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In the kitchen with Michael Symon and Jonathan Waxman, James Beard Celebrity Chef Dinner, Mauna Lani


Michael Symon in the kitchen of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. He insists he looks handsomest while holding a pig head. He's roasted seven suckling pigs for tonight's James Beard Celebrity Chef dinner.

John Heckathorn

More than 175 guests are expected at tonight's James Beard Celebrity Chef gala dinner.  With four hours go, the mood in the banquet kitchen of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel is surprisingly upbeat.

The chefs seem delighted with the food they're turning out.  "You gotta try this," says Bravo Top Chef Masters' Jonathan Waxman, handing me a strip of pork crackling.  "It's the best part."

Seven suckling pigs have come out of the roasting oven.  Six are being cut up.  One, says Waxman, is a "reserve pig."  It will be displayed whole in the dining room—and then feed the crew of a dozen chefs who are laboring backstage making sure all six courses are ready to go.

The Food Network's Michael Symon is adding vast quantities of butter, Parmesan and Mascarpone to a kettle of polenta.  "Polenta is the simplest food in the world," says Symon.  "But when it's made right, it can change your life."  He hands me a spoonful.  My life is changed all right: An Iron Chef winner is feeding me in the kitchen.

The keynote for tonight's dinner is simplicity.  "Primal cooking," says one of the young sous chefs as he puts 16 legs of lamb, butterflied and marinated in herbs, into a roasting oven.

"We can do direct and simple food because the ingredients here are so good," says Waxman (above).  "Look at these mussels."  There are 400 mussels and an equal number of clams from the aquaculture facility just a few miles down the coast, all ready to go into a spicy broth.  Waxman helps clean the mussels.  "Look at that beard," he says, trimming it away.  "We never get mussels this natural looking on the Mainland.  These are beautiful, just beautiful."

The kitchen's humming with activity.  Symon has one young chef making meatballs stuffed with foie gras.  Waxman has another lightly sauteeing baby Swiss chard.  A third chops pork belly.   "We're going to top that with a papaya glaze," says Symon.  "It'll be both sweet and spicy."

The Mauna Lani's executive chef, Sandy Tuason (right), is cleaning up a whole box of green onions, which he intends to saute and serve with the leg of lamb, adding both color and aroma. 

"Farmers have been bringing us great stuff all week," he says.  "It would be a shame not to use every bit of it.  This meal is going really showcase the Big Island."

"Nothing fussy," says Waxman.  "We're just going to put platters of great stuff on every table and let people enjoy."

Can hardly wait.  I'll have a full report on Biting Commentary. 



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