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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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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.

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.

Farms

Day 3: Dinner at Lantern

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Dinner at Lantern

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Dinner at Lantern

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.

Once back in Chapel Hill, we headed straight for Lantern to taste Andrea's food for ourselves.

Lantern is widely known for marrying a farm-to-table philosophy to impeccably produced Pacific Rim cuisine, and Cane Creek is just one of many local farms and fisheries that Andrea features on her seasonally-driven menu. Local shrimp, sea trout, soft shell crab, flounder, mackerel, sea scallops, and a wide array of local vegetables all made it onto our table that night.

Over the course of the meal we also got a chance to see Cane Creek pork deployed in many forms. There was a lemongrass barbecued pork dish, a pork chop with a fried farm egg and spicy local cucumber mint salad, pork belly with 5-spice and pickled pumpkin, and lest any part of the pig be excluded, a head-to-tail pork terrine served with hakurei turnips.

Farms

Day 3: Visiting Cane Creek Farm

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Visiting Cane Creek Farm

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Visiting Cane Creek Farm

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.

Once we had eaten our fill of BBQ we headed an hour west to Snow Camp, NC to pay a visit to Cane Creek Farm. When I knew we were going to be driving through North Carolina I got in touch with Andrea Reusing, the chef/owner of Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill. Andrea is highly regarded for both her skills in the kitchen and her commitment to local sourcing, so I knew she would have great ideas about who was worth a visit. She suggested Cane Creek Farm right off the bat, and offered to meet us there.

Eliza Maclean is the proprietor of Cane Creek, and it's an understatement to say that she's a busy woman. The farm is maybe best know for its pigs (Ossabaws, Old Spot Gloucestershires, Farmers Hybrids, and an Ossabaw/Farmers Hybrid mix that Eliza has named a Crossabaw), but Eliza also raises Black Angus and Red Devon cows, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, and turkeys, as well as two children. The cattle and much of the farm's sprawling 570 acres came as a result of a merger between Cane Creek and Braeburn Farms in 2007.

So what makes Cane Creek exceptional? It's sustainable agriculture at its best. Eliza practices rotational grazing, which any of you who have read a Michael Pollen book know means moving different species of animal through the same parcel of land in succession to mimic a natural ecosystem. The land stays healthy and the animals get what they need from it, which means minimal artificial inputs from we humans. Eliza's sheep, cows, and goats are all entirely grass-fed, and her pigs feast on grain-based food, supplemented by whatever they can root around for in their pasture.

All this means lots of happy animals (you can tell it just by looking at them), but also a lot of work on Eliza's part to bring each food item to market. I wish everyone who complained about the price of organic free-range eggs could see this place in action.

After seeing an operation as thorough and well-run as Cane Creek Farm, as a chef you can't help but feel like you have a responsibility to put as much care into cooking an animal as Eliza put into raising it. "Head to tail" cooking may be trendy right now, but I also think that the best way to truly honor the animal is to leave no part of it unused.

Chefs

Day 3: Lunch at The BBQ Joint

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Lunch at The BBQ Joint

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Lunch at The BBQ Joint

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.

Day three, and we set out before dawn to hit Chapel Hill by lunchtime. Damon had to part ways to head out to Craft Los Angeles, but we picked up a few new travelers at the Raleigh Durham airport: Katie Grieco, my business partner in Craft Restaurants, as well as Jeffrey Zurofsky and Sisha Ortuzar, my partners in 'wichcraft.

Our first stop of the day was selected by Jeffrey, who went to school at UNC Chapel Hill and worked at the time with a guy named Damon Lapas. Now, Lapas co-owns a restaurant called The BBQ Joint, so we stopped in to get a taste of what Eastern North Carolina Barbecue was all about.

Although we were only about 200 miles as the crow flies from Big T's in Columbia, South Carolina, here the style of barbecue is totally unique from the mustard based sauce we had there. With Eastern North Carolina barbecue the pork is smoked, pulled, and coarsely chopped, and served plain except for a hint of a tangy vinegar sauce. It's unadorned, so the hardwood smoked meat has no sweet sauces to hide behind.

Damon and his partner Jeffrey Childres served up a hearty lunch, highlights of which included smoked blue fish, spare ribs, and of course the signature pulled pork served with slaw, pickles, and cornbread.

Farms

Day 2: Shrimp & Dinner at The Wreck

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Shrimp & Dinner at The Wreck

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Shrimp & Dinner at The Wreck

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.

We left the banks of the Stono River and crossed Charleston to reach Shem Creek just in time to see Captain Magwood and his crew finish sifting through the day's catch on board his hulking shrimp trawler.

The domestic shrimp industry has really suffered in recent years as cheap imports from Asia make it hard for local fisherman to make ends meet. Whether you know it or not, much of the shrimp you've eaten in your life has been foreign, frozen and transported thousands of miles before it reaches your plate. But try eating a shrimp fresh off the boat like this and you'll taste the difference.

Matt and Ted couldn't let us leave Charleston without trying The Wreck Of The Richard and Charlene, a quirky dive of a restaurant that they view as one of the best places to sample some of the very shrimp that we saw coming off of Captain Magwood's boat. The Wreck (named in honor of an old shrimp trawler that Hurricane Hugo put ashore on the restaurant's current site) looks like the classic fried seafood shack that you find just about anywhere up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to Nova Scotia. It serves up fresh-caught shrimp, oysters, scallops and crab, as well as well-executed hush puppies and "hominy squares," which are sort of like a croquette made of grits.

Travel

Dulce de Leche Dreams

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© Ross Todd
Dulce de leche ice cream at Freddo

My body might be back from my trip to Argentina, but my stomach is still firmly in South America. My friends and I had the requisite beef and Malbec (more on that later), but we also regularly indulged in dulce de leche, which I am still craving. In Buenos Aires we got our fix at the heladerías (ice cream shops), the best of which was Freddo. The shop has locations throughout the city, and their menu has a separate section just for dulce de leche flavors. (My kind of place.) But my favorite vehicle for the milky caramel was alfajores, a traditional South American sandwich cookie with dulce de leche filling. The best ones we had came from our hotel in Patagonia, Edenia. Opened in 2007, the modern, minimalist hotel is located away from the touristy bustle of downtown Calafate and has panoramic views of Lago Argentino. Its alfajores were crispier and less cakey than the ones in Buenos Aires, and I only wish I had packed some to bring home.  

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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.