A cornucopia of cheese and charcuterie with tasty morsels from Italy, France, England, Spain and the United States was the stunning greeting to attendees at The Epicurean Project 2019.
Held at The Revaire on October 7, hosted by Martin Preferred Foods and benefiting Recipe for Success, the special event showcased some of the finest chefs in Houston. It coincided with the 75th Anniversary of Martin Preferred Foods, a Houston-based business since 1944.
Started by brothers Israel and Melvin Tapick, Martin Preferred Foods has grown from a backyard enterprise to a a thriving distributor of meats, cheeses, specialty groceries and prepared foods to some of Houston's best restaurants and grocers. The company is still a Tapick family-run business and employs more than 350 people.
Also showcasing their talents were five students from Culinary Institute Lenotre who each designed a fabulous pastry creation for a chance to win one of three scholarships.
On the opposite side of the hall from the cheese and charcuterie display were the five pastry art pieces. The first was an impressive deer head, representing regrowth and revival. The second was everyone' s favorite Astros mascot, Orbit, holding the World Series trophy. The third was a leaning tower of ice scream scoops, an ode to Texans' Blue Bell ice cream. The fourth was a ship emerging from a treasure chest with green ribbon candy seaweed inspired by the French pirate, Jean Lafitte. The fifth was an ode to NASA with a spaceship zooming past a sparkling sun.
Past the table of macarons and chocolates, tables lined the walls with chefs busily creating dishes that included tacos with pulled pork, roasted quail with a spicy dipping sauce and fish ceviche. The chefs and their teams were competing in four categories, Texas Local, Exotic Meats, Asian-Pacific Inspirations and Flavors of South America.
In the center of the surrounding chef tables were a number of purveyors for Martin Preferred Foods, such as Vienna Beef, Chairman's Reserve, Broadleaf Specialty and Game Meats and Nueske's Apple Wood Smoked Meats. Another purveyor, Catelli Brothers, has been around almost as long as Martin Preferred Foods. In operation since 1946, the company has been providing quality lamb and veal to the northeastern part of the country for decades.
As we traveled from table to table, we enjoyed delicious food with some stand out surprises. Chef Krystle Lung of Hilton Americas Houston was serving a braised pork belly on top of a parsnip puree topped with a maple syrup reduction. The pork belly was beautifully crisp, but the creamy parsnip puree was the standout. Lung took home the top honors for Texas Local.
There were five chefs competing for the Exotic Meats section with venison and quail in various forms. However, it was Jessie Esquivel of Ouisie's Table who won first place for his team's sous vide ostrich. It was tiny rounds of ostrich on a yucca root chip with salsa verde, creme fraiche and chives. It tasted very similar to beef, without any sort of gaminess.
For the Asian Pacific Inspiration, Adolfo Monjaras, of Frankie B. Mandola's Catering, and his crew won for the duck empanadas, garnished with crispy duck skin and served with a ginger Asian slaw. Joshua Mouzakes and his team from Main Kitchen at JW Marriott Downtown took home the top prize for Flavors of South America with their sope with tenderloin beef and fruit salsa.
The chefs all did a spectacular job and the voting was done by the attendees. My table mates and I loved Chef Santiago de la Cruz's Thai-Indian curry best. He and his team from The Woodlands Country Club, Palmer Course, did a beautiful presentation with each little element added in front of the guests, including the mango pearls. There was a lot going on in this little dish, but the ingredients sang a harmonious tune together. I would have gone back for a second sample if there weren't so many other tasty bites to try.
The students from Culinary Institute Lenotre, which has been named the Best College for Culinary Arts in America for 2019 and 2020 by niche.com, were vying for three scholarships from Martin Preferred Foods. Devin Hickman took third place for his Blue Bell creation, with a scholarship of $300. Nathalie Burton placed second for her beautiful deer head with a scholarship of $500. In first place was Candice Evans, taking home a scholarship of $1,200. Her Jean Lafitte pirate ship was a jaw-dropping and gravity defying design. All five of the pastry exhibits were amazing works of edible art.
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Gracie Cavnar, founder of Recipe for Success, was on hand to receive the $10,000 dollar check for the non-profit foundation, which began in 2005 as a mission to prevent childhood obesity. The organization now runs several educational programs for children and Hope Farms, which produces vegetables and greens for its farmers market, located in a food desert near Hobby Airport.
Each winning chef was awarded a custom made, handcrafted chef's knife from Boothill Blades. Each attendee went home with happy taste buds and a full belly.