24 March 2008

Iron Chef Krikava

I just got back from a business trip to Washington, DC. While I was there I attended a reception in honor of Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. When I got the invitation, it said that it was a cook-off in her honor.

When I replied that I would attend, I asked, “So what does it mean ‘cook-off?’ Is this like ‘Iron Chef DC?’” Well it turns out that this is an annual event, and several members of Congress, including Rep. DeLauro, and other DC luminaries do indeed prepare specialty food items for the reception. I noted that I would be interested in preparing my personal specialty – Risotto alla Cardinale – for the event.

I got a reply indicating that I would be welcome to participate in the cook-off.


As I began to think about what would be involved, it suddenly struck me that I had rashly volunteered for something that was way outside my comfort zone. For those of you who have read Krik’s Picks for a while, I think you realize that I like to cook for my family and friends. But as I started to think about the implications of my impulsive gesture, I realized, “Hey, I could embarrass myself.”

It was probably an irrational fear. I’ve made this recipe probably on average of every other week for years. I know I make it well. The reason why I picked it is because it’s one of my wife’s favorite recipes. It’s simple. Really, all it takes is good ingredients and a little experience with cooking rice.

Nevertheless, the anticipation began to weigh on me. When I’ve made this recipe, it’s been in the controlled environment of my own kitchen. My wife and I designed it ourselves. We planned it to accommodate making food that we enjoy ourselves and share with our family and friends. So while I was confident that my risotto recipe would turn out well in my own kitchen, I started to worry about my ability to prepare it in another kitchen.

As the date of the event approached, I found myself lying awake at night trying to anticipate just how it all would work out. Then came the coup de grace. I got an e-mail with some instructions for the event, and it became clear to me that most of the participants would be preparing their food at home and just bringing it to the restaurant for the reception.


My home is 900 miles away in Edina, Minn. I contacted the event organizer and explained that I obviously could not prepare the risotto at home and simply bring it to the restaurant. Should I drop out? No, I was told. There will be other participants who will use the restaurant kitchen to either prep or finish their dishes.

What might have been a convenient excuse to drop out evaporated with the assurance that I could in fact prepare my risotto at the restaurant. Now I began to get seriously nervous. The week before the event, my wife and I were in the Napa Valley and San Francisco. I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. thinking through everything that might go wrong.

We returned from San Francisco on Saturday. On Sunday, I packed for DC. I packed the dry ingredients for the recipe. I also packed a Land O'Lakes apron and cap to wear while cooking. I planned to visit a DC grocery to buy the remaining ingredients – butter, shallots, and canned tomatoes. I took care of that on Monday after dinner. (By the way, I had called earlier in the day to make sure that they did indeed carry Land O'Lakes butter.)

After my meetings were over on Tuesday, I gathered my ingredients and left for the restaurant. The venue for the event was Ristorante Tosca. It’s a highly rated Italian restaurant downtown. Very elegant. I arrived at 3:30 p.m. and was introduced to Massimo Fabbri, the executive chef. He was very reassuring and accommodating. We talked about what I needed to do to prep the dish and the timetable for getting it done for the reception.

I put on my apron and cap and started chopping the shallots and crushing the tomatoes. Paolo Sacco, one of the co-founders of Tosca, came in and greeted me. We joked about the fact that I was the only cook in the kitchen wearing a tie. He said that he also wore a tie when he cooked. He asked what I was making. When I told him it was risotto with tomatoes, I sensed a bit of surprise. I got the recipe from a traditional Italian cookbook. But I clearly sensed that this was not a method of preparing risotto that they use at Tosca.

Massimo put the tomatoes and broth on the range to simmer, and I got out of the way of the kitchen staff as they worked on the evening’s menu items.

It doesn’t take long to prepare risotto. About 45 minutes before the beginning of the reception, I went back into the kitchen and began sautéing the shallots. By now, the kitchen was a hectic scene with people preparing a myriad of restaurant offerings. Meanwhile, other participants in the cook-off started arriving and coming into the kitchen to finish their items. I was both proud, but also self-conscious, of my Land O'Lakes apron, cap, and box of butter as I stood amongst them stirring my risotto.

At the station next to me, another cook was preparing the restaurant’s risotto for the evening. As I began adding my tomato and vegetable stock, he asked me if I wanted to use some wine. I know that it’s traditional to use a good pour of wine at the beginning of a risotto. But my recipe did not call for it, and I somewhat sheepishly declined.

As I was working Massimo came by and asked if he could taste it. I would be honored, I said. He tasted it. Needs a little salt, he said. I did add a little salt. But I told Massimo that the cheese would add salt as would the butter that I planned to use to finish the risotto.

Despite my trepidation, the risotto finished just exactly as it does when I cook it at home. I stirred in the parmesan cheese, some minced parsley, and some butter to finish it, then covered it and let it sit. (You’re supposed to quit cooking risotto when the grains are still slightly al dente and the dish is still kind of soupy. When you let it sit, the rice absorbs the rest of the liquid.) Massimo provided me with a serving bowl. I transferred my rice to the bowl and left to join the guests at the reception.

As a symptom of my excitement, I had alerted several of my friends and colleagues in DC about the event. I guess if you’re going to embarrass yourself, you might as well do it big. But to be honest, now that I was done cooking, I shifted into a kind of hyper-drive. I sought out the judges and began schmoozing them. When the guests started moving through the reception and sampling the food, I positioned myself behind the table and invited people to try my risotto.

The rest of the evening actually was pretty much a blur – greeting people, good-naturedly hyping my risotto, joking with the other cook-off participants.

As the evening drew to a close, Rep. DeLauro made a few remarks, introduced all the participants, and then asked the judges to announce their decisions.

First place was Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who made a pulled pork with two kinds of barbecue sauce. Second place was Richard Michalski, a labor union official, who made a wonderful roasted tenderloin of beef with a horseradish, mustard sauce.

This is the truth. I was congratulating Richard, and I wasn’t even listening to who won third place. As we were chatting, the organizer came up to me and told me that I had won third place. My award was a gift certificate to DC restaurant that I have never been to before. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted, honored, and pleased beyond description. (I’ll try the restaurant on a future trip to DC. Keep watching Krik’s Picks for the review.)

By the way, Rep. Berry is a farmer and a rice grower from Arkansas; he was very happy that I cooked rice. Please – eat at Tosca and try my risotto recipe!

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