Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bottega Challege 2: The Biltmore Hotel

In nightmares, I’m back in the kitchen. Five cooks on the line. Twenty five thousand dollars worth of twenty-dollar entrees on an average weekend night, at least forty thousand on game nights and holidays. Tickets filling the window, printer endlessly spitting more, ribbons of orders pooled on the floor. Pouring sweat instead of taking bathroom breaks. No drinks unless the servers think of it, which they don’t until we curse ourselves hoarse. No end except the three a.m. close, the hour or two of clean up, the gathering at an all-night diner or bar because caffeine (and other substances, depending on the chef) make sleep impossible. Four jobs and more than twelve years ago, but I can be right back there when I close my eyes. If hell is waiting for me when I die, it’s the broiler station in the busiest Bennigan’s in the country.

Part of me misses it.

I work at a desk know. If you have a similar job, you know the work never really ends. In the kitchen, every night we survived a battle. We kept the food coming without losing our minds. With the kitchen restocked and spotless, we left everything we had on the line and went to after-hours, watching the sunrise with the satisfaction of a job well done.

I learned the most important thing about cooking: fearlessness.

Cooking for a crowd from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favoritta is a reminder that cooking for a crowd offers gratification that cooking for an intimate dinner party doesn’t.

Books & Books has some clout in the community. More specifically, our amazing Marketing and Events Coordinator Cristina Nosti has vital connections. I approached her with Algonquin’s Bottega Challenge just after she’d met with the Biltmore Hotel about their newly built Culinary Academy. Cristina marks it up to timing; I credit her ability to look beyond what most of us see and into the possibilities. Either way, I’m back in a professional kitchen.

Besides me, the cooks are Jeffrey Slone, Becky Quiroga, Cristina Nosti, and Andi Rome. Linda Carver is making drinks and taking pictures. The Biltmore Hotel’s Chef Rolando “Roly” Cruz-Taura supervises the action. Mostly, he answers a lot of “where’s the large mixing bowl” questions and makes sure we don’t burn ourselves on the ovens.

We welcome our friends, family, and fellow Books & Books employees with the bitters and Campari of a Dry Vodka Negroni (pg 13), a lusty kick right to the back of the tongue.

The food comes in waves. The hearty, yet light simmer of the Spring Minestrone (pg 55), a perfect blend of new potato, button mushroom, zucchini, peas, asparagus, and fava beans, flavored with onion, leek, garlic, parsley, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The creamy tang of crumbled feta melted into fresh marinara, served with oven-fresh focaccia (Baked Feta with Focaccia, pg 37). Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Goat Cheese (pg 32), the combination of goat cheese, basil, pine nuts, and golden raisins wrapped in roasted bell peppers and dusted with cayenne pepper might sound odd, but they’re nothing short of a revelatory taste explosion.

We’ve overwhelmed our guests’ senses with three powerful appetizers, any one of which would be hard to forget. Taken together, our guests are reeling, smiling, happy. It’s time for the main courses, Puttanesca with Shrimp and Linguine (pg 102) and Chicken Saltimbocca (pg 155) with mashed potatoes. The pescetarians in the crowd dive into the pasta, the racy anchovy, garlic, red chile, olives, and capers cooled by white wine. The savory Saltimbocca – bone-in chicken layered with sage, mozzarella, and prosciutto di Parma, flavored with shallots, lemon, and vermouth – is as lovely to look at as it is to eat.

There’s no real end to a meal so grand. It lives on in eyes rolled upward, lips pressed into a murmur of pleasure, lids closed to better remember every scent and flavor. But there was a literal end, Starbucks Italian Roast coffee, Biscotti (pg 233) with Panna Cotta (pg 215) in champagne glasses, and the Aurora Tart (pg 223). Caramel, bittersweet chocolate, and pecan, the Aurora Tart is life-altering, proof there is a God and she loves anyone with taste buds and a spring-form pan.

I can’t recommend the recipes in Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita highly enough. I can’t praise the staff of the Biltmore Hotel or the facilities of their Culinary Academy more than they deserve. I have to thank Craig Poplears and the good folks at Algonquin for the excuse to gather folks to the table. Thanks to all our guests for bringing your appetites. And to my fellow chefs, what can I say? Sharing the kitchens at the Biltmore might not have been Heaven, but it was right around the corner.

Rumor has it we’re going back to cook recipes from Thomas Keller's upcoming Ad Hoc At Home.

It’s an exclusive guest list, but bribes are welcome.


  1. You are absolutely right about the Aurora Tart; I love your description.

  2. Looks impressive. Its there no end to your talent, you swine!

    regards...Al. lol