Middle Tennessee chefs know pork!
I had some serious fun judging the 2014 Taste of Elegance Chef Competition presented by the Tennessee Pork Producers Association at the Murfreesboro Doubletree on January 21. Steve Hayslip of Nashville’s News Channel 5 and Mealand Ragland-Hudgins of the Daily News Journal were the other judges who also ate their weight in pork. We were blown away by the quality of the dishes.
To me the whole competition proved without a doubt that all the hype about Nashville restaurants and the exploding area food scene is absolutely true. The group of competing chefs from Nashville and Middle Tennessee were all incredibly creative and thoughtful professionals dedicated to using the finest Tennessee products and local ingredients. And, boy, do they know how to cook some pork–all kinds and cuts. Wow. Check out the wide range of inventive pork dishes we sampled below. It’s definitely time to visit some new restaurants in the area.
I apologize for the photo quality. In the heat of the moment, between bites, I’m not much of a photographer.
Our first taste of perfectly cooked pork was prepared by Chef Andrew Deason of Five Senses in Murfreesboro. He presented an outstanding rack of pork roulade stuffed with sour cherries, onion, goat cheese and toasted walnuts. Smoky bacon bourbon applesauce paired perfectly with the pork as did the sherried arugula and apple salad with Murfreesboro’s Bob Woods’ local Tennshooto. The restaurant went all out on the table presentation artfully arranging fresh produce and pillar candles. And we’re all still talking about the bacon grease candle! The Five Senses restaurant is a jewel in Murfreesboro serving local, fresh inventive foods. Chef Andrew, born and raised in Viola, Tenn., has a great career ahead of him.
This, my friends, is the bacon grease candle. According to Chef Andrew, all you have to do is load up a little jar or glass with your bacon drippings, stick in a wick and light it. Talk about a scented candle.
This lovely dish called pork three ways was prepared by Chef Peter McCall of Kitchen Notes in the new Omni Hotel and turned out to be the top winner. Those are perfectly cooked medallions of pork tenderloin wrapped with very thinly sliced hog jowl, tender cubes of pork cheeks with a sprinkling of thinly sliced crispy pig ears. All accented with parsnip puree, pickled chilies and a sauce featuring wine from Arrington Vineyards and Tennessee honey. Those beautiful chips are a variety of radish. The dish was impeccably thought out. I loved the rustic bowl it was served in as well. Fantastic flavor and fantastic presentation prepared by the very passionate chef.
Chef Garrett Pittler of Chelsea Bistro in Whites Creek who took second place. This out-of-the-way French brassiere is definitely worth a trip according to all their great press. Staying true to the classic style of his restaurant and going hog wild, the chef presented us with a fantastic pate de tete (read headcheese), wine poached quail egg, lard profiteroles, bacon fat bearnaise with a pork rind salad with Brussels sprout leaves, frisee, and a truffle vinaigrette. But wait, there’s more. We finished off our entrees with sweet pork rind Macrons with a lard “Oreo” filling. Unbelievable. And that effervescent house made mead that washed it all down wasn’t too bad either. This guy has a fun sense of humor in the kitchen and he’s a very clever cook.
Chef Aaron Thompson of the Blue Porch at the Art Center in Woodbury killed it with his pork for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert plate. We started the day with chorizo hash for breakfast, moved on to mini carnitas dressed with a very interesting pickled strawberry sauce for lunch, then a spoonful of Jerk Pork with a spicy pineapple salsa for dinner. And that just wasn’t quite enough pork for us so we topped it all off with candied bacon ice cream. Butter pecan move over! It was salty-sweet incredible. The Blue Porch sounds like a really fun place to visit. They change the menu daily and are serving all kinds of interesting dishes beyond the usual meat and three. And how cool to be at the Cannon County Art Center.
Chef Toffer Jacob of Bob’s Steak and Chop House in the the new downtown Omni Hotel went in a completely different direction by combining pork belly with charred octopus, lemon grass-coconut potato and a rendered bacon and smoked white balsamic living watercress reduction. The house cured pork belly was crispy melt-in-your mouth sinful and spot-on paired with the tender charred octopus. It was a really well balanced dish that showcased how opposites attract. We loved the chef’s fearless cooking style. The dish made me think of clam chowder accented with bacon except from a much higher stratosphere. Just to let you know, all the meat at Bob’s is prime and they serve fat juicy pork chops. Excellent work.
This sorry picture does not do justice to Chef Joe DeGuira’s brunch dish. To get us in the mood, they smartly lubed us up with blood orange mimosas. The Chef told us that he was inspired by his mother’s wonderful fried pork chops and eggs breakfasts. We enjoyed his perfectly breaded and cooked pork tenderloin medallions topped with a fried egg, fresh apple slaw all accented with a smear of fresh pea and a fresh beet puree. This was not your mother’s country breakfast! Lots of things are happening at the newly renovated Loews Vanderbilt Hotel including the inventive southern cuisine at Chef Joe’s Mason’s. We were doubly impressed by his banquet manage Megan who elegantly decorated the table with DIY pizzazz. She wrapped copper wire around the bottom of the flatware, playfully wrapped pillar candles with the wire and made a table runner by weaving strips of copper sheeting. Very, very cool, indeed.
Chef Noah Elssas of Barlines in the new downtown Omni Hotel, went wild with presentation. Our heads did a double take when each of us was presented with a giant Vietnamese pork bahn mi sandwich, a bucket of homemade potato chips and an ice cold local beer served on a sliced tree trunk platter. The chef brined the pork in local Fat Bottom beer and even made the French bread with yeast from the brewery! The pork was perfectly tender and accented with fresh cucumber, pickled veggies, Kewpie mayo sauce and a fried egg. Hope this goes on their menu! Barlines is the Omni’s casual bar serving southern comfort food, local music and all kinds of Tennessee spirits. Chef Noah’s inventive work garnering them third place in the competition.
Chef Jason Carty of the Opry Backstage Grill blew us away with his Pork All Ways. The pork served at the restaurant is from a farm in Lewisburg, Tenn., and they smoke the barbecue everyday right on the premises. Chef Jason prepared for us a fun high-brow pork meat and three dinner featuring pan seared pork tenderloin, Tennessee hickory smoked pulled pork shoulder, incredible local Falls Mill grits loaded with pork cracklings, smoky turnip greens, tangy chow chow, and a drizzle of peach moonshine gastrique. And I can’t forget the very cool country ham chip on top. It was kind of like a cross between jerky and a potato chip. I’m going to try to make these at home. Opry Backstage Grill is located right across the street from the Opryland Hotel and serves southern cuisine and an impressive line-up of local live music.
Congratulations to all the chefs. Tennessee cooking, Tennessee pork, Tennessee farmers, and all Tennessee agricultural products rock!