Last year I was the only person to represent the U.S. at the World Pizza Championships, where I competed in a new competition, the Heinz Beck trophy for first course pasta appetizer.
Chef Beck is a 3-star Michelen chef and the Executive Chef at La Pergola Restaurant in Rome. This beautiful place has a wine list of over 53,000 wines. Even the water menu has 29 choices. Guests might dine on squid and scorpion fish confit in olive oil with grilled vegetables in basil sauce as they look down upon the dome of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Or they might gaze at the 17th century Celedron vase under the 18th century bronze candelabra while dining on oven-baked whole pigeon nestled on a carrot puree with a white pepper sauce.
Going into it, I thought my life at Avalanche, in this small college town, was the culinary polar opposite of Chef Becks’ at La Pergola in Rome. I heard his kitchen was the epitome of tranquility, and he liked it that way. I bet he’s never had a customer ask what kind of animal an artichoke heart came from, or the difference between canned or fresh mushrooms.
People warned me that I was over my head. That just made me dig in my heels further. The competition had accepted my recipe for Truffled Lamb Tartare wrapped in spinach leaves, then wrapped again in a whole-grain mustard linguine and deep fried. As if this wasn’t enough to freak them out, I added sauteed broccoli rabe, Traviso raddichio, and a minted lamb jus with fava and roasted red peppers.
My entry: chitarra-cut mustard linguine surrounding a cool truffled lamb tartare.
I arrived in Venice last April with the World Pizza Champions, a group headed by Tony Gemignani, an 11-time World Champion and all around great guy. He had secured us a stay in an old mill built in the 1300’s. It was here that we helped Ohio University Executive Chef Matt Rapposelli and Artist Petra Kraklakova build a Statue of Liberty out of bread, which eventually won the silver medal (story to follow soon).
I was getting edgy, because I had nothing done to prepare for the Heinz Beck competition. Luckily, I had Bruno di Fabio on my team. He took me to a small castle town in Emiglia Romagna region called Brisighella (Breezy-gella). It was there that his uncles and extended family treated us like kings and helped me forage for all the prep ingredients I needed for my dish.
The castles overlooking Brisighella, Italy in the Emilia Romagna region. Chef Beck judging in Salsomaggiore.
At the local butcher shop for lamb, I was disappointed to find they had only had a few chops left. Bruno asked if the butcher had any more, and he dissapeared. He came back with a whole skinned lamb (sans head) which he stuck, neck up, on a sharp hook. The butcher, with all the smoothness of a ballet dancer and the efficiency of Hannibal Lecter, eviserated the lamb right in front of us. After the guts fell out, he demanded I partake in the fun. Like I always say, “It ain’t a party unless there’s lamb guts to play with.” Eventually, the butcher had cut what I wanted and it was time to go. We left Brisighella with some of the finest olive oil, wine for presenting, and some bodacious truffles. I felt happy and prepared.
Back in Salsomaggiore, I had two days to prep. The chefs in the hotel kitchens were less than happy to see a bunch of Americans standing in thier digs. But Bruno speaks Italian, and he smoothed over the surly chefs (along with a few Euros for bribes).
Tony Gemignani, me, and Bruno di Fabio before the Heinz Beck competition.
The competition was intense. Because there was no microphone or overhead mirror, the judges came up close to the cooking area, like turkey vultures. I wasn’t really worried about losing. I was determined to just make 6 of these appetizers from scratch in 30 minutes. That for me would be first place.
The cooking went flawlessly, from mixing the dough,cutting it on the chiatarra (a harp-shaped pasta cutting tool), boiling it, wrapping it around the tartare, and even deep frying each ball to a crispy crust in the little Fry Daddy. Bruno di Fabio made sure that the presentation went well as my sous chef and I finished with just seconds to go.
I place 15th out of 30 European chefs. Heinz Beck’s sous chef said Italians don’t have much of a stomach for raw lamb (or possibly, the fact that I was an American pizza guy with Michelen tires, not stars.) Then Heinz Beck asked me to have coffee with him.
After weeks of trying to get into this great chef’s head and prepare what he would love, after all the planning, care, foraging, transportation and finally the execution, I was going talk to Heinz Beck. I had nothing to say. I was exausted, and asked him for his photo.
“Why, John, would you want a photo with me?” he asked as he cocked his head in a questioning manner. “Oh, that’s right, I’m famous!” he slapped me on the back as he gave out a big belly-laugh. This guy was really cool.
The Goon and the Beck. The five top chefs in this competition. The chef from Sardinia (3rd from left) won the trophy.
As we sipped espresso, I asked him the thing I always wanted to ask. “What is the best dish you have ever created?”
Without pausing he said, “It’s the one I’ll make tomorrow, or maybe next week, or next month.” Then he paused and looked away. “Maybe I’ll never make it.”
Lamb Tartare in Crispy Mustard Linguine alla Chitarra
with Broccoli Rabe, Treviso Raddicchio ,
Fava Bean and Roasted Red Pepper Rounds,
Cherry Tomato Bombe and Minted Lamb Jus
Makes 4 balls, serves 4 as an appetizer
4 small cherry tomatoes
1 medium red pepper
10 large fava beans, blanched and peeled
1 teaspoon minced shallot
4 to 8 large spinach leaves (baby spinach does not work for this recipe)
Minted Lamb Jus
Lamb bones and trimmings from loin chops
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup good red wine
1/2 large carrot
1 celery stalk
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup lamb stock (beef stock will do also)
4 fresh mint leaves
For the Pasta
3 tablespoons whole grain mustard
1 to 1 1/2 cups flour
1 egg yolk
4-6 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, preferably Trapani
¼ cup lamb loin, diced very small
1 leaf fresh basil
3 leaves of flat-leaf parsley
2 leaves of mint
1 teaspoon black truffle, chopped fine
1/2 teaspoon finely-diced shallot
1/2 teaspoon black truffle oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoon olive oil
4 leaves of flatleaf parsley
1 leaf fresh basil
Salt and pepper
1/2 clove shallot, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 florets broccoli rabe
2-4 leaves Traviso raddichio, cut into 12-inch wide strips lengthwise
Salt and pepper to taste
Up to 16 ounces of Italian grapeseed oil, for frying
Slice an “X” in the bottom of 4 cherry tomatoes and plunge into salted boiling water for 20 seconds. Then plunge in an ice bath. When cool, pull back the outer skin and carefully place on a tray sideways, being careful not to disturb the upraised skin. Place tray in an oven set at 230 degrees for 1.5 hours.
Roast red bell pepper over flame or grill until black. Place in paper bag or bowl with plastic covering to steam for 15 minutes. Remove skin and seed with fingers (do not rinse with water-this will kill the flavor) Transfer to cutting board. Using a cutter, cut 16 small circles from the pepper (see photo). Save for platin
Saute favas in olive oil and one teaspoon of shallot for 1-2 minutes. Once cooled, skin and spit each fava. Take the same small circular cutter and cut circles out of each half of the fava. Save all circles for plating.
Place spinach leaves in boiling water for 3 seconds. Shock in cold water and reserve.
Heat olive oil in a saute pan. Add lamb bones and trimmings. Turn to high to carmelize pan. Remove lamb. When pan is brown, pour in wine and deglaze on high. Bring to a boil again and add celery, carrot and garlic. Add stock and bring back to boil. Return the lamb to the pan, turn heat down, and simmer until the sauce is reduced by half. Strain all items and return liquid to pan.Reduce by half again. When the sauce gets very dark, add mint leaves and stir. When sauce coats the back of spoon, turn heat off and reserve.
To make the pasta, place flour on a clean counter or a wooden board. Make a well in the center. Add mustard, egg. Incorporate water, one tablespoon at time, and mix with 3 fingers and thumb in a circular motion until a wet dough comes together. Pour out on table and knead until it becomes a nice smooth ball. Cover with towel and let rest for 45 minutes.
Place chopped lamb loin in a bowl. Chop mint, basil, and parsley into a fine chiffonade and add to the raw lamb. Add shallot, truffle and truffle oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
Mix together the mustard vinegarette in a bowl. Reserve for later.
Cut pasta ball in quarters. (You may have to work in batches.) Using a rolling pin, roll out to desired length on a floured surface, dust with flour as needed. Using Chitarra, put rolled pasta on and cut with linguine (small) side. (Note: you may have to make the linguine a tad more thick than usual because the whole grain mustard beads may lead to tears if the pasta is too thin.) Boil in salted water until just al dente. Shock in cold water.
Place spinach on a dry towel or paper towel and pat spinach leaves . Put leaves on plastic wrap and create a 3inch by 3 inch square. Place a small football-shaped dollop (the size of a round consommé soup spoon) of tartare in the middle of spinach square. Fold the spinach around the tartare and tightly pull it around the whole package. Make 4 balls. Refrigerate.
Place ingredients for mustard vinaigrette in a bowl and whisk to combine.
Put a small amount of linguine in a bowl. Pour a little mustard vinaigrette over it, a little at a time. (Too much vinaigrette will result in the pasta not sticking). Add a pinch of flour for binding and mix with your hand. Place on square of plastic wrap with another piece of plastic on top. You should have a square measuring 4 inches. Take a plate and press down gently. Correct the square if it presses out and continue to press gently with a plate and rolling pin. Take the top piece of plastic off. Put a spinach/tartare ball in the center and gently roll into a ball with none of the spinach showing. (This may take time but you should have a ball of pasta. Tighten the ball and store in refrigerator for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. (the longer the better the pasta will stick). Repeat with other three balls.
Quickly brown half a clove of shallots in olive oil in a saute pan. When soft, add raddichio and broccoli rabe and saute for 10 seconds. Add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to the center of 4 appetizer plates. Place fava beans and 4 roasted red pepper rounds around each plate.
Take tomato bombes from oven and place in a bowl with small amount of truffle oil. Be careful not to break the skin, which will now be crisp. Place 1 tomato bombe on each plate.
Take the balls of stuffed pasta out of refrigerator. Unwrap plastic and heat up grapeseed oil to 360 degrees in a pot. Dip slotted spoon in oil, then use it to transfer a ball into the oil. Do not touch the ball for a 10 seconds as the spoon may stick to the pasta. Gently turn the pasta ball in the oil over and over until golden brown. Immediately transfer to cutting board and cut in half. Place on the broccoli rabe and raddichio. Repeat.
Reheat Lamb Jus and make small round drops on the plate the same size as the fava and red peppers. Serve immediately.
Thanks for the photos from Joe Robbins and Steve Coomes.