When the Stars Align - Inside the StarChefs Gala

In December, New York based StarChefs shined the spotlight on Seattle's Rising Stars. But first, you need to know this: selection for the awards is a grueling process. Over the course of three trips (averaging 7-8 days each), StarChefs teams photographed and interviewed over 100 chefs and food artisans.  (Full list of the Seattle Rising Stars is here.) 

Earlier this summer, I had a rare opportunity to sit in on one of those interviews. Chefs are asked to prepare four dishes -- three that are currently on the menu and one chef's choice. That single chef's choice dish says a lot. For the interview I attended, chef Katie Gallego prepared a consume with a whimsical house-extruded alphabet pasta, strewn with fresh flowers. Why this dish? For her, soup holds a special reverence. It's the mark of simple ingredients, executed well. Honing her technique, perfecting consume took several months. The pasta extruder was new to the restaurant, and getting the dough just right took some trial and error. Using the alphabet die for her pasta shape reflects both nostalgia and her tongue-in-cheek humor, while delicate blossoms added a feminine touch. (Lady chef in the house!) Looking into the depths of her soup, I was reminded...if you ask, there's a story behind everything. 

On to the event! At the awards gala, I had an all access pass. Wine in one hand, camera in the other, let's go find some trouble....

Heading into the awards ceremony are Canon's Director of Hospitality Charles Veitch III, Stoneburner and Bastille's sommelier James Lechner, and Rocky Yeh, spirits portfolio ambassador for Vinim Wine and Importing (aka Camp Runamok's Benevolent Dictator.) 

Getting ready to take the stage are Rising Stars (L-R) Travis Kukull of Mollusk, Brandon Pettit of Delancey, and Edouardo Jordan of Salare.

Well, hello there! More Rising Stars. (L-R) Brendan McGill of Hitchcock, Heong Soon Park of Tray Kitchen, and Joe Ritchie from Goldfinch Tavern at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Winners row. All the StarChefs award recipients were seated in the back row of the theater. A proverbial who's who in Seattle food and drink.

A packed theater for the awards ceremony.

Goldfinch Tavern chef, Joe Ritchie with his award. "Hi Mom, I won!" 

While Joe was on stage getting another award for best plating (and a $5,000 check), I got a closer look at his RisingStars award. Nice, eh?

Coming off the stage, I caught up with the boys of McCrackenTough restaurant group. (L-R) Are Rising Stars Jeff Vance, executive chef of SPUR Gastropub and Cameron Hanin executive chef of Tavern Law. Lending a hand for the night is Chris Morgan.


After the awards, the recipients raced back to the main gala, gearing up the crush of people. Here Revel chef-owner Seif Chirchi (left) puts the finishing touches on his dish of seared wagyu, cucumber laarb, sorrel, and shrimp. 

StarChefs honed in on Seattle's small distillery movement. Nabbing an artisan Rising Star award is Westland Distillery, pouring American Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. That's Westland's Sales Manager Matt Freerks on the left and Whiskey Ambassador Drew Haugstad on the right.

Have waffle iron, will travel.

Mollusk chef Travis Kukull created a an okonomiyaki for his restaurant's menu. He was looking for street-style bar food that was international, but adaptable to a Northwest spin. Breaking with tradition, he wanted to use Northwest ingredients inside and on top. Admittedly, he has a "very active mind" and says he's cooked over 500 versions, sometimes changing it every day. For the event, his okonomiyaki featured pickled local giant octopus (whole octopus ranging 20-30 pounds), kewpie mayonnaise, and bonito flakes.

"Hey Chef! Can I get a photo?" "Sure! Can my wife be in it?" Mollusk chef Travis Kukull and his wife, Rachel.

I've been following this woman on Twitter for years. A highlight of the night was meeting Antoinette Bruno (@Antoinette_b), StarChef's CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Oh, the stories this woman could tell! Hero worship got the best of me and all I managed to eek out was something like, "I'm a huge fan of your work." 

Plating in action, thanks to students from Seattle Central Culinary Academy. 

This was a tower of goodness, but I tilted the top back so you could see the layers. Canlis is a legendary fine dining restaurant, often on the James Beard short list for best restaurant in America. Here, their pastry chef has prepared "Banana Brains" with chocolate, banana, miso, and peanuts.

Rising Star pastry chef, Baruch Ellsworth, from Canlis. 

Look at this beautiful dessert! My camera doesn't do it justice. Pastry chef Junko Mine is at Cafe Juanita, a highly regarded upscale Italian restaurant. The official description is woefully short: Chocolate Bread, Ricotta, Fruit, and Nuts. I tracked back with the owner, Holly Smith, for more information. Bread, really? "Her bread is amazing and it's great as a loaf...for this dish, turning it into a crostini gave great texture and allowed us to use the bread in a dessert in an unexpected way. Gianduja, house made is on top, ricotta, house made and flavored with orange zest and a great local honey below." How do they achieve those otherworldly shapes? Thin slices of bread are draped over foil cylinders and baked until crisp.

The chefs of Cafe Juanita. Meet James Beard Award Winner and chef-owner Holly Smith with Rising Star pastry chef, Junko Mine.

If anyone's counting, the boys from the McCrackenTough restaurant group picked up four Rising Star awards. SPUR's bartender, Seth Sempere, prepared a beguiling cocktail called the Mambo Sun.

What's in Sempere's Mambo Sun? Here you go....

Without a witness, I could have done some serious damage here. Behold...Clare Gordon and General Porpoise's warm apple galettes topped with melting camembert. The crust was absolute perfection. Dear Clare, what's the secret behind your crust? She tells me it's all butter "and I use a robot coupe. It's fast, which helps keep the ingredients super cold." 

Crew for the gala: Joshua Hart of Monsoon, Rising Star Clair Gordon of General Porpoise, and her pastry cook, David Casler.

Each dish of the night was paired with a beverage, and several people pointed me here. "Have you tried The Pundit?" A notable stop, for sure. This is the 2013 Syrah from Tenet Wines, based in the Columbia Valley, WA.

This dish stopped me in my tracks. Cameron Hanin of Tavern Law presented foie gras paired with freshly shaved mushrooms and Saskatoon berries. Fortunately, the evening was winding down and we had time to talk. The pairing caught me off guard, so I asked him about the thought process behind his dish. In my notebook, he drew a diagram. First, he starts by asking himself, "What's special?" Saskatoon berries have a very short season (three weeks) and he had a stash of them frozen. Next, what's the flavor profile? Raisins and vanilla. What goes with that? Foie. How do I want to serve that? In a mousse? Terrine? Torchon? The torchon won. Next, what goes with offal and game meats? Juniper, red wine, and mushroom. All flavors he worked into the dish. Why raw mushrooms? For earthiness and texture. Dressed in a light vinaigrette, the mushrooms softened some, but still retained freshness and texture, adding a nice contrast to the berries. The berries are pickled in champagne vinegar and simple syrup, then tossed with a puree of juniper, more Saskatoon berries, and red wine.

Want a drink? Bastille and Stoneburner sommelier, James Lechner. Notice the pin on his lapel? Court of Masters Sommeliers. 

At the tail end of the event, I met Canlis chef Brady Williams. While I neglected to get a photo of his dish, it was the essence of simplicity. The brief description of his dish says, "Spot prawns, Vermouth, and Espelette." Scrawled in my notebook is this entry, "Most tender, delicious prawn I've ever had. He cooked it for just 3 minutes." What's the secret? Sous vide shimp and outstanding sourcing. The spot prawns came from a fisherman in Alaska. He says, "I bought his entire quota--1,400 pounds." 

Packing up for the night. Here's the Canlis gear. Sansaire sous vide, natch.

And finally, the after party at the Coterie Room. Pictured here is Sean Kenniff from StarChefs' NYC office, who introduced me to Mack McLaughlin of Greenman farm. Everyone has a story, right? According to Sean, Mack "transitioned late in life from furniture making and repair to raising microgreens because he thought there's gotta be a way he could make money from farming. He delivers his microgreens to restaurants alive, in dirt, still growing."

Cheers! To Seattle's Rising Stars. (Photo credit: Star Chefs)