to my surprise, the dish looked and tasted absolutely fantastic! After all I'd left it in great hands. (I had a wonderful snapper, cooked to perfection and served with sauteed spinach and french green lentils in a savory broth.)
I had a group of about 10 great friends that came out to celebrate with me as I basked in the excitement of my day. By the time they ordered entrees around 8:30pm, my dish was almost sold out!!! There were only 5 left which was just perfect so they were able to try the shrimp and grits along with some of the other amazing dishes on the menu. A table nearby actually tried to order my dish after it had sold out and when the server informed them that it was me that prepared it as part of a contest, they told me to "get back there and make some more!" It was great!
All in all I will say that I felt like a kid on Christmas. We enjoyed a great meal, LOTS of amazing wine (Jocelyn Cabernet Savignon from California), and a fun night out with friends at one of the best restaurants in town. However the afternoon in the kitchen with Chef Deal and the staff at Tristan was priceless. They were all so friendly but Chef really went out of his way to make me feel comfortable and that I- in some crazy way- fit in there. I know there are millions of enthusiastic home cooks all over the world that would DIE for the opportunity to play "pretend restaurant chef" for the day and it was more fun that I'd even imagined.
SADLY... Chef Deal is leaving Charleston!!! It was his very last day at Tristan as a matter of fact-can you believe he spent it with me!?? He is actually moving to Chicago to take the Executive Chef position at Custom House restaurant. http://www.customhouse.cc/ Though a big loss for Charleston, it does not surprise me one bit that he's on to bigger and better things. I'll be sure to pay him a visit (though probably just to the dining room next time) some day soon.