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Ready, Set, Cook With Beer

Ommegang’s Hop Chef competition inspires tasty, ale-soaked creativity from local kitchen masters

by B.A. Nilsson on June 28, 2012

Food preparation as a sporting event. It’s a TV-driven trend. It challenges chefs to hit the ground of a gladiator arena and create adrenalin-rushed masterpieces. It promotes the artificial construct of winners and losers. It robs dining of its most important component: conviviality. I doubt if it’s going to go away any time soon.

I participated in such an event by acting as a judge at the recent Hop Chef competition in Albany, sponsored by Ommegang Brewery, which took place June 8 at the 11 North Pearl Event Center, a former bank.

Eight area chefs competed in a forum that required the use of beer, with contest rules skillfully mandated by the brewery. Using one or more of five pairing techniques, each participant created two items. While a vaultful of civilian participants enjoyed the comestibles on the main floor, the judges sampled them in succession in a small room upstairs, each course presented by its creator.

As a challenge to widen culinary horizons, the beer angle was brilliantly conceived and executed by all concerned. The pairing criteria ranged from alternating tastes of beer and food through incorporation of beer into the food to finding a way to tell the story of the beer—places of component origin, climate characteristics and more—through the combo of food components.

Cooperstown-based Ommegang brews Belgian-style ales, and its full-time line of six such beers formed the foundation. It’s nice that there’s a stand-alone excellence to the brews: It inspired the chefs to reach all the farther.

A.J. Jayapal, food and beverage director for the Malozzi family of restaurants, also creates and sells his own line of condiments under the “Miss Sydney’s” brand. He combined his own marinade with Rare Vos, an amber ale, to flavor pork tenderloin, then picked up the ale’s malt flavor in a savory waffle on which the pork was served, which almost overshadowed an apple-and-cabbage based sauerkraut using more of the Rare Vos.

Pork belly was the centerpiece of Elliot Cuniff’s tall, striking assembly that built up from parsnip puree to the pork itself, dressed with Abbey Ale and cider jus, to a slaw of pickled cabbage topped with a crunchy fried onion. Cuniff is executive chef at the Colonie Country Club.

As far as I’m concerned, the pork-beer combo can’t be overexplored, and Rachel Mabb, whose catering business is called Bitches Kitchen, paired the Rare Vos with a pork tostada flavored with a rich, earthy mole, a complicated pepper-and-seed sauce that’s worth the effort it requires to make. Rare Vos, an easygoing ale, complemented both the overall spiciness of the dish and the garden flavor of the peppers and such.

The ultimate pursuit of pork of the evening came from New World Bistro Bar’s Ric Orlando, who presented “Three Phils, Three Pigs.” Gorgeously presented on a long, plain plate, the trio included tufts of jerk pork, a cherry-caramel enhanced pillow of pork belly and crunchy fried pig’s ears with kale. This followed the trickiest angle of the pairing-as-storytelling route, calling upon contrasting philosophical approaches to the food. It was intellectually the most appealing approach (making it the least sporting-event likely), but it also boasted an array of killer flavors, holding back nothing in spice and complexity.

Two other Three Philosophers-inspired pairings included Paul J. Ozimek’s beautiful, savory Napoleon of pastrami-cured salmon and asparagus layered with smoked mozzarella, dressed with a sweet, tart cherry compote, reflecting his work at Albany’s Taste, and a refreshingly undersweetened Three Philosophers ice cream with chocolate crisps courtesy of Marcus Gulliano from Ellenville’s Aroma Thyme Bistro, reflecting his restaurant’s tendency to creatively redefine practically everything on the menu.

Brian Bowden, executive chef of Creo, boldly offered a plump, raw chunk of foie gras within a terrine of Abbey Ale-infused oxtail complemented by pickled ramps, which continued to develop and release flavors long after the last of it left the plate.

One of the hazards of assessing so many different samples in so short a time is palate fatigue. What awakens a weary mouth is sweetness, so Jaime Ortiz’s “Rare of the Dog,” which arrived in the sixth round of chefs, was a blast of hello. Ortiz is the corporate executive chef of Mazzone Hospitality, and won the event with this entry. Based on Ommegang’s Rare Vos, it cleverly mimicked a morning-after breakfast, with bacon and egg represented by real bacon (albeit honey-thyme sweetened) and a sweet, custardy phony egg yolk made by a process akin to spherification. This faux egg shooter, as Ortiz termed it, is activated when egg meets beer and both are downed. It was hilariously effective, especially after so much beer.

Albany was the second stop on the Hop Chef trail, which kicked off with a similar competition in Washington, D.C., in April. The Philadelphia edition takes place July 10. Ommegang deserves great credit for defining a forum in which beer awareness gets raised so high. Even with the enlightenment I arrogantly believe is mine, I found plenty to discover in the broad and subtle flavor strokes the chefs employed.

But I’m too old and cynical to find pleasure in the sports-contest model. Yes, there’s a time in life when one clings to the belief that there are rules one’s team can follow that will allow some manner of victory over a competing team—but eventually the harshness of life’s vagaries ineluctably intrudes and what you really, really need is to sit down to an excellent meal with some excellent friends.