Last week, I received an invitation to attend the Cadillac Culinary Challenge Test Drive being held here in the DC metro area…Reston, VA to be exact. I am always a little skeptical when approached by any company to attend an event. It’s sort of like that nervous feeling you get on prom night. You know the guy that asked you as his date is popular, and you can’t wait to be associated with his charming good looks and magnetic presence, but you know that he is going to expect something at the end of the night that you are not willing to fork over….in this case, a good review. But, I have to say, this event made for one enjoyable, sunny, Saturday afternoon.

Fine Dining Meets Fine Cars
So, the idea behind the event was that exquisite food and exquisite automobiles fall under the same genre, in that both draw the same set of refined and discriminating consumers. I can see the correlation. Most persnickety folks do seem to share a common interest for the finer things, but my initial thought was, this could be kind of a stretch perhaps. After all, when I think automobiles, I think of engine parts and oil changes…so I had a hard time imagining the leap. Well, I will humbly admit that I was pretty much wrong.

This event was planned and executed to a tee. It was a  small, intimate affair, full of pleasant folks, and pleasant scenery. I have to hand it to Cadillac for their thoughtfulness in staging this event, cause they really did it right. The set-up was professional and the registration was a breeze, using an island of touch screen computers that moved the process along quickly and efficiently. I was unaware that Bon Appetit Magazine had signed on to sponsor this event as well, and that immediately brought the level of legitimacy up a a few notches in my book.

The surroundings at the Reston Town Center were quite impressive. I hadn’t been to the location in at least 10 years, and they have really done a great job of bringing that place to life, with a combination of sophisticated architecture and high-end shopping.  It was the perfect setting for a high-end automobile event, with plenty of room to display their fine driving machines.

You can take the girl out of the car…maybe….
I will say that I am really a fan of how they have updated the look of the Cadillac to modernize the design. Back in the day, I suppose I sort of envisioned my grandpa careening into the driveway for a visit of some sort in a behemoth machine. Well, these are not your grandpa’s Cadillacs, streamlined and refined in the most elegant and stylish of ways. In fact, I wouldn’t allow myself to test-drive one, for fear that they would have to rip me limb-from-limb out of the driver’s seat. I did walk around and take a peek at the interiors and admire the beauty of their design, which allowed me to get close enough without an ensuing “incident.”

Cadillac set up a series of tents in a courtyard area and located between the high-end stores, with several varieties of their latest and greatest driving machines scattered about the patio. I had initially envisioned sitting in a parking lot somewhere, cars whizzing by precariously close perhaps. Not so. Here is how it went….

The Stage:
I spent a bit of time before the big show started wandering around, “checking under the hood” in the kitchen, if you will, to see what it was made of. It was a really neat little station, comprised of two cook tops that ran on digital dials, and each station was also equipped with flatscreen televisions perched to each side, allowing the grand stand of spectators to see each move the chef would be making to create their signature dish. It was nice to see that there would be a vantage point for the audience at almost every angle of the seating area.

The Chefs:
The purpose of this challenge was to pair up a nationally celebrated guest with one of DC’s own homegrown top chefs. So this was the lineup for the day’s events, and a little background on their street cred:

Celebrity Guest Chef – Geoffrey Zakarian: Zakarian is a culinary industry veteran with over 20 years of experience cooking for some of the finest restaurants, and scouring the earth with an insatiable quest to discover new and exciting ingredients and revolutionary cooking techniques. Currently, Chef Zakarian resides over his two visionary, New York City based restaurants; The Lambs Club, located in the heart of the swank Chatwal Hotel, and The National, found within the sophisticated Benjamin Hotel. He is known best for his culinary skills and lightening fast speed in the kitchen, but Zakarian is also a highly recognizable celebrity in the food world as a recurring judge on The Food Network’s hit series CHOPPED, as well as appearances on Iron Chef America, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and as a featured judge on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle.

What you didn’t know: During his introduction to the crowd, Chef Zakarian explained that he has been a proponent of the “farm-to-table” movement for over 20 years, using only the finest and freshest ingredients available to prepare his dishes, to which he credits the success of his cooking. “You get what you pay for” is his mantra when choosing ingredients to include in dishes of his namesake. He is glad to see the culinary world coming around as a whole to realize the importance of good, nourishing food. On a personal note, I also found his demeanor to be very gracious. He was more than happy to accommodate the crowd with questions and autographs. He was also a very dapper guy, with a crisp and unique style . The things you don’t really know unless seen in person.

Zakarian also noted that he never cooks with good olive oil, and uses it exclusively for finishing dishes. He informed that it tends to burn and excel the cooking temperature of food and could even end up ruining a dish. Flavorful olive oil is also an expensive condiment, so he suggests replacing the EVOO with refined butter for the process of cooking, and saving the goodness of the olive oil for last, so that you can savor it’s delicious, rich qualities at their best. Lastly, he recommends that all cooks simply taste their food as they go along in the kitchen. This will ensure a tastier end-result, and help any cook to improve their understanding of which flavors work, and which don’t.

Local Guest Chef – Christopher Clime: Chef Clime has quite an intriguing past. A native of northern Virginia, Clime attended the prestigious Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, honing his skills and techniques as a chef. Post graduation, he embarked on his culinary journey, blazing his trail first in South Carolina, before finally returning to the DC area to serve first as a tournant for local favorite DC Coast, and then quickly made his move to Executive Sous Chef at one of DC’s well known culinary hotspots, TenPehn, which has sadly since closed. I have eaten there and it was absolutely wonderful. It was at TenPehn that he earned national critical acclaim from the likes of The Washington Post and Bon Appetit Magazine. He has also went on to achieve the honored title of Chef de Cuisine at Ceiba Restaurant, featuring Latin American and Caribbean style fare. Currently, Chef Clime resides over the acclaimed Passionfish Restaurant, where he continues to perfect his distinct style and uniquely delicious flavors.

What you didn’t know:
Chris sources all of his fresh ingredients personally and locally, which accounts for the peak taste and composition of his flavorful ingredients, namely the sweet corn if you ask me. Same for the crab, which is sourced locally, and why not when in the heart of crab country, here on the cusp of the Chesapeake Bay Region. Chris also let us in on a little secret to his perfected crab cakes, telling the crowd that aside from minimal filler, he and his team carefully pick the crab twice before beginning to form the ingredients to ensure that there are absolutely zero scales/shell remnants left behind, an unwanted surprise that can ruin any great crab cake. He also suggests that you choose your breading technique based on the type of crab you are working with. If it is a juicier variety, you may need to adjust and use a bit more breadcrumb mixture, but be careful not to overbread! Fold the wet mixture in slowly and adjust as needed until the crab base is only lightly and completely coated in the crumbs, but not doused heavily, as it takes away from the flavor you are trying to accomplish. For more great family recipes from Chef Clime, visit the Capital Cooking Father’s Day 2011 Tribute post, courtesy of Lauren DeSantis.

The Dishes:

And the secret ingredient is…..CRAB!!!  Allez Cuisine!!!

Sorry, I lost myself for a second thinking I was in kitchen stadium, channeling Iron Chef.  Much like any good show down, the contestants were presented with one ingredient from which to work with in whatever fashion they chose, in order to level the playing field and strut their culinary chops. Who would be the crowd favorite?! Well, lets visit the dishes…and yes…I have recipes!!

White Gazpacho with Peekytoe Crab Salad:

Jumbo Lump Crab Cake & Sweet Corn Chow-Chow:

And the Winner Is?….
A small taste testing panel was chosen from the crowd to decide their favorite. Though both chefs got props, local Chef Clime won out, enticing the panel with his meaty crab cakes against the competition. The entire crowd also got a say by show of applause, which ended in a well deserved draw. Nice job done by all, and great comradere in the kitchen, chefs. All in all, the participants were impressive, and the cook-off went down without a noticeable hiccup. It was one very pleasant day, a classy event, and a really fun time!

The very lively and personable host scans the crowd for feedback on the dishes, following an informative Q&A session with the chefs..

I loved both dishes and plan to make them for upcoming dinner parties, but I have to say that the crab cake blew me away. Cooked perfectly, stocked with fresh, meaty crab and topped with an old bay finishing sauce that was outta this world. No exaggeration, it was the absolute best crab cake I have EVER eaten. And the sweet corn chow chow was so tender and sweet that it had me almost licking the plate when I was done. That is no small feat, so my merit has to go to Chef Clime. Thanks for a wonderful dish.

That is not to undermine Chef Zakarian’s dish, by any means. His was light, lemony and delicious, with the perfect amount of uber-tender, fresh peekytoe crab (considered on of the finest of the crab meats), which I had never tasted before. I also never knew that gazpacho was originally created to be white in color, so it was neat to try it in its native form. Thanks for introducing me to something completely new! Can’t beat that!

Sign Me Up!
Interested in hitting up one of the shows in your town? Check out the Cadillac Culinary Challenge website for dates and times on their multi-city tour. All are encouraged to come out and enjoy. Just get there early to make sure you get a seat!

My seat mate and friendly tasting accomplice wins big with a $50 gift certificate, courtesy of Passionfish. Enjoy!

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