[donotprint]"Food bloggers, come in our restaurants, take photos of the food and then criticise us on their blogs, what do they know about food?"
Hence, the ever innovative people at Merivale thought is a good idea to put four Sydney food bloggers to the test, let them run wild in a professional kitchen and prepare a 5-course meal for 70 paying guests at Bistro CBD as part of their Feast for the Senses winter promotion, with a cringeworthy punchline on their invitation, "Critique the critics." The truth is, "Fuck!" was my initial thought when I found out that I am about to put my head on the chopping board, but "Fuck It!" was more my reaction, bring it on I say and I can't wait to cook along with three talented food bloggers. And it all started two months ago...
Two Months Ago
How many guests have you ever cooked for in one seating? 12? 15? Let's try 70. Among, the four of us, Fouad is the only one who has had the experience cooking for big numbers from the numerous secret dinners he organised last year. For the last two months, we've been brainstorming, planning, researching and experimenting, trying to come up with our dishes is one of the most crucial phases during the whole process.
All I knew was I wanted to play with pork, particularly by using the underrated parts of a pig - trotter and ear for instance. But who would have thought those cuts are so difficult to find in Central Coast and Sydney? After a few experiments at home and almost certain that I am on to a winner here - the whole idea was scraped after our first cook test meeting due to many reasons, too much deep fry, too difficult to source the ingredients, and most importantly, all the components simply don't work together on one plate.
We quickly learned that whatever we have in mind doesn't always work. None of our dishes from the first cook test stay in the menu and pretty much back to the drawing board. I'm glad to work with a great team where everyone was open to harsh but constructive criticism, honesty hurts but it is also the only way to improve ourselves. You'd be surprised how things changed rather quickly once everyone is open up to each other. We've had our second cook test within the same week and the outcome was much more positive. Our dishes were finalised immediately, that's the same dishes we served at Bistro CBD.
Then, it is all down to the 18 gruelling hours in the kitchen before the final show down.
We are booked into The Ivy function kitchen to do most of our prep work as the Bistro CBD's kitchen is too tiny for us to squeeze in among with other chefs while they are busy working for the dinner service. Our ingredients are already in the cold storage and head chef, David O'Brien has also assigned one of his sous chefs to help us out throughout the evening, especially on how to use the heavy machines in the kitchen. It took us almost an hour just to familiarise ourselves with the kitchen, the utensils, the knives, etc.
I wasted an hour preparing the salt rub for my pork, but only to find that the pork bellies in the tray are actually already marinated by Simun Dragicevich, the head chef at Bistro CBD. So a quick wash and in they go into the huge oven for the braising process. Karen has started searing her beef cheeks while Fouad is preparing the ingredients for Karen's beef stock.
Linda calls, needs help to move all her ingredients from Bistro CBD that she had prepared the previous night to function kitchen and join us. My pork bellies are in the second stage of braising, Karen's beef cheeks are also now braising in an industry huge pot. Fouad is frying up his lamb mince and getting all his mis en place ready for dumpling folding action later.
9.00pm - 12.00am
The team is now complete and in full swing at the Ivy function kitchen. It is pretty much non-stop for the next 3 hours in the kitchen. I have finished preparing most of my components by 11pm, and the pork bellies had been braised for 3 hours and is now ready to keep them inside the cold storage overnight along with Karen's beef cheeks. Linda is not far behind and almost finished her components after a few mishaps. We take turns to help Fouad folding the dumplings and eventually we have folded over 250 dumplings just before midnight.
Already in bed, but starting to panic as I just remember that I forgot one crucial step that I need to do on my pork bellies before leaving the kitchen. It wasn't a pleasant sleep with thoughts in mind.
Wednesday, 10.00am - 12.00pm
I go back to the Ivy function kitchen early on my own trying to save the pork bellies before it's too late. One small little step that I forgot the previous night has resulted a very tedious cleaning up job which takes me almost two hours to complete. But the piggies are fine.
We all supposed to meet at Bistro CBD right after their lunch service so we can start preparing our dinner event. But alas, our ingredients are still at the Ivy function kitchen and no one seems to know when they will be delivered over either. I run back to Ivy function kitchen to help Linda finishing up her rhubarb jam, while she focuses on the brandy snaps back at Bistro CBD kitchen.
Karen and Fouad show up, Simun arrives to pick up the ingredients.
The team is complete again and now we only have one hour to finish our final preparation. The chefs at Bistro CBD are extremely helpful, all the stocks are now being reduced, while some of us are finishing up the last few components that need to keep warm. Karen is mashing her cauliflower, Fouad is stirring his yoghurt continuously, Linda puts the final glaze on her chocolate cake while I frying up some black pudding.
We have a staff meal together. It is our last hour to relax before the guests' arrival.
The time has come. "Portion your pork belly now, start deep frying your dumplings, It's all go, go, GO now!" head chef Simun commands everyone and I can instantly smell the tensions in the air. I can hear guests arriving outside in the dining area while in the kitchen, everyone is now at their stations working twice as fast.
Portioning the pork belly takes longer than I'd thought, especially each piece has to be precisely around 80 gram. I actually don't remember much what's going on at the front of the kitchen when Simun's dish is the first course to be send out. Fouad has already started frying the dumplings in the deep fryer as his dish comes next.
Fouad is now at the pass plating his dishes. Linda is still deep frying the dumplings, while I am juggling over 4 skillets, pan frying 20 pieces of pork belly at a time with oil spluttering everywhere.
"Billy, are you ready?" Simun shouts over the pass while I am still only half way through pan frying the pork bellies. It is time for me to be at the front plating the dishes, a sous chef takes over the pan frying job. First thing we learn is to count the plates - each table must be served with the dishes using the plates of the same shape. Most of the tables come in a group of 4 or 8, and then there is a group of 18! (you know who you are ;) )
I think I have almost everyone in the kitchen helping me plating my dishes - I brush the beetroot jus, Karen follows right behind with beetroot cubes, Fouad garnishes with microherbs, Linda adds the reduction jus, Simun pipes the apple caramel gel, then back to me sprinkling the black pudding crumbs and I don't even remember who puts the pork belly on the plates. The team works like a well oiled machine and I am very happy with how all the dishes are plated in the nick of time before sending out.
It is Karen's show time! "My dish is very easy to plate, I only need two helpers," Karen assigns me and Fouad to help her so Linda can start focusing on her dessert which needs more attentions. Karen dollops a spoonful of cauliflower puree and a quick stroke, Fouad places the beef cheeks on top, and my job is simply pouring the PX sauce over the top. The pace has definitely slow down a little and we finally can take some time to wipe off those battling scars.
We all go upstairs to help Linda on her dessert. The dessert is possibly the most time consuming dish to plate up as some of the delicate components have to handle with care. Fouad is drawing the rhubarb jam on the plate, as I sprinkling the crumbs, Karen dots the plate with microherbs, a sous chef gingerly places chocolate cake over the top and Linda adds salt as the final touch before sending down to the kitchen to add a scoop of ice cream at the pass.
Done and dusted, and it's all over.
It is truly a memorable experience working in a professional kitchen along with professional chefs and 3 good friends. No one says it is going to be easy - the long hours, the adrenalin rush, the moment you know your dish is being judged by 70 people, it is a daunting experience but I loved every single moment of it and I would do it all over again in a flash without questions. I do have deep respects for all the chefs out there who have to go through this day after day.
Lastly, I would like to thank Merivale for taking the initiative by organising such a fun event and having us to be part of it, Simun and his team for the amount of support and help throughout the whole evening and pushed us through all the hurdles. Also thank you to all the guests who came out to support us and all your kind words makes our 18 gruelling hours in the kitchen so much more worthwhile.
You can find out more what others have to say about the Food Bloggers' Dinner event:
- Grab Your Fork
- Eat Show & Tell
- Penguin says Feed me
- The Ninja Review
- Hungry Digital Elf
The picture above is the initial concept of the dish during our second cook-test. There are a few extra components on the dish that didn't make the cut - pig's ear for instance, was way too crunchy after deep frying and the horseradish egg yolk pearls doesn't really add much value to the dish except adding colour.
Anyway, for those who are interested, here are the recipes of my "Pork you!" twice-cooked pork belly:
"Pork You!"- Twice-cooked pork belly with beet root, apple caramel gel and black pudding
Twice-cooked pork belly (Adapted from Almost Bourdain)
1 x 2 kg pork belly, skin on
2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 leeks, sliced
2 sticks celery, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 litres chicken stock
Aromatic salt rub:
500 g rock salt
1 bunch thyme, chopped
1 bunch sage, chopped
1 bunch rosemary, chopped
Zest of 2 oranges
Method 1. Prepare the salt rub, mix all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
2. Place the pork in a tray skin side down, rub the salt mix all over the meat (not the skin). Wrap with clingfilm, put another tray of the same size over the top and weigh it down with heavy objects (cans, tins, jars).
3. Leave it in the refrigerator and let it cure for at least 2 hours. After curing, rinse the pork well under running water then pat it dry.
4. Preheat oven to 180C.
5. Heat the butter gently in a large heavy-based saucepan. Sauteed the carrots, onion, leeks and celery until soften. Add bay leaves and stock and bring to the boil.
6. Sandwich the pork between two sheets of baking paper, and place it back into the baking tray skin-side down. Pour on enough of the boiling stock so that the pork belly is fully submerged. Cover with aluminium foil and transfer to the oven and cook for 30 minutes.
7. After 30 mins, turn the oven temperature down to 120C and continue braising the pork belly for another 2.5 hours. Remove from the oven and leave the pork in the liquid until cool enough to handle.
8. Transfer the pork to a clean tray lined with a clean sheet of baking paper, skin side down. Once again, weigh it down using another tray over the top and heavy objects over the top. Transfer the pork to the refrigerator and leave it overnight.
9. When ready to cook, portion the pork belly to the desire quantity. (80gram for instance)
10. Add just enough oil to a skillet over low-medium heat. Take extra precautions as hot oil will splutter everywhere when pan-frying the skin if the oil is too hot. Technique: add the pork belly to the skillet as soon as the oil is still slowly heating up, it will slowly cook the pork skin and eliminate all the excess pork fat without too much spluttering. After 5 minutes, now you can turn the heat up to medium-high and fry the skin side for another 2 mins until it is nice golden and crispy. Turn the pork over and fry the bottom for another 2 minutes to make sure the pork belly is nice and warm before serve.
11. Drain the stock into a saucepan through a sift, discard the remaining. Bring the stock to boil over high heat and reduce it to a thick sticky jus. Skim off any oil and crap floating on the top. Set aside until before serving.
Apple caramel gel (Adapted from playing with fire and water)
150g apple juice
Method 1. Place the apple juice in a saucepan. Sprinkle the agar and gelatin over the top and let stand 2 minutes for the gelatin to bloom.
2. Set pan over medium high heat, whisking until gelatin and agar are dissolved. Bring to a boil and continue boiling under mixture is reduced to app. 2 Tablespoons.
3. Add 80g apple juice. Boil and reduce to app. 5 Tablespoons. Test it with a cold plate straight out from a freezer. The texture should be firm enough to hold its shape, yet the pull of a knife renders it fluid. The mouthfeel is creamy like caramel with the viscosity of gel.
4. Once is ready, let it set in the fridge for over an hour. Take it out and whisk it until it doubles its volume. The texture now should be light and airy, you still able to taste the acidity of the apple, and the caramel foam/gel is opaque in colour.
Beetroot jus and beetroot cubes
4 big beetroots
1 cinnamon stick
5 tbsp sugar
1. Add beetroot (with skin on) into a large pot of water and bring to boil for 1 hour. Poke the beetroot with a knife and if its go through the core of the beetroot with ease, then they are ready.
2. Drain and set aside to let it cool.
3. Run the beetroot under tap water and peel the skins off by pushing it using two thumbs.
Beetroot cubes - 4. Take 2 of the beetroots and cut them into 1cm x 1cm cubes. Add 1 tbsp of sugar and squeeze juice of a one lemon all over, toss well and is ready.
Beetroot jus - 4. Add 2 of the beetroots and a cup of water into a food processor and puree them. If it's too dry, add more water until the blade catch on. Pour the puree into a pot and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Add sugar and cinnamon stick and bring to oil and reduce the puree by half. Drain the beetroot jus through a sift, and bring it to boil once again and reduce to a thick sticky jus. Set aside and let cool.
Black pudding Ingredients 1 x black pudding
Method 1. Take the sausage tubing off the pudding, crumb up the mixture a little by using fingers.
2. heat up a pan with oil, and pan fry the black pudding crumbs until black and fragrant.
1. Use a 3-inch pastry brush, draw a long slick of beetroot jus across the plate.
2. Add a spoonful of stock reduction and place the pork belly over the top.
3. garnish with beetroot cubes, sprinkle a trail of black pudding along the slick, and pipe a dollop of apple caramel gel in between.
4. Garnish with microherbs.
Bistro CBD 52 King St
Sydney NSW 2000
P: +61 (02) 9240 3000
Note: The Food blogger's dinner event is also the final night of service for Bistro CBD. After 16 years of service, Bistro CBD will close its doors and reopen as BiSTRODE CBD with Jeremy Strode at the helm around mid-August. Simun Dragicevich will still be working along with Jeremy for the next few months until he opens his own restaurant shortly in November.
What is ATFT's Titbits?
On a lighter note, something is brewing behind ATFT's factory. I won't give away too much details for now, but there will be lots of never-before-seen "titbits" to share with you all. Launch date to be confirmed, but sign up now and be the one to have the first bite.