A chefs conference in Niagara Falls offers area food lovers a rare glimpse inside the world of professional chefs this weekend, as experts -- including local culinary talents -- offer hourlong classes on their specialties.
Instead of a stove, they'll step in front of a crowd, serving methods and insights on how to break down a half pig for cooking, getting the most out of premium-priced fresh seafood, and how to get the ultimate strawberry flavor.
The American Culinary Federation's northeastern regional conference runs from Friday through Monday, based at the Conference Center Niagara Falls. Run by the nation's largest chefs organization, it is aimed at professional chefs, but will welcome any student of food willing to pay the $125 per day rate. The event is expected to attract more than 500 attendees from Maine to Washington, D.C.
Chef Bruce Wieszala of Carmelo's in Lewiston will demonstrate the art of turning pigs into pork chops and lots of other edibles twice on Monday. Charles Roesch, better known as Charlie the Butcher, will talk on Sunday about teaching Russian chefs and building a restaurant concept around advanced kitchen equipment.
On Sunday afternoon, Chef Mike Andrzejewski of Seabar and Cantina Loco will show how to get the most out of precious seafood. Then on Monday, Chef Ross Warhol of Chautauqua Institution's Athenaeum Hotel will offer a crash course in molecular gastronomy, crowned with his public execution of a dish he has only imagined before.
Out of the public eye, a chosen few will compete for national honors. Champions of the local federation chapter -- James Roberts of Park Country Club and Maria Iacovitti of Erie Community College's pastry program -- will be pitted against other top regional talent at Niagara County Community College's kitchens. At stake is a spot in the national finals, set for July in Orlando.
These days, butchering -- turning a whole animal into parts you can use -- is becoming a lost art, Wieszala said. "I'm sure there's plenty of professional 'chefs' who haven't even broken down a chicken," he said.
Wieszala has had plenty of practice turning hogs raised by T-Meadow Farms in Lockport into dinner specials for Carmelo's, where he works with chef-owner Carmelo Raimondi, a fan of locally raised ingredients. He also has turned pigs into prosciutto, capicola and other cured pork specialties for COPPA, his charcuterie line, now sold at Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile, 423 Elmwood Ave.
In an hour, he'll detach parts, explaining "what I use it for, how to treat it, what to do with it and so forth," said Wieszala. "You could use this loin for pork chops, or go in another direction, cure it and use it to make what the Italians call lonzo. Or, this particular neck muscle is used for capicola."
Today's chefs can get airlifted fish daily from Pacific seafood markets, a supply chain Seabar's Andrzejewski has relied on for the freshest exotic fish. He'll talk about Pacific Rim flavors and Hawaiian seafood treatments, with samples. "I want to show them how to accentuate the flavors of this great fish, not cover it up," he said.
At 24, Ross Warhol is the youngest of the local stars, but he already has learned from internships at some of the world's notable restaurants, including Spain's el Bulli and Chicago's Alinea. He is overhauling the Athenaeum menu for its annual nine-week run this summer, which is open to the public.
He also is planning Praxis, a series of three "pop-up" nights at the hotel. They will be one-night-only menus: an 1884 menu from the hotel's grand opening filtered through modern sensibilities; a night on reinterpreted community potluck dishes -- "five-star tuna casserole," Warhol jokes -- and a night for reinterpreting classic artworks in edible form.
On Monday, Warhol will show the audience how to make a dish that includes elements like a crunchy foie gras puff inside a crust of cinnamon tea.
Then there's the strawberry. "I'll be extracting only the red juice from the strawberry, thickening it with agar, a seaweed, to set it into a gel, then pureeing it until it's fluid, but can hold a shape," said Warhol.
The dish aims to accomplish some main goals of molecular gastronomy. "The flavors you will recognize," Warhol said. "You've had them before. But what you see, and what happens in your mouth, will be elevated in some ways."
> On your mark ...
On Saturday, after days of preparation and practice, master pastry chef Maria Iacovitti and James Roberts of Park Country Club will test their talents in the forge of competition.
With 20 years of baking in professional kitchens and classrooms, Iacovitti will be the local entrant given 60 minutes to dazzle judges with a warm pineapple dessert. The Buffalo-born chef has prepared dishes on television before, but this will be her first live competition.
When's the last time she had to work against the clock with critics watching? "Every day at my job," Iacovitti said. "My audience is my peers."
Iacovitti, a chef-instructor in Erie Community College's pastry program, has baked for the Buffalo Club, Dessert Deli and Buffalo hotels, and taught at ECC and Niagara County Community College. "People don't realize the talent that's in Buffalo, regarding cooking and in pastry," she said.
Iacovitti will have an hour and 40 minutes to show what she can do, with no audience but the judges. That's "15 minutes for setup, 60 minutes for the dessert, 10 minutes for plate-up and 15 minutes for cleanup. That's it," Iacovitti said, noting that the cleanliness of her work station is judged, too. "Time management and showing your skills is what it's all about."
Roberts, the local contestant for the savory chefs' contest, has been practicing his dish, featuring arctic char, all week long. Going through the steps again and again against a stopwatch helps hone technique and refine steps that go into the dish, Roberts said.
"I'll have made it on the clock, completely packed and in a competition space, five times before I have to do it for the judges," said Roberts. "Once you get down to it, it's almost automatic. That's how you do it."
At Park Country Club, Roberts has been redefining country club food with ingredients like locally raised pork cured in-house and the best foods of the season, including, this spring, foraged wild leeks, also called ramps, and fiddleheads, or fern shoots.
A couple weeks ago, Roberts did a Japanese casual fare menu for specials. It included crispy tempura lobster roll, and izakaya pub platter with an assortment of different salads like spicy salmon, hamachi crudo, bigeye sashimi and fried tofu pockets, with an uni (sea urchin) popper.
A dinner special was tonkotsu ramen, with pork belly and shoulder, and slow poached egg in a rich pork broth. It was topped with home-cooked lard from a local pig, whipped with white miso.
The judges "want to see some technique, they want to see some innovation. But above all else it has to taste amazing, and it has to look great," said Roberts. "Being selected to compete, by my peers in the area, certainly is an honor. It's humbling."
> IF YOU'RE INTERESTED:
Registration at Niagara Falls Conference Center, 101 Old Falls St., each morning; tickets, $125 per day, including breakfast or lunch. Cash or credit cards accepted. More information: acfchefs.org.