Two young women in the Culinary Arts program at the Columbia Area Career Center – Rachel Koppelman and Meghan Hardman – have each won a state titles (Rachel for Culinary Arts and Meghan for Commercial Baking) and are heading to the national level. The SkillsUSA finals, held in Kansas City this year, will put the best young cooks in the country in an intense, all-day cooking test. It takes skill. It takes nerves of steel. It takes money.
So they had a fundraising dinner out at Les Bourgeois Monday. No joke – it was one of the best meals I’ve had this year. Here’s how it went down.
We were greeted with glasses of Chandon and Broadway Brewery Summer Ale. Waiters pressed through the assembled crowd with trays of mango sriracha shooters, mini-BLTs and a ceviche with local bass, avocado and bean sprouts. Each was good; the ceviche was great.
The doors swung open and we were quickly led to our tables. Mrs. SMEs and I had bravely brought the 6 year-old, and were seated at a nice table for three. The menu looked distressingly ambitious for a kitchen being run by high school kids – no matter how well-trained.
The first course was an amuse bouche of lamb tartare served on crostini. The raw ground lamb, while darker in color than you might prefer, was stunning with hints of harissa, mint and preserved lemon. Delicious, especially with the D’Aragon garnacha Paul from Top Ten Wines donated.
Next came a rich smoked corn soup with impressive depth of corny, almost bacony flavor. A brunoise of beets and a sour cream foam kept things from getting too heavy. Another real winner, and deliciously paired with Flat Branch’s Green Chili Beer.
The next course was a deconstructed Greek salad. A pillowy ball of yogurt-cucumber panna cotta sat atop Pierpont salad greens. The lettuce itself was lightly dressed with a vinaigrette. Also on the plate were a “salsa” of Goatsbeard feta, red onions, artichokes and tomatoes as well as a Kalamata tapenade and toasted pita chips. A Spanish cava rose stayed out of the way of all the vinagers and olive flavors on the plate – a nice selection by Paul Vernon of Top Ten Wines.
Next came “Inside Out Mac n’ Cheese.” The students had rolled out thyme-flecked pasta, filled it with Prima Donna cheese, pinched everything closed and topped with a little browned butter. The pancetta was over-crisped and a bit distracting. I could have used a squeeze of lemon to lighten things up (four courses remained). Otherwise, a fun take on a classic. It was served with one of our all-time favorite wines, a picpoul from Languedoc.
Blessedly, next came light, fruity sorbets. Tiny scoops of grapefruit/mint, sparkling rose and pomegranate. The first was the real highlight, but all were fun.
At this point we were getting full, but soldiered on through a superb pork dish – loin and cheek. The former had been prepared a la sous vide (vaccum-sealed and slow-cooked) and was perfect. The cheek, braised with mustard and then crisped, was exquisite. I could have done without the sweet potato gnocchi, which don’t make much sense in June and weren’t very good. Swiss chard was excellent though. One of my favorite Missouri wines, Westphalia’s cabernet franc, deftly accompanied.
A cheese course of Goatsbeard’s plain, fresh goat cheese, Moniteau Blue and Osage orange arrived. I love all of these cheeses, but we agreed, the fresh really stands out. A great cheese. Les Bourgeois’ excellent port was poured for this, and proved an able match.
Finally, dessert. The young ladies had wanted to end with something summery and decided on a coconut lime butter cake served with a scoop of cajeta ice cream and pineapple brulee (cajeta is sweetened milk concoction popular in Mexico). The cake had been overcooked and I tasted neither lime nor coconut but the ice cream was wonderful. Creamy, with just the right amount of sweetness. The pineapple slices were crunchy with toasted sugar and fun. A dry Moscato brought things to a close from a wine standpoint (and they had provided small pours…no DWI danger here).
I could not have been more impressed. The food, almost invariably perfectly-cooked and inventive, came out fast and hot. It would not have been out of place in the best restaurants in town – or most in St. Louis or Kansas City for that matter. I literally would have been happy with most of these dishes had I been served them at Niche.
Bravo to those who donated ingredients and wine. Bravo to Brook, Carri and Jeff for great work as instructors. And bravo most of all to the students, and especially Rachel and Meghan, for outstanding work devising the menu and serving as executive chefs/tour guides for the evening.
Update: For the record, after overloading the students with attendees last year, the Culinary Arts instructors decided to offer tickets to a more limited audience this year. To get on the email list, email Brook at firstname.lastname@example.org .