The Great Northern California Duck Off

[In a continuing series of firsts for My Life as a Foodie, we have our first guest blogger. Thanks to Rick Sellers from Pacific Brew News for bringing this incredible story to us, and his fantastic pictures of an event that further proves that I live in the wrong part of California. I am honored to have one of my favorite wordsmiths sharing his storytelling talent on my blog.]

There’s a clear disconnect in our society and its relationship with food, I don’t think this is a news flash for the readers of My Life as a Foodie. Since the industrialization of food in America, we’ve witnessed a growing chasm between the fork and the field. It’s sad, when you think of it, that some of our modern heroes are people like Tony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver and Michael Polan; people that buck the system and eat the way we used to 70 years ago. It’s almost appalling, actually, that an entire generation of people can’t even cook their own food, let alone grow it, kill it, clean it and prepare it. Still, given the alternative, it’s obvious we need icons like these, people to help remind us who we used to be.

In Northern California we have a food hero of our own. He’s not a boisterous man with catch phrases or a TV show. In the food world, some might have said he’s just a food blogger, one of hundreds or thousands. We know, however, that this isn’t true. In 2009 Hank Shaw was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award for food writing, as an amateur! His secret? Well, he’s sorta found a way to connect with the world around him. He hunts, loves to fish, gardens and forages the countryside for foods we’ve all but forgot about. He’s the Hunter, Angler, Gardner, Cook – incidentally the name of his blog.

Since his nomination Hank’s status around Sacramento has surged. Given his newfound celebrity status, I guess it was inevitable that his food prowess would be capitalized by someone local, someone who shares passions for local and sustainable food. Enter Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange Restaurant in downtown Sacramento. “The Grange” is quick to tout the use of local ingredients in their kitchen, but it isn’t till you ask that you learn they also bring in whole animals (pigs, goats) grown locally to be butchered on site, making sure to utilize the whole beast.

With their common food interests, it seemed only natural that Tuohy and Shaw would team up – and team up they did! On November 12th the duo hosted The Great Duck Off, a competition-styled event where each would put out dishes for judging – much like you’d see on Iron Chef – with one common ingredient, wild duck shot locally by Hank.

Now, there’s something to the Duck Off that need to be explained. First, the judges were given samples of the wild duck, the public was served free-range duck grown locally. Second, the judges weren’t just friends and parents of the cooks, they included Darrell “I sell groceries” Corti (owner of Corti Bros), Sacramento Bee’s Food and Wine editor Rick Kushman and writer Niesha Lofing and California Waterfowl Association president Bob McLandress.

Easily, the most impressive name on the list of judges for me is Mr. Corti, the man is known the world over for his palate and passion for food, evidenced in every aisle of his store. When the judges spoke, they all carried weight, but the room seemed most captivated by the words that fell out of Darrell’s mouth.

It should be noted, getting slightly ahead of myself, that Corti had significant praise for the dishes put out by Hank Shaw, the challenger in this event. I can’t claim to know Hank more than his online persona, but I’m guessing Corti’s praise made his day.

The Event

Both chefs showed up for competition at 7:00am to begin the day-long preparation. By the time I arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon they were wrapping up the heavy lifting in the downstairs kitchen and moving the day’s work upstairs in the exhibition kitchen. Moments before I met Chefs Tuohy and Shaw, the unthinkable happened – the large wheeled cart that was carrying the labors of the day collapsed.

I wasn’t there, don’t have any details beyond that, but let’s just say the first face-to-face introduction with both chefs was understandably short. Each made quick order of trying to get back on schedule for their deadline with the judges, a more challenging task for Hank who was trying to familiarize himself with the new surroundings.

I must admit, watching the chefs working side by side, back to back, it didn’t come across as a competition. While Hank’s been out of the pro-kitchen surroundings for years, the two seemed to work in harmony, staying out of each other’s way (more than I did) and communicating effectively when needed. Still, regardless of the level of competition felt, this would have made for great television. Chefs mentally tracking time as they season, sear, chop and plate – always cognizant of the time and seeming more at ease with each passing minute.

For the first plating the judges reviewed, both chefs offered a selection of small bites. Hank Shaw’s plates featured something he called The Way to a Duck’s Heart is Through His Stomach:

• hand-cut duck sausage stuffed in a snow goose’s neck
• confit of gizzards with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms
• duck heart tartare

Chef Tuohy’s presentation was called Duck Liver Three Ways:

• crispy polenta fried with duck fat mayonnaise
• creamy duck liver mousse with pickled French prune
• grilled on a rosemary skewer with fig-balsamic preserve

To be frank, I believe a couple of the judges had some textural issues with the meats in front of them. Had nothing to do with the chefs, but perhaps a psychological aversion to such rich and savory items – stemming back to days of youth. Still, the judges made a good face of it and did the work they were charged to do. Corti’s words on the dish clearly carried the most weight, and it was clear that he was pleased. Unfortunately for the chefs, it was clear they had to be on to the next course before hearing the commentary. For those in the crowd, this is what we were here for – and how I wish there’d been a video camera running.

The second courses didn’t have the visual appeal of the first, but I believe were even more interesting for the palate.

Hank’s plate? Duck Sugo
• Served over handmade barley pappardelle made with duck eggs

Chef Tuohy: Warm Duck Rillette
• Fuyu persimmon & pomegranate salad

I can’t claim to have tried all (or even most) of the dishes presented to the judges, but I did have some of the duck-pasta made by Hank – it was my favorite dish. Not that this carries any weight, just thought I’d share.

The final course for the judges was a seductive offering, the aromas and visual impressions were absolutely incredible.

Hank’s Plate:

Ducks in the Orchard
• seared mallard breast with apples that were cooked in duck fat, served with reduced cider, mint and a little chile

Chef Tuohy:

Pan Roasted Duck Breast
• celery root & parsnip puree, roasted porcini & matsutake mushrooms and black truffle sauce

If you haven’t figured out yet, this was a pretty spectacular event.

The Results

At the end of the day the votes had to be cast and a winner announced. While the judges sided with Chef Touhy, Darrell Corti said the competition was a draw and said his favorite dish of the day was Shaw’s confit was the dish of the day. What’s more, all judges agreed that Hank’s Duck in the Orchard plate was their second favorite dish – how can you complain about that? I truly hope that this is just the first of an annual friendly competition between these two culinary talents. Not only is it fun to be around, I believe it’s good for Sacramento foodies and the public overall.

You see, at the end of the day the event was covered by the local news outlets (TV and print) and the message of eating local and sustainable was put out, even if only in small doses. If only a handful of people who saw the event in the news thought twice about where their food came from, it wouldn’t matter who won or how much publicity was garnered – it would have been worth the effort.

For those lucky enough to attend the public dinner that followed, there’s little doubt the labor and time involved was worth it – the meal was a knock-out! Five course of duck in all its glory. Thanks to Hank and Michael, as well as the staff at Grange Restaurant. Additionally, congratulations to both chefs.

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  1. Eating the dinner that Hank Shaw prepared at Grange would be in the top 10 of places to eat for me. To bad iim so far away! After spending so much time reading his blog it would be such a great experience to taste the food that inspired it! Cant wait to read his book when it comes out. He really brings out the inspiration.

  2. Love this! Two of my heroes: Hank Shaw and Darrell Corti. Would’ve given anything to be there as witness and taster. Thanks for this. Great guest blog Rick! And who doesn’t love duck? I know I do.

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