A few weeks ago, I stood here in this space and told you a story about being asked to be a part of the first ever Savannah Food and Wine Festival Chef Smack down. “Who me?” I said. “I’m no chef. “ But I nervously accepted anyway. Not only was it an honor to be asked to be part of such a big event, but I hate saying no whenever I am asked to help a cause. Sometimes I have to for any number of reasons, but that is never fun. That said, you want talk about some fun?
What a great, great night for Savannah! 70 people under a tent out back behind Leoci’s Trattoria ready to eat and drink three courses. What a great time!! A great time that, for me, started right about 24 hours before the Smack down even got started. That’s when you found me in my business partner Senea Crystal ‘s kitchen making my first course, Caldo Gallego, a Spanish white bean soup. Why there? Well, because my own kitchen at home was jammed up with my wife, Sheila, making our dessert course. Chocolate Caramel Flan. I wrapped up about 12:30am, she at 2:00am, but two of my three courses were done.
Game day was interesting as well. After a morning walk through, I got going at 2:00pm ahead of the 7:00 event. A handful of us inside the Leoci prep kitchen directly across the street from Roberto’s restaurant. Chop, chop, chop! Stir, stir stir! I was the little engine that could, surrounded by the Leoci team of five or six or more making my competition’s offering. There was Uncle Tony –quintessential Brooklyn guy via South Florida in all of his wisecracking glory-making fresh bread, macerating strawberries and preparing Roberto’s dessert. On the other side of me? Juan. Early in the day making fresh pappardelle for Roberto’s main. Juan tells me his wife is almost home from deployment in Korea.
“She’s serving with the North Korean Army.” Uncle Tony cracks from across the room. Funny guy, he is. I just made sure I kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t add a cup of salt to my soup. Ha!
Me? I’m making seafood broth, chopping, prepping, stirring, keeping it all together in my little one man show. I once heard Darin Sehnert 700 Kitchen Cooking School say that cooking in someone else’s kitchen
is like being “an ox on ice” because you have no clue where anything is. So true. So true. 7:00pm rolls around and the butterflies became pterodactyls in my stomach. I am staring at a room FULL of foodies. People expecting big things from both of us. “What if they don’t like my food?” I say to myself. Only natural, right? I am taking on the man who’s won best chef in this city a handful of times and OUR OWN Iron Chef Competition at the Southern Women’s Show back in February. I’m just hoping not to walk out of there humiliated. Play ball!
First course rolls, then the main, then dessert. Keep in mind that both Roberto and I EACH sent out 63 plates per course. One at a time yes, but that is a ton of food being plated in a relatively small space. Not to mention, about a half marathon’s worth of running food. I work the room where our guests are eating, I see smiles. Good. Very good.
That continued for all three courses. Certainly the more wine that was poured, the more relaxed the crowd got. Some people called me over to compliment me on my dishes, others to criticize. I’m good with all of it, as long as our guests are having a good time. After all, they are foodies right? There will be critique. At one point Roberto and I are walking across the street alone back to the dining area, both of us sweating, laughing and enjoying the moment when he says “We need to start saying no, right?” We both laugh because we also know that is unlikely to happen. Anything to help Savannah. I know I am wired that way and it’s pretty obvious Roberto is as well.
As 10:00pm rolled around it was time to announce a winner. Each guest in the room was given a score card ballot. We weren’t cooking for judges. Everyone who bought a ticket that night was a judge. Talk about pressure! I am standing there thinking about where I am going to put my Silver (2nd place) boxing glove in my office. Then I was given the gold. Are you serious? Well, I might just hang this golden boxing glove out in front of my house right next to my Miami Hurricanes flag –football season is almost here, right?
I was stunned to say the least, speechless. (yes, that does happen). But at the end of the day, everyone in that room was a winner. The people who turned out for a great first-time event. Michael Owens, Jan Gourley and their staff at the Savannah Food and Wine Festival for organizing the event. Equally as important in my book, the group of guys and gals behind the scenes in the Leoci kitchen. Once toe met leather, there weren’t sides. There weren’t competitors. There was one group of people trying to put on a good show for the guests under that tent. It was a beehive in there at times, but it got done, all for one common good. The guests, the festival and the city. Bravo!
If you’d like to see how it all looked? Click here for a GREAT 3:00 video put together by one of the event’s sponsors.
See you on TV (September on WSAV)