Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Hello, Chef!

My disdain for casinos started back in the early 90s.

A group of us would travel from wherever we were living in California, meet up in Las Vegas and party till we were almost dead. Being young and invincible meant trying to relive moments we saw in raucous comedies, read about from gonzo journalists and, well, just trying to keep up with the extreme amount of booze available 24 hours a day.

Navigating a sensory blitzkrieg that is an active casino, flush with flashing machines spewing aural numbing noises as throbbing numbers rise out of burning pirate ships and the immense cleavage of saucy girls dressed as bikini clad Indian princesses in a stumble that is akin to a sinister hedge maze, with matching kaleidoscopic carpeting, after numerous tequila bombs and something called "The Beer Gully Gulp Intruder" while the medicated Gummy Bears kick in can prove a bit strenuous to those not accustom to that lifestyle.

And its obvious that people go to casinos on a regular basis. They have that look, that wild desperate plea in their gait and gaze that reads: 'Just one more, the next hand will have it!' Plus I hate the stench of stale cigarette smoke so entering those vibrating rape arcades always reminds me of the basement of my friend's weird uncle, where he would let us drink cheap beer at 9 years old and always had a firm stack of 'beaver brochures' behind that weirdly dirty couch we were always afraid to sit on.

After a long drive to the casino, I needed a snack and a strong beer

Casino del Sol isn't as bad as the off kilter gambling disasters in cities such as Laughlin or south Lake Tahoe, but it's close enough. It's set up like all the others; the machines are positioned in such a way that you HAVE to sit and stare and push buttons and give them all your money, the smoke reek is only because the air is piped in, not sucked out as the extra oxygen infused in the circulating system helps keep even the most inebriated player awake enough to continue gambling away the family's small inheritance.

It's a science, and a clever one at that.

But, as always, just once a year, I endure the aching thrill tickle of the casino because (mercifully) the 'Meet the Chef' event is always held outdoors, a tasting preview preceding the knockdown culinary boxing match, Iron Chef Tucson

Long line to get in

This time around, only 6 Tucson chefs have thrown their toques into the ring in hopes of bringing down reigning Iron Chef champ, Brian Smith of Maynard's Market + Kitchen.

Now, I say only 6 because originally it was supposed to be 8, but it looked like Robert of R&R BBQ and Kyle from Prep & Pastry/Commoner & Co. either dipped out or just couldn't make it.

Now let me say this: Only 8.

Last year there were at least a dozen chefs competing for the title and bragging rights to be the next Tucson Iron Chef. With the ever gaining momentum of our culinary scene, now that Tucson is getting national, and world wide, attention on a regular basis, you'd think there would be a gaggle of chefs on the roster...a gaggle!

But, nope. 6.

Doesn't matter, the 6 that showed up are totally bad ass. So let's do this!

And long lines to get food

The 2019 competitors include chefs Adam Puckle of The Cafe in Sonoita, Kenneth Foy of Dante's Fire, Wendy Gauthier of Chef Chic, Javier Martinez of The Glowbal in the Sheraton Hotel, Alan Lambert of The DoubleTree Hilton and Mary Steiger of Gourmet Girls.

Chefs Puckle, Lambert and Martinez I have never met before, but the other three I run into on a fairly regular basis. In fact, I featured chef Wendy in the Tucson Weekly about a year ago, so we're pretty tight. So to speak.

Also this year the event sold out, so there were hundreds of people out on the field by the swimming pool. The amount of bodies nearly hid the six tables set up with the chefs and their team scrambling to get small plates of food out.

I've never been invited to be a judge, which would be totally awesome, but I wasn't surprised to see my buddy Adam Lehrman, founder of Tucson Foodie, as one of the judges. Those Foodie kids get all the Tucson food love. Weirdos like me hustling with the blog and the Weekly get an occasional nod, which is way cool, but I would like to figure out how to get more involved without having to kiss too many butts to do so.

Whatever. I love doing what I do.

But there is always next year Iron Chef Tucson!

Just sayin'...

BEER!  And it didn't cost nothin'...

One thing that I was so grateful for, outside of the invite (yeah, I know what I just said) and press pass was the fact that the event started at 5:30pm and not noon, as it usually is. Last few years the participants and guests sweated it out on so many different levels. Mainly because it was so hot. Late May at Casino del Sol in Tucson usually means temps near the high 90s.

Not this year.

Even if it did start at noon this year, the weather was more than forgiving. It had recently rained, the sky was cloudy, even sometimes dark and the wind, if not a bit punishing, was cool and welcoming. So it made standing in those never ending lines a lot more tolerable. Plus each patron got a 6 drink punch card, which equaled to large sample cups of beer from Stella Artois, Four Peaks and Estrella Jalisco. If you wanted a full beer or cocktail then you'd have to pay. Seeing as I was far from home and my drinking of late has cooled down to a tolerable volume, I wasn't tempted.

But when I overheard someone in line ask "What's a chorizo?" I seriously thought about one of those tequila bombs from Vegas visits past.


DRONE! And,why...?

With the barely 70 degree weather happening, I walked around the grounds getting a feel of what was to come. Not too sure if there was a mass email going out, but it seemed like most of the chefs used shrimp in their dishes. Chef Mary, Wendy, Alan and Javier all used the ductile lil' sea bug as a component.

I didn't mind. But a few paying customers raised a voice here and there because there was so much shrimp.

"It's not even shrimp season!"

"Is this some kind of shrimp challenge?"

"That shrimp better be non-GMO and gluten free!"

Again...where was that tequila bomb?

Chef Javier in the zone

I've never been to The Glowbal in the Sheraton but after sampling chef Javier's tostadas I planned on getting out there. The menu seems like an uncomplicated array of heightened staples such as wings, burgers, pizzas and steaks with a slight southwest touch to it. I like that.

When menus get out of control with extended elevations, re-imaginings and deconstructions of comfort food, I not only get bored but I get a little put off by the show off.

With that said, I hope the $16 burger at The Glowbal is worth it. Maybe I'll get a lapdance for that reach of cash to eat a burg.

One can only hope.

Sweet yummness from chef Brian

Chef Brian is kind of on fire right now. Not literally (I hope) but in the sense that not only is he the reigning Iron Chef Tucson but he is currently in China representing not just Tucson but the whole USofA in a food and wine festival in Yantai. So rad.

Which meant he wasn't at the Meet the Chefs event. Oh well.

That just means that after getting back from cooking in China he'll have to strap the apron back on and try to keep his title as Iron Chef.

Good luck Brian.

And way to fxxking go!

Slide(r) on up to chef Adam

Adam Puckle cooks down in Sonoita, like a good hour south of the home base, so getting to him is a straight up day trip. But I'm gonna do it. No really, I am! Not that lazy. Jeeze.

Chef Adam had these lamb sliders that were so good, he easily had the longest, and longest running, line all day. He handled the pressure with a big grin behind that ginger beard of his and he seemed to be having a blast.

That attitude alone, along with the delicious food, will get me up off this chair, turn off the laptop and start driving. I just hope when I get there that his restaurant isn't closed.

That would suck.

Chef Wendy in deep concentration

This is honestly the best picture I got of chef Wendy all day as she was a tornado of movement and activity. I hope when she sees this that she wont get too mad thinking I got her at the teetering edge of a breakdown. There was just a lot going on. But she's used to it because this is her third (3rd?) attempt at going for the Iron Chef honor.

Last I heard she was in the top three in the race. Woohoo!

That's great because her corn panna cotta and pickled shrimp salad was amazing.

Go get 'em Wendy!

More girl power from chef Mary

Chef Mary of Gourmet Girls gave us a bit of sweet and savory. That was really appreciated.

What is also awesome is that she cooks, and bakes 100% gluten free, but that does not impede the texture and flavor of her food. At all.

Last I heard as well Mary was top three in the running.

I can hear Queen Latifa's "Ladies First" playing in the distance.

Can't you?

If not, just click the hyperlink.

Chef Alan working the crowd

A pickled watermelon ceviche with, yes, shrimp is what chef Alan Lambert of the DoubleTree had to offer up. It was really bright and tangy and I wish there was more of it on that small square bowl. Sure I pulled the food writer b.s. by getting served before the others because I was on the line taking photos, and I considered getting back in line for more but as the afternoon wore on, the queue for food grew and grew.

So I was thankful for what I got.

The food was so good this year, as is every year, but with the low number of competitors and the double of ticket sales, getting to sample food resembled a busy day at Disneyland, even though that fast pass jobber is pretty brilliant.

Just standing and waiting, and waiting, then moving a bit, then waiting more. Let's hope next year we'll have more chefs who are eager to fight for their right to partake.

We shall see.

Chef Mat Cable of Fresco with a plate for me to try

Lastly, chef Ken, along with business partner chef Mat Cable, concocted a wild dish of housemade lamb chorizo, Sonoran wheat berry foie risotto, Guajillo peppers, spring pea coulis with chili oil and smoked sea salt. Wow. Just wow.

I asked Mat if the chorizo was made by Tucson's esteemed butcher Ben Forbes. He reminded me that they make their own sausages on premise and for some dumb reason I always forget that. Gonna have to make it back to Fresco soon to sample the goods.

As the sun dimmed and the booze was getting people lit, I decided that it was time to head back home before it gets too dark. That stretch of south Valencia road leading to the casino can be a perilous one. Folks tend to drive as if they are in some kind of underground NASCAR offshoot or perhaps the cheap meth had finally kicked in so its a hard stop 'n go the whole way. The only way get out and back to the car is to take the kling-klang machine strobe weaponry of sure fire ways to lose your shirt robots that take credit cards in a naughty jungle of jumble head on.

But I had left breadcrumbs: Turn right at the high stakes room, continue straight past the ice cream shop, left after the enormous touch screen boing boing apparatus, forward through the spinning rotunda of restaurants and TV themed one armed bandits, a slight right after the angry Asian lady screaming at a cartoon Ewok sitting on a pile of her money that she just lost and then outside to freedom.

Then back home. But not before getting that tequila bomb I had wanted earlier.

"What's a tequila bomb?", asked the bartender.

Dammit, I said. I really have no idea. But make it a double.

Cheers everyone.

And good luck chefs!

That about wraps it up

Camera, Typing and Happy To Not Be Standing In Line
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
The Day of the Last 'Game of Thrones' episode, 2019

Metal Influence:

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Churning For Charity

Living in Tucson is like being with a really fun schizophrenic. There are days where it can get well into freezing temperatures, then, of course, you have our famous summers that easily exceed the 100+ range for days, weeks, nay!, months!, before calming down and becoming one of the most temperate cities in the country, nay!, world!

The weekend weather Tucson provided for the Brain Freeze Ice Cream Festival was a bit of a preview of what summer has in store for us. It was easily in the mid-90s with a warm dry breeze providing somewhat of a break from the beating sun. But as I type this, a day later, its cloudy and maybe in the high 70s. Oh Tucson. I love you but you drive me crazy sometimes.

But can it be considered an ice cream fest if you didn't have the sweet treat dripping down your arm as you make your way through the crowds in order to try ALL of the delicious goodness provided? I procliam that it is not!

Even though the samples were served in cups. Sooooo...theres that.

Regardless! I was happy to get the invite from Blue River Productions to attend on press credentials, so I packed up my trusty camera Matilda and made my way to Rillito Park to partake in much gooey fat kid awesomeness.

And since I woke up late, the ice cream could be considered my breakfast that day.

Life is amazing! 

A good crowd for a good cause, thank you Blue Bell!

The Brain Freeze festival was sponsored by Blue Bell Ice Cream but I didn't know that's who was primarily the main attraction. Sure local badass Cashew Cow was there serving up amazing vegan realness, as was the Screamery, an Arizona based company that utilizes 'cruelty free' methods to extract the milk from their lovely cows. Which was cool, but I was sure I'd see The Hub or at least Isabella's, but....nope. Mostly Blue Bell. I mean, that's fine, its a great product, I was just a bit miffed by not seeing more Tucson, or at least southern Arizona, based ice cream companies represented.


I then found out that the entire festival's proceeds was going to SANDS (the Southern Arizona Network for Down Syndrome) and Blue Bell was a big contributor towards that. Its awesome when small local businesses get together for a charitable cause and donate what they can but when the big kids come a srtrollin' in with that corporate cash and want to make a sizable contribution, then we talking some real duckets flowing to the charity.

So cheers on you Blue Bell!

One of each please!

The turnout for the event can be categorized as 'not bad'. Meaning a good amount of ice cream lovin' folk were either standing in line or already in attendance. Seeing as ticket prices were only $12, which allows you to eat as much ice cream as possible, I wasn't surprised that families came out in a near horde for the event. And because there were so many families with kids there, the amount of jumping castles, games and inflatable punching activities (that sounds slightly erotic right?) rivaled the tents set up to get down with the sweet treat righteousness.

My first scoop was something called 'Moolennium Crunch', which was packed with almonds, pecans, walnuts, chocolate and caramel chunks in a smooth vanilla base. The super fun day was off to an amazing start because it was really tasty.

Next up was the 'Cotton Candy' variety, swimming in neon shades of pink and blue that surprisingly had a true cotton candy flavor to it. How they do that? The 'Dutch Chocolate' was really rich but quite delicious and the 'Rainbow Sherbet' was a kind of electric neapolitan style as it featured essence of lime, orange and strawberry that all came together in a very refreshing way. Not one sample I, well, sampled that day disappointed. How could it....its freakin' ice cream!


Tucson ice cream was represented as well!

After sampling some vegan chocolate chip from Cashew Cow, I recognized the owner there but she seemed busy doing stuff on her phone. She then approached me and held her camera up for me to see what was on the screen.

"The protesters out on the street by the entrance, they have a anti-Brain Freeze Facebook page. They are calling this event cruel and "anti-speciesist"...whatever that means".

It's true. By the entrance on 1st Avenue, a group of hardcore vegans were holding up signs calling the event unfair to animals and trying to get it shut down, or at least make people aware that milk comes from cows and they don't like that. Vegans also don't eat honey, which I find very strange since that's what bees do naturally anyway.

Regardless of the fact that Brain Freeze is all for charity and that there are vegan option treats, the few out there braving the heat wearing all black are pretty passionate about their cause and beliefs. I, personally, don't like to get in the way of those that are militant in thier views because no matter what you do or say, in my experience anyway, wont matter. They have firm convictions, believe that they are 100% right and my words or actions towards or against them will be white noise.

But I still had to get a closer look.

Food trucks, fun and fundraising!

Seeing that the protesting vegans were out in the open and attracting attention, I felt that it was within my right to take some pictures of them. I didn't want to talk, I didn't want to get in their way, just a shot or two.

So I stood a good distance away from them. I focused Matilda as tight as I could so the picture you see is me standing at least 10ft away with the lens that I brought, used for tight shots, not telephoto.

Cars were driving by them honking in either support or objection as others entered the parking area with their windows down laughing or yelling at them to piss off. I just stood off to the side and snapped off a shot or two. That's when I was discovered and that's when the problems started.

"I didn't authorize my picture being taken! I did not sign a waiver!", screamed an angry vegan lady.

"Um...you're in public view and you're not wearing masks," I retorted back. "Your picture is being taken no matter what."

"You're interfering with our right to perform a peaceful protest!", shouted another lady who was slathered in white sunblock making her look either goth or dead. To her I said nothing. That was the dumbest thing I have heard in a while and let it go.

As I walked back to the festival, I stated: "You know this event is all for charity and there are vegan ice cream options."

That's when some raged up white guy in dreadlocks screamed, "IT SHOULD ALL BE VEGAN!"

As I walked away they were asking me what my name was, that I was in violation of their rights (again) and so on. Ugh.

Look, if you are going to make some sort of spectacle, be it a peaceful protest or circus side show freak exhibition, and you are out in public, in 2019, people are gonna take your picture. We all, or most, have phones and all of them, well...most, have cameras attached. So don't get upset when people start snapping away and uploading. It was probably because I had a pro digital camera aimed at them, or something, that caused a stir, but, gimme a break. If you're exposed on the street commanding the spotlight in any capacity then I, and we, too have carte blanche to document it.

But, whatever. I wasn't going to let a small group of emphatic vegans holding signs get to me. I was having too much fun!

Huh boy, here we go

By 2pm the heat was really starting to get to me, even with the cool treats and water provided, so it was time to move on. I left in a great mood, mainly because my mouth was sticky, my belly was full and I ran into a bunch of friends there.

Hopefully Brain Freeze will be a regular event. If it is, hit me up and I will so be there. Even if I have to wade through some angry protesters. It was so so worth it.

Cheers...and thank you Brain Freeze!

A good time was had by all!

Camera, Typing and Unapologetically Eating Ice Cream:
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Star Wars Day, 2019

 Metal Influence:

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Day in the Life of: Reilly Pizza

Camera, Typing and Having the Best Day Ever
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Early Autumn, 2018

Metal Influence: