At Work With The Opinionated Chef

Chef Alyse and The Opinionated Chef Barry Sexton

“I’m going to be there at about two o’clock; but the event itself begins at seven.” Chef Barry Sexton is discussing a birthday party held at Greystone Manor House in Newtown. “The reason I get there so early is because the caterer is always on the hook. I have to make sure that everything is in the right place and if it’s not I need to have time to fix it.” Indeed, when I get there at five, Barry and the sous chef, Alyse are the only ones in the building. Each one is carefully, individually preparing hors d’oeuvres. Barry’s day actually began at four this morning when he started mixing ingredients and packing his van full of everything needed to serve 150 guests at his traveling restaurant.

The fact that his restaurant travels is a concept not lost on The Opinionated Chef. “I tell these guys, the chefs who own their restaurants, what I do is completely different than what you all do. When you leave your restaurant at night you know the next day it’s going to be there; they all know that everything is going to stay right where they left it. With me, I have to remember everything and think of anything. Each catering job is different.” Chef Barry tells hundreds of stories of the things he’s thought to bring to each unique location. Some without kitchens. Some without running water. “I’ll throw a case of bottled water in the truck just in case I get there and they tell me they don’t have good water.”

 

Today’s event is at Greystone Manor House in the lush suburbs of Bucks County. The location is a dream compared to others where The Opinionated Palate has set up shop. Very shortly after I show up, Andrea Vreeswyk, the owner of this fifteenth century colonial mansion, arrives and gives me a tour. The mansion was clearly a farmhouse in revolutionary times; however, it’s most recent incarnation was a restaurant. Andrea’s family, not wanting to continue operating a restaurant, but not wanting to sell the house, closed the restaurant and re-opened as a catering facility.  So parties have the whole place to themselves. There’s a bar, a lounge, a dining room and a spacious and beautiful veranda. Chef Barry has a full kitchen and prep area with which he can ply his trade.

Greystone Manor House

After almost ten years The Opinionated Palate is still going strong. When I asked Barry about the name, he replied, “Everyone has an opinion about food.” “You want things to be just a little different, something unique that stands out to intelligent people who know they want something unique. If I would have named this “Barry’s Catering” there would be no reason to remember that.” I can tell you first hand that the name “The Opinionated Palate” is not the only thing you’ll remember. Each hors d’oeuvre is prepared individually and cooked, baked or fried on location. The little triangles you see here are packed with artichoke, spinach, mushrooms and caramelized onion cheese. There’s tiny cheesesteak sliders; brie mousse with apple chutney and dried cranberry. This is shrimp bruschetta on toast. My favorites are the mini Beef Wellingtons and crispy crab wontons with Chef Barry’s own mango chili dipping sauce. “You can’t just bring something you got at the store. When folks taste this dipping sauce they know it’s something I made. They say ‘he didn’t just go out and buy that, you know he made that himself’” Indeed, the fruitiness of the mango make this sauce something you won’t find in a Asian restaurant close by.

For this party there is a very relaxed pasta station with your choice of alfredo or marinara. Each serving is prepared for each guest. Barry serves beef with chimichurri. We see him here rubbing the beef with salt, pepper and oregano to keep the meat fresh so when it is served it’s tender and perfectly juicy.

Chef Barry with two of his biggest fans

In addition to arriving very early to make sure everything will be ready for his guests, Barry runs a tight ship during the event. At six-o-clock his competent team of servers and bartenders are helping put all the pieces together. Things are constantly kept clean and when each course is done items begin to make their way back to the truck. “The people who own venues, catering facilities like this one, always appreciate when you leave things clean and as you found them,” Barry says while loading more items back in the truck. It’s after eleven and the desserts and coffee station are all that remain aside from the bar. Most of the dishes are already clean. It is important to note that Barry and his staff were very open and receptive to being photographed during all aspects of their work. They felt no need to control or discourage anything they were doing as unflattering. On the contrary, they generally found their proficiency something they hoped others would notice.

The Opinionated Palate certainly is a great name for a caterer. In order for one to have an opinion about anything, you first have to think about it; opinions need to be formed. So much food is made and presented to us without the expectation that you’ll think anything about it. And of course, there always the chance one might form a negative opinion. If you’re not trying, if you don’t “put it out there” that means you simply don’t care. So to have an opinion means you do care. What Chef Barry is saying, at the very least, is that he is going to serve you something you will care about. His guests care very much, and that’s a good thing. After gobbling up hundreds of delicious hors d’oeuvres they continued to come back for more pasta and beef and still made room for mini creme brulees and lava cakes. In my opinion, there is nothing more delicious and professional than an event catered by The Opinionated Palate.

You can view all of my photos of Chef Barry here. You can book Chef Barry and the Opinionated Palate for your next event here. Check all my photo galleries here. Take a look at my portfolio here. To stay up to date on my latest blog posts be sure to like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

Revel and the New Atlantic City

Since the dawn of civilization architecture has been the benchmark of cultural values. One needs only to look to the most ambitious, impressive and expensive structures from any region during any period of history and there will be substantial indication of whatever cultural generalization one wishes to observe. Even since art has entered what is understood as a postmodern period, buildings have remained as highly practical with purposes meant to attract visitors by function and design. As you page through history you will find palaces, burial sites, temples and many other examples of public interest. In many cases the mere image of a particular structure evokes the whole of any particular civilization.

Fortunes of the past have been built upon violent conquest, or indoctrinating manipulation of the masses, American culture is driven by individual desire. While there are many examples of great American architecture, much of it falls into the category of cheaply boring and childishly kitsch. It is to this former category that I attribute much of Atlantic City. The idea, so far, has been to make the interior of the Casino another world; when we enter we are escaping to an exotic destination. We can see how the American casino’s design has moved closer and closer to Disneyland. The only thing that really changes is the theme. Unfortunately, entering one doesn’t provide the sense of escape to any place resembling from where the theme originates. The best example of this experience is Bally’s Wild West Casino where, upon entering, we find a huge plastic rock that resembles something between Disney and a historical wax museum.

With Borgata, in 2003, a sleek, relatively simple, contemporary design emerges. We find the first hotel and casino to not employ such a decorative theme like most of the other casinos in Atlantic City.  Perhaps Borgata is a response to the old Vegas glamour like that found in the Scorsese film “Casino.” At the very end of that film, the ugly masses descend upon Vegas as the city becomes gentrified. Borgata does not “rob history” as we are prone to do when we become bored with current fashion. Another form of gentrification is nostalgia like Johnny Rocket’s or Hard Rock Cafe. The danger in Borgata’s simplicity is appearing too sterile or corporate as we find in some aspects of the $1.1 billion complex; however, I find it comfortable and a much needed departure.

That departure makes way for next year’s Revel, which I took great delight in photographing as you see here. Right now Revel is costing $1 billion and there’s room for expansion. Following the success of Borgata, Revel sits on the Boardwalk and features an ocean inspired contemporary design. The facade literally waves and practically no where will you be without a view of the sea. We don’t yet know what the inside will look like; however, the small peeks we’ve been offered display a comfortable, modern appeal nothing like the city has seen before.

What I find inspiring about Revel is the maturity it adds to the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Our cultural desire for entertainment is time-honored. What we see here is a sense that people accept that they are going to Atlantic City to visit a casino. I know that seems obvious but consider the design of the other casinos along the boards as well as many in Vegas and elsewhere. When we design and decorate our home we do so to feel that we are home so why would a casino design attempt to make you feel you are in India, or New Orleans, or The Old West? Do not all these facades make it seem that otherwise Atlantic City wouldn’t be worth visiting all by itself? The message is “you might just be going to AC but when you get here we’ll take you someplace better. You’ll forget that you’re in South Jersey” My hope is that Revel will give Atlantic City a real sense of identity. The billions of dollars that businesses feel confident enough to invest in casinos show that our culture values entertainment and excitement. The majesty of these structures are one of our major contributions to cultural history. Therefore, Atlantic City stands as an opportunity to emerge as a positive cultural center. You can check out more photos from this gallery here. Also, be sure to look at some of my other events. Here is a link to my portfolio.

Scipione v Johnson – My Food Will kick Your Food’s Ass!

Chef Michael Scipione and Chef Geoff Johnson

This image opens the full gallery 

As someone who only recently began to take an interest in the culinary arts I must admit that, upon reflection, I had noticed a trend in the emergence of celebrity chefs over the past several years. The idea of the celebrity chef makes sense because so many of us like to cook and no entertainer can provide something more practical. So cooking shows have developed along with the history of television as the media’s history stretches out over almost sixty years. For example, since the rise of cable television, we now have the Food Network. This latest trend goes beyond even a network entirely devoted to cooking instruction and includes the element of “reality” in the dramatic television definition of the word. The combination of the two seem a natural fit. Food Network’s “Iron Chef” turns culinary art into culinary sport; whereas, Bravo’s “Top Chef” or Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” appears more along the lines of “The Apprentice.” Either way, millions agree, add the pressure of competition  and everything becomes much more interesting.

If it works for television, what about your typical dinner party? That’s the question answered by Chef Geoff Johnson and Chef Michael Scipione on Friday, December 3 in Cape May, NJ. While fine dining restaurants have been hosting dinner parties for centuries, competition adds a dramatic, or at least comedic, twist when you add two chefs, close friends, with distinct styles.

Each are no stranger to performing as celebrity chef. Living in the Philadelphia, South Jersey area, the two are part of larger circle of local chefs who regularly work together, conducting cooking demonstrations at one of their restaurants, at the Philadelphia Food and Wine Festival, The Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival or at any number of private catering events throughout the region and beyond.

Johnson must have developed some flair for dramatic performance while working for Bon Jovi; he now is regularly asked to participate in Food Network segments with the likes of Ted Allen and Guy Fierri. Chef Geoff also appears, along with author Rocky Fino, on the weekly radio show Stripped Down on the LA Talk Radio network. Geoff is part owner and Executive Chef at Copper Fish On Broadway where this event took place.

Just this past April Mike Scipione found himself finishing in the top four on “The NBC 10 Local TV Chef.” Mike, however, has been motiving athletes as a personal trainer and nutritionist for almost thirty years which contributes not only to his competitive nature but also to his unique ability to create healthy and delicious culinary creations. Chef Michael owns Sano Catering out of Philadelphia.

Friday’s event at Chef Johnson’s Copper Fish Restaurant in Cape May included four courses from each chef for a total of eight new and exciting recipes for guests to enjoy. About twenty-five  guests were instructed to try a little of everything; even if it is something that wouldn’t normally suit their taste.

The event, which was titled “Scipione v Johnson – My Food Will Kick Your Food’s Ass,” proved to be a disappointment in that there were no asses kicked.  While two impartial judges took copious notes on each dish, the decision was only slightly in favor of Scipione. As judge Gary Monterosso (a nationally known beer connoisseur) remarked, each chef exhibited a style uniquely his own. The tension between the two competitors served no hard feelings and actually provided the guests with a night full of laughs at each chef’s expense. I realized a some point during the evening that my experience differed so greatly from that of the guests because, as my photos here show, while Mike and Geoff pulled no punches while informing their guests of the superiority of his personal cuisine, back stage, in the kitchen, each worked together along with the rest of the kitchen staff to prepare and make sure each individual serving was perfect.

Often times on reality cooking television the dramatic tension is entertaining to us but intensely emotional and personal to the chefs involved. In this case the guests were entertained by comedic tension but the only thing personal to these chefs what the creation of eight fantastically delicious courses. You can view all the images from this event at my Photoshelter page. Also be sure to check out my portfolio.