Friday, May 18, 2012

Interview with Chef Michael Foreman- Winner of Fire on the Rock 2012

Chef Michael Foreman

What first interested you about Fire on the Rock?
When we were first starting, our restaurant was kind of new on the block and we felt it was a good opportunity to promote ourselves and get out in the public’s eye. Part of my previous experience was that of doing mystery box competitions, or culinary competitions, so I had an itch to get back into doing full-on competitions.

What are some things that have changed throughout the years in the competition?
When we started off [seven years ago], we were in the basement of a hotel. There were four banquet tables down the middle of the crowd full of produce and they would have two judging tables. We would get our secret ingredient and away we would go.  I believe it was two years ago, three years ago, Jimmy decided to make it more of an elimination round tournament. We called it the sweet 16, where we would go his restaurant, compete restaurant against restaurant in elimination rounds. At that point the crowd was the full judge. This year is the first year that we’ve done it strictly all the way through where we’re in a restaurant producing plates for everyone, and then the weight of the judges 30% and the crowd 70%.

Was that something that the chefs recommended?
Yeah. We all kind of felt like the judges’ opinions were vital to it. The IT team came up with this formula where they figured out that if the judges weighed in at 30% and the crowd weighed in at 70% that it would allot for people who felt like they knew their restaurant’s food and really scored poorly against the other chef. Our theory is that if a chef can put anything on the table, if there’s anything on that plate, even if your battle was strawberries and you put just a strawberry on the plate, there’s no reason to give somebody a zero.  We’re advocates for balance in this whole thing and I think the formula works well.

What was your strategy this year? Did you have a certain strategy?
Win. Do everything to finally win. This is my third win, my first in the new format. I’ve got a strong team, a great team. We’re meticulous about our food at our restaurant. We’re always researching products. We follow the trends of the big cities and we try to bring them into our little small mountain community. A lot of times it’s received and a lot of times it’s not received very well. People don’t come to the mountains necessarily looking to go to New York or Chicago or London or Paris and see what the hot new trends are. But for ourselves, we try to push ourselves further and always learn.Our strategy was just to be honest. Be honest with our food. Be honest with our ingredients. Push ourselves in every battle. I would spend countless hours studying who we were going to battle next, figuring out what style they cooked in or what thing they traditionally leaned into for their flavor format and we tried to counter them.

My executive sous chef, Seth Parker, is fabulous at executing desserts, so we knew specifically walking in that I would take the first two courses and he would strictly spend his entire time working on the desserts. The downfalls of chefs are usually when they think they know everything. I relied heavily on my team heavily to critique and taste so we had a balance that our entire team could walk out and feel like they represented. We just tried to be balanced, no egos, more passion in the kitchen than egos.

Team Bistro Roca
How did you choose your team?
Seth Parker, and I battled in Fire on the Rock in battle strawberries. He was smart. I beat him by one point. I walked across the stage, shook his hand, and then told him I would never battle him again because he was going to come work for me and he’s worked for me ever since. So he was my no-brainer choice; he’s my right hand. For Bistro Roca, my name’s attached to it, but he is every bit of 50% of the culinary talent attached to that restaurant and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. But he very much is as much of that restaurant as I am. We wouldn’t be near as successful the past few years if I didn’t have him at the helm as well. It’s hard to find someone you fully, fully trust and he’s that guy.

I try to rotate year after year with other employees for my third person. The gentleman, Scott Phan, who was on the team this year was just a really good kid. He’s a local. He grew up in the restaurant business. His mother’s food is fantastic. She uses intricate ingredients, very true to form, very classic styles of Asian cuisine. I figured he would be a very good hand to have in there if we happened to draw some abstract ingredient. Plus, he knows our cooking styles exceptionally well. He’s trained under Seth and I. He’s earned our respect to be promoted into that slot.

What was your favorite battle of the competition?
This year, it was bison. Cinnamon and lavender was tough. I can’t stand cinnamon. The sturgeon was exceptionally fun for us because I know the family that started that program and I’ve really been waiting to see that program come on board. I’m a huge sturgeon fan. I’ve worked with it pretty excessively. But the bison was fun. Being from out west, I love playing with your heritage iconic breeds of animals such as the bison. It’s strong in everybody’s memory. To be able to execute it to the table and educate people a little more on the versatility of it was a lot of fun for us.

What made you decide to move to Blowing Rock?
I was living and working in Colorado; I met my wife there. We decided we wanted to leave Colorado. We threw a dart at a U.S. map and it hit Asheville, NC. We sold everything we had if it didn’t fit in my Jeep and a small U-haul trailer. We came across the U.S. to Asheville with no jobs, no house, no anything to start our new lives. I was very fortunate. I had a good background in the culinary arts and was able to meet some good connections. I was in Asheville for a short stead. I was in Hendersonville at Pine Lake in as their head chef for a short stead. [Then] we took off to France to live and work. We came back and came up to the high country to see about it. We fell in love and moved here immediately.

What do you believe was your most successful dish in the competition this year?
On the final battle when we had battle chocolate, Seth and I had sat down for about a week and a half discussing ideas. I finally turned to Seth and I said we were going to have to do this that no one would try to do, things that are hard to execute and execute well in the time frame. So we have and it’s either we win it or we lose it, but at least we know we tried. Like I said, I can lean on Seth for the desserts heavily. I had suggested a cake that we did [when I worked in France] that was very classic French cake everyone recognizes it, which is the Harlequin cake, the checkerboard cake. And so I looked at Seth and I said “I want a Harlequin cake.” Then we started talking about lemon curd and how lemon curd is becoming a lost art and bringing lemon curd into the formula. [We talked about] doing an array of very classic unexpected items teamed perfectly on one plate. For two straight nights [Seth] text messaged me with photographs every hour on the hour of new samples. He was at his house an additional 30 hours a week doing desserts and sending me photos on the execution of these desserts to figure out which one I want, showing me close ups and tweaking his recipes. Even though it wasn’t the high scoring dish on the final battle, by the end of the first two courses and the second two courses it was a dead heat and when we heard his score on that dessert, we knew we won. Hands down, I would say it was his devotion to what we were doing, what we were there for, and to his craft. That was probably the best course; that was THE course.

What is your ultimate culinary goal?
I’ve never sought after fame and fortune. I’ve kept the mantra that I don’t do this for the money. My ultimate culinary goal is to never stop loving it. I think the day I lose the passion for food and the excitement that food brings to me, and the excitement of cooking and seeing the reaction on people’s faces, it’s time for me to walk away.

How was your visit to Fire on the Dock and what was it like being on the other side of the competition? 
It was really cool. It was really interesting to actually sit at the table at the exact moment that people were getting there food and get a feel for how fast the food was coming out, what were the temperatures of the food when they got to us? What were the aromas on the plate?  One of the things we get scored on is the aroma, but when we’re plating we’re not stopping every fifteen plates, picking up a plate and putting it close to our face going “Okay, great you can smell the secret ingredient.” No, we’re trying to jam out 120 plates within nine minutes. So it was really interesting to see the score sheet, the dishes, the room, the reactions and facial expressions, and watching people put the first bite in their mouth. I would pick my plate up immediately and smell it, but I purposefully waited until everybody at my table put the first bite in their mouth and I watched their reactions, and then I took my first bite. I was very methodical in how I was enjoying the experience. I was very much doing R&D the whole time I was at the table. It really gave me a whole new perspective. 

Have things changed at all since winning the competition?
No, because everybody up here knows everybody. It’s a very small community. My sous chef Seth was in this abstract grocery store in the middle of nowhere and he was picking out steaks when someone turned to him and said, “you’re the boy who won Fire on the Rock, we saw you in the paper.” So we sort of laugh about that. People know us and it’s nice that people come up and congratulate you and have them look at you and say “You were well due” “It was your turn.” We did it for the community and we did it because we wanted to win it. We’re back to our everyday lives, waiting for all the other ones to end to see where this goes.

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