February 28, 2011

Raddichio-sly Good!

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Black truffles: check. Moët & Chandon: check. Slick hair, spotless chef uniforms, shiny leather shoes: check.

With the precision of an army platoon coupled with the aplomp of a crew of sassy runway models, students of a one-of-a-kind Hotel School class filed into the elegantly-decorated Beck Center at Statler Hall. The eighty-strong crowd sat with bated breath, as the student servers presented their eager guests with the fruits of their labor — well, the vegetables, to be exact.

After a year-long hiatus, HADM 4403: Specialty Food & Beverage Operations: Guest Chefs returns to fulfill the desire of many Hotel School restaurateur-wannabes and foodies alike — to have a chance to work with three top chefs in the restaurant industry throughout the spring semester. Under the tutelage of critically-acclaimed chefs from around the country, students take full control of the execution, service and organization of three guest-chef evening dinners. This is done while working around menus that best reflect the culinary style of each chef. Prior to the arrival of a guest chef, students research his background and cuisine, communicate regularly with the chef and his team via teleconference calls and make continuing efforts toward marketing the event. If the first event last Saturday was by any means a benchmark to judge the standard of the upcoming two events, there is no doubt that one will be returning for yet another evening of excellent, exquisite and exotic fine cuisine.

The vegetable radicchio was the focal ingredient of the first guest-chef event, skillfully and artfully presented by Chef Mark Ladner of Del Posto fame.

“We wanted the evening to be a celebration of Italy’s Veneto region and of winter’s favorite flower,” the long-time protégé of Mario Batali minced humbly as he addressed the champagne-wielding reception crowd. “Radicchio has a beautiful, vibrant quality and is a source of warmth beneath the snow.” Resembling the lovechild of red cabbage and iceberg lettuce, radicchio is increasingly gaining ubiquity in many northern Italian restaurants in the U.S. At the same time, American taste buds have yet to embrace this bitter, spicy vegetable with open arms. This is where Chef Ladner and his motley crew of sous chefs and Hotel School students undoubtedly shined. They successfully translated an unfamiliar ingredient as typical to Veneto as gondolas and bridges into the local vernacular, sitting well with the discerning taste-buds of the Cornell and Ithaca community. A price tag of $125 per person for such a unique dining experience seems justified after all. What other excuse do you need to splurge when you have utterly amazing food? Not much, really.

I, for one, could find no words to articulate how luscious and tender the entrée of apician-spiced duck breast was, accented with the unmistakable tartness of Tardivo leaves (a radicchio with wine-red leaves and bone-white ribs). Throw in some crunch from toasted sunflower seeds, some sweet from a beautifully-made pumpkin compote and round it up with the full-bodied, voluptuous Venetian red — there you have it, one of the best combinations of food and wine the diners had ever experienced. I reserve more superlatives for another favorite — the inventive radicchio ravioli that exploded into a saccharine-savory mix of caramelized Chioggia radicchio and salty house-made zampone sausage. There was literally an orchestra playing in my mouth, each flavor popping a note and singing a tune. Gelato for dessert brought me back to the cobbled sidewalks and rustic trattorias of Venice, as my wild imagination conjured the mellifluous melody of the accordion and the sight of pigeons fluttering on a grand piazza.

And of course, the service was nothing short of stunning. Maria Hera ’11 seemed like a veteran host, a knowledgeable sommelier and an affable server all rolled in one — her rigorous training as part of the wait staff at Taverna Banfi Restaurant at Statler Hotel undeniably made itself evident. Student servers maneuvered the dining area with relative ease and composure. You could sense the palpable excitement that shone through each and every one of their eyes.

Chef Mark Ladner, with his 6 ft. 4 frame, black-rimmed glasses and short-cropped hair, conveys a Clarke Kent-ish sense of fearlessness and focus. In the kitchen, he says he commands the presence of “a captain of a pirate ship.” That is until he removes his chef regalia and begins a casual conversation with you, that you realize that he is one of the most endearing chefs one can ask for. He is whimsical, unassuming and extremely modest. For a chef who has trained under the likes of Todd English and Jean Georges Vongerichten, Chef Ladner has the passion of an elephant but the ego of a mouse. Amid self-deprecating humor — calling himself a “degenerate” and confessing his new-found affection for sake-bombs in Ithaca, Chef Ladner has his moments of brilliance. During a post-mortem of the event, knowingly or unknowingly (sometimes, you can’t tell), he had dispensed nuggets of advice to Hotelies whom he had built a strong rapport and camaraderie with.

“Fine dining is a conundrum. It’s dead.”

“If you want to make money in this industry, do pasta, not proteins!”

“Remember, your guests want delicious food without the bullshit.”

When asked about what surprised him most about Hotel School students, Chef Ladner gushed about the “young, bright and energetic collegiate culture” that the students embodied. “What really intrigued me is also the diversity of interests that are represented at the Hotel School,” Chef Ladner said, “One minute, I’m speaking with someone who wants to open restaurants like Danny Meyer. Another, I am talking to a potential analyst who wants to work at a hospitality software company. It’s just amazing!”

Even after the curtains had been drawn for the evening, there was a dicernable buzz amongst the student organizers of the guest-chef event.

“Watching masters at work, meeting a chef who is at the top of his game, working with great people, this was an excellent learning experience,” said Rebecca Foxman ’11, who had the opportunity to work alongside Chef Ladner during the production and plating of dishes in the Hotel School culinary lab. While Aria Dorsey ’12 from the service team valued the new dynamics that emerged from the cooperation between young college students and experienced chefs, Janine Beydoun ’12 from the marketing team was eager to learn and improve on this maiden event in anticipation of the upcoming two.

“We hope to boost our décor to better fit the theme of the subsequent dinners,”  Janine said. “We will also have a reception of passed hors d’oeuvres which will be offered at a lower price point, to give more students the opportunity to attend this wonderful event.”

As high-fives were exchanged amongst students, teaching assistants and volunteers, the end of one journey marked the start of another, as the next guest-chef event comes in less than a fortnight. The pirate ship moves from the canals of Veneto to the streets of New York City, from which Chef Larry Finn of Four Seasons Restaurant (the birthplace of the Power Lunch) will bring his beacon of expertise and experience to Cornell University. Until then, more work beckons for these promising, future captains of our Hospitality ship.

The next two guest-chef events are scheduled for March 12 (Chef Larry Finn, Chef d’ Cuisine, Four Seasons Restaurant) and April 30 (Chef Katsuya Fukushima, Iron Chef). To register, visit http://guest.cvent.com/d/8dq5yg.

Original Author: Brandon Ho