A Chef of the Year tale made for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
When 2012 Cooking for Solutions Chef of the Year Michel Nischan got his first ever chef job (in 1981), he went looking for local farms like his late grandfather’s in the surrounding area.
Only outside Milwaukee, Wis., he quickly discovered nothing but fields of corn and wheat. He told one younger couple who answered the door, “I’m interested in eggplant, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers!”
They shook their heads. “We used to grow stuff like that,” they said, “but there was no money.”
Then a realization fell like an organic potato from the sky.
“It hit me in the head,” Nischan says. “I thought, ‘The way of life I dug as a kid is gone.’”
More than 30 years later, I conducted a search, leafing through the colorful 32-page Cooking for Solutions 2012 manifest with similar interests – onions and cucumbers, surely, plus a penchant for sardines and baramundi. And I came to a realization of my own.
That way of life – in which Nischan’s mom felt they should be growing and raising food themselves or knowing and trusting those who did – is back in a beautiful way. Or at least it’s cultivated in enough places to inspire scores of restaurants like Nischan’s legendary Westport, Conn., Dressing Room to spotlight local farms, and honor their ingredients with items like the “Use a Spoon” chopped salad with fresh strawberries, spring peas, baby carrots, asparagus, watermelon radish, goat cheese, toasted almonds, sea island peas, frisee and cherry vinaigrette.
Then came another realization: There is way too much CFS inspiration happening May 18-20 to get it all on your spoon.
Cindy Pawlcyn, Alton Brown, Michael Chiarello, Rick Bayless and Alexandra Guarnaschelli (fresh from Chopped All Stars) all give hour-long demos ($45-$60 includes Aquarium admission). The Friday gala takes those lucky enough to grip a ticket ($125-$155) in their little crab claws through 75 tasting stations helmed by regional and national names like Charles Phan (Slanted Door) and Ted Walter (Passionfish), plus tastes of sustainable wines by the dozens.
The expanding slate of food-and-wine adventures (touring Big Sur or Santa Lucia Highlands with celeb chefs and snacks) and the salon series (honing in on things like dressing fish and making gnocchi with chefs in an intimate setting) are almost sold out, but there are tickets left for Saturday’s Iron Chef-esque Sustainable Seafood Challenge ($150 for members), and there’s always the sweep of activities included with Aquarium admission. Last year, the farmers market al fresco on the awesome Aquarium decks, hosted by Whole Foods, was surprisingly vibrant and stuffed with free samples – the treats worth looking for included strawberry pink peppercorn ice cream lollipops from Penny Ice Creamery.
Back to Nischan: The young couple at the grain farm in Wisconsin did have one bit of good news: “There’s an asparagus patch that’s taken off to side of the road down the way a bit. Take all you want. We’re glad you’re interested.”
The asparagus was the only “farm-to-table” find for chef that year, but he kept looking – and changed both a foodshed and a community of tastemakers as he did (learn more in the Weekly’s CFS preview coverage in the May 17 issue).
Cooking for Solutions, even as it sells out its growing portfolio of events, tastings, lectures and adventures, remains the exception rather than the rule, a patch of asparagus on the side of the road to a Taco Bell drive-through serving mystery meat in a Doritos shell.
Hopefully that will change, just like Nischan’s food world. But only if each of us keeps looking.
•The Independent Marketplace is back 4-9pm tonight (Thursday, May 3). Check the blog for a list of vendors and a video.
• Los dos best ideas for Cinco De Mayo: Baja and Lopez. Baja Cantina (625-2252) has flamenco, salsa and funk bands noon-11pm, complimentary shuttles by way of Facebook and Hornitos girls ($15 cover); Lopez Restaurante y Cantina (324-4260) does all-day food and drink specials and a DJ May 5 and then pours a tequila education night 6-9pm Monday, May 7, with reps offering Cazadores, T1, Don Elias and Avion plus appetizers ($15 in advance).
•Cantinetta Luca’s (625-6500) spring lamb dinner Thursday, May 10, means chef Jason Balestrieri working artisan lamb into four wine-paired courses for $65. Yum.
•If a cabbie’s ever saved your rump roast, give him a call to flag Friday, May 4, as Taxi Appreciation at Montrio Bistro in Monterey (648-8880). From 4-10pm all cabs have to do is pull up and honk for free dinner.
• Pica Fresh Mex (975-5219) is open on Main Street in Salinas where Habanero once stood. Early reports of homemade refried beans and guac and non-greasy, straightforward below-the-border fare seem promising.
•Two pop-up powers unite 6pm Tuesday, May 15, at Happy Girl Kitchen to benefit MEarth: Farm-fresh hero Jacob Pilarski is back from Manresa to whip up an epic meal featuring MEarth’s own produce, with kids from the school garden helping in the kitchen ($100 includes $45 donation, 373-GIRL).
•Coaxed a sneak peek at the list of food truck grub coming for May 12’s Monterey Street Food Festival at the Fairgrounds (no cover) from the organizers: They include the O Mi Ninja’s banh mi, Seoul on Wheels’ bibimbap, Shack Mobile’s lobster rolls and Twisted Chill’s soda floats. More on the blog (www.mcweekly.com/edible).
•Like the sign with pictures of a car and a bike says: “This one runs on money and makes you fat. This one runs on fat and saves you money.” Monterey County Bike Week (775-0903) is May 7-15.