Cue the Dionne Warwick, people. This is a post with purpose.
See this awesomely humiliating photo, here? That’s me on the left, and Elizabeth, one of my dearest friends in the whole wide world, circa 1995, right before our junior prom in Barrington, Illinois. See how effortlessly Elizabeth pulls off the vintage look, with her high-waisted dress and perfectly waved bob? And see how I’m failing at my efforts to channel Winona Ryder in Reality Bites and instead resembling a pubescent drag queen? Yeah. That’s all you really need to know about our friendship. Well that, and I remember some douche-y jock-type once inferring that we were probably lesbians because we always hung out together and neither of us ever had boyfriends. But that is neither here nor there.
Elizabeth and I are the sort of friends who can always pick up right where we left off, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other. Maybe it has something to do with being so close during a period when my eyebrows looked like that. But anyway, after several years of not seeing each other and barely keeping in touch, we both ended up thousands of miles away from Illinois, in Northern California, me in San Francisco and her up in Napa. How funny is that? Total destiny, I’m telling you. A couple weeks ago, we bathed our toddlers in the same bathtub and almost died from disbelief as our 16-year-old selves clashed with the present.
We still have so much dorky fun together. Elizabeth is perfection, basically, and the best sort of friend a girl could ever ask for. I’ve always admired her for her intelligence, her humor, and now that we’re all grown up and married, her fabulous taste in husbands.
Now this handsome man right here—this is Brandon Sharp. I like to think of him as Mr. Elizabeth, but really he is an entity all his own. He’s the executive chef at Solbar, the phenomenal restaurant at the Solage resort in Calistoga, California. He’s a Michelin-starred chef with the most remarkable culinary sensibility. He also happens to be one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. Someone who can seamlessly put a shrimp and watercress salad with mint-thyme crema and bacon-cheddar sliders on the same menu probably deserves to be a little cocky. But not Brandon. He cooks his heart out for more hours a week than I can even fathom, and still manages to be a star husband and father to the two almost illegally adorable little boys he has with my dear Elizabeth.
Whenever I visit them and see that little family together, bonding over their love of food and feeding people, it’s nothing short of inspiring. As you can tell, I am a rabid Sharp Family Fan. Ergo, I’m not about to miss an opportunity to let the world know how spectacular Brandon Sharp is. And guess what? You, darling reader, can help me spread the word.
Brandon is currently in the running for Food & Wine‘s The People’s Best New Chef award in the Pacific region. Now, I personally don’t really know if you can call a guy who’s been working his tail off in kitchens for more than 15 years a “new chef”, but he certainly fits the description of a hot, young chef who deserves to get some serious attention in one of the most important food publications out there. And come on—LOOK AT THAT FACE. I’d much rather have that on my nightstand than another glossy photo of shortribs or something.
Here’s all you have to do to help promote one heck of a guy, and in turn credit me for sharing with you totally cringe-inducing photos of myself:
Get on over to CNN’s Eatocracy page for Food & Wine’s The People’s Best New Chef 2011: Pacific. Scroll down past the profiles (pausing to enjoy the photo and blurb for Brandon), and click the little button next to Brandon’s name. That’s it. No logging in, no e-mail sign up, nothing. Easy peasy. Vote for an excellent chef, an awesome husband and father, and one of the good guys. Especially one that’s married to the first person with whom I ever got totally, completely wasted. Thank you!
Oh, darling readers. I wish I could give you all a big old holiday hug right about now. In fact, even if we were all snowstorm-stranded in an airport together, I’d say we’d all hit the nearest airport pub, pull up a bar stool or two and end up having a grand old time chatting about cookies and the events of the year. And to help me show my love for you all, CSN Stores has offered me another sweet $100 gift card to give away to one of you. You deserve to go bananas buying new kitchen stuff for yourself. Seriously.
Naturally, I wish I could give one away to every single one of you, and one day I hope to reach that level of Oprah-dom. I dream of being able to say, “Every! Body! Gets! A! Giftcaaaaarrrd!!!” But for now, this will have to do. And it’s really quite easy to enter, guys. I mean, it’s creeping up on Christmas, here. Let’s take a load off.
Thanks to CSN Stores for sponsoring this sweet giveaway!
You know what most mothers of toddlers dream about? I mean, besides that their children will grow up healthy and strong and achieving all of their hearts’ desires? Multiple nights alone in a luxury hotel room with nary a sippy cup in sight, that’s what. Thank you, Sears Chef Challenge, for providing me with such a glorious experience. Oh, and getting the opportunity to help judge the actual competition–with its amazing energy, high drama and delectable food in the greatest city in the world–was pretty incredible, too.
I arrived in my hometown of Chicago the evening before the competition, and was whisked off in a fancy car to a fabulous downtown hotel. After checking in and rolling like a Labrador in wet grass all over the plush, pristine king-size bed that was to be mine alone for the next two nights, I made a quick change and set out in search of dinner. In what was probably the most boring first meal in Chicago choice ever, exhausted and bloated with airline carbohydrates, I went out in search of an enormous salad, and headed to a Whole Foods down the street, which so happened to be one I’d visited often during my days working at that job from which I’d asked to be fired. I took my time walking there, reminiscing about my old days as a free-wheeling Chicago single all the while.
With the warm fall breeze drifting about, the gorgeous urban landscape of my hometown hugging me all around, and those Chicago folks who are just so dang nice holding doors and offering smiles, it was hard to hold back my misty eyes, my heart bursting with Windy City love. I called up the husband and demanded we move back to Chicago. The husband reminded me that it was October, and had it been January, I’d be crying for the next plane back to California. Trivial matters.
The next day held a bit more lovely free time for me to roam about the city and buy completely unpractical shoes, and by late afternoon I was all dressed up and reporting to the Kenmore Studio for the main event. This place was seriously impressive—an enormous broadcast studio-meets-shiny-appliance-showroom. It was all decked out for the night’s competition with comfy lounge and bar areas, gleaming mini-kitchens for the chefs and a long, glossy table for the narrow-eyed, discerning judges.
Event co-host Michelle Alegria grills the judges and works the crowd
|The dynamic Chef Lovely presents her dishes to the judges|
All of the dishes were good, of course, but certain elements really wowed. For instance, I’m looking at you, bacon fat candle, lit by Chef Dino and drizzled over my Brussels sprouts. Chef Murphy‘s pork chop with pan-roasted apples was pure autmunal splendor, and I also loved the tangle of goodies in the dish made by Chef Friedman, a beautiful jumble of greens, vegetables and a smattering of pomegranate seeds with a few slices of perfectly cooked lamb on top.
It was an incredibly tough job to score the dishes—the pressure, I tell you!—but I tried my best to give fair scores in the few seconds we were given to make a decision, and suppress my urge to yell, “Can I change my answer?!” as the microphone passed by after I’d given my feedback. In the end, Chef Dino, with his innovative flavors and clean, creative plating, came out on top to win $10,000 for his charity and advance to the finals.
All the chefs cooked their hearts out and it was an incredible evening full of people who truly love food. Many, many thanks to the good people at Sears for allowing me to be a guest judge for the last round of the semi-finals. I felt so insanely lucky to be a part of the whole thing. I’m pumped to check out who will win at the finals, and hey, you should too! You can check out the competition on November 4th on the Sears Chef Challenge website.
Just a quick update before I embark on the much-anticipated craziness that is bound to be BlogHer Food ’10! First–obviously–if you, too, are going to be joining the festivities here in San Francisco this weekend, you BEST track me down and say hello! I’ll be the one trying to look cool and trying not to drink too much, and probably failing on both accounts.
Second, there’s a whole bunch of fun new stuff I’ll get to share with you here very soon, so I hope you’ll stay tuned. In the meantime, you can check out some of my latest “Best of the Bay” restaurant reports that have just been added to the POC Media Page, and enjoy a lovely autumnal photograph of a jovial toddler cavorting in a huge apple crate.
Growing up, I wasn’t much of a summer camp kind of girl. Which is to say that I had an irrational fear of group activities and being away from my mother, plus an unnatural aversion to the outdoors. Despite my fierce protests, I was sent to summer camp on a few occasions anyway. Forced to live like a feral child, sweating in shared sleeping quarters by night and running my athletically-challenged foal-like figure through obstacle courses littered with MRSA-covered nets and tire swings by day, I was scarred by the whole thing. True story.
But after spending a week at Tante Marie Cooking School‘s week-long pastry intensive last week, I think I now realize what the problem was. Camp Minchindoh didn’t offer baking-related activities, that’s what. Perhaps if I had been given the option to make genoise instead of those godforsaken woven leather bracelets with my initials stamped in, I could have been a summer camp enthusiast. Perhaps then I would have been dragged away from the camp site, crying and begging to stay like all the other kids, pleading for one last shot at a batch of Swiss meringue, and then erroneously shouting “Hot pan behind you! Hot pan, ladies!” to no one in particular for weeks afterward, secretly wishing that I could be sent back to camp, like, every single week. You know, like how I feel right now writing this post. Are you there, God? It’s me, Shauna. Please, PLEASE send me back to pastry class.
Tante Marie’s is a Bay Area institution, and both their culinary and pastry programs have churned out countless successful chefs and business owners. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to snag a spot in their week-long pastry class. I can’t even begin to explain how awesome the whole experience was, so I’ll just tell you this: Five hours a day to practice baking without a tiny person clinging to my jeans. An arsenal of amazing recipes to dig into and make as many times as it took to get them right without worrying about the cost of butter. Access to every possible piece of kitchen and baking equipment you can possibly imagine. And–the clincher–A PERSON WHO WASHES EVERY SINGLE DIRTY DISH FOR YOU. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried, people.
The curriculum for the week was intense and extremely well-rounded. I was amazed how much mad knowledge was dropped in just five days. And depending on what each student wanted out of the class, we could pick whatever recipe we wanted to work on using the featured fundamentals of the day. It all started with pies and tarts on Day 1, also known as The Day I Didn’t Plate because I let my pate sucree walk all over me and underestimated my baking time. But with so many gorgeous, glistening tarts ready for the oogling and tasting, I couldn’t kick my Type A self for too long. And as a testament to how awesome my classmates were, they still threw a few appreciative oohs and ahhs my way when I set my piping hot apple tart on the table as they were packing up and walking out the door. Good people, I tell ya.
After that first crazy day of getting acquainted with the kitchen and the class structure, everyone settled into a nice groove on Day 2 for cakes and buttercreams. Pastry Zen was flowing all day long, even when I realized I was precariously close to not plating again. But I showed that behemoth of a Gateau L’Orange who was boss and slid it onto the table just as presentation began. And then promptly collapsed in a heap into the compost bin.
In the following days, I turned out so many things I’ve read about and dreamed about, but never had the time or counter space to work on. And of course I can’t go one word further without mentioning the mad skills and admirable patience of our incredible instructor Christa Resing, who I basically want to be. Having her there to walk us through the nitty-gritty of classic recipes, those little adjustments in technique that make all the difference between Suck and Greatness, was totally invaluable.
I couldn’t believe how well things came out using Christa’s smart little tips and tricks, even with the tough stuff, like the ever-elusive French macarons. See also Praline Cream Roulade (complete with jazzy hard-crack caramel-hazelnut discs for garnish–see the first photo of this post–fancy, fancy!), lemon eclairs, espresso-truffle ice cream. I was sort dying from it all. I mean, my genoise was moist! My macarons had FEET, guys (and real strawberry-rose French buttercream, y’all)! Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we were riding the Awesome Train all the way through Pastry Town. So, so great.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday breezed by, so many of us commenting that we never wanted the week to end. As someone who has been a solid B-minus student most of my life, never wanting to leave something that fits into the category of “school” is pretty major for me. I mean, imagine if I’d gotten to take Ice Creams and Sorbets instead of Western Civilization! Hindsight, people. Hind. Sight. Luckily, eating insane amounts of desserts everyday sort of softened the blow of that realization.
If you want to read up on Tante Marie’s amazing schedule of classes, pastry and beyond, check out their website.
Oh, you guys. This past week has just been complete insanity. So unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how badly you like to peer into the insanity of others, which, to be totally honest, sometimes I find quite delicious), this won’t be your typical POC post. Rather, just a pop-in and a bit of an update so you don’t think I’ve really gone off the deep end or something. Also, a word about birthday cupcakes.
First and foremost, we MUST talk about the fact that my sweet Little C officially turned the big 0-2 over the weekend. My baby girl. TWO, people! So. Not. Okay. Seemingly overnight, she speaks in short sentences and has kneecaps. It’s been a bit emotional for me. But Little C is thrilled about the whole thing. And depending on the moment at which you ask her how old she is, she might say, “Ummm…I’m-a TWO.” Or perhaps, “Eleventeen!”, further evidence that with a little kid, you never know what you’re gonna get.
And despite the spotty recipe posts that may be occurring around here for the next couple weeks, I should let you know that the baking has still been in overdrive in the POC kitchen as of late, another source of that aforementioned insanity. Most of this hot butter-on-sugar action is because of a seed of an idea that’s been slowly cracking open and sprouting, and I hope to share more details with you about all of that in the coming months.
But some of that baking was for Little C’s big day. We threw a little party here at the house with my go-to crowd pleaser of the world’s easiest and most succulent pulled pork, lots of cold drinks, and a birthday classic–yellow cupcakes with (mostly) milk chocolate frosting. If you’re looking for the perfect combination for parties of all sorts, you can’t go wrong with this one. And they’re even better when made all adorable with one of these sweet cupcake kits by Meri Meri. Love.
So tell me, what recipes of the classic yellow cake/chocolate icing pairing do you swear by? Here’s my picks:
Hope everyone is doing great! I’ll be back on track with a new recipe for ya soon.
Seriously, you guys? I knew we would all make great friends before, but after reading all your terrific responses telling me about the culinary gear you just can’t live without, I am convinced that we all need to have one big cupcake and cocktail party. Because awesome kitchen dorks like us need to stick together, that’s why. And at said party, we would all crowd around one person just to pelt her with questions about what she bought with the sweet $100 giftcard she won from CSN Stores.
And that lucky randomly chosen winner is Erin who said “I can’t live without them all!!!! I am addicted to kitchen gadgets! Maybe my favorite is my Pampered Chef Easy Accent Decorator! Or my food chopper. Yikes, I can’t decide!”
Well, dang, girl! Hope you use this giftcard to add to your indecision-causing arsenal. Contact me at pieceofcakedesserts (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll get your giftcard off to ya ASAP.
Thanks so much for entering, everyone. It truly was fantastic to hear from so many of you!
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