Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cobaya Gets Cruxed

At some point fairly late Monday evening, after the last course had been served, somebody asked me how this all came about. I looked at the chef. He looked at me. I shrugged. The truth is, we no longer had any clear recollection how, exactly, we'd gotten to this point.

The chef was Brandon Baltzley, former sludge metal drummer and Chicago cooking wunderkind, mastermind of the Crux itinerant pop-up restaurant / culinary collective, author, and soon-to-be chef and farmer at TMIP, somewhere in the country an hour or so out of Chicago. We were decompressing in the Broken Shaker bar in the Freehand Miami (f/k/a the Indian Creek Hotel), which had just played gracious host to Brandon's nine-plus course dinner for forty Cobaya guinea pigs. It was a dinner that he'd really only started prepping some time around midnight the night before. The fact that it came together at all was still something of a surprise to me. The fact that it turned out so well was nothing short of remarkable.

It was always going to be a bit tricky. Brandon was planning to come in to Miami early Sunday morning, have a sous chef from Chicago join him down here, and shop and prep all day Sunday and Monday with help from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog at the Freehand. Then the sous chef went AWOL and Brandon missed his flight (TSA taking particular interest in a duffel bag full of vacuum-sealed offal and little baggies of white powders - "They're just hydrocolloids!"), and as of mid-day Sunday it looked like there wasn't going to be any dinner at all.

But we would not be so easily sidetracked. After some quick reshuffling, Brandon was on another (non-direct) flight from Pittsburgh (his temporary home base), his mom was on a Greyhound bus down from Jacksonville to come help, Jeremiah had a trip to the seafood market to make, and I had a grocery list to feed a crowd of forty so there would be something to cook when Brandon finally arrived. Jeremiah and Steve Santana busted ass the next day to help with the prep, and Brandon's backup kitchen reinforcements arrived Monday afternoon.

Some people thrive on chaos and stress. And by Monday morning, Brandon had gone from thinking we needed to reschedule, then thinking he wouldn't be able to execute the menu he'd planned, to actually adding on a couple extra snacks on top of it (and supplementing my grocery shopping duties as a result). Somehow, it all happened.[1]

With the benefit of hindsight and sobriety, I now have a better idea of how this thing came about. I'd actually been following Baltzley for some time: his most recent project, Crux, a sort of itinerant restaurant pop-up / co-op, seemed very much in the same spirit of what we're trying to do with Cobaya. Plus, he's got a pretty intriguing backstory, interesting enough to have scored himself a book deal (which clearly gets bonus points for having a blurb that manages to mention Paula Deen and Grant Achatz in the same sentence).

So I sent him a message: "You want to come down to Miami in December and do a dinner?" The response came quickly: "I am definitely game." I reached out to Chef Jeremiah, now the in-house chef at the Freehand, and a long-time Cobaya facilitator, and we were able to line up a kitchen and a dining space at the Broken Shaker, with the Bar Lab boys Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta contributing some cocktail pairings to go along with the dinner.

After 36 frantic hours, here was the end result.

(You can see all my pictures in this "Cobaya Gets Cruxed" flickr set.)

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Dinner with Chef Brad Kilgore

It's not often that my photos draw much attention beyond a small group of food-obsessed Miami locals. But when I posted pictures from a dinner that chef Brad Kilgore put together a few months ago, discerning folks around the country took notice. I think Brandon Baltzley, the chef behind the nomadic Crux "micro-restaurant" traveling roadshow, summed it up when he tweeted: "Who the fuck is @brad_kilgore and why is no one following him?"

In direct answer to that question: Brad Kilgore is a local chef who until recently was working at Azul restaurant on Brickell Key. He was a sous chef under Joel Huff when Azul did our Cobaya dinner last year, and along with chef de cuisine Jacob Anaya, took on added responsibilities when Huff left a couple months later. Before coming to Miami for Azul, Brad had been working in Chicago, including stints at Alinea, L2O, and Boka, then became Executive Sous Chef at Epic. For his complete backstory, read here.

But you can't just walk in and order a dinner like this at Azul, for at least two reasons: (1) we had assembled a small group for a "let me cook for you" kind of night, so what you see here isn't on the regular menu; and (2) Kilgore is no longer at Azul. So why am I posting this now?

Well, the good news is that Brad left Azul in order to partner up with Jeremy and Paola Goldberg of Route 9 in Coral Gables and the recently opened Exit 1 on Key Biscayne. Brad has been putting his menu into place at Exit 1, and while that stunning whole pig you see here isn't on it, there should be plenty of other opportunities to taste Brad's handiwork. For just one, he's doing a dinner with Cigar City Brewery next week on Tuesday, December 18.

So consider the meal described here something of a prototype.

Our dinner started with an amuse bouche modeled after one of my favorite unlikely combinations: vitello tonnato. Brad's version substituted a melting puddle of braised veal breast, topped with a frothy emulsion of egg yolk, tuna and lemon, all dolloped with warm goat butter. This rich bite was a preview of the indulgence to come.

And it came quickly. The primary notes of the first dish - cauliflower and caviar - were a riff on the French Laundry's cauliflower panna cotta with beluga caviar.[1] Kilgore's version started with a puddle of a cold, creamy cauliflower and white chocolate "vichysoisse"[2] Next to that was a generous mound of really fine royal osetra caviar, topped with a quenelle of a darkly caramelized roasted cauliflower gelato, mounted with a few crisped florets to reinforce the notion. This was rich upon rich, but it still found its balance. I loved it.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Cobaya Hinckley at the Hoxton

Unless you're a pretty hardcore genealogist of Miami's culinary family trees, you probably don't recognize the name Matt Hinckley. But if you've been a regular at Michael's Genuine for a while, you would know Matt on sight: for a couple years he was a regular fixture there, working the wood-burning oven as sous chef, then moved over to help open Harry's Pizzeria.

Hinckley is now the head chef at The Hoxton, which is the first of what are slated to be three related venues in the Axis building in Brickell. While the recently opened Hoxton puts together a beach house feel and New England seafood hut menu with a bar and occasional live music, next in line is Box Park, which will be a more food-centric farm-to-table venture. When we asked Hinckley to do a Cobaya dinner with us, the menu he created embodied a few themes which I anticipate will also be a focus of Box Park: whole animal utilization; local products; and "alternative" proteins - alligator, rabbit and duck were well represented at our dinner, along with the omnipresent pig.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Hinckley flickr set).

Each of those themes was emphasized from the very start of our dinner with a series of  passed appetizers served to our group in the Hoxton's upstairs loft area.  Fried alligator was served with a subtly spicy salsa negra; Chef Hinckley assured everyone it "tastes just like dinosaur." A silky, rich duck egg quiche was made even heartier with a lacing of 26-month aged Beemster XO cheese and then topped for good measure with duck confit that had been cured for 45 days. Perhaps best of all were toasts topped with a shmear of a creamy rabbit liver mousse, a dab of tangerine jam and a sprinkle of fresh tarragon: this was exceptional, one of the most memorable bites of the evening.

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