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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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Restaurants

Thanksgiving Tasting Tour

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Inspired by a trip to Italy during which she walked and ate herself silly, Moira Campbell (a friend of mine, full disclosure) quit her job in restaurant PR this past summer to form Rum & Blackbird, a company that gives tasting tours in New York. She began taking groups around her Hell's Kitchen neighborhood last month, visiting stops like Xie Xie for seven courses' worth of food. This holiday weekend, the food will be inspired by Thanksgiving, with dishes like turkey empanadas with cranberry salsa from Empanada Mama, sweet-potato bourekas from Gazala Place and cranberry orange biscotti from Biscotti Di Vecchio. Next month she'll start having guest chefs along for the ride, including Alexandra Guarnaschelli and F&W Best New Chef 2001 Anita Lo, who will be on the December 5 tour at 3 p.m.

Chefs

Day 6: Onward to Samuels & Son

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Chefs Shane McBride and James Tracey inspecting a tuna head

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Chefs Shane McBride and James Tracey
inspecting a tuna head

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Anyone who has ever spent time in a fish market can attest to them typically being pretty smelly, messy, old-fashioned places. So, I was more than a little bit surprised when we pulled up to Samuels & Son's headquarters. Samuels just moved out of Philadelphia's historic fish market and into a brand new $20 million facility that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

The new facility was clean, spacious, and brightly lit, with fish of every variety you can think of stacked neatly in boxes row by row. Everything from the cutting rooms to the loading bays was temperature controlled at a constant 34 degrees. With the help of refrigerated trucks, that meant that a fish can be kept super cold (but never frozen) from the moment it gets plucked out of the ocean to the moment it arrives at a restaurant, an innovation which makes a big difference in freshness terms.

Even more state of the art was the facility's ozonated water system. Ozonated water has antibacterial properties, allowing the fish cutters to constantly sanitize both their work surfaces and the fish itself without introducing any chemicals.

The facility is a big step forward in the way that seafood is processed, and I was impressed by how much Samuels & Son was willing to invest in providing their customers with a better product.

Farms

Day 6: A Morning at Culton Organics

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A morning at Culton Organics

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
A morning at Culton Organics

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

When it came time to decide where we should stop north of DC, my first call was to my friend and fellow chef Marc Vetri. Marc has two highly regarded restaurants in Philadelphia, Osteria and Vetri, and I knew that he'd have great suggestions for food producers to visit in the area. Number one on his list was Culton Organics, a family farm in the heart of Lancaster County which supplies fruit and vegetables to his restaurants. Marc loved the place so much that offered to join us if we visited.

So, on the morning of day six we were Pennsylvania-bound. I invited the chefs of my three New York restaurants, James Tracey, Shane McBride, and Lauren Hirschberg, thinking this would be a good opportunity to spend a day together outside the kitchen.

Culton Organics is run by a guy named Tom Culton. Tom took over his family's 55 acre farm when he was 20 and has been working it for the past nine years, only growing as much as he, his grandfather, and his girlfriend can handle. Currently that means just half of his acreage is in fruit and vegetable cultivation, but Tom is not interested in growing his business, insisting that bringing on extra help takes the joy out of farming for him.

We took a walk through Tom's fields, which were amazingly lush considering that he doesn't use pesticides, weed killer, or man-made fertilizer. He doesn't even irrigate. Tom keeps the land fertile using crop rotation, growing a wide variety of produce (from cardoons to artichokes to fraise de bois) on land that has been farmed by his family organically for the past 100 years (yes, you read that correctly, and it is a very rare achievement). Tom also takes frequent research trips to Europe, studying a new crop or farming method in Italy or France in order to apply it to his own farming.

The icing on the cake of our visit to Culton Organics was when Tom invited us back to his 19th century farmhouse for a hearty lunch: pig's stomach stuffed with pork sausage, new potatoes, and celery, accompanied by homemade apple sauce. It was one of the best home-cooked meals I've had in recent memory.

Chefs

Jamie Oliver and Match.com

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Catesby Holmes, one of our colleagues at sister mag Travel + Leisure, weighs in on this unlikely collaboration:

“Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver has teamed up with Match.com in the UK, the original online yenta, to establish a forum for food lovers to meet, mingle and turn up the heat (and not just on their stainless steel ranges). Jamieoliver.com/dating has related articles like "Making the First Meal for Your Partner" and "Food to Make You Fall in Love." Hey, even if you don’t find The One, at least you’ll get a good meal out of it.

Restaurants

Day 5: Dinner at Jaleo

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Dinner at Jaleo

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Dinner at Jaleo

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Since we were planning to stay in DC for the night, Jose Andres encouraged us to have dinner at one of his restaurants. Although minibar at Café Atlantico is the talk of the town in Washington right now, I was in the mood for paella so we opted for Jose's bar and tapas joint, Jaleo.

Jaleo has been open for years and yet it's always festive and buzzing. Two highlights of our meal were a delicious arroz negro paella and lomo iberico, a salt-roasted pork tenderloin. Jose joined us for the second half of the meal, and it was great to have a chance to catch up with a good friend I don't see often enough.

Farms

Day 5: Touring DC Central Kitchen

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Knife Skills 101 with one of DC Central Kitchen's youngest volunteers

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Knife Skills 101 with one of DC
Central Kitchen's youngest volunteers

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

The main event on day five was a trip to DC Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization whose mission is to combat hunger and poverty. I've heard a lot about it over the years from my friend Jose Andres, who currently sits on DCCK's board of directors, and I thought that this was the perfect opportunity for a visit.

As someone who has spent the lion's share of the past thirty years cooking food for fortunate people, hunger issues have always held a special importance to me. Lately they have taken on a new prominence in my life, since my wife and I set out to make a film called "Hungry In America," about this nation's hunger crisis.

DC Central Kitchen is part of the solution, producing and distributing 4,500 healthy meals per day to shelters and other social services programs. They recover over a ton of food daily from restaurants, schools, hotels, and farmers markets, but what they can't get donated they buy from area farmers. At this point, 75% of their raw ingredients are locally grown — something most people can't say about their own home cooked meals.

But that's just the beginning. DC Central Kitchen also generates almost half of its $5.2 million annual budget for its programs from a for-profit catering division, Fresh Start Catering. And the organization goes one step further with a 12-week culinary job training program, addressing the roots of hunger by helping unemployed, homeless, and previously incarcerated adults get back in the workforce. Many of the organization's own 73 employees are graduates of the program.

We took a tour of DCCK's 10,000 square foot kitchen with Jose Andres, founder Michael Curtin, and Chief Development Officer Brian McNair. Salaried employees were busy prepping meals alongside a handful of young kids who had come in from local schools as part of an after school program. They were slicing tomatoes and squash, learning a valuable new skill while doing something for the community.

DCCK is a unique and fascinating model for addressing hunger issues, and one that I hope spreads to New York soon.

Farms

Day 5: Foraging For Mushrooms with MAW

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With mushroom guru Ray LaSala

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
With mushroom guru Ray LaSala

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

On our way up from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington DC, we were relieved to see rain give way to clear skies. A few days earlier we had cold-called Ray LaSala, the president of the Mycological Association of Washington DC (or MAW, to those on the know), asking if he would take us out foraging for mushrooms when we were in the area. We were now on our way to meet Ray at a regional park south of DC and spend a couple of hours scanning the forest floor for fungi.

I love mushrooms. Since day one my menus at Craft and Craftsteak have included not just one but several different seasonal varieties of roasted mushroom as side dishes, from Hen of the Woods to Chanterelles to Trompette Royals and Bluefoots, to name just a few.

When we met Ray and his three fellow MAW members, all were concerned that we might not have much luck foraging at this time of year. As it turned out, they were right; the only edible fungi that we were able to find that day were a few honey mushrooms. Regardless, we were all glad to stretch our legs and work off at least a little bit of the previous night's dinner. Another bonus was the chance discovery of my first wild paw paw tree, which bears a fruit that tastes a lot like a banana and but grows right in the Mid-Atlantic.

Restaurants

Day 4: The Hope & Glory Inn

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The Hope and Glory Inn

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
The Hope and Glory Inn

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

When it came time to hit the sheets, Travis and Ryan recommended a local institution just a few minutes down the road, the Hope & Glory Inn. Peggy and Dudley Patteson have taken a 19th Century schoolhouse and converted it into a country inn, complete with private one-bedroom cottages (originally dormitories) out back. We didn't get to spend much time at the Hope & Glory, but it Peggy and Dudley's southern hospitality was a welcome change from the impersonal, big brand hotels that I so often end up in when travelling.

Farms

Day 4: A Night with Rappahannock River Oysters

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With Chef Robert Wiedmaier and wild oysters on the grill

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
With Chef Robert Wiedmaier and wild oysters on the grill

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

By late afternoon, after we had gotten a full tour of the Rappahannock River Oysters operation, Travis and Ryan invited us to stay on for a Virginia-style seafood supper.

Come evening wives and girlfriends started rolling in, along with several regional chefs (and RRO customers) that the Croxtons had invited for dinner. I coaxed my friend Jerry Bryan, chef/owner of the Coastal Grill, to drive up from Virginia Beach to join in the festivities.

We set up shop next to the harbor and had some picnic tables, a big charcoal grill, a fryer, a couple of camp stoves, and enough oysters, blue crabs, beers and bourbon to feed an army. Everybody had a job, from putting beers on ice to boiling the blue crabs to handing out hot cups of the chowder that Jerry had brought with him. The weather was cool, windy, and threatening rain, but nobody minded. This was my idea of a good time.

Oysters were the main event, and despite the number of chefs in attendance, the cooking was handled almost entirely by Ryan and Travis. They grilled both wild and cultivated oysters over charcoal, serving them up with garlic butter and grilled bread. Travis fried oysters according to his own recipe, one that he had been talking up all day as "the best in the world" (it was, in the end, pretty darn good). Jason Alley from Comfort in Richmond brought along a jar of excellent pickled watermelon rind, and David Guas had cookies, brownies, and pecan pie (a personal favorite) for dessert. I couldn't have asked for better hospitality, and I'm looking forward to having the Rappahannock River guys up to New York City to do an oyster tasting with my staff.

Farms

Day 4: A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

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A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Our fourth day on the road began with a long drive in the drizzling rain from Chapel Hill to coastal Virginia. Our destination was Rappahannock River Oysters, whose delicious oysters we feature in the raw bar selection at our Craftsteak restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

We arrived around noon at a little marina at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Topping, Virginia. Rappahannock River Oysters founders Travis and Ryan Croxton recently bought the place out of foreclosure and are now living my own personal dream, working from an office just steps away from the docks.

No sooner had we said our hellos to Travis, Ryan, and their director of operations, Anthony Marchetti, than they whisked us on board one of their boats to show us their oyster grounds.

The story behind Rappahannock River Oysters has something in common with Anson Mills: it's the tale of a once-abundant local resource driven almost entirely out of production, and the people who care enough to save it. In the 17th century, wild oysters in the Chesapeake were said to be so plentiful that navigating a ship was treacherous. Over time their numbers gradually declined due to overfishing, and by the 1950s, when foreign oysters were introduced to these waters, the viruses they brought with them served a final blow to the local population.

Enter Travis and Ryan, two native sons of Virginia whose grandfather was an oysterman. Eight years back, Travis was working in finance and Ryan in marketing when they discovered that their grandfather's lease on his oyster grounds was about to expire. Looking for a change of direction, they renewed the lease and set to work growing native oysters sustainably. Their mission was to restore native Chesapeake Bay oyster varieties to their former glory, putting them back on the culinary map. How's that for local pride?

Ryan and Travis grow Rappahannock River, Olde Salt, and Sting Ray oyster varieties, and while out on the water we got a chance to see the Rappahannocks growing on trays about five feet below the surface. All oysters on the East Coast are the same species, so differences in flavor, shape, and quality all come down to what the Croxtons refer to as "merroir": the impact that salt levels, water temperature, tidal flow, and other factors exert on the oyster, much like how terroir effects a grape. That might make it sound like there's little to distinguish one oyster farmer from another, but the guys at Rappahannock have to decide on the exact best location for their oyster beds, protect them against predators, and keep a watchful eye on salinity and temperature levels. Plus, they set themselves apart by sending out only the best specimens to their customers, and shipping the same day the oysters are harvested for maximal freshness.

Heading back to shore, I couldn't wait to try some of the oysters that had been harvested that day.

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

Already looking forward to next year (June 19-21, 2015)? Relive your favorite moments from the culinary world's most sensational weekend in the Rocky Mountains.