Bite Night with Top Chefs in Dallas!

So, last week I got to do something super cool. The cheftestants from last season of Top Chef got together to do a fundraiser in Dallas and all made little dishes highlighting Texas produce and livestock. Located at a beautiful outdoor farmer’s market, “Bite Night” felt exactly like the competitions featured on Top Chef…well, without Tom, Padma, Gail, and all the pressure. Last season was as close to an “All Star” season as we’ve had in several years, so my and my BFF (best food friend) Kyle were more than willing to make the drive to D-town and join our friends Tori and Matt for the occasion.

Apologies for not taking more pictures of the food. Turns out holding a drink, a food tray, feeding yourself, and holding a phone to take a pic all at the same time is kinda difficult.

The four of us couldn’t stop raving about how perfect the event was. Before big gatherings like this, I always worry about long lines for food, excessive heat, substandard alcohol options, obnoxious people etc. Instead, we were greeted with an airy outdoor venue, buzzing but not too packed, with enough food and drink offerings scattered about that no line took more than a few minutes. After a few Deep Ellum brews (because that’s a must while in Dallas), we sipped on absinthe cocktails (seriously!) and a delicious St Germain and prosecco spritzer that was so tasty I bought a bottle of the elderflower liquer the next day. But you know we didn’t come for the drinks….we came to all geek out over our favorite TC contestants and finally get to taste their food!
The chefs all know these events are basically all just a big PR/marketing job, so for the most part everyone was really charming and acted flattered when asked to take photos. I appreciated that they were so willing to answer questions, talk about the food, laugh about the show, and seemed to enjoy interacting with their fans. I imagine it’s hard to stay “on” like that, but it really did make the night super memorable.
I didn’t take great notes, but several chefs and their dishes stand out in my mind. Our first stop was at Sheldon Simeon’s booth, because OF COURSE. He made some sort of cornmeal crusted chicken wing with a peanut sauce, lime and cilantro. You really can’t go wrong with those kind of flavors and textures–total crowd pleasers. That being said, you could tell each element was put together by a professional and it was absolutely delicious. We told him about our Top Chef draft and seemed amused when we told him he was the number one pick. Then he apologized to Kyle for losing it for him which was pretty funny.
Shirley Chung made a crazy-tender beef cheek, and had her husband with her to help plate the food. It was really cook watching them work together–they’re in the process of opening a totally self-financed fast casual restaurant in California, and Shirley’s husband runs all the business aspects of the operation. Brooke Williamson made a charred skirt steak over a brioche sauce and a watercress salad on top. It blew my mind that they could put food out like that with just a plancha and a hot plate to work with!
John Tesar, the host chef for the event, made a lobster and crab toast with some kind of tasty orange thing crumbled on top–pretty sure it was lobster coral, which I’ve read about in one of Thomas Keller’s cookbooks but had never seen or tasted before. Katsuji made a amazing poached shrimp on a rice cracked with some sort of acidic and peppery sauce and topped it with a giant piece of uni! I told him that we named out cat after him, and now call Scout and Barkley “Scoutsuji” and “Barksuji” in his honor. He told me to tag all of them on instagram so his wife would believe the story, haha!
We didn’t get to see much of Gerald Sombright on the show, but his filet mignon with “billionaire potatoes” was definitely something to write home about. It was basically a hollowed-out crispy fingerling potato boat filled with caviar. I couldn’t stop staring at his station because I’ve never seen that much caviar in a container before in my entire life–the good tapioca sized caviar, not the tiny roe specks you get at sushi restaurants.
Speaking of luxury products in bulk, just that morning I watched the Instagram story of Alinea’s chef de cuisine and marveled at how their fresh uni arrives packed into a book-sized wooden cigar box. Six hours later at Bite Night, both Katsuji and BJ Smith had those exact same boxes of uni at their stations. BJ made a fresh potato chip with bison tartare and a fat piece of uni right on top. Kyle and I went back for three helpings. You never can eat enough uni.
Seriously. I could eat uni every day, and I’m pretty sure Kyle could too.
Getting to talk with Casey Thompson was a big highlight of the night for me. The deep fryer at her station took awhile to heat, so she kinda bounced around with the crowd and talked to me, Kyle, and Tori for a solid ten minutes. She’s just as stunning in person as she is on TV, and has a genuine warmness about her–she reminded me of Tammi Taylor from Friday Night Lights! She made a fried chicken liver and chicken skin slider. Ah, the two BEST parts of a bird.
Silvia made a delicious bolognese sauces with handmade cavatelli and roasted bone marrow, Emily Hahn made a beef empanada with pumpkin sauce, and Annie made a steak and beet tartare. Jamie Lynch’s sousvide strip steak with smoked mashed potatoes was moist and perfect, it was really fun getting to tell him that he was my pick in the draft.

It was awesome getting to taste so many of my culinary heroes’ food, but even cooler getting to meet so many in person. I know a lot of people don’t understand food as a hobby, but I see it as a way to engage with the world around you. Visiting a city for work or pleasure is that much more special when you get to eat at the home restaurant of a chef that you follow. Inserting creativity and expression into something you have to do daily turns a chore into something you can look forward to. I know it’s not for everyone, but I’m glad to have a hobby that’s such an easy point of connection with the community around me.

Travelogue: Maison208 in Philadelphia

Real Talk: I visited this place 2 months ago, and have been so slammed I’m just now getting around to writing this. I didn’t take many notes, but it was such a special night, everything’s still seared in my memory.

You don’t have to know me long to know that I’m obsessed with Top Chef. I tweet about it frequently, have a fantasy draft with my husband and our best friend, and all the old seasons are on continuous loop in my house. I’ve taken great pride in the fact that I can list out all cheftestant superlatives at the drop of a hat: the funniest (Fabio and Stefan), the most overrated (Marcel, Hosea, and the jerkface who won New Orleans), the ones who could have won a different season (Dale Talde, Antonia, Greg Gourdet, Jen Carroll), the sexiest (Sam, Casey, Tre), and the ones you’d most want to be best friends with (Sam, Casey, Tre). It should come as no surprise that when I travel, I love to hit up restaurants from Top Chef alumni and judges. While in Philadelphia last July I got to visit Maison208, the brand new restaurant from Sylva Senat.

From the first 10 minutes of last season’s Top Chef, I knew Sylva was going to be a heavy hitter. The way he butchered that chicken in the first scene let me know he had some major culinary chops. He carried himself with a quiet confidence that was warm but also stately. I was surprised to see him in the restaurant, and even more surprised when the host sat us 6 feet away from him. My sister, my friend Sean, and my friend Sara giggled at my bashfulness. The waiter dropped a “so I hear someone’s a big Top Chef fan,” and I had to audibly remind myself to play it cool. We ordered (someone questioned what dorado was out loud and I saw Sylva chuckle to himself) and I was sure to include a few dishes that I recognized from the TV show. The family style menu made it super conducive to tasting lots of dishes, which is ya know, exactly how I like to eat.

When our appetizers came out, Sylva delivered them personally, introduced himself, and started to chat with us about the restaurant and (of course) the show. He was just as classy and kind as he looked like he would be on TV, earnestly engaging with us and sharing some insider knowledge. And when I say “insider knowledge,” I mean he SPILLED THE TEA. It was amazing!

He shared some of his favorite housemates, and told me that the cast normally travels while the show airs to have watch parties and dine in each other’s restaurants. He told us that he had been a longtime fan of Sheldon and Brooke, and expressed how cool it was to get to know and learn from both of them. He told us that during the first episode’s sudden death cook-off, everyone was certain Tesar was going home, but once Tesar pulled out the truffles from his bag, they all knew it was over. He was intrigued by our fantasy snake draft, and wanted to know what order everyone was taken–which by the way, Sylva was actually pick #2, right after Sheldon. (I told you guys, those mad butchery skills!). He thought it was hilarious that we named our cat after Katsuji.

One of our appetizers was the curried beef lollipops you might remember from the charity gala fundraiser challenge. On the show, they told viewers that each attendee paid $500 for their ticket, so they would need to make very upscale food to match that. What they didn’t tell you on Bravo was that they gave each chef a budget of $5,000!! Mind boggling, I know. Sylva said because they all had that credit to burn with Whole Foods, he spend his on premium dry-aged ribeyes…that he promptly took back to the Top Chef kitchen and ran through a meat grinder. Tom Collichio came to check on all the contestants, and abruptly halted and questioned Sylva for this offense. I’ve seen Tom pull his Jedi mind tricks and freak chefs out, but Sylva said that Tom seemed much more startled and appalled than he’d ever seen him before. Certain he was going home but too late in the game to change plans, Sylva continued on and made the curry lollipops…and WON that challenge. Super badass!

For my entree, I ordered the fried whole dorado fish with baby vegetables in a mushroom broth, which was another dish that Sylva won in the Edna Lewis challenge. Sara got a burger, Sean got espresso-dusted duck with fois gras, and my sister got a salmon garnished with corn pudding. Sylva brought us some sharable veggie sides and some desserts on the house, and took time to visit with us between each course. Everything was delicious, clean flavors and modern presentations. The restaurant itself was gorgeous and homey, and had an amazing rooftop bar with a retractable roof. Considering it poured buckets that night, I’m sure they were glad that was an option. The restaurant is situated in the Gayborhood, walking distance from the Liberty Bell, tons of historic buildings, adorable old neighborhoods, biergardens, and even the legendary old taverns where Benjamin Franklin and his friends got that crazy idea to overthrow the British government. Should you ever find yourself in Philadelphia, I highly recommend you pay Maison208 a visit!