Every year when I look back on the adventures I've taken and the amazing things I've eaten, I'm always amazed. I love what I do and I work really hard for it. For me, rewards are often more embodied in a bowl of soup or a mouth-watering dessert than they are in any other way. All of this king-like feasting is documented fairly well, so when taking a stroll through the various and copious photo libraries at my disposal of food pics from throughout the year, I find myself salivating all over again.
Blair and Chuck have written about their 'Best Bites of 2016' and now it's my turn. I focus on three categories: dishes from the road that blew me away, desserts that I'll never forget, and times that I impressed myself with food that we prepared. Here's my best of 2016:
On the Road:
Khao Soi Neuea: Short Ribs, Coconut Curry Soup, Housemade Baa Mee, Noodles, Crispy NoodlesAlfie's, Washington DC, February
|Khao Soi Neuea: Short Ribs, Coconut Curry Soup, Housemade Baa Mee, Noodles, Crispy Noodles|
Alfie's pop-up in DC made the list for Blair and Chuck, but I knew long before I took them in July that Alfie's would make my list as well. I got my first taste of Alfie's back in February on snowy trek to our nation's capital for a beer dinner with the NBWA. Alfie's was just opening, but I managed to get a closing-time table thanks to my buddy Alex McCoy from Food Network Star. With a contingent of Louisiana friends now living in DC, we set up camp at Alfie's and nearly consumed the entire menu.
The Khao Soi Navea, beef short ribs simmered down in a coconut curry broth with noodles, nearly made me move to Thailand. The dish had just the right amounts of spice and complexity. The beef fell apart at the twist of a fork. The crunch noodles added the right textural contrast to bring it together. I'd take another bowl right now, but Alex has moved on from Alfie's to create new pop-ups in the same space, but don't fret! It'll be back one day, and I'll be there!
East Nasty: Buttermilk Biscuit, Fried Chicken Thigh, Aged Cheddar, Sausage Gravy
Biscuit Love, Nashville, March
|(bottom left) East Nasty: Buttermilk Biscuit, Fried Chicken Thigh, Aged Cheddar, Sausage Gravy|
No trip to Nashville would be complete without hot chicken. I loved the hot chicken so much that we did a hot chicken pop-up here in Baton Rouge; more to come on that later.
However, the hot chicken from Nashville isn't what's on my list. Instead, the dish I crave to this day is the East Nasty from the popular restaurant in The Gulch, Biscuit Love. The buttermilk biscuit sandwich features a deep fried chicken thigh, aged cheddar cheese and a decadent sausage gravy. It's the kind of biscuit sandwich that you have to eat with a fork and knife, but that's alright by me!
Cream, Butter and Corn Milk Poached Silver Queen CornAcre, Auburn, AL, July
|Cream, Butter and Corn Milk Poached Silver Queen Corn|
Sometimes it's the most simple dishes that create lasting memories. I've eaten some true fine dining and molecular tinkering this year, but I always remember what Wolfgang Puck told me is the secret to good cooking. "Start with good ingredients," he said with a smile, "and don't fuck them up."
Chef David Bancroft at the restaurant Acre in Auburn, AL is the embodiment of that philosophy. He grows a lot of what he cooks on the one acre plot on which the restaurant sits. When it's time to harvest, his menu features food that is essentially grown in his parking lot.
The most memorable dish that he served us on our drive home from the James Beard House in New York was this cream, butter and corn milk poached Silver Queen corn. There wasn't much to it, but it was quite simply one of the best things I ate all year. That's how corn is supposed to taste. And rather than try to do too much with it, David instead chose to just not fuck it up.
Smoked Fried Oysters, Okra and Potato Batter, Dehydrated Okra, Corn AioliThe Wharf Uncorked, Orange Beach, AL, September
|Smoked Fried Oysters, Okra and Potato Batter, Dehydrated Okra, Corn Aioli|
Cooking competitions are tricky, and with as many of them as I judge, there's a reason that I usually don't feature dishes from competitions on these kinds of lists. However, this year at The Wharf Uncorked, Chef Chris Sherrill from the Flora-Bama Yacht Club pulled off an nearly unprecedented kind of feat. His smoked and fried oysters took home three prizes, best in his category, best in show as picked by the judges, and people's choice as voted on by the public. He didn't just win, he blew the competition away.
The oysters were coated in a batter of dehydrated okra and potato flour. The oysters were served with more dehydrated okra for a little show-and-tell, as well as a rustic corn aioli. I could have sat back and eaten these like they were popcorn.
Cosme, NYC, July
Cosme in NYC impressed me so much that they are going to make this list twice. The Duck Carnitas were nothing short of inspirational. As a signature dish, they certainly nailed it. It is the kind of dish that pushes me forward and makes we want to replicate it my own way. It's the reason why we've been practicing duck carnitas tacos for Gov't Taco. It HAS to go on the menu, and it has to live up to this sort of legendary status.
Pork Chop, Huitlacoche TamaleSALT New American Table, McAllen, TX, February
|Pork Chop, Huitlacoche Tamale|
Chef Larry Delgado got each piece of the chop to work right by using multiple cooking methods including searing, sous vide, baking and frying. Honestly, it doesn't matter to most people what he may or may not have done to perfect the pork. What matters is that I've been craving more of it ever since and if you're ever in McAllen, TX you have to dine at this restaurant.
Kyle Field, College Station, TX, Thanksgiving Day
|Chef Picou and Jay Ducote in the Kitchen at Kyle Field with Carrot Cake|
I had the pleasure of traveling to College Station for the LSU vs Texas A&M game on Thanksgiving Day. As impressive as LSU was on the field, the Aggie Hospitality team may have taken the cake in terms of impressiveness. They're taking stadium food to a new level. If you're lucky enough to get catering in the club level or a suite, you're in for a treat at Kyle Field.
On day one of my behind-the-scenes tour and tasting, I got to sample a lot of their smoked meats, specialty hot dogs and more. The beef short ribs weren't far from making this list, but Chefs Picou (pictured above) and Mora, both assured me that I needed to try the carrot cake the next day. I got a special invite to track them down in the stadium's kitchen at halftime of the football game to give it a try. Folks, I'm not kidding when I say it's the best carrot cake I've ever had. I'll go back to a football game and sneak into a suite if I have to in order to get another slice!
Cosme, NYC, July
I said earlier that Cosme would make this list twice. Here's number two: the illustrious corn meringue has made magazines and headlines, so I'm definitely not the first person to admire its glory. However, this list of foods I ate in 2016 wouldn't be complete without a mention of it. With a hard shell on the outside and creamy corn sweetness on the inside, this dessert gave me a new respect for how many ways people can make something as simple as corn into something awesome.
Cornbread Bread Pudding
Dark Roux, Lafayette, LA, January
|Cornbread Bread Pudding|
Speaking of making corn into something awesome, 2016 started out strong with a culinary trip to Lafayette and a feasting at Dark Roux. The entire meal was quite exceptional, but it still managed to end on an even higher note. The cornbread bread pudding had the flavors and textures that help a bread pudding stand apart. With so many bread puddings on southern menus, It's hard to be impressed by this classic dessert these days, but when one does, it's divine. Using cornbread to make a dessert gave it just enough of a savory edge to make it truly memorable instead of just being a block of sugar. If you go to Dark Roux, don't miss it.
Tres Leches Cake
Corks & Cleaver, Gulfport, MS, June
|Tres Leches Cake|
My opinion on bread pudding, as seen above, is that bread pudding is good, but it takes a truly special one to impress me. However, my feeling on tres leches is that they are usually rubbish. They are wet, soggy messes of batter and milk and sugar and they shouldn't be a thing. So when I was told to get the Tres Leches Cake at Corks & Cleaver in Gulfport, MS, my first instinct was to run.
However, trusting Chef David Dickensauge's skills and palate, I decided to give it a try. I'm sure glad I did. I've never had a tres leches like this. It's all about the texture, and this one worked. Not existent was the soggy goop of traditional tres leches. Instead, this cake featured magnificently velvety layers of sweetened milk and spongy cake. Now I think I'm scared of tres leches cakes even more though, because I'll probably never have another one like this again.
Food Prepared by Me and My Team:
Nashville Style Hot Chicken, Mustard Greens, Mac & CheeseHot Chicken on a Tin Roof pop-up for flood relief, Baton Rouge, LA, September
|Nashville Style Hot Chicken, Mustard Greens, Mac & Cheese|
Having eaten at Hattie B's in Nashville twice this year, I developed a true respect and subsequent craving for hot chicken. It provides a mouth sensation that can best be described by a Ray Bradbury quote from Fahrenheit 451: "It was a pleasure to burn."
Not being able to get hot chicken in Baton Rouge is a problem, so I decided to take it upon myself to do a hot chicken event at the Tin Roof Brewing Company called Hot Chicken on a Tin Roof. My team with Blair, Chuck, Aimee and interns (Marit and Rachel) were joined by Jason Lees of Roux 61, Alex Barbosa from Barbosa's Barbeque and Alex Hamman from the Louisiana Culinary Institute to pull off an epic hot chicken popup.
Complete with a bad ass mac & cheese and braised mustard greens (donated by Table Fresh), the plates of hot chicken flew off our serving line as fast as we could fry them. We served over 300 people that night, and between us and Tin Roof, donated over $1,000 to the Greater Baton Rouge Area Food Bank as a part of a flood relief effort.
Also, the chicken, to put it mildly, was on point.
Cane Glazed Carrots, Black Bean Purée, Pepitas, Goat Cheese, Chimi, Corn Tortillas
Office House Dinner, Baton Rouge, LA, August
|Cane Glazed Carrots, Black Bean Purée, Pepitas, Goat Cheese, Chimi, Corn Tortillas|
One of our very first taco experiments to get Gov't Taco menu development started featured a dish containing a black bean puree, goat cheese, pepitas, chimichurri and cane-syrup-glazed roasted carrots. The ingredients were designed to be fillings in a vegetarian taco option, and it worked. It worked so well, in fact, that we did it again at another Gov't Taco pop-up and we're almost certain that it will end up on our opening menu. So we have that going for us, which is nice.
Fig, Fennel, Almonds, Hybrid Tortilla
Gov't Taco Pop-up at Slash Creative, Baton Rouge, LA, October
|Fig, Fennel, Almonds, Hybrid Tortilla|
The roasted carrots were great, but the fig and fennel taco that we did for Spooky Taco Tuesday at S/ash Creative may have been even better. The combination of sweet late-season figs from Indie Plate and anise flavored fennel with crunchy toasted almond slices explodes on the taste buds. This is a taco that we are sure to repeat as soon as fig season is back.
Granny's Pecan Rolls
James Beard House, NYC, July
|Granny's Pecan Rolls|
Photo: Fortunato M. Ramin
My top professional accomplishments of 2016 were having a pilot for my own show air on Travel Channel, launching my Spicy & Sweet Barbecue Rub and Single Origin Coffee, and cooking at the historic James Beard House in New York. For the dinner, I knew I wanted to do some of my "greatest hits" dishes from TV shows and cooking events, but I got hung up on what to do for dessert. I wanted to feature a dish that truly meant something to me, so when we came up with the idea to feature my Granny's pecan rolls, I knew we were onto something.
Chef Aimee Tortorich worked hard on taking my grandmother's recipe and turning it into a dessert rather than a breakfast dish. We added a little more sugar as well as a pecan praline sauce. They filled every bit of the nostalgic void in my stomach. Our best batch came at the James Beard House, though all the practice runs were pretty spectacular as well.
Whole Lamb, Confit Garlic Oil, Jay D's Spicy & Sweet Barbecue Rub
The Hamptons, New York, July
So this one time, we were in the Hamptons, and we were asked to hang out for a pool party and cook for some local guests... and Heidi Klum showed up... and when I asked for a picture, she grabbed the leg of lamb from the table and we captured this magic.
But here's what you can't really see from that picture: that lamb may have been the best thing I cooked this year. Roasted whole in a La Caja China, the lamb was seasoned with nothing more than garlic-infused olive oil and Jay D's Spicy & Sweet BBQ Rub plus a little extra kosher salt. The toasted bark on the outside of the lamb from the rub and heat from the the wood fire provided charred heaven while the inside of the lamb was tender and succulent, containing lots of flavor in every bite. It truly was worthy of The Hamptons, Heidi Klum, our fantastic hosts and all the excellent wine we drank!
Dutch Oven Biscuits
|Jay Ducote makes biscuit dough at Mahaffey Farms for the Pineywoods Supper Club|
Photo: Jennifer Robison
|Jay Ducote works the mother fire at the Pineywoods Supper Club while biscuits cook in Dutch ovens|
Photo: Jennifer Robison
|Evan McCommon uses the light on his phone to check on a batch of Dutch oven biscuits|
Photo: Jennifer Robison
|Dutch Oven Biscuits from the Pineywoods Supper Club at Mahaffey Farms|
Buttermilk biscuit making is an art form. The proper mixing of flour, salt baking powder with cold butter, lard (from Mahaffey Farms in the this case) and buttermilk is the first step. On the farm this was all done in small batches and by hand. I actually didn't even have measuring cups so I just eye-balled everything and went by feel and ratios. I flattened the dough out on an outdoor table lined with contractor trash bags then laminated the dough, folding it over itself and stretching it back out again and again. Not having a ring mold, I used the lid to a mason jar to cut the biscuits into beautiful rounds.
Cooking outside on a farm can have its challenges, one of which is the lack of an oven to bake said biscuits. Needing to stay true to my word of delivering Dutch oven biscuits, I set up three cast iron pots above a bed of coals and then shoveled hot coals onto the lids of the pots as well once biscuits were inside. This is, afterall, the intent of the Dutch oven. Each pot fit around 7 biscuits, so using all three I was still only cooking 21 at a time.
With around a 20 minute cook time, the biscuits were the most elusive item at the 100-person feast. People waited in line for all the food, but the biscuits are what spread throughout the farm as the hard-to-get item worth waiting for. When all the smoke had cleared from the whole lamb and charred carrots, the last batch of biscuits were the only thing left over fire. Fortunately by that time most people had finished eating, so I got to have one of the biscuits right out of the Dutch oven. The buttery and flaky dough melted in my mouth as the salty lard gave a savory depth throughout the biscuits. The coal ovens gave the biscuits an outside crust with a beautiful, steamy interior.
I'll go so far as to say that they were the best biscuits I've ever made. I'm going to be searching for that satisfaction in every biscuit I create from now on.
Check out Blair's Best Bites of 2016 & Chuck P's Best Bites of 2016 (Burger Edition)