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A Guide to Exceptional Table Settings

Valentine’s Day is just a few weeks away so I thought I would help you set the mood by helping you set the table.

It might surprise you to learn just how much of what we taste is influenced by the other senses. To prove the point, there is a fad currently emerging called “dark dining.” There are two different approaches to dark dining but both involve the customers being blind for the entirety of the meal. DD enthusiasts claim that food tastes differently when you eliminate one of the senses. For the record the two different approaches to dark are that some restaurants have servers donning commando-style night-vision goggles while the other employees only vision-impaired servers.

The importance of what we see towards what we taste is essential. This is why chefs are so maniacal about their plate presentations. One example that comes to mind is Chef Charles Mereday formerly of the Battle House Hotel in Mobile, AL and a classmate of Tyler Florence at Johnson & Wales University.  A few years ago I did a profile on Mereday for ‘Zalea Magazine. My editor told me that when they photographed one of Chef Charles’ entrees for the article that the photographer took the liberty of rearranging the items on the dish. The chef politely removed the plate and cooked the dish again asking that the picture reflect the way the dish is served.

For the home cook an easy way to set the stage visually is to set the table creatively. One great teacher of how to set a table is Food Network star Sandra Lee. Though many have been critical of the food on the show (Lee admits to using 70% pre-made foods), none can argue that the TV star sets a beautiful table, or what she calls tablescapes.

Lee’s talent for tablescapes has started a whole genre of DYI books devoted to setting the table. Ironically she is the only person who has not published a book on the subject:

Of course treating your dining room table like a Broadway set is not the only way to set the mood. A simple yet elegantly set table can pop by simply putting a little effort into folding your napkins. I have compiled some videos that will walk you through the process.

Memorial Day Grill: Gourmet Burgers

Memorial Day Grill is a series of video recipes to inspire you this grilling season.

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Food TV Baffles Me Sometimes

Originally posted on July 25, 2008.

Hello, I am Stuart, and I’m a foodie.

Where do I start?

Last week’s Iron Chef: America:  I have been blogging this show for quite some time now and I have never seen any challenger capture the imagination of the public like Gabrielle Hamilton.  The hits I get on her are amazing.  I hope TFN is paying attention, they may have accidentally found the Next Food Network Star.  And Bobby Flay’s sous chef Renee ain’t bad either.  I should know I thought five years ago that Anne Burrell needs her own show.  Are you listening Tuschman?  I got the sight.

Which now brings me to all of the turmoil of NFNS:  Fixed!  Aaron had one of the worst performances of anyone in the history of the show last week and now (thanks to a network blunder) we know that he is the winner.  Fixed!  Well, actually Mary Nolan was the real winner.  Fixed!  She got a show and didn’t even have to compete.  And oddly enough Kelsey Nixon, the brightest face to come on the network in a while got axed (presumably to make sure Aaron would win).  Fixed!

SARCASM ALERT: But TFN was on to something with Mary Nolan.  My stats on her are off the chart.  She’s a solid fit for the network, but apparently a lot of you love her.  I like her, she’s nice, but Kelsey has star (Rachael Ray cross-over star) written all over her.  Instead of calling Aaron McCargo’s new show Big Daddy’s House they should call it One And Done.  Out of the ten chefs they had to choose from they went with the guy who was horrible on camera.  No wonder the winner’s show never gets picked up for a second season.  Except for Guy Fieri.  I see why Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen smoke NFNS in the ratings.  Sure they are just shows about people screaming and there is little actual cooking to them but you at least feel that they find the best person in the end.

Diary of a Wannabe TV Chef – PT 4

This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most import elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.

Once more unto the breach…

My first night back in a commercial kitchen was memorable.  It is a Friday night and the restaurant is on about an hour wait. I am training and therefore have plenty of time to take in the sights and sounds of this old friend.  Tickets are ringing up, the expo (expeditor – person in charge of organizing food from the kitchen and sending it to the dining room; a mediator of the line) is barking out orders for a FOD (fish of the day) that is going on 23 minutes, servers are stealing each other’s salads in a failed attempt to salvage a tip at a table they have neglected, and the dish-washing unit is beeping because it needs more sanitizer. Heaven.

Hawaiian SteakOne of the servers comes into the kitchen with a Hawaiian Ribeye his customer has sent back. Here is the dialogue as it unfolded:

Chef: Why is she sending this steak back?

Server: She said it tastes sweet.

Chef: Of course it tastes sweet, it’s a Hawaiian Ribeye.

Server: She said she had no idea that it would taste sweet.

Chef: How did you describe the dish when she ordered it?

Server: I said it is an 18 ounce choice ribeye steak with Hawaiian flavors.

Chef: What are Hawaiian flavors?

Server: Uh . . .

Chef: What do you think we do, shave a live Hawaiian over the steak when it is done? It is an 18 ounce choice ribeye steak marinated in teriyaki sauce, honey, and pineapple juice, served with two slices of grilled organic pineapple! Because you didn’t take the time to learn your menu, I have to throw away a $37 steak!

The rest was unsuitable for print.

The restaurant is the last place that a boss can actually get angry at employee when they do something stupid that costs the company money. In an office setting, the chef would have been headed for anger management classes. In a kitchen, the chef is the law, the employee slams a few things down and mutters furiously about what a jerk the chef is. Three or four f-bombs later and all is forgotten.

As the months go by, I begin to feel my stride again. I am handling copious amounts of work on Friday nights as it is the Lenten season. Since many Catholics give up red meat during Lent, the pantry station is getting slammed with salads. It baffles me, if you have given up red meat for Lent, why are you going to a steakhouse for dinner?

New opportunities to learn keep popping up. For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we do away with the menu and replace it with a lavish buffet. Buffets are new to me so I get my first real taste of batch cooking. The owners start having chef’s specials – each chef gets to contribute. Mine is an appetizer – Southwestern Spring Rolls with smoked chicken, corn salsa, and cabbage served with a spicy ranch dipping sauce

The chance to cross-train arises, so it is time to pick a new position to learn. I have worked the fry station at many restaurants so it can wait. I can go toe-to-toe with anybody on a broiler so there is no challenge there, thus I begin to learn the sauté station. If a kitchen were a rock band, sauté is the lead singer, the one everybody is looking at. The guy who gets the chicks. My skills grow each day I work in this kitchen.

But, I am just a part-time chef, here. I work Friday and Saturday nights only. I still work at the call center for my primary income. I am only a few months away from my five-year anniversary and the guaranteed pension and fully vested mutual fund that comes with that. It would be foolish to leave before then.

Then came Hurricane Ivan.

Just 25 miles from slamming Mobile, the deadly hurricane inexplicably changed directions, hitting the other side of Mobile Bay and pummeling Pensacola, Florida. It is now known in these parts as “the last minute jog.” Though our neighbors in Baldwin County and in Florida were in dire straights, Mobile was up and running, sort of.

The call center was on the same power grid as a fire/rescue and police station, so we were open for business just 36 hours after the infamous jog. Not everyone was so lucky. For that reason the company had decided to feed all employees and their families with whatever food was in the cafeteria. The catering contract at our site was in limbo. The old company had left the day before the storm and the new company was not scheduled to come in until the next week. They needed someone to run the kitchen.

Do you want to know one of the reasons why I love the culinary arts? Look in the eyes of a six year old child that has just gone through one of the most destructive forces of nature on earth, is now living without electricity, air conditioning, plumbing, or any creature comforts for the first time in their life and then hand them a pancake with a smiley face made out of chocolate chips.

The day of my fifth year anniversary with the rental company I mail out a dozen copies of my restaurant management résumé. The first interview does not come for two months. It is with a sports bar chain famous for their waitresses’ skimpy outfits. The interview process goes well. I am very eager to escape my cubical nightmare and return to my passion but the salary offer is an insulting $23K a year. I have to think carefully before declining the offer. The thing that really killed the deal was that management was forbidden from dating the very attractive servers in the skimpy outfits. Seriously, if you are only going to pay your managers chicken scratch there has to be some fringe benefit.

A few more interviews and finally the offer comes that makes the career change worth the chance. A well known fern bar is looking for managers. The training lasts 10 weeks in either Kansas, Nebraska, or Florida and pays a much more attractive salary. Overnight my pay doubles and my life changes forever.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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