This January, twenty Central Coast chefs answered the call to dazzle us with their prowess in the kitchen. The one ingredient required for consideration to be Ultimate Chef 2010? Wine.
At first glance, it may seem like a no-brainer to include in any dish, especially given the quality of wines at our fingertips. But we quickly discovered that this ingredient presents plenty of challenges to the aspiring Ultimate Chef, as the nuances of a carefully-selected wine are often lost in the heat of cooking. Here, we exhibit our top five contenders and what set them apart in their approach to incorporating this tricky ingredient into every dish.
Succulent. Sumptuous. Lip-smacking delicious. When it comes to the talents of our local chefs, it’s a tough job describing how good we’ve got it here on the Central Coast. But somebody’s got to do it.
• Chris Kobayashi
Flawless. No one who has ever tasted Chris Kobayashi’s work will be surprised to see it described so superlatively. By virtue of his aplomb, technical mastery, and bold, brilliant sense of flavor, this young chef at the heart of Artisan Restaurant in Paso Robles proves that he is – indisputably – the 2010 Ultimate Chef.
Though the judges were wowed by the pace and precision of Kobayashi’s entire menu, the Bastardo braised Kobe beef tongue with black trumpet mushrooms and asparagus was a particular highlight. “It was perfectly edited down to nothing more than it needed to be,” said one judge of the rustically elegant stack of thinly sliced tongue, mushrooms, and bright asparagus stalks. Another marveled that Kobayshi would boldly select a white wine to braise beef tongue in – and that it would be the perfect pairing.
“Chris is all about showcasing ingredients without playing too much with them,” says his business partner and brother, Michael Kobayashi. “And he never cuts corners. He puts a quiet, unshakeable confidence into what he prepares and people taste that right away.”
• Pandee Pearson
Chef Pandee Pearson is an artist of the highest order, not only for her acute sense of aesthetics and flavor, but for her economy and practicality. Creating dishes that made use of wine bi-products like vine canes, lees (the residue of spent yeast cells) and verjus (the tart juice expelled from unripe grapes) elevated Pearson’s craftsmanship from the daring to the divine.
“In my cooking, I like to look for alternative ways to use the whole product,” says the executive chef of Adelina’s Bistro in Nipomo. “Back in the old country, everyone used every part of an ingredient – they threw nothing away. Incorporating other parts adds a different dimension to standard cooking methods and offers an extra way to build flavors.”
For our judges, the obvious favorite on Pearson’s menu was the vine-smoked duck breast pain perdue: a rich layering of orange-blackberry White Zinfandel gelée, duck breast smoked in vine canes, and toasted brioche. “I love that she felt confident enough to use White Zin!” said one judge, while another gushed, “So imaginative, so layered in flavors.”
• Julie Simon
If we on the Central Coast know what’s good for us, we’ll cling to Julie Simon and her knack for culinary adventurousness before she’s whisked away to bright lights and big cities. Seriously, she’s that good.
This young, French-born chef for Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles has burst onto the restaurant scene with panache, creativity, and what one judge described as “wild abandon.” Her standout dish, nicknamed “Bacon and Eggs, Coffee and Cigarettes,” matched fresh pork belly braised in tobacco-infused Wild Coyote Vermentino with a poached egg drizzled in coffee sabayon. “We had already been braising pork belly at the restaurant, and I like to put eggs in everything,” she says, describing her process for developing the dish. “Then someone mentioned that coffee and cigarettes are part of a balanced breakfast! So I thought about how to incorporate tobacco and coffee, and this was the result.”
When asked about her style, Simon is clear. “I’m not into anything that involves syringes or sodium chloride, you know? I just like to keep it healthy, fresh, and simple.”
• Justin West
Chef Justin West of Julienne in Santa Barbara has just the sort of brazen confidence that separates the good from the madly successful. His palpable focus, refined flavors and bustling restaurant are proof that this guy knows his stuff.
Of all the Ultimate Chef contestants, West was the only to showcase the wines of a single producer. “I focused on Palmina Wines because they’re so food-friendly and well-balanced. None are over-the-top in any one direction.” Especially impressive to the judges was a quintet of house-made charcuterie bites interwoven with Palmina’s “Subida” Tocai-Friulano. One judge applauded the dish’s “spectacular range of flavors and textures,” while another noted its “delicate balance and perfume.”
“Charcuterie is something we’ve been doing for a while,” says West. “We frequently purchase whole animals, which goes hand-in-hand with our restaurant’s commitment to sustainability – using the animal from head to toe. The competition presented a great opportunity to use wine in a lot of different applications, including this. By getting the wine onto the plate five times, it really became the star of the show.”
• Joel Huff
Creativity is one thing. Fantastical virtuosity is another, and that’s exactly what Joel Huff of the Biltmore’s restaurant, Tydes, possesses in spades. This surfer-cum-chef has spent the past 10 years cooking in some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens, in the process developing a passion for the art and science of molecular gastronomy. “The techniques I use, I’ve learned throughout my career, but the ideas come organically. I just have strange ideas.”
His ideas might be strange, but no one is complaining. As part of his first course, Huff presented a “sphereified” bubble of sangria on a spoon, a frozen foam of peach puree and sparkling wine, and a single grape dipped in liquid nitrogen and foie gras. But the dish that inspired pure awe in our judges, called “Drunken Rice, Forest Floor,” entailed a bowl of traditional red wine risotto surrounded by nettles, oak wood, leaves, mushrooms, and hot stones, which billowed steam under a stream of water. The aromas and flavors of the forest elicited some of the judges’ highest praise, calling Huff “a true talent” and “one to watch.”