Don’t judge someone until you’ve heard their story.
It’s alarming how much storytelling is part of our daily lives, our daily stories, all mingled and mangled to create and recreate the art of storytelling. And amidst the sonnets and summaries lie the most discerning of judges and judgements.
Borrowing a page from this metaphor was my shot at meeting the most discerning judges of the tube. The Tuesday night staple in many families is Food Network’s flagship show Chopped. And after seasons of attacking the treadmill or growing on the couch, I finally got to meet the stars in their festive ensemble, quite a distant cry from their roles at their restaurants that I had vicariously salivated through. To think it was at my admitted favorite meal: brunch.
Bloody Marys are an American brunch staple, with much of their own identity as spiked spicy tomato juice compared to the Californian mimosa concept. The challenge for the judges was to first squirm their way through anxious yet affluent crowds of fans in order to taste the vivaciously creative drink at the New York Food and Wine Festival (NYCWFF) Bloody Mary Chopped Competition.
Not before they made it through me: from the charming Maneet Chauhan of my favorite Latin Indian fusion staple who marketed Amritsar kulchas to me on my next visit to Punjab, to the whimsical Chris Santos who remembered me from eating all his s’mores at his flagship Stanton Social. Or the surprisingly muted Alex Guarnaschelli radiating confidence in her successful aura, cheeky spice king Aaron Sanchez looking at ease with the spice cocktails, or well-groomed Scott Conant, every bit like his neat plates at Scarpetta.
And then commenced my tasting of Bloody Marys from each state… a national tour like no other, with Absolut as the only guide. interlaced with quirky snacks and hilarious food concepts.
Pennsylvania’s Garden Mary
Rather classic looking and tasting, it was tomato like on flavor, owing to its Worcestershire and tobacco sauces, with barely there undertones of horseradish. Irene Moretti of Tavola Restaurant and Bar fairly simple on garnish, which compared to some of its competitors, was a welcome lack of obstacle.
New York’s Maggie’s Bloody Bowery
With green heirloom tomatoes, garlic, tobacco, jalapeno, siracha, spicy mustard, chilli powder and tomatillos, this was no New York date night or kissing-over-brunch drink. Emmi Scelsi of Sons of Essex went rustic with an almost holiday hued red and green ombre drink that while fantastic, was fairly under unique.
Tennessee’s Iber Miguel
Trust me I have fond memories of Nashville, and with a dose of cilantro chutney, pico de galo and salsa verde atop a whole tortilla shell and a shot of tequila, we were channeling Mexico more than the illustrious south. Nonetheless, Gabriel Camp of Root Kitchen and Wine Bar’s rendition surprisingly more peppery than spicy, but definitely a whole brunch in one sip.
Kentucky’s Yellow Heirloom Tomato Bloody Mary
The southern state kept it simple with heirloom tomato juice, pepper, lime and tobacco sauce was by Jeffrey Mayer of Saul Good Restaurant and Pub. Simple is good, but when whimsy is the name of the game, Kentucky’s homemade goodness style (that I so often saw Chopped judges loving) didn’t quite cut it for me.
Florida’s Havana Mary
Aloha Mango Mary! From the luscious tropical state, the Havana Mary by Josh Gonzalez of Lure Florida had fresh mango, lime juice, sugar cane juice, Cuban Coffee and bell peppers. For in Miami, the party-goers know how to wake up the neon infused crowds with this unlikely brown tinged drink, with goblets of spice and stories floating within. Possibly my second favorite coffee inhalation, after chocolate of course.
Louisiana’s Verde Mary
Melanie Glueck at Red Fish Grill used Absolut citron with jalapeno, tomatillo and heirloom puree, with a vegetable salad of sorts for a healthy flavor: cilantro, garlic and onion included! Garnished with a whole cherry tomato and an olive, it was an inviting green mix that, while not a Bloody Mary, was a green juice I’d easily opt for.
Massachusetts’ Hell Mary
With a name like Hell, you must command spice! And with a yellow heirloom color, this was a visual miss by Arley Howard of Top of the Hub. Nonetheless, the raisin puree and roasted scotch bonnet added a sweet undertone that I salivated for! To think its not all in a name.
Perhaps I was hungry, but I couldn’t get past the healthy brunch platter atop the Bloody Mary by Marty Duffy of the Cellar Peanut Pub: asparagus, pepper, blue cheese olives, and pickles as a garnish! Needless to say the pickling interfered with my taste buds and I tasted a fairly ordinary drink, but was profusely satisfied.
Indiana’s Bitter Mary
Bloodless Mary did you say? Jessica of the JW Marriott went the mimosa way with a yellow drink with the original Absolut, Thai bitters, lemon, celery and bell peppers and… as the secret had it, yellow heirloom tomato juice! While deceptive on the eyes, it was well balanced and rather vegetable-y (in a good way) on the tongue.
Texas’ A Bloody Beaux Thai
In the state that prides in everything bigger, the sheer volume of siracha and dose of chili was enough to knock me out. With a creole hot sauce, mustard and pickle juice, it was the elevation with a macabre chili, pepper and lemon garnish skewer that made this a winner.
Literally, for David Wakefield at Tenoak swept the glory!
I am a fan of deconstruction. But a bloody Mary salad? Perhaps the crispy chips and pickled tomato and crunchy celery were a saving grace.
My favorite was Yes Its Kale, a new brand of kale and chia seed chips that were not as leafy as their predecessors and not as cardboard-like in taste. Served as a spicy tortilla, they made for several hangover snacks in the same afternoon.
For the milk and cookies kid in me, channeling my favorite seductions of all time, Frank Acosta of Manhattan Milk showed that real milk can taste fantastic too, great for fitness and oh so nostalgic too. Ounces better than the coconut yoghurt laced on tabletops as a palate cleanser.
And what are milk and cookies without Leske’s Bakery chocolate and peanut butter doughnut and Absolut vodka stuffed strawberry doughnut with a gooey, dripping, messy center? Dessert infatuation exists, truly.
And thus concluded a day of starry daylights, peppery aftertastes and sugar infused hangovers.
Judgement call, really.