Local charity Recipe for Success has revived its Chef Surprise dinner series for 2013 - 14. On the first Monday of every month, an all-star cast of Houston chefs will take turns preparing a three-course (or more) dinner for a group of no more than 20 diners at the charity's Montrose home.
To kick things off this month, Clumsy Butcher culinary director Erin Smith and Underbelly line cook (and budding barbecue pitmaster) Patrick Feges teamed up for a six-course affair that highlighted a variety of techniques, presentations and ingredients.
"We've never collaborated on a menu before," Smith told the crowd by way of introduction, but it hardly seemed to matter. Sometimes the service at pop-ups or other one-offs can be slow or disjointed, but Smith and Feges worked methodically to serve each course quickly. That was a good thing; even Smith's parents hoped the duo would be finished in time for the kickoff of the Texans' season opening against the San Diego Chargers.
"We've never collaborated on a menu before," Smith told the crowd by way of introduction, but it hardly seemed to matter.
To a certain extent, the dinner allowed Smith and Feges to utilize non-local ingredients they don't serve at Underbelly or The Hay Merchant. For example, the meal started with raw oysters from Prince Edward Island that were briny and sweet at a time of the year when Gulf oysters are still three or four months from being worth eating.
From there, the meal moved on to a lobster gazpacho followed by the purslane and watermelon salad that Smith developed for Hay Merchant's new menu. Smith received a laugh from the crowd when she compared herself to the "stubborn" plant that came to America from India but can now be found growing wild throughout the city.
Paccheri al Salsiccia Ragu came next. It utilized a fresh made pasta from Paulie's restaurant; chef/owner Paul Petronella created the long, wide pasta in response to Smith's request for "something bigger (and) longer than rigatoni." Topped with a savory sausage ragu, the dish served as an artful transition from the lighter opener courses to heavier fare.
For the entree, Feges presented his first-ever attempt at smoked belly. While that cut may no longer be as trendy as it was a couple of years ago, the rich, fatty meat had a terrific complement in a slightly sweet peach demi-glace and creamy, pimento cheese grits.
With the clock ticking, the two chefs hustled to deliver the final course, mango cobbler with Cloud 10 ice cream. "These mangos are local. They're from Mexico," Smith joked. Texas used to be part of Mexico, right?
At $99, the meals aren't cheap, but all proceeds go to Recipe for Success's efforts to teach children how to make healthy food choices, and the fee includes wine. It's also the chance for personal interaction with some high-profile Houston chefs, which, considering the hours they work, can be difficult to come by. Short of waiting around Bad News Bar at 1 a.m.
Here's the rest of the lineup for the Chef Surprise series. Tickets are on sale now via the Recipe for Success website:
Oct 7: Patricia Burdette (Crescent Moon Wine Bar)
Nov 4: Ronnie Killen (Killen's Steakhouse/Killen's BBQ)
Dec 2: Joseph Stayshich (Benjy's)
Jan 13: James Nelson (Masterchef contestant, Bravado Spice Co)
Feb 3: Michael Pellegrino (Max's Wine Dive)
Mar 3: Terrence Gallivan & Seth Siegel-Gardner (The Pass & Provisions)
Apr 7: Kaz Edwards (Uchi)
May 5 or 12 (TBD): Roy Shvartzapel (Common Bond)
June 2: The Tasting Room (Chef TBD)