It is always a great sign when a dinner begins with consommé. If you’ve ever had a good one, you know. Dense, explosive flavors in a beautifully clarified broth. It is simple, elegant and a true thing of beauty when done correctly.
Stock is considered the building block of classic cuisine and is often the first thing a culinary student is taught. So it is no wonder that the first course of the Kitchen Ready Hands dinner presented by the Blind Pig Supper Club on Sunday, Nov. 8, was a beautiful consommé. Meticulously hand-made tortellini filled with Hickory Nut Gap oxtail was topped table-side with a fennel brodo.
The dish, imagined by Joe Scully of Corner Kitchen and Chestnut, was not prepared by just he, Corner Kitchen Catering’s executive chef Josh Weeks and their crew, though. Instead, Scully, Weeks and the other chefs for the dinner were joined by Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready students to prepare a four-course meal for over 100 guests.
Established in 2011 by Bouchon restaurateur and Kitchen Ready founder Michel Baudouin and Asheville fine-dining pioneer Mark Rosenstein, the Kitchen Ready program is an extension of Green Opportunities job training programs. In conjunction with A-B Tech, the program seeks to provide culinary arts training to public housing residents, as well as recovering ex-convicts and victims of drug addiction. During the three-month course, students learn to prepare restaurant-quality lunches that are served for free five days a week to members of the public housing community, as well as to visitors willing to give a small donation.
But for the recent dinner, Blind Pig’s Mike Moore and Kitchen Ready’s chef Liam Luttrell-Rowland enlisted the help of Scully and Rosenstein, as well as Rhubarb chef John Fleer and chef Katie Button of Curate to develop a menu and teach the students how to prepare and serve it.
By the time the second course arrived, the gymnasium of the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center was lit with strings of lights and Chinese lanterns. Guests were buying bottles or glasses of Lavau Cotes du Rhone wine, Bouchon’s house label, donated by Boudin. All proceeds from the alcohol sales went directly to Green Opportunities.
Fleer delivered a salad of pickled sumac, trout and various fall veggies with Treviso radicchio and other fall greens dressed in a fermented turnip vinaigrette. Students had learned to pickle the veggies and were there for each step of the process in creating the dish from scratch. It was amazing to think that these students had only finished their exams on Monday, before being moved quickly into brief internships with the chefs at their restaurants.
“One of the highlights for me was walking up Biltmore Avenue and seeing each of them working in those kitchens. These students got to go into some of the top restaurants in the city and they were glowing with energy. We had really high expectations of them, but they really did a great job, and they earned it,” says Luttrell-Rowland, who is quick to brag that “this class had the highest scores we’ve ever had.”
The third course was delivered by Rosenstein, founder of both The Market Place and the recently opened Smoky Park Supper Club. A pinwheel slice of beef flank that had been grilled over cherry wood, was served with roasted parsnip; roasted buckwheat with pumpkin, apple, fresh turmeric, galangal, ginger, kale and an apple-cider curry sauce.
“One of my concerns was with plating,” says Luttrell-Rowland, virtually gushing with pride over his crew. “I was worried that they weren’t going to be fast enough and that the chefs were going to push them off of the plating. But they stepped right up and were totally on point. The chefs even made a comment to me that they could just sit back and watch the students work and give them feedback. They didn’t feel like they had to step in at all.”
Throughout the night there was a silent auction, the proceeds of which also went to the Kitchen Ready program. Asheville Independent Restaurants members had donated dinners at their eateries, and FRS and Southern Foods had also donated items for auction, but the highest bid of all was for a private dinner prepared by Luttrell-Rowland.
In total, the auction raised over $3,000, which, when combined with the wine and beer sales and the ticket sales, garnered an astounding $10,000. This was a record accomplishment for Blind Pig, whose dinners all double as fundraisers for local nonprofit organizations.
“This relationship with AIR and the partnering chefs is so great, and we want more chefs to buy into the program,” says Luttrell-Rowland. “A really important part of what we are doing is this collaboration piece where we have chefs from all over the city putting their stamp of approval on our program and helping us raise the standard for our students, so that they are actually passing on that industry knowledge to students who are coming in hungry to learn.”
By the time the final course was served, the band was beginning to mellow out. Garry McDaniel, an Asheville local who plays drums at his father’s church, had helped organize a band for the dinner. “He did an amazing job with the music,” says Luttrell-Rowland. At one point Hanan Shabazz, a long-time instructor at Green Opportunities considered by many to be the godmother of soul cuisine in the area, joined the band to let everyone in on her hidden talent — she proved to be as soulful on the mic as she is in the kitchen.
Button designed a unique dessert of emulsions, baked goods and custards: caramel panna cotta, gingerbread mousse, toasted coconut sorbet and pomegranate gumdrops with Pedro Ximénez sherry. A pin-thin spiral of tuile made with seasonal herbs garnished the plate like something from science fiction — a final flourish, a real trick of gastronomy passed on to new, bourgeoning hands in the food scene.
“It’s great to see people from this community participating and helping others change their lives,” says Luttrell-Rowland.
On Wednesday, Nov. 25, the Kitchen Ready program plans to serve a Thanksgiving dinner with a goal of feeding 300-500 people. Luttrell-Rowland invites the community to either dine in or just swing by for a couple to-go plates. “I’m really excited about that, and that’s our next big project,” he says.
Kitchen Ready’s regular lunches resume at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center on Tuesday, Nov. 17, with the next round of students. Lunches are served noon-1 p.m. weekdays and open to everyone. Lunches are free, but donations are encouraged for those who are able.
The GO Kitchen Ready Thanksgiving dinner will be served at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25, in the Southside Kitchen at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, 133 Livingston St. The meal is free for residents of public housing; all others are asked to make a donation if they are able. For details, visit the Kitchen Ready website.