Speaking of VagabondsSean Paxton gets around, literally. Whether cooking on one coast or another, running GABF cooking demonstrations (as he's doing in 2009), or helping to get a new restaurant off the ground (he's the Executive Chef at Lion's Pride in Brunswick, Maine) he runs himself on what seems like a spare tank of gas some times. Fortunately, he's one of those kind of guys that only needs a few hours of sleep in a night...or a day...or whenever sleep comes.
But this means that he's often using someone else's kitchen and working with staff, some of whom he would never have met before beginning the evening's work. So what is most challenging about that? Logistics and kitchen layout for starters. Take, for example, Ebenezer's. Not exactly the kitchen most conducive to this kind of dinner. Working with the staff under these kind of conditions can present challenges that no one really wants to deal with, but in the end, must.
I constantly heard people complimenting Sean on his calm and the ease at which he appeared to be working the dinner. On the inside, much to the contrary he says. Inside he's a basket case, but won't allow that to show on the outside. "If something goes wrong and I point a finger in the kitchen, yell, or otherwise make a co-worker feel small and embarrassed, that trickles from the back of the house to the front of the house and the diners will likely notice", Paxton said. "When something breaks down, it's not about how screwed up it is, it's about how can we work to fix it... make it a learning experience..."
He truly believes that this can work in most kitchens, even in the heat of the moment. When talking about the dramatic scenes played out on reality TV shows, Paxton weighs in with "People who do a lot of throwing, yelling, making messes can be chalked up as some form of entertainment", Paxton commented, "but what are they really teaching the viewer...what's being learned about the culinary world?"
Sourcing locally is an issue as well. Paxton strongly urges chefs to take it as a responsibility to locally source as much of the ingredients in their kitchen as possible. Chefs, he says, should become familiar with local food, concepts, and traditions and use them to their advantage. Sometimes this means more cost. But, to believe in food means to taste the food, really taste it. Many times making the connection between local food and local taste is the key to pulling this off.
Of course, things don't always work out as planned, especially as he attempts to manage a life both personally and professionally on two coasts. Sourcing local duck livers? Sean didn't give this a second thought as a potential risk point, but it became one that he needed to work around. Cheeses? Well, what he wanted was not available at the last minute so, plan B. Unseen, untested, untasted beers? Very big risk as well; though in his estimation there were no failures in the pairing department. The bottles of Vagabond from Allagash? Not ready, so they filled a 6 liter bottle and made it work.
Strange Meat? Great pairing
Then we moved on to one of the more debatable courses of the evening. The buzz even before the dinner began was the Bison Tongue. "Put your tongue back in your mouth" was just one of the jokes being made around the dinner tables. This was one plate that I saw more returned of than any other dish. But, as one fellow table mate said, "I paid $250 for this dinner, I'm at least trying it!" Now, that's the spirit. And, as most of our mothers have said, "How do you know you don't like it if you don't try it?"
Here's my take on it. What's in a hamburger? How about a hot dog? Scrapple, liverwurst....shall I go on? You do know where I'm going with this, right? Nobody can say exactly what's in any of these "meats". In most cases, it a mixture of multiple parts from multiple animals. Face it, it ain't exactly appetizing when you get right down to it. Tasty? Sure, perhaps, but...
The bison's tongue. One tongue. An exclusively identifiable part of the animal's body. Let's break this down. Paxton shared the approach to the dish with me to share with you. I found it intriguing and thought you would as well. These are the short notes I captured as he rattled off the process.
- Soak the meat in cold water for about 5 hours, changing water every hour, to remove blood.
- Grind spices to make a seasoned salt from 1/2 dozen or so spices
- Coat well the tongue, vacuum seal and keep for 4 days
- This opens the pores, extracts excess moisture, tenderizes
- Cook at 180F for 24 hours to break down gelatin and tough parts
- Chop and mix with pork belly
What this turned into was another fine pairing. The alternating spiciness, sweetness, and saltiness of the meat and its accompaniments (leeks, shallots, figs) went all too well with the St. Bernardus Abt 12 (like the Val Dieu, it was served from a 6-liter bottle), reminding me of how much I enjoy this same beer with a solid plate of barbecue. While not one of the more "exotic" beers on the menu, it's one of the most dependable year-in and year-out beers, especially for pairing with food.
Don't worry, it's only the cheese that stinks. The cheeses were great, but what really stood out for me on the plate was the wort honey (made with Sean's collaboration beer with Matt Brynildson at Firestone Walker) and the berry compote. Dragging the bleu cheese through the honey and chasing it with the Orval beer made for incredible cheese course. I've asked Sean to recreate this wort honey and keep some aside for me! Also accompanying this course was to be "Tomme's Special Surprise" which must have been a surprise to customs, because apparently that's where it was at the time of the dinner. Instead, we had some more De Ranke, which is never a bad thing, though in this case it played second fiddle with the cheese course to the Orval, which with many cheeses is a slam-dunk.
Is the 10th course the proper time for a palate cleanse?
I still don't know what Sexy Time is, but that was the name of the course and it meant that Sean was bringing sexy back. Where it was, I have no idea. But...a little sweet sorbet at this point, made with $10 worth of beer per serving, was just what the palate needed. I don't know much about sorbet except for the palate cleansing role that it's supposed to play and that I usually enjoy it and finish it before I know what really hit me. That was the case here, but not before I felt refreshed and ready to conquer dessert.
Coasting to a Nightcap?
Just as you see these paragraphs getting shorter here, I was beginning to suffer from a bit of table fatigue by the 11th course. The dining room (aka screened-in porch just off the 2nd hole of the golf course) was just a bit too tight for someone of my size sitting on the leg of the table. And, I was pinched in between my wife (whose leg I was permitted to rub up against) and another lady (whose leg I was, obviously, not permitted to) while I sat on the 14-inch aisle and was bumped into each and every time someone walked behind me.
I knew I wouldn't make it through the entire review of the dinner here without mentioning the logistics of seating 115 people in a screened-in porch and serving them 12 courses of food and drink over 6 hours. I was up and out of my seat after the second course and did so again at least 6, 7, or maybe 8 more times before the dinner was over. This was one reason, though, that I was fortunate to sit on the aisle; I could easily get up and out.
But, not so easy was it for the poor souls who had to sit against either the inside or outside walls of the room. When one lady at our table needed to finally get out to use the restroom, three at our table and two at the next table needed to move to allow her to get out. As she said, "I didn't pay $250 to have to crawl under the table and have my plates passed to me by other attendees like I was at a baseball game." I can't say that I disagree.
Let's get back to courses 11 and 12. The panna cotta didn't hold up to form so well. Was it the higher alcohol level that didn't allow to set? Was it the weather? Don't know; I didn't ask. It sure was tasty, but was a slightly-formed slippery texture of panna cotta whose memorable part of the course was the Saucerful of Secrets beer that I've had twice before but don't recall having been struck by its fruity nature before; maybe it was the dark chocolate in the 12th course helping to bring that characteristic out. Now I know what others have raved about.
On the 12th Course of Beer Dinner...Sean gave to us...
...one of the best beer pairings known to beer dinners: Chocolate and more great beer from Firestone Walker. This time it was the coveted anniversary beer, the 12th in this case, blended a bit more with Russian Imperial Stout, Parabola, and Saucerful of Secrets to make 12 point 5, or XII.V (get it?) Or mabye the 5 represented the number of gallons in existence of this beer. Yes, this was only a five gallon batch of XII.V that was fermented in oak and then aged. Therefore this was the one-time/one-place the beer that goes so perfectly with a decadent chocolate dessert could be found. That was, simply, nice and satisfying.
I could have cleaned up anyone's chocolate left behind on their table. In fact, I tried. I, like some others began to finish this course standing up, having sat plenty long enough at this point. Problem was, most others finished their chocolate as well. Between these decadent chocolate truffles and the dark Belgian Chocolate Biere Brittle, I could forgive the pork belly fat cookies...still to this day, the only part of the dinner that I truly could not figure out.
What do we leave with?
This is one question that Sean attempts to help us answer. He doesn't attempt to outdo himself at each dinner, making the next one bigger, better, more of this or that. Instead, he fervently believes (this seems like common sense, but is it?) that not enough people are eating well enough. Therefore, he wishes to give his dining friends "a gift" of trying something new, perhaps prepared in a different way than in the past...hoping to connect the diner with what food is, what food can be.
Another of his primary missions is to help showcase and promote beer at least as sophisticated as wine and to demonstrate that it has every right, in many cases more, being on a culinary menu. He used an example, close to home for him to illustrate this point. How many pages of wine are on the menu at French Laundry? And how many beers? Only 8 beers? Most times (as we all know) beer is the more pairworthy beverage with a piece of food than is wine. This is a message that he feels he must get out and he's doing everything he can to support that mission.
Where does Sean Paxton go from here?
Here's a guy who cooks for small groups, large groups, in demonstrations, and in restaurants. He's only 36 so there's lots of potential still, right? So what's next? I couldn't tell if he really does float with the wind or if he was being guarded. He certainly exudes an appreciation of what it has taken to get to where he is now.
He claims to really not do much long-view planning, and does not sound like a man who is necessarily looking for a get-rich quick type of fame or celebrity. When he said that Charlie Papazian complimented him on his pork being the "best that's ever passed his lips" and how that was worth more to him and opens more opportunities than a one-day payday, I believed him.
What's more immediate for Paxton is the Great American Beer Festival where he'll be sharing the stage with some of the craft brewing industries leading brewers, like Barnaby Struve (Three Floyds), Matt Brynildson (Firestone Walker) to discuss using malty and hoppy beer flavors in cooking...and Ron Jeffries (Jolly Pumpkin) and Will Meyers (Cambridge Brewing) to discuss using sour Belgian beer flavors in cooking.
Sean's a talented guy. If for some reason the work in the kitchen falls by the wayside, he has other hobbies that he's not only passionate about, but also very good at. Photography, gardening, woodworking, and writing all hold his interest and could make him very happy if the apron ever got too messy. But, that feels like a distant possibility and until then, I'd recommend anyone take in a dinner where Sean Paxton, The Home Brew Chef, is in charge of the kitchen.