Monday, April 06, 2009

The art of recovery and the importance of Teamwork

This past weekend I competed in the Grillin' On the Bay event with Dave and Nancy Peterson. I'm about to explain to you the disaster and recovery of our chefs choice Entry.

The chefs choice category for this event was pretty wide open which meant we knew we would be competing against things like lobster and filet mignion. We had to decide if we wanted to attempt to make the best lobster or filet dish or try to come up with something different. If you knew anything about the 3 of us you would realize that we tend to buck the trends and go our own way. Our first thought was beef ribs which is something I cook with I Smell Smoke on occasion and we do very well with, but hey been there done that right ? Then we thought about beef shanks and again I felt that was too similar to the short rib recipe. Finally we decided to do a classic Veal Osso Bucco in the dutch oven, remember everything for this event had to be cooked over wood or charcoal.

If you've had Osso Bucco in a restaurant then you know the portions tend to be pretty large and it would be very difficult for us to fit 6 pieces in the 9x9 styrofoam container that we are required to use for competition. A quick phone call to my friend Doug who is in the food service business and we had some 3 oz portions of Veal shanks on order. This plan was starting to come together.Osso Bucco is a pretty involved dish to make, not difficult but somewhat time consuming. Tie the meat, Season the meat, brown the meat, chop the veggies, saute the veggies, deglaze the pan with wine, add stock as needed during the braising process, etc. And to top that off you have to add in the effort it takes to keep the dutch oven hot enough to keep the liquid simmering but not so hot that you burn what's inside. This is done by adding a few lit pieces of charcoal over a 3 hour time period. We had to do this and work on 3 other categories that we were cooking.

I won't even mention how Windy the weather was that day because it really wasn't a factor. We were able to go through all the steps and had a great Veal Osso Bucco ready to go a little over 1 hour before the turn in time for the chefs choice category. We tasted the veal and the sauce and it was outstanding, melt in your mouth meat with a rich flavorful sauce. The fact that we were early was not a big deal. We removed the dutch oven from the fire and set it aside to cool and planned to reheat the dish shortly before serving.

The category before Chefs Choice was pork and we had the fire pretty hot to quickly grill some Pork chops. After we grilled the chops we spread out the charcoal in the grill so it would cool somewhat. There were 45 minutes between categories so we figured the coals would die down enough for us to put the dutch oven in the fire to reheat the veal and sauce. Twenty minutes before it was time to turn in the Veal we put the dutch oven on the grill to reaheat. Literally 3 minutes later when I went to check to see how it was doing I opened the lid to find a burnt mess ! A lot of the liquid in the sauce must have evaporated while it was resting for that hour off of the fire, the cast iron does hold heat well. First I tasted the sauce.....yuck the burn totally permeated it. Then I tasted the meat.....double yuck, I couldn't get that burnt taste out of my mouth. The dish was ruined, there was no point in even turning it in...........or was there ?

I'm sure my team mates could see the look of frustration on my face. All that work for nothing. Nancy suggested maybe we could come up with a sauce that would work with the veal, we did have some tomato sauce and other ingredients. I was doubtful, at this point I think I was ready to just throw in the towel. Then Dave suggested we seek out Brendan from Transfomer BBQ and see if he had any of the bbq sauce we loaned him earlier in the day. I perked up a little at that suggestion. Bbq sauce can hide a lot of mistakes but that burnt taste was still in my mouth so I was still very skeptical. Then it came to me...maybe we could wash some of that burned taste off the meat, maybe it hadn't penetrated the meat and it was just from the sauce that was still covering it. I asked Dave to start heating some chicken stock while I went over to Brendan's to see if he had any bbq sauce left.

I think Brendan sensed that I was stressing a bit and I explained to him I destroyed my chefs choice entry. He handed me the sauce and I moped back to my site convinced I was wasting my time but resigned to produce something we could turn in.

When I got back we took each shank and swirled it in the heated chicken stock to rinse them trying to get as much of the osso bucco sauce off as we could. We were running out of time. I asked for a brush for the sauce but both of our brushes were in dishwater waiting to be cleaned, we were going to spoon the osso bucco sauce over the meat not brush it on. So I just poured some of the sauce out and applied it to a piece of meat with my gloved hand. Here was the moment of or die time.... put up or shut up time....I had to taste the meat, I wasn't looking forward to it. I broke off a small piece I really didn't want any more of that burnt taste in my mouth. I placed it in my mouth..... began to slowly chew....hmmm....ummmm...err hey this isn't bad. I took a bigger piece.... not bad at all. We had something I wasn't totally embarrassed to turn it. I figured at least we won't get last place......I hope !

We filled the turn in box with the wonderful truffle risotto that Dave cooked and carefully added 7 veal shanks that we were able to save. I don't have any pictures but someone from snapped one just before we closed the box for turn in. We joked that we hope the picture doesn't show up on his website and we place DAL with it. I dusted the meat with an orange gremalata I had made for the osso bucco, I figured what the heck I took the time to make it so I might as well put it on there then I gave the box to Nancy to turn in to the judges. Phew that was intense.

When Nancy returned to the site and we were cleaning up we started joking about what if it does well we won't be able to keep a straight face. While I wasn't very happy with the entry I was pretty happy how we dealt with the whole situation. We didn't give up and we all worked together to get something turned in and at least not get disqualified. I had a real feeling of pride and satisfaction at that point, it's hard to explain but it was really an uplifting experience. I think these are the moments that real competitors live for. It was a real challenge, we faced it head on and we persevered.

When the Chefs Choice category was announced I figured we didn't stand a chance of hearing our name called. I'm not saying what we turned in was horrible but it was a far cry from what I envisioned us turning in. They were also announcing the last place team in each category and I even feared if we did hear our name it would be for that. To my amazement and Nancy's hysterical laughter we were called for 4th place in Chef's choice. Unbelievable ! There were some pretty skilled competitors there that we beat.

So what's the moral to this whole thing ? To me it's this... First, when you start a team make sure you surround yourself with good people that will lift you up when things go bad, people you can count on during a crisis(I've been pretty lucky in this regard). Second...Never give up. Always do your best to turn something in. It may not be your best but it will be the best you could come up with in that situation.

Next stop Salisbury Maryland....


WhiteTrashBBQ said...

Great story Steve.

watg? said...

great story with a very important lesson, thanks for sharing. See you in two weeks!

lunchlady said...

I wondered why Nancy BURST out laughing when Robert called your name...

That is the single biggest thing that I admire about you (and whatever team you're with)... the ability to recover when the Sh*t hits the fan... well, that and the 1st place ribs at the Jack!!

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