Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, May 1st
It has been crazy wild around here since my appearance on Top Chef Masters. As you may know, I managed to win the Quickfire challenge with a Moroccan-style Grilled Cheese Sandwich. The best part is that I won $5,000 for the charity I was playing for, Recipe for Success. Of course, this is the season that the Quickfire Challenges don’t contribute any points towards your final score. Kind of like when, back in 1996, I won Best New Chef from Food & Wine Magazine, and the next year was the year they started putting the Best New Chefs on the cover. For some reason, this kind of thing always happens to me.
The night my episode aired, we had a watch party at t’afia; a good customer told me that, if I won anything, she was going to match it as a donation to Recipe for Success (ooh, I hope she can afford $5,000!). Since then, I have been overwhelmed by how supportive and generous people have been — my wallet is full of checks for Recipe for Success…$50, $100, $150. I am excited that people were moved to give and are stepping up to make change in the lives of our children. Both Gracie and I say thank you from the bottom of our hearts!
The actual Top Chef Masters challenge was to do a grilled cheese sandwich that reflected me as a chef, that really represented “my” food. Some folks are having trouble connecting the Moroccan Grilled Cheese to what they perceive as “Monica Pope food.” But Coastal Mediterranean cuisine has always been my thing.
In the Top Chef Masters studio kitchen, they take you around to the pantry and coolers so you can assess the ingredients on hand; there’s a cheese fridge, a lettuce fridge, a miscellaneous pantry, breads, etc. We were also allowed to bring some signature ingredients with us as long as they fit in a 17” x 24” metal bin; I stuffed my suitcase with all sorts of things, including pomegranate molasses. From the start, I had my eye on the loaf of date-walnut bread and I immediately came up with this Moroccan-style grilled cheese with feta, farmer’s cheese and a melt-y white cheese. I made a cumin butter (to toast the bread with), sprinkled some cinnamon, used more fresh dates and voila. I also grabbed three micro herbs — cilantro, basil and mint — to make a little accompanying salad with an orange blossom water-honey dressing. I finished the plate with a swizzle of a pomegranate molasses-maple syrup mixture.
So, for class today, I am going to re-create my TCM Quickfire Challenge sandwich. Luckily, I’ve got a posse of women sous chefs today that I motivate to grate and slather all these grilled cheeses and to pick and clean and dry lettuces because we’ve got a full class!
Right before someone gives me the grater, they say Benjy warned them to be careful, it’s very sharp; but, of course, I grate my finger. I call for a medic (Dr. Adam is in the house), but someone from the audience is actually faster than he is and I get bandaged up. Must keep cooking, must keep cooking (sing as Ellen DeGeneres’ Dori from Finding Nemo). My friend Julia made a hand-sewn word shirt for me that says, “just grate” — I wish I was wearing it now.
At the market today, Emile St. Community Garden has some really nice petite dino kale, arugula and some stunning curly mustard (I’ve actually never seen this variety before — it’s a beautiful leaf, almost like filigree, and has a wonderful mustard-y flavor). I’m thinking that this will be really nice with the dressing…and the grilled cheese. My army of sous chefs is asking how to tear or cut the lettuces. I decide to not tear the lettuces, I like the idea of biggish leaves of lettuces today.
I keep barking at the sous chefs to keep on prepping, keep on prepping. I’m trying to make them cry, but no one is having it — the pressure isn’t getting to them for some reason. Who knew I would cry on national television, in front of millions? Not me.
I joke that I’m fishing my band-aid out of the pure luck feta but no one buys that, either. Then there’s a crash on the front row. Valerie, one of my sous chefs, has tumped the orange blossom water over and onto the floor, breaking the bottle and Moroccanizing the entire Green Plum Cooking School. I take a deep breath. On Top Chef Masters, someone has to play the jerk, someone has to cry, someone has to get hurt, someone’s food has to be compromised — you get the idea – and it’s all déjà-vu now, but history seems to be repeating itself. I refuse to cry again. Valerie is gritting her teeth, her daughter is trying to pretend they’re not related, and I’m going to Plan B. I tell the audience to “imagine” the taste of the smell of the orange blossom water and I set about to make a dressing with blood oranges (blood seems to be a running theme today), honey, orange zest, cumin and cinnamon. Joe “Kanye” Apa appears with (oddly enough) one Moroccan-style lamb chop for me to taste/approve. I eat it (delicious).
Time to jump on the grilling of the cheese sandwiches, or else we won’t make it. It’s 10:12am. On the show, each chef is told to call out the time, so I have the audience do that. It really does build drama as we’re building the grilled cheese sandwiches. I have three pans going and a sandwich press all at once. I’m trying to get the right balance of toast-y and melt-y that makes a grilled cheese sandwich great. We manage to serve it all up by 10:29. I only got burned once and cut twice and I’m pretty sure that Valerie went home and cried. Sometimes, drama happens.
NOTE: The recipes used in my Green Plum Cooking School classes can be found in my online cookbook, “Eat Where Your Food Lives,” available for purchase at http://www.ChefMonicaPope.com)