Saturday, April 17, 2010

Disciples Escoffier: Feed the Heart

I received an e-mail in my inbox about a week from one of my ever-favorite chefs, Jaakko. I’m always excited to hear from Jaakko but on opening and reading this particular e-mail, I was pretty much up to ecstatic level. It was an invitation. An invitation to the Disciples Escoffier annual gala dinner.

Now, up until a year ago, I still had not been introduced to Disciples Escoffier. What it is, is an association of chefs and gourmands, first set up in France in 1954 to honor the craft of legendary chef-restaurateur-author, Auguste Escoffier and to celebrate and respect food culture. The “disciples” are a world-renowned association and have a special book, have regular invite-only meet-ups, and have inauguration ceremonies involving colored ribbons and awesome food. It’s all really secret society-esque, which makes it seem all that much cooler. They finally set up a Hong Kong chapter in 2008 and appointed Jaakko as president (well-deserved of course).

So come the night of the dinner, I dressed up, heeled up, and trotted over to the Hyatt Regency, TST, brimming with the excitement of a twelve-year-old on boxing day. Probably even more. I arrived on the dot at 7pm just as the invite had requested, only to realize that 7pm on an invitation really means an hour and a half after 7pm. Duhr me… I obviously don’t go to important social events enough. But after saying a few “hi”s and downing a Kronenbourg 1664, we were politely ushered into the banquet hall. I was pretty much crazily excited by this point. But contained it for the sake of, well… not appearing crazily excited in public.

(fresh crab salad with ginger dressing topped with langoustine carpaccio: THE best)

With proper decorum, the dinner kicked off with a heartwarming welcome speech and an introduction to our chef of the night, Msr. Emile Jung. Chef Jung is a veteran of the culinary world – he received his first Michelin star when he was only 25 (seriously…) and became the youngest chef in French history to win a star. Since then, he has added another Michelin star to his resume, and currently overlooks the kitchen operations at Strasbourg’s Au Crocodile restaurant. Needless to say, having the chance to sample Chef Jung’s dishes was an absolute honor.

After a little more speech-making, etc. etc., the first course arrived. Carpaccio de langoustines et tourteau au gingembre (fresh crab salad with ginger dressing topped with langoustine carpaccio). Perfect. Absolutely perfect. J (my +1 for the evening) and I both agreed that this was probably among one of the best first courses we’ve ever consumed thus far. I could literally smell the freshness of the langoustine before actually tasting it. The seafood has a beautiful creaminess to it that lingered, complementing to a tee with the mild, yet absolutely necessary strips of fried ginger. The result was floral almost. And the strips of pickled carrots helped draw out the flavors of the langoustine even more. Oh my gawd, it was lovely.

(pan-fried foie gras with sauce Bigarade, caramelized apple and deglazed rhubarb)

Course numero uno was definitely a hard act to follow, and course two was a good effort. It was foie de canard poële aux pommes et rhubarbe (pan-fried foie gras de canard with sauce Bigarade, caramelized apple and deglazed rhubarb). The foie gras was cooked well – meltingly creamy on the inside but with a smoky “crust” enrobing it – but the flavor was leaning a little on the bland side. The big surprise turned out to be the smallest thing and it was the pink peppercorns that made all the difference. A bite of foie on its own was alright; a bite of foie with a small peppercorn was a whole new level of flavors.

(lobster poached in court bouillon, golden vermicelli pan-fried in arachide-peanut oil, citrus and pink peppercorn sauce)

By course three, I had decided that whoever supplied the seafood for the dinner have officially become my new favorite people. Homard bleu et vermicelles dores aux baies roses (Atlantic lobster poached in court bouillon, golden vermicelli pan-fried in arachide-peanut oil, citrus and pink peppercorn sauce) was another high. The dish already smelt like a winner on arrival. The lobster was so succulent, taut texture without being tough – it won me over in a bite and I’m usually a pretty big lobster skeptic. The court bouillon was aces – the flavors were spot on – bold without being overly intense. The whole thing was just so completely well-executed.

At this point, we had taken a short food break with the start of the silent “Chef auction.” The main purpose of the auction was to garner $ support for Disciples Escoffier’s main goal – that is, to cultivate young talent in the culinary world. This noble goal has won over the full blessings of Miele, who have volunteered their state-of-the-art cooking center as a location for these private dinners for the auction winners. The auction was a huge success, culminating with the auctioning off of the “Scandanvian mafia” team of association president, Jaakko and secretary general, Oyvind Naesheim (exec chef at NOBU). Cute.

(pan-fried beef tenderloin seasoned with dried orange, crispy potato “Maxim” purée of carrot, turnip, celery and salsify seasoned with ginger)

Our final savory course was the filet de boeuf a l’ecorce d’orange purée de raciness et fève pommes Maxim’s (pan-fried beef tenderloin seasoned with dried orange, crispy potato “Maxim” purée of carrot, turnip, celery and salsify seasoned with ginger). Honestly, this was probably my least favorite dish of the night (sad to say). The beef was perfectly cooked, and a cut-open revealed a beautiful juicy pink on the inside. But I couldn’t taste anything, let alone the orange seasoning. The “crispy” potatoes were thin slices of chewiness… not right. This was the only dish I didn’t get.

But I had little time to linger on the beef course as attention was swiftly drawn back to the stage where the new members’ inauguration ceremony was commencing. It was all so exciting and, more importantly, it was very, very smile-inducing to see so many food enthusiasts being honored. Among the many new members inaugurated that evening was Chef Christopher Mark (chef and partner at the super-awesome Bistecca), Chef Graham Burst (chef at InterCon) and young chef, Wilson Luk (winner of the HK qualifiers for the Youth Hope Asia chef competition). Ribbons were doled out, which was followed by a “knighting” ceremony incolving Jaakko and a large wooden spoon. Awesome.

(SweetPearl desserts)

And perfectly timed, inauguration was followed by dessert. Called “sweet pearl delight,” it was actually three different desserts made from a sugar replacer product known industrially as “SweetPearl.” It tastes no different from normal sugar and is supposedly much healthier for you. But more importantly, it made for an awesome dessert. The fancy fruit roll-up-like situation on the furthest left was an intense burst of tartness melded with sugary sweetness. A jab of the fork into the chocolate block yielded a flow of red raspberry sauce from the center. The sorbet was refreshing and light. No complaints there.

As I was telling J, the whole evening was nothing short of amazing and the whole thing felt like a foodie version of Christmas. There was good company, good wine and good food… what more can you ask for? More importantly though, it was truly great to see all this passion that everyone had for the food industry. The wonderful five-course dinner was more than just a meal; the whole evening was more than just a social culinary event. It was a demonstration of our love and respect for food. It was a reminder of what we still have to do. And that, my friends, feeds the heart as well as the stomach.

To learn more about Disciples Escoffier, visit

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