Reunited, and it Feels so Good!

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Let me preface this post with by saying I’ve never been a basketball player and there is nothing about me that suggests agility or “game” on a basketball court! However, when I think back to the years I spent working at The Hotel at Auburn University, and our culinary team, our crew was like the Bulls circa ’91-’93 seasons:

Chef Andrew Litheland, one of my favorite chefs and dearly loved mentor, would of course be our Phil Jackson. My right hand was Chef Miguel Figueroa. Miguel and I will forever argue about who was Jordan and who was Pippen! This was my fun loving, crazy talented, happy go lucky, always in a great mood, eternal prankster, Puerto Rican Chef.

Miguel trained as a pastry chef and was the Chef de Cuisine for Ariccia. He could and still can make the most amazing Italian food you’ve ever tasted. He was also notorious for driving me CRAZY!!! He was the original “papi.” That’s what we all called him, because that’s what he called everyone. Now, after years of working with him, I picked up the habit (and the nickname) because I called every one papi! We had a great team, composed of many talented individuals who pushed each other so hard, all while supporting each other.

Although scattered around the US, we have remained close through the years and social media makes it easy to keep in touch. Chefs tend to be transient and always on the move for the next step, the next job, and personal growth within the industry.

Miguel called me one day and said “Hey Papi, I’m coming back to Bama, see you in a few.” I was so excited, happy and ready to see my friend. He is now a chef here in Montgomery and ever since his return we’ve been ready to work with each other again. We decided to host a joint wine dinner. We planned for months, talking about the menu, food, wine, the winemakers, details after details after details. We both wrote our menus and decided to put down a 6 course meal with wine pairings.

Miguel’s menu sounds deceptively simple, but sooo intense and flavorful!

  • Mini Bánh mì sandwiches, liver pâté, prosciutto picante, pickles
  • Duck spring rolls
  • Ahi Tuna Spicy radishes, avocado, ginger emulsion
  • Roasted suckling pig, turnips, smoked bacon jam, corn lemongrass butter
  • Bourbon marshmallows, graham powder, tarragon infused chocolate

My menu was:

  • Brandade of salt cod, shaved black truffle crostini
  • Prosciutto, Manchego and quince
  • Chilled Heart of Palm Crema, Fresh Oysters, Hackleback caviar, chives
  • Seared Australian Wagyu striploin, fresh horseradish pommes puree, Mushroom confit, jus
  • Alabama wild honey Panna Cotta, Hibiscus flower coulis, Pistachio tuile

When the day came, being back in the kitchen together, it felt like the old days. When you spend time with someone in a fast paced, high stress kitchen, it’s easy to fall back into rhythm. We cooked, joked, played tricks, laughed and had a ball! That’s how we rolled back then, and it’s how we roll now. I had such a great time with my friend, reminiscing, cooking, pushing each other and our food out for the evening. Once we got rolling, the food was coming together and we were in synch, getting it done. This is a relationship business. You will meet thousands of people as you move forward in your career. There will be relationships that will last a lifetime, bonds forged in "the weeds" or in "the trenches", people who will become your family, because lets face it, you spend more time with them than with your actual family sometimes. You will also meet people that simply come and go, as is the nature of the business as well, for whatever reason, you made no real connection. Chef Andy, Chef Miguel, and all of the other team members from our "winning dynasty" season at the Hotel will forever be my brothers!

Over 100 people came to enjoy great wines and delicious food. The cocktail hour began with our passed hors d’oeuvres and wine samplings. After guests were seated, Miguel and I, along with the wine makers, spoke about our inspiration for creating the menu and how perfectly each course was paired with each varietal. Course after course, we watched our dishes leave the kitchen. After all these years, I still get nervous right before a course is served. At the end of the dinner, I was able to come out and receive feedback from the guests and was happy to hear great reviews. I had such a great time and so glad I was able to work with Pippen again!!

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