Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chef Robert Bleifer gets "Chopped"

By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Former contestants of Chopped can rest assured that they were granted a little karmic revenge when the Food Network’s Executive Chef, Robert Bleifer, was put to the test at an ICC demo last week. The tables were turned on Chef Bleifer, who is one of the people responsible for putting together the dreaded combinations for the show’s mystery baskets, when he was forced to confront three mystery baskets of his own. On Chopped, the mystery baskets hold a selection of ingredients from which contestants must create a dish. Essentially, they hold the contestants' fate in the competition.
These were not easy baskets either. Basket number one had a Japanese theme with Japanese eggplants, peppitas, yakult yogurt drink, and shiso leaves. Basket number two included octopus, cocoa nibs, piquillo peppers, and seaweed wrapped rice puffs. Finally, for dessert Chef Bleifer was given mango, dried chilies, sweet rice flour, and Pocky sticks. He had a total of 90 minutes to create three dishes and could also draw basic ingredients from a pantry of selected items. I think we can all agree that no punches were pulled just because the Chef is an alumnus.

While Chef Bleifer mulled over what the heck he was going to do with the ingredients, he revealed secrets from behind the scenes of the Food Network kitchens. He certainly has access to all the dirt as he oversees the kitchens of fifteen shows at the channel including Iron Chef, Next Iron Chef, Food Network Challenge, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and of course, Chopped, among many others. Here’s a little dish from the Iron Chef kitchens: Despite the fact that the chefs are given a $500 allotment they can use to request items for their pantry, certain chefs have occasionally tried to sneak in gourmet ingredients that have exceed their budget. (Sorry, not going to tell you who.) Another fun fact is that the day before an Iron Chef season begins, the test kitchen staff has a test run in Kitchen Stadium. The ingredients the teams are given are pretty goofy, but the competition is deadly serious, and it’s always everyone’s favorite day at work.

As far as coming up with the mystery baskets, it’s not as easy as you might think. A lot of factors go into the process and creating new combinations gets more difficult with every season because the ingredients can’t be repeated. They also don’t want the combinations to be too impossibly difficult, so particular care is taken to make sure that there are at least two ‘outs’ or possibilities for each basket. At the same time, things would get boring if every contestant were to come back with the same dish, so they try to include a variety of colors and textures in each basket. Ideas initially come from the entire kitchen staff, but slowly they get whittled down by smaller and smaller committees, until ultimately the final decisions are made by Chef Bleifer and his partner. Of course the producers and the ad department occasionally get a say as well.

In his role at Executive Chef, Chef Bleifer oversees food production for fifteen shows, as well as Food Network events. He is also involved in coordinating production teams, photographers, and food stylists. His background made him uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities that eventually led him to his current position. Prior to attending FCI, he had experience as a photographer. Afterward, he spent time working at Park Avenue Cafe. Eventually an opportunity presented itself to freelance at the then fledgling Food Network. He took the work never thinking or intending that it would lead to a long-term career; however that is exactly what happened. And it would appear that he learned a thing or two from the hosts and chefs on his shows about stage presence, because Chef Bleifer kept smiling and chatting even when it seemed that he’d be stumped by the mystery baskets he had to work with.

So what did he do with all of those crazy ingredients? For his first dish, he borrowed a technique picked up from Chef Michael Psilakis to prepare the octopus. He first seared the octopus on the grill, then put the whole thing in a Dutch oven at 325° F for 55 min to cook in its own juices. After he pulled it out of the oven, he seared the octopus on the grill again to bring char back. He served the octopus with a sauce inspired by romesco and mole, made with pequillo peppers, cocoa nibs, a bit of the ancho chilies from the dessert basket, and seaweed wrapped rice puffs, all processed together in a vita prep.

Figuring out what to create for the second course wasn’t so easy. For this one he cooked down the Japanese eggplant, combined with a yakult yogurt drink reduction with some onions, sake, and the dried shitake mushrooms which he pulverized into a powder. It did not look appetizing at this point. He processed this through the vita prep as well to create a pureed soup, which he garnished with the peppitas and shiso leaves. I think the whole audience and Chef Bleifer doubted this one would come together, but he pulled it together in the end.
For dessert, Chef Bleifer used the sticky rice powder to create basic mochi casings that he stuffed with two different fillings. The first had a combination of mango, sake, and chilli. The second had chocolate, pulverized Pocky sticks, and cream.
But how did the food taste? Any competition needs judges and sitting on this panel were—Melissa Salt, Chef/Owner of Saltbar; Ed McFarland, Chef/Owner of Ed's Lobster Bar and Caravelli's; and Chef André Soltner, Dean of Classic Studies at FCI. (By the way, both Chef Salt and Chef McFarland are FCI grads.) Unfortunately, the panel was not so keen on the dessert course. Chef Soltner offered humble apologies, but said the mochi was not so good as the panel found the mochi to be a little bit gummy. However, the first two courses got rounds of shocked praise. Chef Soltner said the octopus was “Surprisingly Good!” I got the chance to try the octopus and it was indeed very tasty. Given what Chef Bleifer was given to work with, I think we can count this as a culinary triumph.

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Friday, September 23, 2011

FCI Dinner at BonChon

By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Recently, a group of FCI students headed to BonChon for a Korean fried chicken feast. It was the perfect excuse to kick back, relax, and gab away for a couple of hours with fellow students and friends.

The chicken did take a while to come out, but apparently this is because every chicken is made to order. No worries though. Since we all headed over right after day classes let out, happy hour was still in full swing. It was a hot summer day out, so most of us indulged in a pint to refresh ourselves and prime us for the meal ahead.

We also ordered a slate of sides and appetizers to munch on while we waited. The tteokbokki, a large plate of rice and fish cakes in a hot sauce, was probably my favorite side. The sauce had kick, but not an overwhelming amount, and the different elements tossed in the sauce along with noodles and sesame seeds provided a wonderful variety of textures in one dish. The radish side was a hit with everyone at the table, and it and the seaweed salad were refreshing counters to the rich flavors of the chicken that were soon to arrive.

The sides were pretty good, but the chicken was definitely the main event and the reason to head in. The skin is super crispy and crackles as you bite into it, and the meat is moist and juicy. Despite being double-fried (per info on their website) the chicken really does not taste greasy and is covered with just enough sauce to provide a pop of flavor as you bite into to your wing or drumstick. You get your choice of lightly sweet soy garlic or hot sauce to be glazed on your chicken. Both are very tasty, but beware that the hot sauce is not for the faint of heart – or mouth. I’ll admit that a few tears welled up when I first bit into a spicy drum stick. I recommend having radish, seaweed salad, water, and beer all on hand when diving into the spicy chicken.

The chicken plates range from six pieces to twenty, but don’t hesitate to order more than you plan to have in the restaurant. It reheats beautifully and crisps right back up in an oven or toaster oven for a perfect late night snack.

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Culinary Colombia

By Emma DeSantis

As I touched down in Colombia, the waves of heart-pounding excitement came upon me. I was looking forward to the wedding that brought me to this foreign land, yes, but it was more the prospect of another opportunity for culinary exploration that had me on the edge of my cattle-class seat.

The fresh food market I visited in Bogota will make any foodie feel like a kid in a candy store. The array of different fruits, vegetables and spices are mind-blowing and it’s easy to lose yourself in a world where senses are heightened on every level.

A fruit I came to love within my brief yet busy visit to Colombia was guanabana. This fruit is like a creamy combination of various tropical fruit flavors, all packed into one rather precariously spiky looking green shell. This fruit would be the perfect complement to the vanilla ice cream we are going to make in Level 2 of the Classic Culinary Arts program. There are many fabulous fruits native to, or available in Colombia. These include lulo, feijoas (a childhood favorite of mine), and pitahaya. Something that they love to do with all of these fruits is transform them into deliciously decadent fruit smoothies… and I tried my fair share of them.

Just across the lot from the fruit and vegetable market was a small ocean market. The first thing I noticed was how much they love to preserve food using the vacuum sealing method, something I also saw a lot of at the local supermarket. Our class learned about food preservation in Level 1. Vacuum sealing involves drawing out oxygen in the package so that food stays fresh, without altering the texture or flavor like other methods of preservation might. They are onto something.

Then I saw the lobsters and it brought me right back to shellfish lesson. Despite the fact that the recipes in this lesson have become some of my favorites, the method of killing the lobster still disturbs me to this day. Although I had never killed a lobster, I had no qualms about getting to class and throwing this tasty crustacean into a pot of boiling water. Hey, I could have even quite happily stabbed a knife through its googly-eyed head. However, this was not to be.

It turns out that a traditional French technique for killing lobsters is to numb them in ice-water for 20 minutes and twist off its tail-end at the abdomen. Since the tail end is essentially all muscle for swimming, the lobster remained quite alive as we were instructed to tear off its squirming legs until it finally died properly when we picked out its brains. I somehow managed to get through, but there were moments when I just wasn’t sure. Okay, to be fair, lobsters don’t have much of a nervous system, but I still felt like a sadist. The lobster did not die in vain—the end result was delicious.

Back to the foods of Colombia. A very traditional soup in Colombia is ajiaco. This is a bound soup (something I learned in soup lesson, as the broth is bound by the starch in the potato). This rich and creamy textured soup is served with cilantro, chicken usually on the bone, rice, capers, avocado, corn, and heavy cream. That’s what I call a hearty meal! There is nothing about any of those ingredients that I don’t love and they work wonderfully together.

Surprisingly to me, Persian food is very popular in Colombia. Over the years, many Persian people had migrated to the coast of Colombia and as a result it has become a large part of their cuisine. At a family member's home we were served hummus, fried kebbeh, and grape leaves to name a few.

From rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves to fish wrapped in paper. One of my favorite recipes I have made in class is fish en papillote. This dish includes cutting out a heart shaped piece of parchment paper, putting tomato fondue and mushroom duxelles on one side and laying the fresh fish on top. You then top the fish with the a’langlaised julienned vegetables (celery, carrot, and leeks), add a sprig of thyme and a splash of white wine, before sealing the parchment paper together. It then goes in the oven and expands into a glorious encasement of steam, that once punctured releases the full aroma of what’s inside. Are you salivating yet?

One of the fish dishes I had in Bogata was Bagre river fish with a corn salsa. Although not traditional, I would like to experiment and try making fish en papillote with the corn salsa in place of the tomato fondue, as I think it would work amazingly as the sweet aspect of the dish.
Amongst the other delicious and traditional foods I had much of during my stay in Colombia was coconut rice, beef with a prune-based gravy, the vegetable yucca (yucca pont-neuf anyone?), and of course lots of plantain.

As I headed towards the airport, I finally understood the expression when people say they are in a “food coma”. Through the haze of my food coma, I can describe the way I feel about this trip in one word—inspired.

Emma is originally from New Zealand and is a Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She is inspired by cuisines of different cultures and loves to cook for anyone willing to eat her food.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The King of Chocolate Demos Dough

By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
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Imagine a bakery in the early morning hours. A baker goes to work rolling out dough. The smell of the raw dough begins to waft. As the dough is put in the oven, the aroma fills the room. It is quiet and calm and the smells are intoxicating.

Renowned chocolatier and Dean of Pastry Arts at The ICC, Jacques Torres, painted this picture of his favorite time of day in the bakeries he worked his way up in. The work can often be repetitive, but somewhere in there is also beauty. It was clear from the enthusiasm with which he spoke about the process of making fermented dough for croissants, pain au chocolat, and countless other treats that he has a deep respect for the process of creating them. It almost made me want to get up at 4:00 a.m. to make croissants too . . . almost.
 Years of repetition making countless batches of croissants forges an easy intimacy between chef and ingredients, and Chef Torres’ insight and expertise is inspiring. Chef Torres discussed that while doughs really all have the same basic ingredients—salt, fat, sugar, liquid, and maybe yeast—within those limits there is still room for the baker to play. Change the proportions of the ingredients a few grams one way or the other and you tweak the texture. If you mix your flour, you can create just the right amount of gluten to suit your tastes. Understand how doughs react under different weather conditions and you can adjust your methods. Within these nuances is the genius.

On the other hand, Chef Torres said, with dough as fickle as croissant dough, there are countless factors on which you blame a failed batch. To prevent such failures, however, Chef Torres did share a few of his secrets:
  • For croissant dough, he prefers to use flour with high gluten content, so he likes to use bread flour, which might be cut with a little cake flour.
  • If you plan to let your dough rest, use a little more sugar as it will develop into gas, creating a better fermentation. If you don’t have time to let it rest, use less sugar.
  • A long, slow fermentation will create a more intense flavor.
  • Drop ingredients individually into separate areas of the bowl to make it easier to double-check that everything has been properly added.
  • Periodically check digital scales for accuracy. A quick way to do this is to put a one-pound package of butter on the scale and check that the reading matches.
  • Save scraps of leftover dough, they will act as a starter to help develop flavor in the new dough. Scraps can be stored in the freezer and thawed in the fridge the day before you intend to use them.

While Chef Torres’ expertise was evident, his ebullient personality and clear love of the subject matter was infectious. He entertained the audience with stories from his career and had the audience laughing throughout. There was a generally good vibe in the room during the entire lecture which was only augmented by a brief visit from chefs Jacques Pépin and Andre Soltner. The excitement in the room at getting to see these three great chefs together was palpable.

The cherry to top off this wonderful demo was the slew of delicious samples those of us lucky enough to be in the audience got to try. The warm croissant was beautifully flaky and had the perfect amount of chew, the pain au chocolat was oozing with chocolate, and as a final treat Chef Torres also made large, puffy bomboloni tossed in sugar and filled with pastry cream. My only regret is that I ate mine too quickly!

After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog,

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Letters to Chef

by Jax Hubbard

Dear Chef Scott,

You’ll be surprised to know that since you left The Big City to teach at The French Culinary Institute's campus in California, we have been surviving without you. This is not to say that we are happy about it, nor had we intended on having any sort of fun or semblance of success while you’ve been away. But we did. So this is not necessarily a love letter.

It behooves you to know that our timing has improved. Only once have we cooked into family meal. Or twice. Okay, so maybe just three times. I’ve stopped keeping track. Don’t give me that look.

Our knife skills have become more sophisticated, accurate, and just plain pretty. We have managed to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. Though I did inadvertently mix cleaned onion trimmings with raw pork bits in my scrap bowl, a no-no that Chef did not fail to notice.

We have continued to learn from–and about–each other and grow as a class. Examples include Angelo’s ability to simply glance at his mise en place and command it to prep itself (rightly noted by Alex, who has an unwavering love for Subway’s six-foot sandwiches); Meg’s commitment to positivity, humor, and colorful kitchen tools; Aiyana’s shameless interest in ServSafe; Ell’s composure in the face of injury (and subsequent stitches, of which there were three); and Dannie’s generosity, as evidenced by her donations of spare produce and parchment paper halves to needy teams.

If you still care to know, we recently endured the demands of the Level One practical and comprehensive exam. On the fifth floor, we were corralled into an unfamiliar kitchen and forced to execute perfection in an unruly time constraint. While the beginning of the practical was nothing short of torture, the anxiety gradually thinned. My hands, which seemed riddled with tremors during the first 20 minutes of the practical, became steady somewhere in the beginning of Part Three. Maybe, though I hesitate to use the word, we eventually managed to have a little fun.

So while you’re teaching in California, remember that your kids are still here in New York, mounting nappant sauces with beurre, trussing chickens to keep their plump shapes, and watching for the first wisp of smoke in the pan before searing. Sure, we continue to slice into our fingertips while we ciseler and singe our hands on hot pot handles, but I guess you could say we’re learning by doing. And doing. And re-doing. I hope that when you return to our little family you’ll be as proud of our progress as we are.

Till then,
Jax & Co.

Jax Hubbard is a registered dietitian, freelance food writer, and Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She aspires to eat well, cook without inhibition, and live to write about it.