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Iron Chef joins benefit

September 26, 2018

It’s 2:30 p.m. in the kitchen at Sycamore Hills Golf Club : or T minus five hours and counting : and celebrity chef Jose Garces has just sliced into an individually sized beef Wellington.

Its puff pastry shell is sufficiently puffy, if a shade past golden brown, and the duxelles of mushrooms and Swiss chard affords a sufficiently creamy topping to filet mignon. But the steak is still on the near side of rare.

Garces asks what time and temperature the oven was set for the test dish and gets a quick reply as black-jacketed chefs stand around a gleaming stainless steel prep table : 400 degrees for 11 minutes.

“We’ll want it cooked a little more,” he tells Sycamore’s executive chef, Nate Hiegel, before asking for a second test. “We’re going to do 350 for : well, you’re right, 15 minutes.”

That was just one teaching moment among many for Garces as he and about 20 chefs from Fort Wayne-area restaurants worked to pull off the culinary equivalent of a decathlon : a once-a-year, five-course gourmet dinner for 175.

The dinner serves as the main fundraiser for Blessings in a Backpack, a Fort Wayne charity dedicated to feeding potentially hungry children.

The last 11 years, the effort has provided to-go weekend meals on Fridays to children facing food insecurity in several Fort Wayne Community Schools, said Gretchen Gouloff, who founded the organization with her husband, Michael.

“The goal when we started was to feed every (hungry) child in the county on the weekends,” Gouloff said. “We started with 300 kids, and now we have 1,690.”

Last night’s dinner featured dishes and ingredients even foodies might have never heard of, let alone tasted.

And before they were plated for diners, most were tasted by Garces, a Food Network “Next Iron Chef” winner also named Best Chef Mid-Atlantic Division award from the James Beard Foundation.

White asparagus soup? You might want to float a bit of truffle with that, the chef advised.

Celeraic foam? The puree of the cooked bulb of a celery stalk : something few Americans have ever even seen : should be cooked down a bit more to be creamier. That’s how it would better complement the halibut served with it and maitake mushrooms and watercress leaves.

And that cassoulet : duck, chicken and Italian sausage stew with onions, carrots, herbs and white beans sitting casually in big frying pans on a counter?

“Oh, that’s our lunch,” said Jim Huffman, 55, as the chef with Walnut Hill Catering and Events in Fort Wayne cracked a smile.

Garces, whose parents were born in Ecuador, has been at the forefront of making Spanish- and Latin-American-inspired cuisine a trend for more than a decade.

In Philadelphia where he lives, Garces is known for his Garces Group, which, until this year, had been operating more than a dozen restaurants. Most were in the Philadelphia area, but some were located as far away as Palm Springs, California, and Scottsdale, Arizona.

He also is the author of two cookbooks, “Latin Evolution” in 2008 and “The Latin Road Home” in 2012 and based on a tour of Central and South America.

But the group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year. In recent interviews, the chef has said the business was beset by the closing of Revel casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which contained four of his restaurants.

In recent weeks, however, several of his restaurants were sold to new partners and he is righting the ship, according to articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the foodie website Eating.

The new arrangement will allow him to focus on food, concepts and quality and less on restaurant management, he has said.

But Garces, who started both a foundation to aid the underserved immigrant community and a farm to demonstrate sustainable practices, also makes time to help culinary-based charities, said Paul Sauertieg, who helped coordinate his visit.

“We’re fortunate to have him,” he said.

Huffman agreed. “This is our seventh year (doing Blessings in a Backpack). We participate because it’s a good way to give back, and you always learn something. We block this time out every year.”

Anna Juarez, a trainee at Sycamore Hills, said she was happy to help. She was tasked in her first year working on the benefit with putting together a custardy dessert : chocolate cremeux with mango pearls and cashews.

“I’m learning everything. Everything is new to me,” she said. “It’s going to be fun.”

rsalter@jg.net

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