In the two week lead up to the start of Top Chef season 7 I can’t help but get excited for two reasons. For starters, it is the first time the show was filmed in my hometown of Washington DC. But more importantly, one of the contestants and a strong candidate for the show’s top prize is my former mentor Chef Kenneth Gilbert.
To be honest, I never watch the show, and had I not learned of Kenny’s participation I may have very well skipped this season altogether. However Kenny was instrumental to my training as a chef, and in my experience, is one of the nation’s most talented cooks yet to be fully recognized.
I first experienced Kenny’s food during a meal at the former Grill Room restaurant in Amelia Island, Florida. The restaurant’s style was upscale fine dining, and the cuisine defined ambiguously as “new American”. What transpired on the plate was in fact food in a way I had never experienced, with multiple flavor and textural components creating compositions of art on the plate.
Ranging from highly complex to sublimely simple, his cuisine always defies expectations in the way that it draws from a broad range of influences and techniques. Having spent considerable time in the South, he has become a master at signature barbeque sauces, each of which depends on an impressive palette of at least twenty different carefully chosen ingredients. And while roasting a suckling pig has become second nature, his multi-dimensional style also pulls heavily from extensive culinary trips to Japan and Spain.
To try and compartmentalize Kenny’s cuisine is a wasted effort because his real talent lies in an innate creativity with food, and the ability to improvise with flavors at a moment’s notice. This skill is not something that can be learned despite years of practicing recipes and techniques, and many good chefs lack it. If anything defines Kenny’s approach to cooking its this raw originality that comes from a sixth sense about what ingredients will work together.
Fortunately for me, Kenny is also the most pedagogical chef I have ever worked for, and values teaching his staff the same way he values high quality ingredients. His philosophy has always been to share whatever knowledge he has with his line cooks, and makes it his M.O. to distribute all of his recipes openly with the staff. Unlike many Executive Chefs, Kenny is equally committed to training and teaching as he is to producing world class cuisine.
In his Top Chef bio Kenny humbly states that his favorite recipe is a tomato and mozzarella salad with an onion marmalade. I had to smile when I read this because Vidalia onion marmalade is one of the first recipes I learned from him, and still remains a favorite. This unusual compote is infused with floral notes of saffron and vanilla, and cooked with a sweet and sour blend of sugar and rice wine vinegar until the onions are translucent and practically candied. One or two spoonfuls dribbled over a tomato and mozzarella salad adds an exotic complexity of flavor. And while the season is still a few months off, it is worth keeping this recipe in your back pocket for when tomatoes reach their full glory. In the meantime, consider this a preview of what is to come in Top Chef season 7.
Vidalia Onion Marmalade
(recipe courtesy of Kenny Gilbert)
1 c. Vidalia onions, cut into a small dice
1/4c. rice vinegar
1 split and scrapped Vanilla Bean
1 pinch Saffron threads
1 sheet gelatin, soaked briefly in cold water
1) Combine vinegar, sugar, vanilla bean and saffron threads and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.
2) Reduce liquid by half and then add onions.
3) Cook until liquid is half way reduced and onions are tender.
4) Now add gelatin sheets and cool.