Not to sound brash or anything, but we've always suspected our antics would make great television. Just think of it: the Burning Question crew swigging tequila straight from the bottle, staggering up to a camera slurbing "Wha chu lookin' at?" and trying out pickup moves on morning news anchors.
Ratings grabber, right? We thought so.
Well, during our research for this week's piece, KTVT's morning show joined us--and brought along a camera. So we were hanging out at Suze, sneaking bottles of wine from an unguarded rack and awaiting their arrival, when weatherbabe Julie Bologna strolled in. Turns out she slaved away as our unappreciated intern back when we worked at a PBS station inserting blatantly liberal messages into The Penn State Football Story, Outdoor Pennsylvania and The Vanishing Civil War.
Mentoring impressionable youths makes us a bit teary-eyed--in a manly way--when we sit down and think about it. Our teaching methods only set Bologna's career back a dozen years.
Now before addressing this week's topic, we must point something out. The Burning Question crew, we're not heroes. The inquiry, however, is clearly a plea to save this country. Why force democracy on the masses in oil-laden lands when a culinary insurgency threatens to enlighten Americans once satisfied with hot dogs, canned foods and TV dinners? A couple decades ago, people would poke at Stephan Pyles' creations, gesture at cilantro and blurt, "What's this?" But after years of fusion and Food Network, sophisticated diners refuse anything without black truffles, diver-harvested scallops, socca de Nice and such.
"Chicken a la king, stroganoff, Waldorf salad--those dishes are going to go away," warns Russ Hodges, chef at Iris and occasional prophet.
So, can great chefs cook ordinary food?
Because the future of this country's dining habits depends on the answer, we assembled the largest and most respectable Burning Question crew ever and handed plebeian menu items to four of Dallas' best chefs. We then visited each spot and sampled their take on American classics.
Our crew varied each stop. Megan Henderson and Mario Sotolongo from Fox 4's morning news joined us at Standard. We hit Iris with Brad Anderson and a mystery celebrity guest in tow. Suze featured Shannon Hori, Doug Dunbar, Rebecca Flores and Bologna from KTVT, along with famed chef Stephan Pyles. And finally, at Hector's, we sat with Jennifer Chininis from D magazine, Jim White of KLIF and WRR, and Pyles again.
Tim Byers of Standard prepared grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup--not the typical processed cheese and Campbell's version, but two very different presentations. The first, a simple compilation of Gruyère with a thin slice of tomato and a bit of bacon on seven-grain bread plus a bowl of basic tomato soup spiked by a dollop of carrot ginger. "It's like comfort food," Henderson says of the all-American meal. "I need to get more comfort food in my life." Byers followed that with a more eccentric sheep's milk cheese with a Southwestern kick and a gazpacho of roasted Roma tomatoes. We attempted to ask Sotolongo for her opinion, but she cut us off with "Don't disturb me right now, I'm eating."
The chef shrugs off his success. "Velveeta has its place," he says, "but if you have a great cheese and good tomatoes, it's easy to play with."
We forced Hodges to whip up a chicken a la king--again a winner. He stuffed savory chicken breast slices in a puff pastry shell along with edamame, wild mushrooms and a sauce of chicken stock, cream and Madeira because he drained the last of his sherry. Or rather, we finished it while he wasn't looking.
"It's spectacular," Anderson exclaimed after finishing the dish. "I could go for seconds."
Both chefs express the importance of good ingredients and simplicity. Early in a chef's career, Byers says, there's a tendency to pile on ingredients. Eventually they learn the value of simplicity. "I'm really pragmatic," Hodges agrees. "It's like an editor: Throw out the superfluous things."
Hell, our editor won't even allow us in the office.
Next, we dropped by Suze with the CBS 11 crew for chef Gilbert Garza's take on meatloaf. Actually, he put the news folks to work in the kitchen on a mixture of ground pork, beef and veal, plus pieces of fresh bread, aromatic vegetables, garlic and a drizzle of white truffle oil.
"The prep time is no different than what I do at home," says Dunbar, who professes an interest in cooking (and who emerged from the kitchen with egg all over his shirt). "No question I could do this." Truffle oil veered from the norm, but otherwise it's a fundamental preparation. Yet somehow the Garza/CBS meatloaf carried a very subtle array of flavors--nothing overpowering, just a hint of sweetness, a dart of pepper and a slightly musky aroma.
So good, in fact, that Hori blurted, "It's better than what my mom used to make."
Finally, we arrived at Hector's on Henderson. Chef Todd Erickson had never baked a tuna casserole and, he admits, "my sous chef thought the idea was nauseating." Even Pyles almost balked at the idea. "Just the vision of tuna noodle casserole," he says with a grimace, "no, I don't eat crap." The recipe achieved popularity during the Leave It To Beaver and Dick Van Dyke Show era, when soup companies promoted multiple uses for canned foods.
But Erickson displayed a creative flair, first sautéing vegetables, wild mushrooms and shallots then adding heavy cream--a mushroom béchamel instead of Campbell's. Tuna, noodles and a bread-crumb crust with Asiago cheese, French chile powder and a veritable ton of butter completed the dish.
"Nobody would want to eat a casserole made with canned soup," Chininis points out. "This feels like the old school stuff, just a lot better."
So yes, great chefs can cook ordinary foods. White even urged Hector's to put casserole on their regular menu. "It could really be an 'a-ha' dish," he says, meaning such a presentation could defy expectations. Yet, as we mentioned, these recipes lost popularity as American tastes expanded over the past 25 years.
Too bad. For as Pyles explains, with good ingredients and creative preparation, "there's nothing wrong with these dishes."
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