They're taking the mystery out of the kitchen.
Amid the growing popularity of Food Network cooking competitions and tutorial shows, chefs are becoming reality TV stars people are proud to emulate. And savvy casinos such as the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa are quick to meet the demand with events such as the ongoing Savor Borgata series of workshops.
Fans of shows such as "Chopped" and "Iron Chef" are crowding into casino showrooms for cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs such as Geoffrey Zakarian and Michael Schulson.
Now an old hand at performing live in high-pressure situations such as cooking competitions, Zakarian puts on a good show. He's personable and funny, starting a recent show by making a St Germain cocktail he then sipped throughout the 90-minute event, ("Sorry, I can't make one for all of you guys," he lamented, grinning unapologetically) taking good-humored pot shots at his counterparts at Borgata (Wolfgang Puck) and deflating some fancy cooking ideas.
"Can you open the oven while the souffle is being cooked? Of course you can," he reassured a gasping audience, before proceeding to open the oven several more times than was strictly necessary to cook the several inches-high desserts, just to prove his point.
Sprinkled into the comedic show were countless nuggets of cooking wisdom on topics from the merits of grilling (You'll have the tastiest coal bricks, but a dry steak) to when and how to wash a cast-iron pan (never, and you don't) to his recommended ground-beef mixture for burgers (equal parts chuck, ribeye and skirt or flank steak, with 30 percent fat).
"We punish (ground beef), we smash it, freeze it, press on it; we murder it like we don't believe it's dead already," Zakarian said, demonstrating said murderous actions before simply throwing the beaten patty in the trash, to prove another point. To demonstrate the "ugly burger" technique from his cookbook and restaurants, Zakarian instead grabbed a "wad" of 6 ounces of beef and plopped it into a heated cast-iron pan to create a seared crust, salted both sides lightly while flipping it once, then let the juicy, lumpy thing rest while he made a simple coleslaw with nappa cabbage, prepared mayonnaise, ginger, carrots and plump gold raisins to go on top.
"Never, never, never do this," he said, while holding a spatula above the burger in a pressing motion.
Home cooks are embracing the "try this at home" attitude conveyed at such events … they just need a few more questions answered. At Zakarian's workshop fans wanted to know everything from how they could substitute ground turkey for those who don't eat beef ("I don't understand the question," he deadpanned, before relenting and suggesting adding whole-fat Greek yogurt to the turkey meat) to whether he really uses the Food Network-label pots and pans while cooking (Zakarian wasn't sure and simply stated that, adding good-quality cookware is going to be expensive, but worth it.)
For those serious about doing it themselves, Savor Borgata offers more intimate events - such as a Valentine's Day truffle-making workshop with Executive Pastry Chef Thaddeus Dubois. About 15 guests were escorted to the corporate kitchens to get a messy, hands-on lesson on how making truffles really isn't that difficult.
"Ganache is a fancy pastry term, really all it is is cream and chocolate," DuBois said, while quickly explaining the difference between dark and white chocolate, what tempering is (a complicated step you can skip by buying 'dipping chocolate' for at-home projects) and why you shouldn't refrigerate chocolate (it sweats and gets ugly) but gleefully consume it within three weeks instead.
"I'm not going to show you anything you can't get because that's not fair," he said while handing out small plastic trays filled with truffle shells, along with a folder containing a list of websites that sell them, some tips and facts on chocolate, simple recipes and his business card, for those with follow-up questions.
Truffle shells, for example, are thin, hollow chocolate cups that are filled with ganache then enrobed in dipping chocolate to hide the opening and produce a uniform round look. If you're particularly dexterous, you can pipe the room temperature ganache filling onto parchment paper to cool and set in the fridge before rolling each mound into balls for dipping and decorating.
An advantage of hand-rolled truffles is a thinner chocolate shell, but the real challenge is keeping "feet" from forming around the base while the chocolate coating sets. That takes practice and patience,
"Piping is a skill you have to practice," Dubois says and he's happy to aid in such practice, by offering how-to's about once per quarter. And as for Zakarian, his cookbook, "Town/Country, 150 recipes for Life Around the Table" (ugly burger and souffl� recipes included,) is on sale at Borgata retail shops.
The casino, which hosted a sushi and saki event with Schulson on Friday, is planning more events in the Savor series throughout the year.
For more information on Savor Borgata events, see theborgata.com
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