Thursday, November 15, 2007

Behind the Scenes: Chronicle Turkey Training Cook-Off

Two Sundays ago, I woke up early, packed my camera and caught the BART train into San Francisco. I had a date with a turkey.

When I arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle’s test kitchen in SOMA, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was going to be on one of two teams of amateur cooks selected to compete in a turkey cook-off as part of the paper’s annual Turkey Training Camp. (In previous years, the paper selected novice cooks, thus the “training.” This time around, no training involved. Well, maybe a lot of “reminders.”)

OK, I’ll stop here to answer your most obvious question. Why me? I sent in a 100-word e-mail essay a few weeks ago when I read about the competition in the Chronicle’s Food section. Then I got a call from Tara Duggan, a Chronicle Food writer and columnist and the captain of one of the teams. She asked me about Thanksgiving, how I learned to cook, my mother’s maiden name? It was really all just a blur. I remember saying I didn’t have a special Thanksgiving recipe but I love how people come together to cook during this particular holiday. I also told her that I spent my weekends developing and testing recipes for my blog, so spending a Sunday cooking all day wouldn’t be all that different.

A couple of days later, Tara called me back and told me that I made the team. And I would be on her team. (Yay!) Then over the next few days, we exchanged e-mails on possible recipes and ideas to round out the entire Thanksgiving dinner we had to prepare for the judges. (The only thing Tara decided from the beginning was that we were going to make a Cajun grilled turkey based on the recipe from another team member. So everything else fell in place to support that theme, which is how we came up with a Southern-style Thanksgiving.)

The following is a recap of the turkey cook-off. Warning: This is a pretty long post, probably even longer than my Next Iron Chef recaps. So kick up your feet, open a nice bottle of red wine, and let the battle begin!

I had to include a before-and-after shot of the Chronicle test kitchen. As you can see, we actually didn’t really make much of a mess. Of course, major kudos go to the two Chronicle interns who had dishwashing duty the whole day. They were so sweet and didn’t complain whenever we would pile on the pots and utensils or bugged them about finding ingredients. The test kitchen is actually in a separate building away from the paper’s main newsroom at Fifth and Mission Streets in the city. When not being messed up by eight readers, the kitchen is where the writers and contributors test the recipes that appear every Wednesday in the Food section.
Our two leaders! On the left is Olivia Wu, Chronicle food writer and longtime food journalist and cookbook author. Wu headed the Blue Team (based on the aprons we wore) and Tara Duggan, right, led my team, the White Team. Along with writing the “Working Cook” column in the paper, Tara is also a trained chef, having graduated from the California Culinary Academy. The two gave us an overview of the day before we broke into individual team meetings to strategize. (Although, I have to say, our team met on the rooftop garden and it was such a beautiful, warm day I didn’t feel like heading back down to the kitchen.)

When we came down from the rooftop to start cooking, the Blue Team had already begun. And in a clear advantage, they took over the center work counter of the test kitchen, positioning themselves close to the ovens and sink. Above you see the backs of two Blue Team members, Jonathan and Douglas, prepping some ingredients. My team was relegated to a table off to the side of the kitchen.

It was a challenge having both teams working in one kitchen. Just imagine Kitchen Stadium of Iron Chef America but without the rock concert lighting and smoke machine. In the beginning, most people focused on preparing the sides and desserts. Above you see that the Blue Team is working on an apple dessert.

I started by making my cranberry-pear marmalade, a recipe I developed based on a cranberry-mango chutney I typically make for Thanksgiving. I thought pears would be nice since they’re in season. After peeling and chopping a couple of Bartlett pears, I cooked them in a pan with sugar and vinegar to soften them and then I added the cranberries. I spent most of the morning watching the pot because the Chronicle test kitchen didn’t have a reliable clock and I wasn’t wearing a watch. So I had to watch my cranberries and just had to guess when they were ready based on when they reached the consistency I liked. When I tested the recipe at home, I cut the pears too big so they were chunky, so I cut them smaller during the actual cook off. But then it was too small because by the time the cranberries were done, much of the pears had dissolved. I actually like to taste bits of pears in the recipe, so if you end up making this, I’d recommend cutting them as large quarter-inch chunks.

Along with maneuvering around all the cooks in the kitchen, there was a photographer and videographer documenting our day. Here, the videographer interviews a member of the Blue Team, Lily (who has a cool user name of “sticky rice”), during a lull in the cooking. You can see the actual finished video here on the SFGate site.

Here’s our Cajun-rubbed turkey waiting to be grilled. Both team’s turkeys had to be seasoned before we arrived Sunday morning (the Blue Team did a brined turkey). So to be fair, Food Executive Editor Michael Bauer came in the day before to prep both team’s turkeys. (Yes, I actually got to meet Michael Bauer! I had strict instructions not to photograph him because of his restaurant reviews. But you might see a bit of him in one of the photos below. I have to say, he looks totally different than what I imagined in my head.)

Above, my teammates Louise (left) and Diana (right) work on the oyster stuffing, which is Louise’s recipe. Louise was perfect for our Southern Thanksgiving theme because she came to the Bay Area from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Diana is actually a Presbyterian minister. They were both so sweet to work with. (What? You thought I would say a minister wasn’t sweet? Ha! No, she really is very sweet.)

The fourth and final member of the White Team is Marker, a lawyer who lives in Berkeley. Marker was so dedicated, he actually brought in his own grill to cook the turkey. (BTW, I loved the photo of Marker and his turkey in the Chronicle’s Food section, taken by staff photographer Craig Lee. Craig and I actually go way back when I was a young journalist starting out with the San Francisco Examiner. This town is so small.)

Lunch break. We took a break from cooking to lunch on some Vietnamese sandwiches and green salad that the Chronicle provided. At this point, both teams were pretty confident although I did hear that the Blue Team had to redo one of its desserts. Turns out, the White Team ended up redoing our dessert as well. This is why I don’t bake.

We had to finish all of our dishes by 3 p.m. for the judging, so after lunch it was a mad rush putting the finishing touches on everything. I spent much of the time working on the green bean dish (based on a recipe from Tara) and then my andouille sausage and mushroom gravy. (Turns out there was a bit of indirect sabotage from the other team when the guy making their stuffing dish used up all the mushrooms in the pantry. In the paper, he’s the guy that doesn’t measure. Um, see what happens?! Anywho, one of the interns ran out to get some more so we had a slight delay. ) Above left, Louise works on our “extra credit” dish, which was a starter of crab cakes. (For their extra credit dish, the Blue Team made a second dessert with squash.) On the bottom right is my finished gravy, despite Mushroomgate. It tasted good but Tara was concerned about the coloring. She felt it needed to be darker. I didn’t use any drippings from the turkey pan because we forgot in the rush, and the gravy turned out a bit too thick for my preference. (That’s a big debate, I think, how thick do you want your gravy? I thought, for example, that the Blue Team’s gravy was too thin by all the turkey fat. And they made two types of gravy. What’s up with that?)

This was one of the most talked about recipe among the Chronicle staffers who had tested our recipes prior to the cook-off. This is Marker’s wife’s aunt’s recipe for Buttermilk Pie. It’s just pure cream and rich. It looked beautiful, but it didn’t set as firm by the time we served it. But really, that didn’t matter because people with a sweet-tooth will basically be licking the filling off their plates when you make this.

Once we finished cooking and plating our dishes, it was time for the food’s close up. Above Craig takes a photo of the White Team’s finished dishes. That’s Amanda Gold from the Chronicle staging the dishes. She’s the expert food stylist for the paper who was also helping out our team. We needed all her help because the other team, again in a clear advantage, took first swipe at choosing the serving dishes and much of the flowers from the rooftop garden for their presentation. Dang, they were fast. Maybe we should have had them meet outdoors in the sun.
Here’s the Blue Team’s Thanksgiving meal. See what I mean about grabbing all the flowers for presentation? They clearly had the edge in looks.

Here’s a side by side comparison of the two teams’ vegetable dish. I worked on the green beans with pickled onions for our team on the left and Lily or “sticky rice” made this braised mixed greens with coconut milk for the Blue Team. The green beans were super easy to make, but I also experienced a last-minute delay. Tara had pan-fried the bacon earlier in the day and she wanted me to use the same pan to sauté the green beans right before serving so it could be warm and glistening from all the rendered bacon fat. (Altogether now: “oooooh.”) But someone had moved the pan off the stovetop during the mad rush of cooking and placed it in the sink for washing. When I dropped the minced garlic into a pan on the stovetop to warm up before cooking the beans, I realized I had dropped the garlic into the pan used to fry the crab cakes. So I had to ditch the garlic and start all over with a new pan. Luckily, Louse quickly minced some more garlic and I just loaded the pan with a lot of butter since I no longer had the bacon fat to work with. I think it turned out pretty nice after all.

Here come the judges. Four people came in to judge our dishes. Pictured above are Emily Luchetti, left, pastry chef at Farallon, and Maria Helm Sinskey, chef at Robert Sinskey Winery. And that elbow on the far right belongs to Michael Bauer, who also judged along with Chronicle Food Editor Miriam Morgan (not pictured).

After the judges were done looking at our presentations, the turkeys were taken back to the kitchen and carved up into plates made up for each judge. The judges went up to the rooftop garden to do their tasting and deliberating. Above you see Luchetti at the judges’ table with the other judges conveniently hidden behind that big bush.

While the judging occurred up on the rooftop garden, the team members broke bread and ate the meal before us downstairs. It was a time for everyone to relax and enjoy the food, and there was so much of it! I tried almost everything and I have to say that everything tasted really good. Some things were more my favorite than others, but overall all the dishes were perfectly done and offered a lot of interesting tastes and flavors.

In the end, the Blue Team had the better meal and was named the winner by the judges. They said something about how the Blue Team’s dishes worked well together. But we all walked away with boxes filled with wine from the Chronicle (and two additional bottles of wine from Judge Sinskey). Despite the loss, it was a lot of fun meeting fellow food lovers. (Or what Louise calls "food crazies.") I don’t have any major plans for Thanksgiving (because most of my family is in Hawaii), so in many ways sitting down with everyone over the big meal that Sunday afternoon was my Thanksgiving 2007.

For the Chronicle’s story and recipes for all the dishes made by both teams, click here.

Special thanks to Tara and all the editors at the Chronicle's Food section for allowing me to take part in this year's Turkey cook-off. FYI, I am so ready for a rematch. ;-)


agent713 said...

What a fun way to spend the day. Thanks for the recap!

Anonymous said...

Great write-up and thanks for the pictures. You've added a lot to an already good story. You should have known better than to compete against someone named "stickyrice."

Single Guy Ben said...

Sticky rice? Is that you? :)

Anonymous said...

Nice recap. And, not surprisingly, much better than the Chronicle's version. :)

NotSoccer Mom said...

love that photo of you taking the photo of your cranberry dish (from the link). sounds like you had a blast.

Passionate Eater said...

I remember reading about the "training camp" last year, and thinking, "That sounds fun!" But I consider you a professional chef, so I am sure you taught the people who participated (and the newspaper columnists) a thing or two! I am so glad that they selected you, because maybe this might mean the beginning of more media exposure for you. When Food Network offers you a show, please don't forget the little guys (e.g. me)!

Also, I love this picture:

Anonymous said...

What a great recap, and I'm so bummed I wasn't able to pick up a copy of the paper. Sounds like you had a lot of fun!

barbie2be said...

oh, i have been searching high and low for a good buttermilk pie recipe. can i have marker's wife's aunt's recipe?

Unknown said...

OMG! where have I been? I saved that copy but didn't read it and now must go find it... Sounds like a great time, you certainly do get around Single Guy!

Single Guy Ben said...

Barbie, you should be able to get the recipe for the buttermilk pie in the SFGate link at the end of my post. Let me know if you have problems finding it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Really nice ideas about cooking a turkey!