It really got rolling thanks, in part, to Snowpoclalypse, when Whitmoyer and Wall made contact while hiding from the storm at Ball & Biscuit. They decided on only two hard and fast rules: no head chefs, and no pulling chefs from the same restaurant. Chefs' Night Off is a chance for those a little lower on the kitchen totem pole to show off their skills and prove they have the chops to experiment and deliver on haute cuisine. They try to mix up the talent pool, but on Sunday, it just so happened that between the initial planning of the dinner and the execution, most had moved into or up within the kitchen at Cerulean.
But don’t let the “haute cuisine” title fool you: the tables are covered in brown paper and the dishes are served on disposable Chinet. “This is about food and nothing more. You can get that experience elsewhere; that is not what we are about. We are providing you with delicious food that you will never have the opportunity to have again,” Wall said. Diners get a taste of chef culture, with all of its moles and late nights, copious sweating and even more copious cursing. As Wall so tidily summed it up, “I have to eat and I have to poop. I don’t shit on a gilded toilet so I don’t need to eat on a gilded plate.”
When I showed up before the second seating (a decidedly more relaxed atmosphere than the first seating), Wall greeted me in an Iron Maiden T-shirt and a Rad Summer snapback, sweating out the last few ounces of anxiety required to coordinate an event like Chefs' Night Off. Most of the chefs I spoke to had spent their entire day off prepping in their home kitchens, plating up in the 11th hour at City Market. But Wall’s sweat was the only thing more profuse than his gratitude to the diners for showing up, hugging most and apologizing for the dampness of his shirt every time.
Chefs' Night Off is not for folks who are picky about their “dining experience.” It’s for people who have open minds about flavors and no pretension about good food. If you go expecting something theatrical in the service (many of the wait staff had never served before) or an ornate “tablescape,” you will be sorely disappointed. It’s all about the food, the way it should be. With that in mind, let’s talk about the food—and in the spirit of Chefs' Night Off, forgive the quality of my iPhone's gross disservice to food photography.
I knew I was in for a treat when the first course appeared, a fantastic take on the Waldorf Salad prepared by Alan Sternberg
. The dark brown “dirt” you see in the photo is a combination of pumpernickel crumbs and browned butter powder. My favorite element in the dish, though, was the pickled walnut purree (beige-grey dollop in the photo). I kept putting it on the tomatoes and apple discs (Which many guests thought were a kind of preserved water chestnut. Nope, just raw apple.) and wondering how something could be both intensely rich and brightly acidic. Turns out, it’s pickled high-fat nuts. That's the kind of creativity at work at CNO dinners.
Sternberg worked at Ruby Tuesday in college, and named the dish “Goodbye Ruby Tuesday” in a grand, haute cuisine send-off to his humble kitchen roots. The “dirt” part was, to me, the thing that tipped it all into perfect balance, with the salt and bitterness of the butter and pumpernickel balancing all the sweetness and acid of the summer tomatoes and raw apples.
The second dish was Jessica Selkirk’
s asparagus gnocchi, which she later revised to call a dumpling. Out of all the savory dishes, this was probably my favorite—maybe because the absolute simplicity of the elements of the dish played out in your mouth like this little summer party of flavor. The gnocchi was plated on a dollop of ricotta whipped with lemon zest, and topped with a sliver of watermelon that was dehydrated in the style of prociutto, basted with salt and sugar water over until it took on a ham-like texture. Personally, I’m always in search of the Perfect Bite (caps required), and the mellow richness of the asparagus and potato starch with the clean, lemony creaminess of the ricotta and that perfect little sliver of sweet summer on top just nailed it for me. Maybe I'm lazy (I am), but it was an easy plating and easy to eat, with a tremendous payoff of well-layered, super-simple flavors.
Now, that said, Jimmy Edwards
’ curry roasted cauliflower, homemade naan, purple cauliflower purée and Harissa dish was the best use of many, many bites. Everyone loves curried vegetables, but in traditional Indian cooking, the beautiful, natural taste and texture often gets buried under a lot of pretty bossy flavors and cooked within an inch of their fibrous lives. Jimmy Edwards (Acadia, Chicago, 1 Michelin star) dish was the perfect halfway point between leaving delicious vegetables the hell alone and that powerful Indian spicing we all love in curries, with cauliflower that retained its crunch, but spiced enough to make you forget it’s one of the least-fun vegetables to come out of dirt. In fact it made you say, “Oh hey there, Cauliflower. You’re pretty sexy in that yellow suit, actually.” There was a fresh preparation of garbanzos on the plate with an acidic, light dressing, and one of fried, dried garbanzo beans that crunched with a heady bite of salt and spice. Balance is an elusive concept in a lot of spice-heavy food cultures, but Edwards made it happen.
Last was Peter Schmutte
’s dessert dish, which had been previewed for me via a texted photo of the dry-run of this dish. Now, it looked pretty friggin’ fantastic, but to have a bite of all the elements either combined or in pairs made me want to march down the stairs and kiss Schmutte square on the mouth. The chocolate cream verbena was placed on top of a salty, super-crunchy kind of shortbread, so that you got a bite of ultra-rich, velvety dark chocolate and then a perfect little punch of crunch and salt. Add to that the flavor of the dark stewed cherries, then cherry hibiscus sorbet. Got that? Pretty good, right? Ok, then imagine it with a punch-through of earthy-sweet basil in the form of a springy sponge cake. Still with me? Then imagine adding the flavor of basil-flecked white chocolate and candied orange peels. How are you doing? Do you need a cold compress? I almost did. Sweet is another one of those broad flavors that you have to put up some barriers to, because your brain and your mouth pretty much always like it. The challenge is to make sweet an interesting sweet, and Schmutte’s addition of the salt beneath the chocolate, the basil in the cake and chocolate, and the delicate hibiscus in the background of the sorbet made a simply-good thing into a fuckin’ spectacular thing—and in doing so, encapsulated for me the essence of Chefs' Night Off.
If you want to check out one of these dinners (and you should), the best place to get info is the Eventbrite page,
as a couple of working food industry professionals don’t always have the time to keep their own website current. But the dinners roll on, even if the website’s behind. Whitmoyer and Wall plan to keep the dinners and the dream teams coming together, inviting friends from around the US to turn Indianapolis into a food destination city.
On Sunday, RJ Wall & Andrew Whitmoyer’s Chefs' Night Off event had yet another first: it was the first time they had served all-vegetarian dishes. Once a month, Wall and Whitmoyer curate a team of chefs from the line of some of the finest restaurants in the city—whether it’s Cerulean or Szechwan Garden—and host a pop-up dinner at different locations around the city. Sounds like a damn good idea, right? Well, there’s a reason ticket sales peaked at a new high of over 90 for just one of the seatings at City Market on Sunday. My first Chefs' Night Off dinner came at a turning point for the CNO crew, in that the vast majority (about 85%) of the guests for Sunday’s dinner had never been, and most were not vegetarian. But word is getting out about the pop-up, one-off dinners that roll out more like when supergroups form for the duration of a music festival. They are, as Wall said, “the Damn Yankees of food.”