Blue Star Families Gather for 10th Annual Chef’s Challenge at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce

Jordan Wright
May 15, 2019

Top chefs from a collection of our area’s best restaurants came together earlier this week for the 10th Annual Blue Star Families Celebration.  Paired with chefs from the different branches of the military, together they created unique and scrumptious nibbles and sips.  This singular arrangement encourages the importance of and solidifies BSF’s mission to bridge the gap between civilian and military communities.  Awards were presented by General and Mrs. Joseph F. Dunford, USMC and Brianna Kellar, Anchor of CNN’s Right Now and Blue Star Ambassador.

Blue Star Chefs and Partners with winning chef Shamon Hill (Top Row – third from the left)

With a view of the White House across Lafayette Park as a backdrop, guests were treated to an array of fabulous food and colorful cocktails created by Todd Thrasher who, alas, was busy at his new distillery and bar, Tiki TNT & Potomac Distilling Company.  The red-carpet event was Co-Chaired by General George W. Casey, Jr. USA (ret) and his wife, Sheila Casey and attended by military VIPs and their wives, many of whom donate their time to support military families in need.

Dog Tag Bakery’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

A step-and-repeat was offered to guests whose photos were posted to the Blue Star Families’s website and colorful bead necklaces were given to guests to vote on the chefs whose dishes they liked most.  Young chef Shamon Hill, ‘Military Brat’ of the USMC who partnered with Chris Clime of PassionFish, were the winners of the competition with their delicious ‘Smoked Salmon Pizzelle’ served with an everything bagel crisp, Coleman mustard aioli, pickled red onions, chopped eggs and capers.

The winning dish ‘Smoked Salmon Pizzelle’

A bit of background on this amazing organization: Through their All-Volunteer Force 50 chapters around the world serve military families, providing assistance through education, empowerment and employment programs in civilian communities.  Chapters partner with the general public and other services to address the daily challenges of military life.  Over 1.5 million military families are helped every year.  Can I get a hooray?

During the event, Susan Masser received the 2019 Blue Star Neighbors Award. Masser was nominated by friends Major Steven Brewer and his wife Chelle Brewer for saving their daughter’s life and for her unconditional friendship and support.  General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Mrs. Ellyn Dunford presented the award.  The star-studded affair was attended by the highest decorated military leaders, business executives, celebrities, Congressional delegates, and government leaders who are dedicated to strengthening opportunities for military families through Blue Star Families.  A few of those high-level military leaders and VIPs in attendance included General H. R. McMaster – National Security Advisor; Robert “Bob” Gates – Former US Secretary of Defense and current Director of Starbucks; and Dr. Lynda Davis – U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Guests were serenaded by the Washington Performing Arts Men and Women of the Gospel Choir and entertained by military spouse and comedian, Maggie Phillips of the Armed Services Arts Partnership.

The 2019 celebrity chefs and culinary partners with their tastings included:

  • Chef Chris Clime of PassionFish Restaurant with USMC “military brat” Shamon Hill  ‘Smoked Salmon Pizzelle’ with an everything bagel crisp, Coleman mustard aioli, pickled red onions, chopped eggs and capers.

Chef David Guas with TSgt Claire Kim

  • Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery with TSgt Claire Kim of the Air National Guard – ‘South Meets East’ Spicy Chilled Crawfish Etouffée with puffed rice chip

Chef Harley Peet (left) with CSCS James Swenson (right) and an assistant (center)

  • Chef Harley Peet of Bas Rouge in Easton, MD with CSCS James Swenson of the Coast Guard – Ahi Tuna Tartare with preserved lemon, crème fraiche and osetra caviar
  • Chef Kyle Bailey of The Salt Line with SSG John Densham of the Army – Pork Belly Slider with Asian pear BBQ, broccoli rabe, fennel-apple slaw on an onion roll
  • Chef Ris Lacoste of RIS Restaurant with CS1 Sierra Tyler – Miso Salmon Tartare with fried wontons, Napa cabbage slaw, sriracha aioli

Chef Robert Wiedmaier (center) with TSgt Kristi Jackman (right)

  • Chef Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel’s with TSgt Kristi Jackman of the Air Force – Roasted Herb Barley with peas, fava beans, toasted cashew hummus, black truffles
  • Chef Todd Gray of Equinox with SSgt Hiram Carrion of the Marine Corps – Medjool Date Tabbouleh Salad with spiced carrots and green tahini

Todd Thrasher’s ‘JCS Cooler’

  • Mixologist Todd Thrasher of Tiki TNT – ‘Code Red’ and ‘JCS Cooler’ cocktails

Awards for their service and inspiration were given out to the following people and organizations.

  • The Walt Disney® Company — Corporate Neighbor Award
  • Craig Newmark, Founder of Craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies — Constance J. Milstein Philanthropic Award who donated $1M to the New York Chapter
  • Susan Masser, Civilian Hero — 2019 Blue Star Neighbors Award

Ian Bohen, American Actor and Director of Paramount Pictures’ Yellowstone  Master of Ceremonies

Interview with Executive Chef Jonathan Till

Jordan Wright
March 6, 2019
Photo credit – Jordan Wright

Last October Jonathan Till arrived at Del Ray’s Evening Star to take over as Executive Chef in a restaurant that has been successful serving a mostly local clientele for over two decades and seen its share of chefs.  It’s also seen its ups and downs.

Evening Star Executive Chef Jonathan Till

Till brought with him a wealth of experience from his education at the New England Culinary Institute and an internship at L’Espalier in Boston, where he trained under James Beard Award winning chef, Frank McClelland.  From there he received an Associates’ Degree in Culinary Arts in 2008 and learned pastry under Certified Master Pastry Chef, Frank Vollkommer, at the Saratoga National Golf Course.

Locally, Till spent two years at William Jeffery’s Tavern, a neighborhood joint featuring pub food, followed by two years as a corporate chef for the Barteca Restaurant Group before they were bought out by Del Frisco’s for a cool $325M.

Before all that, he’d taken a turn or two in fine dining (two months spent picking shells out of crabmeat in a dark room at The Dabney was not to his liking) and farm-to-table.  As it turns out, connecting with farmers and growers seemed to suit him far better.  At the casual Beekman Street Bistro in Saratoga Springs, New York’s tony arts district he’d enjoyed relationships with local Mennonite farmers, and at the five-star Hermitage Hotel in Nashville he was able to source many of his ingredients from their historic vegetable gardens and private cattle farm.

Till’s curiosity peaked when right out of culinary school he met an old trapper and farmer who taught him how to forage in the wild.  He’d come from generations of home canners and wanted to preserve the bounty he culled from the fields and forests.  After that auspicious meeting, he began making his own charcuterie and experimenting with wildcrafting and homesteading techniques including learning the pleasures of tapping maple syrup.  When I spoke to Till this March, he had just returned from ice fishing in Canada.  This week he’ll present Evening Star’s new Spring menu incorporating wild-foraged stinging nettles, garlic mustard greens, and spring garlic.  Ramps will appear on the menu in a few weeks.  All in due time.

Having seen the Spring menu there are a lot of dishes I’m looking forward to – duck with Virginia buckwheat honey, foraged greens, glazed black soybeans and wild garlic and an inspired dish of American snapper with fava beans, asparagus, morels and uszka dumplings.  A planned dessert, Strawberry and Rhubarb Galette with lightly churned cream, sounds positively irresistible.

Who inspired your interest in cooking?

My grandmother was my mentor.  She is a third-generation chef in the family who had four or five restaurants.  Other family members worked in restaurants too – uncles and aunts – and my mom was a café owner at one time, so my path was pretty much set for me.

Will you be involved in the local farming community?

I’ve been working with Pam Hess the Executive Director at Arcadia [Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture] where I’m learning about what’s grown in Virginia.  Next year we will set out a foraging walk to tie into permaculture.  I’m very passionate about teaching and educating people and hope to make an impact.

What’s different about the food at Evening Star [ES] since you’ve been there?  

Neighborhood Restaurant Group as a whole is going through an overhaul and there are big changes at their other restaurants, like Vermillion and Hazel.  The company reviewed their image and went out to pick some of the best chefs they could find.

Describe your style.

How I cook for Evening Star is how I eat home.  I want warm, comforting dishes and some lighter things too.  When I was approached by ES I was out picking mushrooms.  I had just returned from a trip to Europe where I was eating my way around the Continent with my wife and foraging for mushrooms in the Czech Republic.

Till’s favorite hori hori knife for wildcrafting

Foraging is a huge part of what I do.  I go into the woods and get it for free.  This summer I established relationships with local farmers and developed a good connection with them.  Since I am new to the area, I had to find spots to go foraging.  ES has a rooftop garden, but it only has six inches of soil.  We have to get the soil up there using ropes and a bucket.  It’s very intense.  This winter I set up some grow lights in the basement and started growing microgreens when a supplier wanted to charge me $100 a flat!

I’m using heirloom seeds from Monticello [Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville is a World Heritage Site] where they have a program called the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.  They will be using 800 acres of their property just for heirloom crops.

What ingredients have you foraged recently? 

I found spring garlic while foraging last week and caught lake trout while ice fishing in Canada.

Are you cautious not to overharvest?

I only harvest one third of what I find.  I learned my lesson years ago when I picked all the chanterelles from one patch and it took five years for them to come back!

What’s the most popular dish you can’t take off the menu? 

Acorn pasta made with flour from acorns I foraged, has been really popular.  Unfortunately, I’m out of the acorns for now.  Also, guests seem to not get enough of chicory – brined and seared with black pepper and served with a side of kombucha squash and sage.  The pork chop schnitzel and gumbo are favorites now too, and the sea bass served with clams and broccolini.

Sea bass with clams and broccolini at Evening Star

I had the sea bass the other night and it was perfectly prepared with a crisped skin and tender flesh.

It’s important to understand what goes into raising or catching food.  I have raised animals and farmed before and it bothers me when people don’t respect the protein.

What do you see as the future of Evening Star?

I’m still getting used to the flow.  Seeing how the summer is going to be when we open the patio.  The balance is going to be interesting.  I plan to be at the farm and continue foraging this summer.  Next year I’ll know exactly what to expect.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.   

Elegant Cuisine Solutions Dinner at the French Embassy in Washington, DC Stars Sous Vide Inventor Bruno Goussault

Jordan Wright
January 17, 2019 

Alexandria-based Cuisine Solutions will commemorate International Sous Vide Day on January 26, 2019.  The celebration honors the birthdate of Cuisine Solutions chief scientist Bruno Goussault, the “father” of sous-vide cooking and founder of the Culinary Research & Education Academy (CREA).  Sous vide is the revolutionary cooking technique in which food is vacuum-sealed and slow-cooked in hot water allowing food to cook evenly at a precise temperature.  This process enhances flavors and maintains the moisture, consistency and nutrients often lost during conventional cooking.

An elegant sous-vide dinner (open to the public) will be served on January 26th at the French Embassy at 4101 Reservoir Road NW, Washington, DC 20007.  The celebration begins with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from 6-7pm.  At 7:30pm guests will be seated for a four-course dinner with wine.

The cocktail hour takes guests around the world with artful drinks and perfectly paired hors d’oeuvres at four stations including a USA, France, Thailand and a Dr. Goussault station.  One might try the Sous Vide Buttermilk Fried Chicken with braised greens and spiced maple syrup from the USA station; a Smoked Salmon Terrine Wasabi Arugula Salad at the French Embassy station; a Crab Cake with green curry sauce and fresh young coconut slaw; from the Thailand station; and a Sous Vide Pot au Feu and 3 bone short rib, small can, vegetable and broth made with siphonat Dr. Goussault’s station.

Dinner Menu

Course 1 – Salad Trio, Sous Vide Beets with Goat Cheese, Beluga Lentil Salad, Sirloin Carpaccio
Course 2 – Seared St. Pierre with Cucumber Beurre Blanc, Sous Vide Baby Fennel
Course 3 – Duo of Beef Bone-In and Boneless Short Ribs, Celery Root Puree and Pickled Chanterelles
Course 4 – Crème Brulée with Napoleon Caramel Sauce, provided by Le Café Descartes

*Alternatives for vegetarians and GF will be available upon request

Suggested Attire: Cocktail Chic

Top chefs from major culinary cities will share their love for sous vide via short, filmed interviews that will be featured on www.internationalsousvideday.com on January 26.  From New York City one can watch Wylie Dufresne, David Arnold, David Bouley, Jean-Louis Dumont, Brad Farmerie, Matt Lambert, Herve Malivert, Brian Berger, Nils Norén, and Jamie Simpson; from Washington, D.C., Edward Lee, Kevin Tien, Kwame Onwuachi, Ryan Ratino, Russell Smith, K.N. Vinod and Vikram Sunderam; from Chicago, Phillip Foss, Paul Kahan, Matthias Merges, Micah Melton, Jenner Tomaska, and David and Anna Posey; from San Francisco, Erik Anderson, Kyle Connaughton, and Kathy Fang; from Los Angeles, Marcel Vigneron; from Miami, Brad and Soraya Kilgore, and Douglas Rodriguez; from Austin, Phillip Speer and Nik Yanes.

Additionally, the evening will feature a number of celebratory giveaways, including sous vide circulators and equipment, Cuisine Solutions Premium Sous Vide Cooked Products, Sous-Vide magazine subscriptions, and more. And, of course, each guest will receive a luxe, complimentary International Sous Vide Day swag bag.

All-inclusive tickets are $100 pp.  Proceeds benefit the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, a national non-profit program that educates and guides underserved high school students.  Tickets are open to the public.  For more information and ticket purchase visit https://franceintheus.org/spip.php?article8955.  To learn more about International Sous Vide Day visit http://www.internationalsousvideday.com/.

Holiday Happenings

Jordan Wright
December 3, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

Christmas at the Old Bull & Bush – Originally staged in the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage, this delightful show harkens back to the famed Hampstead, England public house circa 1918.  The 6-person variety show promises to jolly up your holidays with Vaudeville-era tunes, Christmas carols, silly jokes, a sing-along and a moving tribute, Christmas in the Trenches, honoring the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. With Christmas crackers, British beers and sausage rolls for purchase, the classic British music hall entertainment starring Sherri L. Edelen and Brian O’Connor runs through December 30th at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets visit www.metrostage.org.

Jimmy Mavrikes, Katherine Riddle, and Sherri L. Edelen ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography

My Father’s Dragon – Dragons are real and imaginations soar in this exciting production directed and choreographed by Tori Tolentino. Join Elmer Elevator on Wild Island to rescue a captive baby dragon accompanied by a cat companion.  With flying puppets and a ride-on dragon, this wordless fantasy-filled adventure is sure to please all ages. Through January 6th at 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information visit www.SyneticTheater.org.

Photo credit Johnny Shyrock

A Christmas Carol at The Little Theatre of Alexandria – Enjoy a return of the Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic wherein Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable Victorian humbug, travels with ghostly guides through Christmas past, present, and future to find the true meaning of the holidays. Directed by local actor, Shelagh Roberts, the show is complete with special effects, Victorian carols and, of course, the adorable Tiny Tim. Through December 16th at 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For tickets call 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.

(l-r) Larry Grey and Brittany Huffman in “A Christmas Carol” in Holiday Happenings ~ Photographer: Rich Farella

Christmas at Mount Vernon – Tour George and Martha Washington’s mansion by candlelight and make merry with 18th century dancing, fireside refreshments and caroling on December 7th, 8th and 16th. Meet Aladdin the Camel, watch holiday fireworks on December 15th and 16th, hear period music, experience a military encampment and more. Evening fireworks on December 14th and 15th. Activities for children include making ornaments, hearing Christmas stories told by the Washingtons’ friends and family, and chocolate making demonstrations. Some events are ticketed. For tickets and all other information visit www.MountVernon.org.

Christmas illuminations at Mount Vernon ~ Courtesy of Mount Vernon

 

Billy Elliot the Musical Matthew Gardiner directs and choreographs this spectacular Tony, Grammy and Oscar Award® winner with a thrilling score by Elton John. Based on the acclaimed film of an 11-year-old whose dream is to dance, in a blue-collar coal mining town in Ireland, it’s boxing his dad sees for the boy’s future. This heartwarming story, with a hilarious scene of Margaret Thatcher stealing back the kiddies Christmas gifts, swept the Tony, Drama Desk and Olivier Awards for “Best Musical”.  Through January 6th at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org.

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot) and the cast of Billy Elliot at Signature Theatre. ~ Photo by Christopher Mueller

Amrut Competes with the World’s Finest Whiskies

Jordan Wright
October 2018 

Photo credit: Jordan Wright

Single malt whisky connoisseurs can rejoice at the news that some of the finest whiskies in the known world have reached our shores from Amrut Distilleries in India.  Amrut “Fusion” has been rated “third best” whisky in the world by British whisky writer, Jim Murray, with 97 points from the Whisky Bible who at that time ranked it third in the world.  They could also boast of the “Thumbs Up” award from Malt Maniacs and dozens more awards worldwide.  A recipient of 92 points out of 4,800 entries by Whisky Advocate, they have consistently beat out the best-known Scottish whiskies in countless blind tastings.  Its “Single Malt Peated Cask” has scored a coveted 92 points from the Whisky Bible.  In 1987, and despite outsider prejudice, Amrut bravely put its product into these highly competitive Scottish tastings to prove it can compete with the best in its field.  They are now the number one whisky in India, despite the country’s longtime preference for Johnny Walker Black, a holdover since the early days of British colonialism.

Last month I had the opportunity to taste all of Amrut’s products from their single malt through their entire gamut of whiskies and rums.  I didn’t do a blind tasting, because frankly I would have planted my face in the floor, especially as it was a noon tasting and I hadn’t had breakfast.  Managing to keep upright throughout, I settled in for a concentrated, thought-provoking experience that would both confound and alter my appreciation of whiskies outside the realm of the best-known brands.

Photo credit ~ Amrut

Made from select Indian malted barley grown in Punjab and Rajasthan, these spirits are distilled in the hot climes of India.  They react to those conditions by coming to fruition far earlier than others of their ilk.  Their flavors are modified by temperature, added ingredients (spices, citrus peel and the like), the wood used in the casks, Himalayan water from the Sutlej river, and the casks’ former use.  These choices are made under the direction of Master Distiller Surrimar Kumar, a 33-year veteran of Amrut and award-winning whisky innovator, and veritable genius in drawing out the complexly crafted, unique personalities he is after.  One of Kumar’s creations is Amrut “naraangi” that won “World’s Best Whisky 2018”.  Aged three years in an ex-oloroso sherry cask, the single malt is then seasoned with wine and orange peel and aged for another three years.

Did you know that 60-70% of flavoring comes from the barrel?  That’s how important the choice of wood is for determining the final profile.  So, imagine for a moment using wood from five different species of trees to produce one whisky barrel.  These specially designed barrels are used exclusively for their “Spectrum Single Malt Whisky” to be available in 2020.  I’ve tasted whisky made in port barrels and sherry barrels (Amrut Single Malt Whisky Intermediate Sherry” earned 96 points from the Whisky Bible), but this is an exciting new concept.  A Special Limited Edition, Amrut Madeira” aged in Madeira barrels, will be on the U. S. market in time for the holidays.

Neel Jagdale – Chairman of Amrut ~ Photo credit: Amrut

Next year, Ashok Chokalingam, who has been with the company for many years, will take the reins as Master Distiller and Whisky Innovator bringing his own imagination to the company’s growing range of whiskies and rums.  At our first meeting he offered up this self-effacing quote. “We are a minnow coming from India,” he told me.  Well, this minnow of a company has become a full-grown shark with a high demand for its products that’s currently five times what they can supply.  But, no worries.  The company’s newest plant will now be able to accommodate its rising popularity.  Amrut is now in 45 countries and boasts $3M in annual sales.  Surprisingly, the U. S. is the second largest market outside of Europe for “Amrut Single Malt Indian Whisky”.

AMRUT – Photo credit: Jordan Wright

Now I’m no expert in describing the varied flavor profiles of whisky, I rely on my palate and my years of experience tasting spirits from around the world.  I leave it to the whisky mavens to create descriptors for these products.  They’re the ones that can extrapolate the taste of honey, chocolate, ginger, licorice, chocolate-chip cookie dough, driftwood (?!!!), orange, smoked fish, pepper, barbecued meats, pears, coconut, cherries, plums, raisins, lemons, and on and on.  It’s a probably good thing they don’t describe food.

[Color Wheel Credit] ~ Courtesy of Whisky magazine

Because India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar in the world, Amrut made the decision to produce rum, and it is sensational.  Ashok explained that rum existed since 320 BC – long before rum was produced in the Caribbean in the 17th century.  Amrut offers two types of rum – “Two Indies Rum”, made with leftover sugar cane from Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana.  It is made with five rums that have been aged together.  The “Old Port Deluxe Matured” has a lovely hint of coconut from the jaggery sugar used in the process.  Jaggery is a by-product of sugar cane grown in India.

Two Indics Rum ~ Photo credit: Amrut

If you’re looking to impress a whisky connoisseur with the whiskies that everyone is talking about, you can do no better than some of these winning spirits.

Imported by Glass Revolution Imports you can find many of these whiskies and rums in our area at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Pappe, Bombay Club, Rasika, Karma, Chaplin’s and Chloe by Haidar Karoum.

For more information visit Amrut Distilleries and Amrut Whisky UK Office.