Category Archives: Enticing Events

Judging the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off

My guy. (Photo courtesy of Pillsbury)

The Dough Boy and I — we go way back. We’re tight — like this (fingers intertwined). He’s even let me poke him in the tummy.

So, I was thrilled to be united with my doughy guy earlier this week, when I was invited to be a judge for America’s oldest and most lucrative cooking contest, the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando.

It was my third time as a judge in this competition. And my third time having a hand in deciding who went home with the grand prize of $1 million.

Started in 1949, the event celebrates the joy of home-cooking as only amateurs are allowed to enter. Each time, tens of thousands of entries from home-cooks are whittled down to just 100 finalists who compete to create an original, great tasting dish that will impress not only a panel of discriminating judges, but the entire nation, which has grown up with this iconic contest.

The judges are chosen almost a year ahead of time. From that moment onward, we had to avoid reading, seeing or hearing anything about the contest so that the contestants remained completely anonymous to us. You almost felt like you’d been selected for a secret ops mission, where information is strictly on a “need to know” basis. Hmm, good thing I packed a lot of black clothing.

The ballroom with 100 kitchens set up for the Bake-Off. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

A day of quiet before all the action started. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

We 12 food professionals took our mission seriously, too. A few of us were veteran Bake-Off judges, having done it once or twice before. But others were first-timers, nervous and excited about what the judging process would be like. Should we do stomach exercises to gird ourselves for so many dishes? Should we wear XL elastic pants that day? Just how many hours would we be stuffing our faces? Would we have to arm wrestle one another if we couldn’t agree on a winner in the end?

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A Hammy Food Gal Giveaway

How'd you like a half ham like this to grace your holiday table? (Photo courtesy of Snake River Farms)

Snake River Farms wants to make your Easter especially hammy.

The Idaho-based specialty meat company produces extraordinary Wagyu beef and Kurobuta pork, which I’ve had the good fortunate of trying many times in the past. For Easter, they’re teaming with Tree Top to entice you to bake your ham with a sweet, tangy apple juice glaze this upcoming holiday.

Contest: To whet your appetite even more, one very lucky Food Gal reader will win a half bone-in ham from Snake River Farms ($99 value), along with a basket of Tree Top goodies and a recipe for the perfect glaze.

Entries, limited to those in the continental United States, will be accepted through midnight PST March 31. Winner will be announced April 2.

How to win?

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Take Five with Mia Messier, Head Chef for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” Show

Crew members touch up the stage for Cirque du Soleil's "Totem'' in San Jose.

Mia Messier was a hotel and restaurant chef in Montreal when she decided to run away with the circus.

Not just any circus, but the worldwide phenomenon known as Cirque du Soleil.

Who can blame her?

Now a veteran of nine years with the Montreal-based entertainment company, Messier has traveled with various Cirque shows through more than 25 countries for anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half at a time.

It’s her job to feed the hungry troupe of 52 performers from 20 countries, along with 68 other crew members, while they’re on the road.

Recently, I had a chance to visit her cafe at Cirque’s “Totem” show, now playing in San Jose through April 15.

The fanciful costumes are all hand-made.

Would you believe this got its start as a piece of white fabric?

Light-weight and stretchy.

A mold is made of each performer's head to create these intricate head-pieces.

I also got a quick peek backstage that afternoon with Cirque publicist Francis Jalbert, as crews were touching up the 2,700-pound turtle carapace that is the centerpiece of this particular show. Behind it, a hydraulic stage is flanked by what look like soaring, solid wood reeds. But would you believe they’re actually inflatable, so as to make transporting easier?

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Fighting for Foie Gras

Foie gras and more foie gras at Lafitte. Here, with beef cheek, gigante beans and broccoli rabe.

I’m not usually met with protesters when I go out to dinner.

But such was the case last Thursday night at the “FU Foie Gras” dinner at Lafitte in San Francisco, where 10 peaceful protesters held up signs outside the restaurant, imploring people to stop eating foie gras, the luxurious fattened liver of a goose or duck.

If you’re a fan of that rich delicacy, you better enjoy it while you can. Come July 1, California will become the only state in the nation to ban the sale of foie gras.

A peaceful protester at the Lafitte dinner.

Protesters picketed for a little over an hour before leaving.

Animal welfare supporters, many of whom have been picketing restaurants that have foie on the menu, applaud the upcoming law that will stop what they believe is inhumane treatment of the birds, which are speed-fed with a tube down their throat to engorge their liver. But many chefs are rallying against the law, which they believe is unnecessary and unfair. A number of them, including Lafitte’s Chef-Proprietor Russell Jackson, have visited foie gras farms in the United States and found no such mistreatment, especially because ducks have no gag reflex, breathe through their tongue, and naturally increase their consumption when they migrate.

There are only three major producers of foie gras in the United States. Two are in New York: Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm. And only one is in California: Sonoma Foie Gras.

Gotta have a few skulls around when the restaurant is named for a pirate.

Since late last year, restaurants throughout the state have been hosting special foie gras dinners to educate the public and build grassroots support for the pricey ingredient that’s been produced as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Proceeds have gone to support CHEFS (Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards), a pro-foie advocacy group made up of restaurateurs and other culinary professionals.

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Chef Demos, Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Plus More

Chef Brandon Jew of Bar Agricole will cook up a storm at the Flower & Garden Show. (Photo courtesy of the chef)

Chefs Star at the 2012 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

It’s time for the largest garden festival around, the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, March 21-25, where you’ll not only get to gawk at gorgeous garden exhibits, but enjoy a host of cooking demos, too.

Some of the Bay Area’s finest will be showcasing garden-to-table cooking. Among those taking the stage are: Executive Chef Brandon Jew of Bar Agricole in San Francisco (March 21); Melanie Eisemann and David Budworth of Avedano’s Meats in San Francisco; Chef Greg Dunmore of Nojo in San Francisco (March 22); Pastry Chef James Ormsby of Bluestem Brasserie (March 22); Chef Annie Somerville of Greens in San Francisco (March 23); the creative team behind Bi-Rite Market and Creamery (March 24); and TV cooking personality Martin Yan.

And for those in the South Bay and Peninsula loathe to drive to San Francisco, remember the garden show actually is held in San Mateo at the San Mateo County Event Center. So, there’s no excuse not to go now.

Tickets to the garden show are $20 for a single day, $25 for the all-show pass good on all days of the event, and $65 for the gala, which includes food, wine and music.

"Bacon and eggs'' at last year's Pebble Beach Food & Wine. (Photo by Barnaby Draper Studios)

Fifth Annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine

Join more than 75 of the world’s best chefs and 250 acclaimed vintners at the Pebble Beach Resorts, April 12-15, for a slew of gala dinners, cooking demos and one-of-a-kind wine tastings.

Among the highlights at this year’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine will be a celebrity chef golf tournament, a special father-daughter presentation by Jacques Pepin and Claudine Pepin, a cooking demo by Michael Chiarello of Bottega in Yountville, and a dinner in tribute to Thomas Keller of the French Laundry.

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