Kudos to 1808 Grille chef Charles Phillips — who followed up cooking dinner at the James Beard House in New York on Wednesday with cooking and hosting the Savor Nashville Celebrity Chef Dinner on Saturday. And congratulations to chef Kevin Ramquist of F. Scott's, who won the Savor Nashville Chef Challenge on Sunday. (More on that later.)
Saturday night's dinner at the tony Hutton Hotel kicked off with a cocktail hour featuring Cultivate Wines, which were also served along with the courses of the dinner. There were some bargains to be had at the silent auction table, since most attendees were more interested in socializing than bidding.
Once we were seated, Chef Phillips kicked off the proceedings with a nice small plate of a perfectly fried quail egg, carnitas and some really flavorful gigante beans. Phillips barely had time to rest between the Savor dinner and cooking at the James Beard House, so you know he's on top of his game.
For the second and third courses, chef Bruce Moffett of Barrington's in Charlotte, N.C., took control of the kitchen. Chef Moffett told me that since his restaurant seats only 40 people, he'd never served a ballroom full of people before. The largest number of plates he'd previously made at one time was 10. Despite his inexperience in a big kitchen, his food came to the table beautifully composed and at a perfect temperature. His dish of English pea soup with ham and cheese croutons and smoked olive oil was a bowl that even pea soup haters could love. (I only made one Exorcist joke to my table-mates who claimed they didn't want to try it.) The olive oil was smoked with pine cones to give it a really nice evergreen note.
Moffett's next dish of roasted halibut with potato pave served with wilted greens, a green garlic soubise and caramelized shallot vinaigrette was even more anticipated by the table and did not disappoint. While we wish we'd had a botanist on hand to identify which greens that were so flavorful, we were still blissful in our ignorance.
Knowing that I had the Savor Nashville Chefs Challenge to judge the next morning, I had only a small bite of dessert, which was peanut butter and jelly in phyllo strawberry compote, milk chocolate ice cream and salty peanuts. Although it was total overkill at this point in the gluttonous evening, the dessert was quite nice. We're talking about wants, not needs. ...
The entertainment for the evening was provided by Grammy Award-winning songwriters Tim Nichols and Marv Green who kept the crowd amused between courses. Emcee Steve Gill, who I have to admit I like more and more every time I meet him, did a great job keeping the flow of the event going and introducing the Savor Award which was awarded to Mario Ferrari for his career as a Nashville restaurateur. (Ferrari's award was accepted by a representative on his behalf; we hear the legendary restaurant figure, who retired a few years ago, is ailing.)
The last bit of entertainment for the evening actually took place in the parking garage which had been stocked with Rolls Royces, Maseratis and Bentleys to promote a new auto dealer in town. I may drive an old Camry, but at least for one night I could eat like somebody that owns one of those gorgeous cars.
The next day was the Savor Nashville Chefs Challenge, held at the Union Station Hotel. Chefs Moffett and Boyce served as judges, joined by myself, Eat. Drink. Smile. food blogger Beth Sachan and Mike Longe, product manager of Freestanding Cooking for North America for Electrolux. Ten chefs competed to cook a small plate utilizing at least one of three Tennessee ingredients: Goo Goo Clusters, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey liqueur and Benton's Bacon.
The tables were manned (and womaned) by Jeremy Barlow of Tayst and Sloco; Tom Cook of Prime 108; Brandon Frohne of Rutland Place Catering and Nashville Urban Gardeners; Giovanni Giosa of Porta Via Italian Kitchen; Deb Paquette of the upcoming Etch; Kevin Ramquist of F. Scott’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar; Robert Spinelli of Perl Catering; Keith West of Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant; Toby Willis of Nashville City Club; and Robbie Wilson of Kayne Prime, Tavern, Whiskey Kitchen and Virago. Surprisingly, despite the prevailing bacon worship that seems to pervade popular culture, the chefs used a nice variety of the products through their dishes, and there wasn't a real clunker in the lot.
Among my personal favorites was Barlow's Goo Goo Cannoli, which he made by melting the chocolate out of the Goo Goos and creating a sheet of chocolate that he froze around a pipe into a tube shape. The tube was filled with a savory Benton's Bacon mousse and then topped with a Ginger Jack Honey Glaze and served over some bacon/peanut "dirt" from the nuts recovered from melting the Goo Goos. That crazy Jeremy, always reducing, reusing and recycling.
Chef Paquette presented what was probably the most creative dish of the day with a Moroccan Goo Goo "Hot Dog" dressed with strawberry ketchup and a sweet ginger mustard. The dish was absolutely precious to look at, and if the exotic flavors had been a little more pronounced and there was a little more crunch to the filling, I think it would have been a winner.
Chef Brandon Frohne of Rutland Place Catering has been tweeting and blogging a lot lately about the new line of rustic dinnerware that he is creating. It certainly was attractive as the palette for his hay-smoked porchetta wrapped in Benton's Bacon and served alongside a deviled egg. He also served the judges a liquid nitrogen Coke float that was assembled tableside. Finally, he sprayed us with a mister of whiskey perfume. Good thing I didn't get pulled over on the way home. ... While the flavors were there and the presentation was dramatic, the whole dish was difficult to eat with a plastic fork, and the chefs expressed that they wished Chef Frohne had stopped halfway through the composition as it was a little over the top, and the molecular gastronomy approach didn't really fit with the rustic presentation of pork and egg on a slab of barn wood.
I expect good things from this chef in the future, and he certainly is a crowd favorite, having won the "Fan's Choice" award two years in a row at Savor Nashville. Somebody needs to hire this young man and put him in their kitchen to give him some guidance as he discovers his direction.
In the end, the winning dish was created by Chef Kevin Ramquist of F. Scott's. A perfectly cooked small medallion of brisket was wrapped in a thin slice of bacon and topped with a bbq sauce made with Goo Goo Clusters to add sweet and salt to it. A side dish of a Goo Goo Biscotti and a drink combining Jack Daniel's Honey and Bongo Java coffee turned the small flavorful bite of brisket into a brunch that I wish I could have super-sized into a full meal!
Chef Barlow took second place, and Chef Cook won the bronze with a clever Benton's Bacon Crunchy Lobster Roll and Jack Daniel's Honey Miso Sea Bass duo. I'm lucky enough to get to judge a lot of these culinary contests, and usually there's at least one really bad idea in the group or something that just doesn't develop any taste at all. But this group of competitors really brought it, especially for a Sunday morning.
As a side note, I wonder why more guys don't attend this event. The ratio of really good-looking women who love to eat to any sort of male at all was about 10 to 1. If you like those odds, don't miss out next year.