Fresh Starts Culinary Academy students passed a stiff test when chefs John Ash and Mei Ibach drew a sellout crowd for their East Meets West demo and dinner. Students prepared and served dinner in five delicious courses as the 100-plus guests at Fresh Starts Chef Events sopped up the chefs’ knowledge about layers of flavor and texture.
One of the culinary academy instructors, Chef Mei also teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College and holds classes throughout the North Bay. John Ash, considered by many to be the founder of the “farm-to-table movement” (he opened his eponymous wine country restaurant in 1980), is a multi-award winning chef. Either could have handled the evening on his or her own, but together, the two were a whirlwind.
Chef Mei, who grew up in a tiny fishing village near Singapore, introduced the Eastern portion of the menu by saying, “Malaysia is more than a missing plane.” She explains Malaysian cuisine is a melting pot of Southeast Asian cuisines, with satay and peanut sauce as predominant dishes.
Chef Mei prepared Asian Cole Slaw with Apple, Jicama & Cabbage along with Malaysian Prawn Satay with Peanut Sauce, offering specific tips like “brine the shrimp—it stays succulent” and “always use peanuts, not peanut butter,” in the sauce.
Both chefs cook with reference to “four flavor gods,” which they adjust to taste:
• Salty – such as fish sauce, anchovies, fermented sardines
• Sour – lime juice, tamarind, vinegar
• Sweet – sugar (including palm sugar and coconut sugar, among others) is a flavor enhancer, even in savory dishes
• Heat – chili garlic sauce, chilies
Chef John continued the Eastern theme with his Vietnamese Chicken & Shrimp Meatball Soup. The trick with meatballs, he said, is to wet your hands so they won’t stick and to handle them as little as possible. “The more you manipulate them the drier they become,” he says.
From there, Chef John traveled West: Braised Short Ribs with Soft Polenta. Short ribs come from a tough part of the animal, but low-and-slow cooking makes them tender, he explained. He punched up the flavor with a braising liquid using celery, carrots, garlic, onions, and mushrooms. With a big smile, he looked into the crowd and not at what he was doing, and said, “Carefully measure the red wine.” A “nubbin” of Point Reyes Original Blue cheese added a new dimension to the polenta.
Chef Mei brought out her wok to prepare Chinese Broccoli (Kai Lan) with Oyster Sauce, served with with the short ribs. Her tip to preserve the broccoli’s green color is adding salt to the blanching water; a small amount of corn syrup makes the broccoli velvety and shiny. Guests marveled at how quickly she worked while talking at the same time.
The meal started in Asia but ended in Italy, with Chef John’s Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Blueberries. He said, “Panna cotta is the easiest dessert in the world to make … but you have to think about it ahead of time,” because it has to set. True, it looked like “white Jello-O,” just as he said, but it couldn’t have been more different. It was the perfect complement to all that came before.
Though the chefs prepare each dish as the audience watches, it’s the Fresh Starts Culinary Academy students who, using the chefs’ recipes, prepare, plate, and serve every dish. On this evening, the students, along with their instructors, ably displayed their skills. — Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.
Vietnamese Chicken & Shrimp Meatball Soup — Makes 6 servings
5 ounces mung bean noodles, softened according to package directions
½ pound peeled and deveined shrimp
½ pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onions, including the green tops
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce, or to taste
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut in fine julienne
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 cups rich chicken stock of your choice 1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
Fried garlic or shallots, if desired
Prepare noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Place shrimp and chicken in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse until coarsely chopped.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and stir in garlic, green onions, fish sauce, black pepper and sugar. Using a tablespoon, scoop out spoonfuls and gently roll each one into a ball. Set aside.
Place stock, soy sauce, brown sugar, chili garlic sauce and ginger in a soup pot and bring to a boil.
Drop in the meatballs and cook until done, about 8 minutes. Keep the soup at a gentle simmer to prevent it from becoming clouded. Adjust seasoning to taste.
To serve: Divide the noodles and lime juice among soup bowls, add the meatballs and ladle the broth over the top. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and fried garlic or shallots.