I have seen chefs with angry faces, stern faces, wise faces and even baby faces. Chef Carlos Garcia from Restaurant Alto in Venezuela has one of the friendliest chef faces I have seen yet. His smile immediately reaches his eyes and his manner immediately makes you drawn to him.
Having dabbled in the chocolate industry last year while living in Hawaii, I was excited about this workshop: Cacao Crus and the Cuisine of Carlos. Cacao is a huge product in Venezuela and it has its differences compared to other varieties from around the world. Venezuelan Cacao has nutty tones and its lack of tannins allow it to ferment faster. Chef Carlos Garcia spoke in length about his land, his family memories and his country’s cacao.
Our host prepared 2 amazing dishes for us. The first was an Ossobuco Negro. Ossobuco is a cross-cut of the shank of veal or beef (among my favorite cuts), prized for its marrow. Chef Carlos cooked it beautifully. He made a sofrito with onion, green onion, garlic, bell pepper and pressed cane sugar. He served the ossobuco with the sofrito and a potato brined in lime (not the fruit but the chemical, yes it is a completely safe practice if you know what you are doing). The dish was amazing, the flavors unique and the cleverness of the potato shaped to simulate the marrow was entertaining. Bravo Carlos, bravo!
Our second dish was Lengua en Salsa Criolla de Chocolate (veal tongue in creole chocolate sauce). It took me a few years to get on the tongue bandwagon, but this inspired dish is more than reason enough to be glad I did. The veal tongue was cooked in a cocoa butter and cacao nibs confit. It was served with a pureed sauté of bell pepper, garlic, allspice, cilantro, onion and tomato. On the side we found a piece of seared local cheese and a sauce made from the cooking juices mixed with cocoa beans.
Not only was this particular Theater of Taste impressive, the chef represented his roots and land flawlessly. Not a single plate returned to kitchen that hadn’t been scraped, or in my case licked, clean. I was flattered that although Chef Carlos was quite busy with the photographers, journalists and hurrying off to his next engagement, he took a minute to allow me to thank him for the workshop and genuinely listened and cared about the feedback.
One of the chef’s closing comments struck me as something all chefs should strive for; he said: “I try to get customers to return for the experience, not just the food.” I couldn’t have said it better. This class proved that cacao and chocolate have so many uses. We should really all experiment with both products a little more.