Here’s a quick recap: Two weeks ago Paul C. (keeper of Xesla Research Organisation) invited me along to attend the Annual Duck Off competition in Sacramento between the two time James Beard nominee Hank Shaw and Grange Restaurant’s very talented Chef Tuohy. Diners would be served courses from both, which we would then vote for our favorites. We went, we ate, we hunted. It was an amazing weekend and I feel lucky to have been invited. Paul, thank you. Paul has also written about his experiences about our first day, which you can check out here.
The competition took place the same day we flew into California. After checking in, eating an amazing lunch and then taking a short siesta, Paul and I made our way down to the Grange to partake in a copious amount of mouth-watering duck.
If you haven’t already seen Hank’s post about the event, I suggest hitting his site first. I’m going to be talking about each dish with the assumption that you already know the outcome. Some of the dishes were resounding successes. Others just missed the mark, and I’ll be heavily quoting Mr. Shaw’s thoughts here and there to give you the other side of the dinner. The biggest thing to take away from the event has already been summed up perfectly by Hank.
Any of you out there who watch “Top Chef” or similar shows and armchair chef the whole thing — “Oh! Don’t use cilantro there! See? I knew he’d braise that beef! — you need to check yourself. I consider myself a good cook, better than most home cooks even. But this was HARD. Hard physically, mentally and, to some extent, even emotionally.
Keep all of that in mind as you read. My hat is off to Mr. Shaw for accomplishing a complex dinner for the public that I wouldn’t be able to pull off… pretty much ever, even in my wildest dreams.
First up: the amuse bouches.
Tuohy’s Little egg stuffed with duck liver mousse and yuzu gelee
These are the notes that I took during the dinner: The yuzu is very delicate, a successful dish, wonderful texture, light, refreshing.
Paul and I loved the flavor and texture of Touhy’s first plate. The live mousse had a luscious mouth-feel and a dynamite flavor. Sadly, my yuzu gelee had melted completely by the time it was placed in front of me.
Shaw’s Duck tartare with olives, capers, roasted peppers and garlic
This little ruby of duck meat is Hanks’s amuse, and my notes on it were: Nice flavors, big chunks of duck, a little chewy and not as delicate a texture one might expect from a tartare, very bold.
Hank was aware of the chewiness before he even sent the amuses out. I’ll let him explain what happened.
I make this at home by slicing duck hearts and breast meat into tiny cubes — a brunoise, to be very French. Ever try this with six pounds of raw duck? It’s impossible, unless your knife is as sharp as lightning and you have several hours. I didn’t have several hours. So I chopped it as best I could, but I knew that the texture was wrong.
That explains the texture of the tartare. The flavors were big and authoritative without overshadowing the flavor of the duck. I can imagine that when given more time this would be a real treat.
Then, the first courses showed up.
Tuohy’s duck consomme with foie gras dumpling, matsutake mushroom and radish sprouts
My notes: Very cold, the foie dumpling was a nice burst of sweet and savory, but the dumpling itself was a little undercooked and chewy. Properly seasoned consomme.
It was tough having to pick a favorite between the two. We ended up voting for Chef Tuohy’s consomme because it was seasoned and a little warmer than Hank’s dish.
Shaw’s duck liver tortelloni made from duck eggs in a rich duck broth
My notes on this course: Very cold, perfectly cooked tender pasta, needs salt.
Again, an explanation of the dish from Mr. Shaw.
As I spoke with diners and friends, I learned of my last disaster: I’d forgotten to salt my consomme! I almost threw up when I realized that. Do you know how many times I’ve heard Tom Colicchio on Top Chef say some cheftestant had underseasoned his food? How many times I shouted at the TV (oh yes, people, I was one of those armchair chefs, too!) that the cook was stupid for not tasting his food? Well folks, it happened to me. That dish was beautiful, perfect, a triumph. Destroyed because I forgot to toss some salt in it. I was devastated. Still am, really.
When Paul and I talked with Hank after the competition had ended, we mentioned that this course had been a little on the cold side. It turns out that there was nothing that Hank could have done about the heat. The broth had left his hands at the proper temperature. It was then up to the wait staff to get them to us in time. Paul had reasoned that the broth might have been properly seasoned but due to cooling off so much that the needed seasoning was missing. It’s well known that you really need to almost over-salt colder dishes like terrines and their ilk to counter this effect. Let this be a reminder to you Monday morning chefs: It’s not even remotely as easy as you think it is.
Before we could finish off the consummes, the next course appeared.
Tuohy’s duck confit with pickled daikon and mango salad with shiso and a quince syrup
My notes: Daikon and mango salad adds a nice bit of brightness. Confit is excellent, wonderful mouth feel. Crispy shards of duck skin are always appreciated. Wish the portion was bigger. Perfectly executed dish.
Chef Tuohy knocked this one out of the park. I forced myself to eat this as slowly as possible to savor every bite. It was the best dish the good chef put out during the competition.
Shaw’s duck leg stuffed with duck and pork loganiza sausage and bitter greens
My notes: This didn’t seem to work. Muted flavors. Sausage is dry. Greens were unique and fresh. I’d like to see this made again.
When Hank explained what had happened to his dish, my heart sank. I’ll let him paint the picture.
My boned-out legs needed to be cooked sous vide, but no immersion circulator is large enough to hold 57 legs. So we decided to seal the rolled up legs in cryovac bags and cook them in a hot box at about 180 degrees, or 32 degrees warmer than I’d planned to cook them.
That temperature difference killed me. The legs fell to pieces. Ruined. All the fat rendered out of the sausage, as I had feared. I was screwed. But with only a few hours to go before service, there was nothing we could do. It tasted OK, if a little crumbly and undersalted. So I decided to serve it with a little Trapani fleur de sel and a splash of sherry vinegar. Longaniza is supposed to be vinegary, anyway.
You’ve gotta give Hank and crew props for trying to switch techniques so close to game time. It’s a real shame that McGyverying the duck legs didn’t pan out, because the original recipe undoubtedly produces mouth-watering results.
Finally, the main courses were served.
Touhy’s spice scented duck breast with sweet potato, baby bok choy and persimmon
My notes: The duck breast was wonderfully charred on the outside, but a little chewy. Good flavor combinations. The puree is light and expertly prepared.
Paul and I both greatly enjoyed this plate. The breast meat was a smidge on the chewy side, but nothing too terrible. Chef Touhy could easily add this dish to his menu and I’m sure it would sell very well. I actually mentioned a desire for a second serving of both main courses. You’ll see why here shortly.
Hank’s duck breast roulade with swiss chard, celery root puree, chanterelles and rue
Wow. Speaking of knocking one out of the park, Hank obliterated it. Best dish of the night right here. My notes are as follows: Duck is perfectly cooked and seasoned. Celery puree was light and flavorful, chanterelles were excellent.
Talking with Hank later, he mentioned that this dish was inspired by Thomas Keller. I think Keller would be rather proud to have such a magnificent plate attributed to him. Hank also mentioned that there was a significant amount of duck fat in the celery root puree, which would explain how luxurious it tasted. Take notes people: duck fat makes everything better.
Even though we were fairly stuffed at this point, dessert was served. It would be a crime to not mention it.
Pastry chef Elaine Baker made a killer mincemeat strudel with a calvados hard sauce and apple-foie butter. The whole dessert was heavenly, and the hard sauce-the white, ice cream like cream in the middle-will probably be something that I dream about eventually. A perfect ending to a perfect evening.
When all of the votes were counted, Chef Touhy was crowned the winner, but Hank’s main course ended up making a serious impact on the dinners. Sacramento Bee food columnist Rick Kushman gave Hank the win for the roulade and consomme courses, with a slight edge overall going to Chef Tuohy.
Again, what an amazing event to attend. I’m already considering making the trip to next year’s showdown.
On Monday, part two.