On a Sunday afternoon in April, more than 200 people paid to watch two Buffalo chefs and their assistants slice and sear, grind and whip.
J.J. Richert of Torches and Chris Dorsaneo of Lloyd, a taco truck, had 60 minutes to outdo each other in an Iron Chef-style culinary competition in front of cheering, snack-nibbling partisans. Their mystery ingredient was revealed to be chevre and feta cheeses from First Light Farm & Creamery of East Bethany.
The chefs both took risks. Richert's chevre cheesecake dessert featured carbonated raspberries, which fizzed on the tasters' tongues, and his appetizer paired beets with cow's tongue. Dorsaneo presented pickled watermelon salad in his starter and goat caramel nougatine in his dessert.
In the end, Dorsaneo's menu, anchored by an entree of "Painted Meadow cabrito rack with corn esquites, chevre polenta, Bohemia demi, chevre froth," topped Richert's menu, with "tomahawk goat chop, pheasant sausage with dandelion and feta, tarragon mignonette, lobster feta tarragon spring roll" as its main dish.
The guy with the taco truck beating the established four-star chef made for an interesting storyline. But to some observers, at least, the day was also a celebration of the strength of Buffalo's food community -- and its potential.
Izabela Wojcik, one of the judges, watched the event with keen interest and an experienced eye. In its fourth season, the Nickel City Chef competitions had sold out in 45 minutes, with many repeat customers, but Wojcik was seeing it for the first time.
"It's easy to want to have something like that, that involves chefs and is good for everybody, that brings you to a local business," she said. "It's a whole other thing to actually do it."
She should know. Wojcik books talent for the James Beard House, a Manhattan townhouse that's an influential showcase for American chefs, hosting more than 200 dinners and other food events a year.
"I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was impressed," she said. "My expectations weren't anything, and I was completely blown away by how it all was presented."
You'd expect one of the city's top chefs to excel, but Wojcik said it was surprising to see a truck chef showing such finesse. "It was just exciting to think that there's this one guy, and he's got this business, and I'm sure there are others like that, or there's the room for others like that to come."
So far the Beard House has hosted one chef from Buffalo: Mike Andrzejewski of Seabar. Andrzejewski, who provides color commentary for Nickel City Chef, said he wanted Wojcik to get to know other Buffalo chefs.
"There's so many good things going on around here now -- I think we're at a point in Buffalo where we need to show off to the rest of the country," said Andrzejewski. Wojcik came to judge the event, but in her remaining hours in town, she and Andrzejewski were able to visit a few of the many restaurants he wanted her to see.
She touched down at Oliver's, Rue Franklin and Sample, and there were many more the traveling party couldn't fit in. They made it to Tempo, but too late to eat. "From highbrow to Ted's, and to Spar's for some meat," Andrzejewski said.
He didn't want to say who else was on the short list. But there are multiple places to sample the Buffalo flavor, many of them led by young chefs who earned their stripes in the big city and came home to open a place. Experiences like the homey heritage pork temple of Bistro Europa, the Belgian gastropub stylings of Blue Monk and the farm-to-table dishes and home-cured charcuterie of Carmelo's will have to wait.
"It's really important to me to spread the word about Buffalo," Andrzejewski said. "How cool the people are, how hospitable it is and how much fun we have here."
> Spreading the word
The James Beard Foundation's annual awards have been described as the Emmys or Pulitzers of the food world, conferring national and regional attention on chefs, restaurants, cookbooks, television shows and other culinary endeavors.
Beard, a prolific cookbook author and star of the first cooking show on American television, championed American regional cooking at a time when fine French cuisine dominated the ranks of critically acclaimed restaurants. After his death in 1985, his home was turned into a center of American culinary celebration, with the help of friends such as Julia Child.
Getting an invitation to cook at the James Beard House isn't as prestigious as the awards, but has been compared to a musician playing Carnegie Hall. The crowd tends toward hard-core diners, foundation members, food professionals and bargain-seekers. Chefs have to pay to get there, including most of their own food costs, and they cope with a claustrophobically tiny kitchen, but the exposure is worth it to participants.
"The experience of showcasing what you do here can open other opportunities, other invitations," Wojcik said. "It can certainly also create a lot more good will and lot more media awareness in your own community, and that can lead to other things, too."
Wojcik said that since she wasn't in Buffalo for long, she didn't want to talk about the specific places she saw. Before she left Manhattan, though, her interest in Buffalo was whetted by the reaction her travel plans evoked in acquaintances.
"I was excited to go because I felt that there was kind of a lack of interest and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of anyone I mentioned to that I'm going to Buffalo next weekend," she said. "The typical reaction was 'Oh. Why?' "
Now she has another reason to return. "I feel I got just a little glimpse of some of the producers and the local pride that was happening. I will be very interested to see how that evolves through time. I'd love to go back, see new chefs, meet a whole new side of Buffalo," she said. "I'm looking forward to great things. I think there's very much an opportunity for improving on that reputation, which is just old and out of date at this point, and seeing what interesting culinary things come out of that town."
Wojcik also praised the Nickel City Chef series as a vehicle for nourishing the dining population, in a time when cooking has become mainline entertainment for many. Nickel City Chef pits a "home team" of chefs against challengers from the local restaurant community. After a four-show fourth season, a fifth is planned.
"It's very disconnecting to see a famous guy who's got a line of pasta sauces on TV, and that's cool, but to see your own chef, whose restaurant you can visit, [and] what it takes to prepare a dish, what it's like," Wojcik said. "You got to see that person using real knife skills, cooking skills, bringing the dish to the judges, the language they use to describe their own dish, which is not something you ever witness.
"I just thought it was really great for this audience, a very educational and enlightening experience that would hopefully make them more appreciative when they go to a restaurant. Together, I feel like that builds a stronger community."
One thing Wojcik said she noticed was how many people she met were so grateful "that I took my time and came aaall the waaay to Buffalo. I felt like, 'You don't have to apologize to me for coming to Buffalo. You need to own Buffalo, because I think there are going to be some really amazing things happening.'
"I see so much potential in Buffalo, and it would be wonderful if Buffalo owned its pride."
Having spent one day in Buffalo, she can't opine on what she thinks the city needs, could use or what she'd like to see more of. Except for one thing.
"Like other places, there's definitely talent there," Wojcik said. "It needs to be nurtured, and it needs to be supported, so that it can grow."