Top Chef: Just Desserts contestant opens pop-up donut shop in New York

From now through December 30, 2011, those who find themselves passing through Grand Central Station in New York can visit Flex Donuts. The pop-up donut restaurant is the creation of Top Chef: Just Desserts contestant Zac Young, who is now the executive pastry chef at Flex Mussel’s in New York.

After a successful run of Flex Donuts in the beginning the year, the pop-up is back in full swing, serving up specialties like:

  • Pumpkin and Marshmallow
  • Cranberry
  • Maple Bourbon
  • Concord Grape PB&J
  • Mulled Cider
  • Rum Raisin

These are just some of the flavors you can expect, which will be served by Chef Young himself. Donuts are $3 and under, and you can get them from the takeout area of Zocalo in the Grand Central Dining Concourse from 11:30 AM to 7 PM daily.

Location is at 109 E. 42nd Street.

Traveling culinary competition makes for swine time

Two garish, heavily-tattooed girls approached me and my friend Adrienne, and pointed their weapons at us. “Pig liver mousse?” asked the blonde, aiming a whipped cream dispenser at me. Her brunette counterpart stood silently, wielding a squeeze bottle of barbecue sauce and a tray of meaty tidbits.

Welcome to the second annual Cochon 555, a lard-fueled, traveling circus of five chefs, five winemakers, and five pig carcasses. It’s actually a 10-city tour, with each destination’s chefs engaging in “friendly competition” for a great cause: “to promote and preserve heritage pigs, and breed diversity in local and national communities.”

Heritage livestock are domestic breeds that are threatened with extinction due to the demands of modern agriculture. In the words of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Modern food production now favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in a controlled environment.”While some may find it ironic and hypocritical to eat, glorify, and promote animals in the name of saving them, you’re entitled to your opinion. For the rest of you, not only do heritage breeds help to preserve genetic diversity, but they also taste better. Many heritage breeds possess a “true” flavor inherent to the animal, i.e., pork tastes…more porky. Heritage breeders in general also have an emphasis on animal welfare, sustainable farming and animal husbandry practices, and regionality, as they’re generally small, family outfits. It’s hard to argue with those ethics if bacon makes you salivate.

I attended Seattle’s Cochon 555 on May 23rd to support the cause, as well as watch local chefs like John Sundstrom (Lark), and Tamara Murphy (Brasa) duke it out. Each competitor is chosen based on their support of local food sourcing and commitment to sustainability; the pigs are sourced from ranches dedicated to preserving heritage breeds. While the chefs prepare tasting plates (they’re allowed free rein on preparation method) for the guests, local family winemakers keep the grape flowing. Guests help select the winning chef by voting for their favorite, along with a panel of 20 judges. The victor of each destination is crowned “Prince or Princess of Porc,” and moves on to compete in the Grand Cochon finale, to be held June 20 at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Cochon 555 also includes a VIP “Meat & Greet” with local foods and producers, a “Swine & Spirits” mixology showcase, and- my favorite- a demonstration breakdown of a whole pig carcass. San Francisco’s Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats (and producer of the best damn chicharrones on earth) made a guest appearance in Seattle, and proceeded to dismantle a 140-pound pig before an awestruck audience. The results were raffled off, leaving each lucky winner clutching a package of pork to their chest.

Adrienne and I wandered around, sampling everything from tortellini with pig brains in a pork dashi, to apple-bacon ice cream, and red velvet cupcakes with whipped (sweetened) lard frosting. Not everything was good, mind you, and I can live a full life without eating the lard-shortbread version of a Snickers bar ever again, but chef Chester Gerl’s (Matt’s in the Market) cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan-style preparation made from a Red Wattle pig from Lazy S Farm in Kansas , was outstanding. I also thorougly enjoyed the mini “ultimate BLT” of chef Adam Stevenson’s (Earth & Ocean) cocoa-cured bacon, bologna, and smoked coppa, with tomato jam.

While the $125 price tag ($175 for VIP pass) is too steep- at least, at the Seattle event, where the food and drink ran out before the sun even began to set, it’s for an important cause. Even if you don’t eat meat, there’s a dire need for more humane livestock management, and stricter regulation on livestock production, waste management, and processing. As we used to say at the meat shop I once worked at, “Praise the Lard!”

Make your reservations now for Chicago Restaurant Week

Ah, Chicago Restaurant Week. One of the few things that will get city residents out of their apartments when the temperature dips into the negative double-digits. From February 19 to 26, over 100 restaurants in the city and suburbs will be offering special prix fixe menus at $22 for lunch and $32 for dinner.

Known as one of the best times to try a new or normally too expensive restaurant at an affordable price, Restaurant Week is also often a time when the chefs try a few more daring dishes to spice up the usual menu. And some of the city’s most celebrated chefs and restaurants are participating. Among them are Topolobampo (owned by celeb-chef Rick Bayless), NoMi, Carnivale, and Blue 13, where the lobster pizza is to-die-for. At several of these places, it would be darn near impossible to get a three-course meal for under $60 per person, let alone a mere $32.

Most of the restaurants participating already have their menus up and are taking reservations. Many are also offering drink specials along with dinner, so you can use the money you save to enjoy a few more glasses of wine.

Last year, the city extended Restaurant Week into March, but don’t count on it happening again. You can view the full list of participating restaurants here.

Anthony Bourdain creates animated web series

I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain and I love No Reservations. A show that combines travel to places both exotic and familiar, pure rockstar gluttony and classic Bourdain snark – how could it go wrong? So when I heard that Bourdain was creating an animated web series for the Travel Channel (relax, it will NOT be taking the place of No Reservations) I figured it couldn’t be anything less than awesome.

Based on the sneak peak, the show looks like its going to have plenty of Bourdain’s signature sense of humor. In the first episode, “Robo Chef,” Bourdain laments how much effort it takes to create the perfect celebrity chef – all that work and then they go off and get their own talk show! – so he decides to make one himself. But when he accidentally puts in Rachel Ray’s brain instead of Alton Brown’s, things go awry.

According to Bourdain himself, future episodes won’t be all about his issues with Food Network chefs. They’re designed to be alternative versions of No Reservations – “representing things we never could have done on the actual show – or representing the way things should have gone on the show – or animated acknowledgments of what already went terribly wrong on the show.”

One of the six webisodes will be posted on the Travel Channel website each month. The first will debut November 2nd.

London Restaurant Hotshots to Try Dubai

Formula One, the world’s tallest building, the most luxurious hotel on the globe, a housing development that is built to resemble a miniature world. Dubai has made a name for itself with its larger than life constructions, impressive spectacles, and over-the-top luxury offerings.

It seems only natural, then, that the major players in other urban areas would want to try their hand in Dubai. London super-cool eatery The Ivy, a fave of movie stars and other paparazzi targets, is going international by opening a location in the glamorous gulf city.

The competition will be quite stiff, however. Because of its status as both a business and leisure destination, numerous restaurateurs have joined the fray, making Dubai one of top culinary destinations in the world.

Celeb chef Gordan Ramsey, when he isn’t cussing at would-be chefs on reality TV, is overseeing a restaurant at Dubai’s Hilton. And there are many others, more than a few who have earned the coveted Michelin star given to fine dining’s finest.

Any newcomers are going to find the competition top notch.

Will Dubai’s restaurant scene ever reach its limits? Perhaps, but The Ivy and its peers are sprinting to make into into the world’s new capital of fine dining before that happens.