Aprons and Sportcoats
food critic experiences both sides of the swinging door
at the Albany Chefs’ Food and Wine Festival
chef, whether a culinary-school grad or someone who worked
through the ranks, has worked the various kitchen stations.
For them, no manner of prep is unknown or undignified. I had
stunning proof of this during last Saturday’s Grand Dinner
at Albany’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, when I witnessed the amazing
way in which chefs both accomplished and new to the game quickly
bonded to deliver an amazing product.
The Albany Chefs’ Food and Wine Festival was a three-day event
that began at 16 Albany restaurants and culminated in the
Saturday dinner, with wine tastings and seminars along the
way. It recalled the glory days of the Desmond Hotel’s Wine
Weekends, so it was no surprise to learn that Gary Smith,
who created those Desmond events, was a driving force behind
this one as well.
The event was created as an arts- funding device, in this
case to benefit Capital Repertory Theatre. Although the numbers
aren’t yet official, festival cofounder Donna Purnomo believes
that at least $30,000 was raised. “I’m absolutely thrilled,”
she said. “This went way beyond my expectations.”
She and her husband, Yono, are both lovers of theater, so
it was a natural way to begin what they hope will be an annual
event. As plans took shape last year, they enlisted Todd Reichelt
and Jeffrey Michaelson, general manager and catering director
(respectively) of the Crowne Plaza, as cofounders, adding
still more talent as more challenges became evident. The greatest
coup was in landing the kitchen talent. Some two dozen chefs
were on hand Friday evening and Saturday afternoon to offer
food samples to go with the many wines being tasted in the
Grand Ballroom. Saturday night, a seven-course dinner was
served to nearly 300 people, not counting the hors d’oeuvres
prepared by Luc Pasquier (Jack’s Oyster House), Kevin Roberts
(Crowne Plaza) and Steve Stofelano (Mansion Hill Inn).
I worked alongside the Café Capriccio team of chef Jim Rua
and his assistant Hank Ciccone preparing a galantine of rabbit
and pheasant wrapped in puff pastry, served with a tart mango
salsa. This meant I spent the better part of the afternoon
peeling and dicing mangoes and kiwis and peppers and onions
before turning to help Jim and Hank wrap the forcemeat they
assembled in pastry and get them into the oven in time.
Hank and I hurried to the Crowne Plaza as the last of our
loaves finished cooking in order to lay claim to what we feared
would be ardently contested space. But one of the hotel staff
told us, “This is your lucky day. You can have space in the
This meant we shared tables and speed racks with some of the
hors d’oeuvres and all of the desserts; dessert chef Anand
“A.J.” Jayapal, of Panza’s, already had commandeered considerable
rack, tray and cooler space. But whatever we needed was located
somewhere. We got the rest of our food in place and, being
the fourth course, settled back to watch.
Nobody settled for long. Next out the door was a starter of
a single plump scallop, sculpted by Marché’s Brian Molino
with a garnish of spaetzle and a fennel purée. A prototype
was assembled and the team went into place, creating a deft-fingered
assembly line in the hot kitchen as other chefs, hotel cooks
and a group of culinary students from Schenectady County Community
College joined forces.
How did the dining room handle it? I swapped my apron for
a sportcoat and joined my wife at a table for course number
two. Despite my late arrival, a server instantly set water
and wine before me. The bread basket was refreshed. And then
came a small, excellent dish of escolar, poached just right,
sitting on a sweet Kabocha squash purée and drizzled with
a Sauternes-laced beurre blanc. The floor staff circulated
trays with quiet efficiency, landing the plates quickly without
appearing hurried. As always, it was an amusing contrast to
the bustle on the other side of the doors, where chaos seemed
Mezza Notte’s Mark Graham sent out a dish of roasted quail
and sweetbreads, but at that point I was distributing 300
small, square plates across 50 rectangular trays in three
tall speed racks, one of them with a disturbingly wobbly wheel.
As the intermezzo was served, our pastry logs were finishing
a half-hour in a couple of warming ovens.
Then it was showtime. Suddenly, there was Dale Miller working
alongside Rua to lead a team in slicing the pastry so that
two pieces could be presented, an arrangement conducted by
more hands as the trays were passed down our line. I led the
group that quickly, madly and neatly spooned salsa on the
plates before passing them down to the group that would add
a sprinkling of baby lettuce—and wipe any mess left (probably
by me) behind. At the other end, Jayapal supervised the finish,
helping direct the tray traffic as well.
As suddenly as they were assembled, the plates were gone.
Already the action had shifted back to the hot kitchen as
Jaime Ortiz (Angelo’s 677 Prime) set up plates of lamb three-ways-roasted,
a meatball lollipop and a portion of sweetbread.
Dale Miller’s course was a sous vide preparation of
beef tenderloin, in which the meat is poached at its serving
temperature for maximum flavor. His serving took up the length
of the prep table as each garnish element was added from their
Then Rua, Ciccone and I were handed propane torches and set
to work on Jayapal’s 300 mini crème brulée plates. A sprinkling
of sugar, a blast of flame, and the caramelized sugar instantly
hardened atop the dessert, to which was added a single sour
cherry and a warm chocolate muffin as they went out the door.
And then it was done. No tempers and no disasters, despite
there being no shortage of egos.
There was enough dessert left over to entice most of the chefs
over for samples. Each had been cell-phone photographing his
own and his colleagues’ work, and now they clapped arms round
one another and promised to do it again. “This was great,”
Jayapal declared. “We needed this. January’s a tough month,
and this has been a tough economy, so it’s great to be able
to see one another and work together like this. This is what
makes our restaurant scene so special.”
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
a last call to Wine & Dine for the Arts,
with three days of events to choose from, showcasing
the work of two dozen of the area’s most extraordinary
chefs. Start tonight (Jan. 7) with a vintners
dinner held from 6-9 PM at 16 downtown Albany
restaurants, including dp-An American Brasserie,
Café Capriccio, Dale Miller, March @ 74 State,
New World Bistro Bar, Scrimshaw Restaurant and
the Hollywood Brown Derby. Tomorrow (Friday, Jan.
8) from 4 to 8 PM and Saturday (Jan. 9) from 1
to 4 PM, you’ll get a Taste of Albany at the Crowne
Plaza, featuring selections from 50 restaurants
and beverage suppliers. The event culminates with
a Chef’s Grand Dinner and Wine Auction from 6
to 11 PM Saturday at the Crowne Plaza. The chefs
for that event include Brian Molino, Yono Purnomo,
Mark Graham, Jim Rua, Jaime Ortiz, Dale Miller
and AJ Jayapal. Tickets are $50 for the Taste
of Albany and $125 for the Grand Dinner. The events
will benefit Capital Repertory Theatre. Find more
info and buy tickets at albanywinefest.com, or
call 462-4531, ext. 209. . . . Remember to pass
your scraps to Metroland.