NYC Wine & Food Festival—Chopped Event

| October 19, 2012

There is a certain kind of magic in the otherwise tepid air of New York City that occurs for only four days out of the year. The special thrill of this time quietly unfurls without pomp or spectacle among the naked cowboys and subway monks playing djembe. In fact, it is hardly detected until those very four days are upon the anticipating boys and girls of all ages who have but one thing in common… their love of food.

The Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by FOOD & WINE pays homage to one of the greatest dining cities in the world. It is the only festival in New York to bring together both legendary culinary icons from around the globe and America’s most beloved television chefs.

I was asked to work at an exclusive Chopped event for the NYC Wine & Food Festival through a combination of natural talent and perseverance. That’s chef-speak for, “I got lucky by knowing the right people at the right time.” Just two weeks prior to the event, my editor had arranged a lunch for the two of us and his friend, Chef Maneet Chauhan (Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef, Chopped). We’d had a pretty good time chatting over miso soup and sushi, so I was a very happy lady when she and my editor asked me to be her Assistant-Chef for the Chopped party. The event would be held on Thursday, the opening night of the festival, at the renowned Landmark restaurant in Columbus Circle. Nine food vendors would serve 500 guests, followed by drinking and fun. It sounded like a pretty good time!

On the night of the event, I was brimming with both excitement and apprehension. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been working in the food industry for some time now and have earned my title of “Chef” through blood, sweat, and there are no tears in the kitchen; now, keep dicing those onions! But the moment I started seeing fans take pictures with Maneet while gushing about loving her on (insert TV show here), I was struck with a very scary reality. This was the NYC Wine & Food Festival… Even more, I was the Assistant-Chef to a celebrity who had judged some extremely talented culinary artists on national television, and the event would be full of equally famous culinary celebrities who could eat me alive and discard me like the toothpick from an hors d’oeuvre. Each of the nine tables at the event would have celebrity talent from Chopped, and the only thing that had ever made me “famous” were my mother’s Facebook statuses. Flashbacks of the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong!” flashed through my mind.

There was no time to dwell on personal insecurities, however. Maneet and I had food to prepare for 500 guests. Our bill of fare for the evening consisted of Indian-influenced chicken sliders (made with dairy for moisture), dressed with jicama, caramelized onions, and a spicy aioli sauce. The food was pretty incredible with its complex collection of sweet, spicy and savory flavors. It came to no surprise that our table quickly became the most popular one at the event. Maneet, myself and our lovely intern, Shikha, turned out burger after burger, never stopping, and never without at least ten more people waiting for food. We were in the weeds from the get-go but loved every minute of it, dancing to the music while we grilled, assembled and plated.

At one point, Maneet excused herself to take care of networking duties around the room and I was left in charge of the table. Almost immediately, our gas burner caught fire with the aid of a new fuel canister, and the head Chef of Landmarc had to switch it out with a new, less flame-prone one. Still, this only delayed our burger turn-around briefly and I soon found myself dancing and grilling for our guests once more. Shikha, still in culinary school, plated burgers as efficiently as a seasoned line cook. We were on fire (albeit not literally, thanks to the Chef at Landmarc). At one point I looked up from our table to see Maneet across the room, smiling at me while dancing with a couple of the guests. I was so flattered that she trusted me to hold down the fort with her name on it, and I was downright proud of Shikha and I for doing so with graceful success. Our table was one of the first to run out of food, an entire hour before the event was scheduled to end. As I walked around the restaurant, surveying the variety of people and food, I realized that I 100% belonged there. Everyone wearing whites, whether television perfect or splattered with sauce, was there because just like the anticipating festival guests of all ages, they, too, loved food. That is, after all, what the NYC Wine & Food Festival is all about. This little nugget of wisdom stuck with me as I conversed with guests around the room, celebrities and non-celebrities alike. Well, ok, I completely gushed like a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert when I met my long-time foodie crush, Adam Richman (He kissed my cheek!), but I digress… Everybody who attends the NYC Wine & Food Festival does so because they breathe, sleep, and enjoy food—a lot.