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Next Best Thing to Iron Chef

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

“This is not the ‘Iron Chef’, but it’s the next best thing,” said radio host Bruce Newbury as he welcomed a gathering at The Gourmet Outlet in New Bedford.
The occasion was a “Mystery Basket Cook - Off” organized as a regional meeting of members of Women Chefs & Restaurants.
The April 3 event pitted the talents of Team Providence - Loren Falsone, chef/owner of Empire Restaurant, assisted by Paula Bodah of RI Monthly - against Team Boston, comprising Lisa O’Connor, executive chef for Aramark at the Hynes Convention Center and Annie Copps, food editor of Boston Magazine and host of “Table Talk” on WTKK-FM.
In the mystery basket was a sampling of the products supplied by Sid Wainer & Son Specialty Produce and Specialty Foods to fine restaurants, airlines and other food-service facilities. The Gourmet Outlet is the retail portion of Sid Wainer & Son, on Purchase Street in the North End.
Among the diverse items that Chef O’Connor and Chef Falsone were challenged to create with were Fondo Di Toscana white anchovies, carnaroli rice and truffle cheese; Domaine de Provence Chevre fromage blanc; Jansel Valley smoked duck, pepper-crusted bacon, Anasazi beans and cha soba noodles; Na Zdorovia caviar; Kilchurn Estate coffee curd and Fondo do Trebbiano eight-year-old balsamic vinegar.
There were “no fewer than six countries that they could tour” using the contents of the baskets, Mr. Newbury told the gathering of abut 30 members of WCR and their guests.
Cynthia Salvato, his co-host for the evening, is a cookbook author, Johnson & Wales University instructor, and test Kitchen director for Walking magazine. Mr. Newbury turned the microphone over to Ms. Salvato to talk about some of the ingredients the chefs would be working with.
“Have you guys had a chance to try the truffle cheese? Just eat that,” she advised.
As they gathered for the event, the WCR members had the opportunity to sample a number of delectable products in the tasting area of the Gourmet Outlet as the guests of Henry Wainer.
The cooking facility in the Gourmet Outlet’s Jansal Valley International Kitchen, which would be the envy of any Food Network chef, was designed by Chef Daniel Bruce of Boston Harbor Hotel.
The room was dedicated last June, and to date has been used by a number of visiting chefs, according to Dodie McPhee, training coordinator for Sid Wainer & Son.
“We’ve had chefs come in to experiment and do taste tests,” Ms. McPhee explained, reeling off the names of Jasper White, Alice Water of Chez Panisse, Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek and Fred Mero of New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant.
The WCR cook-off however was the first time the facility had been used for a public event, she said. The gathering was organized by Linda Beaulieu of Johnson & Wales University’s public relations department, who drafted student volunteers to assist the chefs, and Jehanne Burch, culinary arts coordinator for the Continuing Education division of Rhode Island School of Design.
The stated mission of Women Chefs & Restaurants is to “promote the education and advancement of women in the restaurant industry and the betterment of the industry as a whole.”
The gathering was organized by Linda Beaulieu of Johnson & Wales University’s public relations department, who drafted student volunteers to assist the chefs, and Jehanne Burch, culinary arts coordinator for the Continuing Education division of Rhode Island School of Design. 
The stated mission of Women Chefs & Restaurants is to “promote the education and advancement of women in the restaurant industry and the betterment of the industry as a whole.”
Organized by eight women in 1993, it has grown to more than 2,000 members, male and female, ranging from culinary students to restaurants owners. Its headquarters are in Louisville, KY.
Among those attending the cook-off event was Kerry Downey Romaniello, executive chef at Westport Rivers Vineyard & Winery, and an enthusiastic WCR member.
“They’re very good at keeping people connected,” she said, through events such as this that are “educational, related to the business, but entertaining.”
berry dessert with tuile cookies and a rich cream cheese filling
Chef Loren Falsone of Providence’s Empire restaurant created this fabulous berry dessert with vanilla tuile cookies and a rich cream cheese filling.
She added that WCR “really tries to make opportunities for people to grow in the business” through scholarship opportunities.
While the chefs got cracking with their teams to create gourmet delights, Mr. Wainer and Ms. McPhee led the group on a tour of the thriving wholesale operation. The visitors were awed at the scale of the operation that distributes produce and other provisions to 8,000 restaurants.
“I’ve done (the tour) four or five times, and every time it’s totally amazing to me” said Don Hysko, a member from Rhode Island, as Mr. Wainer showed off vacuum-packed fresh baby carrots carefully carved into golden orbs, and bundles of organic basil flown in nightly from Baja California.
“I found the tour fascinating said Chris Lyons, a Framingham publicist who represents restaurants in Boston and Providence.
“I would recommend that anyone come down here” to familiarize themselves with what Sid Wainer & Son has to offer.
The visitors returned from the tour to find a frenzy of activity in the kitchen.
On Chef Falsone’s “turf,” empty cartons stood on the counter next to a stand mixer whipping 3 ½ pints of heavy cream for a dessert comprising mixed berries and vanilla tuile cookies. A bowl of frozen Muscovy duck breast was set in a sink under a running faucet to thaw quickly.
Chef Falsone looked a bit intense, but nevertheless, the woman named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Top New Chef’s of 2000 said, “its fun. Oh, we’re having such a great time.”
Over in the Boston corner, Chef O’Connor was slicing mangos while her assistants folded slightly roasted bananas into egg roll wrappers for a deep-fried tropical dessert.
The chef, a 1990 graduate of Johnson & Wales, kept slicing as she described the Pacific Rim-inspired menu she’d devised.
In the end, it was a matchup between exuberance and elegance.
Reflecting her experience with high-volume events, Chef O’Connor set out playfully decorated platters holding seared foie gras garnished with pineapple and ginger with a fig reduction; a salad of smoked duck breast, lacquered with a reduction of blood orange and Meyer lemon juice and honey, over cha soba noodles; and banana fritters with toasted cashews, drizzled with coffee curd.
Chef Falsone’s crew set out carefully composed plates displaying a duo of spring soups: pea and turnip, with a delicate swirl of olive oil; arugula and bean salad with shaved, fresh pecorino and blood orange and lime vinaigrette; seared foie gras with berries and garlic toast; seared duck breast complimented by risotto with wild mushrooms and smoky bacon; and the dessert combining spiked with chevre fromage blanc, accented by a reduction of aged balsamic vinegar.
After the display had been described by the chefs and duly admired, everyone was invited to step up and fill their plates. The noise level plummeted as the guests abandoned conversation, setting to with forks and knives to applaud, in their own way, the chefs’ craft.