Special events at the Turtle Club are always unique, sophisticated and laid-back. But their Celebrity Chef Dinner with Chef Angelo Sosa of Bravo’s Top Chef DC and Top Chef All-Stars on Thursday, March 24, 2011 took it to a whole new level – intimate, inspiring and delectable – and all enjoyed in a spirit of warm, casual camaraderie here in Hoboken!
The dinner highlighted Sosa’s extraordinary talent and perfect balancing of flavors as well as his passion, playfulness, creativity and showmanship. The six courses were paired not only with carefully selected wines – Sosa also accompanied each with stories from his accomplished culinary career, his Top Chef experiences and his life and travels. And from unusual serving vessels to unexpected flavors, textures and garnishes, every dish featured a novel twist of its own.
A life-changing experience
Before the dinner began, we had a chance to talk with the chef as he finalized his preparations. Fans of the show might be surprised to find out that he’s even more impressive and engaging in person!
A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, this self-described innovative, daring flavor-enhancer has a daunting set of credentials, and his list of mentors includes industry icons like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, Christian Bertrand and Steven Starr.
His initial involvement with Top Chef DC, he explained, came about through a complicated process. “All in all, it was a blessing. It was an awesome experience, a life-changing experience,” he said as he tasted white chocolate infused parsnip puree and instructed staff on presentations. “Especially the All Stars. It pushed me to my limits and made me a better chef and a better person. You learn so much about yourself. It was a great time in my life.”
This despite nearly being side-lined by illness during the Season 7 finale in Singapore. “The really important thing [about the finale] was being allowed to compete. It wasn’t even about me – it was about all the people, their time and energy and effort to get me there. It was an honor to be able to compete.” And Sosa was immediately invited back to compete again in Season 8’s All Stars.
But what was it like to actually live with his fellow Cheftestants? Gracious and affable, Sosa shrugged, “Huh, huh, huh,” he laughed. “You know…. It’s a new experience. It’s kind of like joining a fraternity when you’re 35 years old!”And his thoughts on the Richard Blais v. Mike Isabella showdown in the All Stars finale this Wednesday, March 30? “Mikey’s a great friend, but I’ve learned a lot from Richard,” he noted. “So do I have a favorite? I would be very torn.”
And his personal focus going forward after Top Chef? “Being passionate about life and infusing people with passion; igniting them with my food and my flavors and inspiring them in whatever it is they choose to do in life.”
Bringing Top Chef to the Turtle Club
The idea for the evening’s event came about after Sosa was introduced to Cory Checket by a mutual friend. Turtle Club owners Checket and David Hohensee, foodies themselves, thought it would be a very similar to Top Chef to see what Sosa could create within the limitations of the Turtle Club’s small kitchen.
Said Checket, “It’s pretty much like a quick-fire challenge. That’s why I immediately thought of Top Chef. Great chefs can easily turn out amazing meals in a full kitchen, but in a small space like this, that’s really impressive.”
Sosa himself was impressed with the space and decided that together they could create an evening that was spectacular. As for his choices for the evening’s menu, Sosa said, “I wanted to create a menu that was innovative and whimsical and fun!”
Each course built upon the previous, telling the culinary tale of his journeys as a chef even as he introduced each with stories from his life and experiences on Top Chef. He explained and demonstrated techniques throughout – and even jumped in as Top Bartender on the rare moments when he saw a glass in need of a refill. “It’s like Cocktail back here,” he laughed.
Sosa charmed the sold-out crowd and strolled around speaking with everyone. For Hoboken resident Duane Karabin, this event was not to be missed. Said Karabin, “I love cooking and I love competition and I’m a huge fan of the show!” Karabin had never met Sosa before, but they joked and talked back and forth. Some liquid nitrogen even found its way into Karabin’s Stella Artois!
Before the meal began, Sosa invited everyone to ask questions, encouraging all to learn and inquire and then bring that enthusiasm home with them. He also spoke of his travels, particularly in Asia, from which he draws so much of his inspiration. “My eyes were opened,” he told the guests of his journeys, “my mind renewed. I found myself as a chef – particularly in Thailand.” It’s why he continues to travel. Sosa added that his cuisine is defined by a respect for the past as well as an eye to the future, but always with a focus on the “y factor” – the yummy, sexy factor. He concluded, “Let’s have some fun, let’s relax, and let’s light it up!”
A whole new taste portfolio
The first course was Beet Tartare with Curried Honey. The ingredients could compose a classic beet and goat cheese salad—but Sosa added curried Italian honey to the beets and liquid-nitrogen frozen greens to transform the expected into the exquisite. It was served alongside a 2007 Trimbach Gewurtztraminer, and the classic dry, spicy white from Alsace accentuated the sweetness of the beets and peppery kick of the greens and earthy richness of the goat cheese.
Said Sosa, “I encourage everyone more than anything to experiment, expand your portfolio, take a little risk….” As he explained how he roasted the beets so that all the flavors got “inoculated and injected”, the room was mesmerized and suddenly quiet. “I feel like I’m in church,” he laughed and broke the hush.
The second course matched Sosa’s “Canned Tuna” Chicken of the Sea with Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from Napa Valley. Each portion was presented in an empty tuna can and featured crispy chicken skin as well as a perfect piece of sashimi-grade yellow fin tuna. Sosa’s humor was on display as he described the difficulties of getting the empty cans; for Duane Karabin, though, the sriracha-enhanced mayo presented a real challenge. On a one-to-ten scale of daring, he said, for him, this was an eleven. But Karabin enjoyed it and acknowledged that in the future he might just be willing to try things he never would have before this experience!
Another Californian offering, 2007 Benziger Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay accompanied the third course – Turmeric Red Snapper with Sriracha, Dill, Cilantro, Chorizo and White Chocolate. Two stories preceded this course and brought the guests deeper into Sosa’s culinary past as well as directly referenced the current season of Top Chef. The flavors for this dish, Sosa explained, were inspired by a meal many years ago in Vietnam that transformed his palette. The dish itself, as seen in the “New York’s Finest” episode of All Stars, is a reflection of Sosa’s change in focus after the disappointment of the Season 7 finale. Sosa decided he wanted to go for broke this season; that decision to just go for it, all or nothing, he added, has proven as pivotal for his career as the meal in Vietnam once was for his palate.
Sosa introduced the fourth course, Milk Ramen served with Braised Pork Belly and Togarashi Salt (paired with Louis Jadot Burgundy 2008 from Savigny-Les-Beaune – La Dominode in France) as “China meets Japan meets Hoboken!” Definitely not your college student’s idea of ramen, the evening’s dish was based on a Top Chef offering from both the Season 7 finale and the Season 8 opener. When a guest called out to ask if he would have done anything different with this in the finale, Sosa laughed, “Yeah, I wouldn’t have given them pork when they asked for a vegetable dish!”
For the fifth course, St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel 2005 Bagani from California’s Sonoma Valley partnered perfectly with what Sosa dubbed an experimental offering, Vintage Beef with Parsnip Puree and Smoky Cocoa Sauce. Chipotle, cocoa and cumin gave an added kick to the beef, but the velvety white chocolate parsnip puree mellowed the heat, and the cocoa puff garnish served as reminder that this really was all about having fun!
The evening concluded with Shaved Coconut Ice a’ La Thai Jewel, which Sosa described as the essence of the dessert he created for the Season 7 finale only in a different rendition. The icy treat of spiced coconut milk and coconut flesh in cardamom juice was perfectly set off by a refreshing glass of Croft Pink Port, the first ever rosé-style port, from Portugal’s Duoro Valley.
Raves all around…
After the meal, guest Brian Gibson was enthralled, “I’m a huge foodie, and this was a wonderful experience. Angelo is a top-flight chef, and trying all these foods he prepared on Top Chef was a sublime experience.” And he added, “We all agree, this was better than we ever expected – and he better come back a second time!”
Bartender Mike Nuttle noted, “Good wine, good people, good food… I definitely would love to see more events like this in the future.”
The owners each had their personal favorite of the evening: for Checket, it was the ramen with pork belly; for Hohensee, the tuna. Said Hohensee, “It was a huge success – it was very interactive. The guests actually felt what Angelo felt during Top Chef. And that sense of connection with him and the show – they had it live, right here in Hoboken!”
So can we expect to see more Celebrity Chef Dinners like this at the Turtle Club? Yes, hinted Checket, we can look forward to seeing other high-level culinary talents cooking at the Turtle Club in the future. Maybe even a Top Chef meets Iron Chef-style cook-off! And in the meanwhile, the Turtle Club’s new wine club kicks off the first week in April. The Hoboken Turtle Club is located at 936 Park Avenue; for more information, call 201.710.5960, visit www.hobokenturtleclub.com, or go to their Facebook page for the most up-to-the-minute information.
If you can’t wait for Sosa’s next visit, check out his latest project, Social Eatz, (232 E. 53rd Street, NYC) which reinterprets classic NYC fare by highlighting the Asian flavors Sosa does so well! Call 212.207.3339 or go to www.socialeatz.com. For more about Chef Angelo Sosa, go to angelososa.com.
Photos courtesy of Robert Wagner.