Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Chef's Dish virtually perfect

Using 800 readers' six favorite ingredients, Boca's David Falk concocts pasta risotto with salmon

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] David Falk with (from left), Chris Goldman, Carolyn Grant, Kathie Fuller, Ted Hardman and Marlene Hardman.
(Tony Jones photos)
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Give a chef who specializes in Italian cuisine fresh salmon, spinach, asparagus, cremini mushrooms, Parmesan and penne, tell him to create a dish, and you're going to get a nice cheesy pasta with vegetables, topped with grilled salmon.

Probably. Unless he is David Falk, who owns Boca, in Northside, where he creates dishes with more of a Tuscan take - hearty ribollita soup, grilled bistecca, braised escarole and more.

[photo] Falk prepares asparagus.
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Less than 15 minutes before he was set to improvise his Virtual Chef dish, Falk admitted he didn't know what he was going to do. But even then, the 27-year-old native of New Richmond knew it wasn't going to be simply pasta with vegetables and salmon. Too easy.

Under the Virtual Chef rules, readers - more than 800 of them - went online last week to vote for their favorite ingredients. They chose those primary ingredients listed above. (The chef also was able to use a list of staple pantry ingredients, such as olive oil, salt and chicken stock.)

Private cooking show

[photo] Falk sautes mushrooms as his guests watch.
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We invited three of the readers who voted - Kathie Fuller of Westwood, Carolyn Grant of Harrison and Ted Hardman of Hyde Park - to come and watch Falk work, then taste his creation. Grant brought her mother, Chris Goldman of Wyoming, who introduced her to gourmet cooking as a child. Hardman, an avid griller and barbecuer, brought his wife, Marlene.

Everyone was enthusiastic about food and cooking, and ready for Virtual Chef to begin.

A few minutes after 11 a.m. Friday, they gathered in the quiet Boca kitchen and waited for the chef to start the clock. They knew they were in for a ride when he began:

"I've never done this before . . . "

To choose ingredients for Virtual Chef, readers were asked to vote for their favorite at Cincinnati.Com. They chose one from Group I and five ingredients from Group II. Here are the voting results:
Group No. 1
Salmon - 34%
Rotisserie chicken - 23%
Pork chop - 20%
Ground beef - 14%
Baked ham - 4%
Group No. 2
Parmesan - 56%
Cremini mushrooms - 49%
Fresh asparagus - 47%
Spinach - 43%
Penne pasta - 41%
Canned tomatoes - 38%
Bell pepper - 38%
Rice - 33%
Ricotta cheese - 29%
Frozen artichokes - 28%
Frozen corn - 23%
Smoked turkey sausage - 15%
Canned navy beans - 11%
Spaghetti -11%
Macaroni - 8%
Tell us how to make Virtual Chef even more interesting.
Should we bring the chef to someone's home to cook? What unusual ingredients should we make the chefs use? E-mail suggestions to
A native of New Richmond, David Falk graduated from Summit Country Day School in Hyde Park and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He worked in Italy, Chicago and several local restaurants, including Maisonette, Daveed's and the Palace, before taking over Boca in Northside in October 2001.
To keep asparagus green after cooking, add a generous amount of salt to its cooking water, suggests our first Virtual Chef, David Falk. Blanch the asparagus in rapidly boiling water in an uncovered pot, then dunk the spears into ice cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well before using.<
Falk announced he was going to make "risotto" using the penne pasta as a base instead of the traditional rice. This was something he'd heard about, or maybe had seen in a cookbook, but he'd never cooked or even eaten risotto made with pasta.

From the beginning, our time restriction of 45 minutes was going to be the chef's biggest challenge. Not because he can't slice, dice and cook fast. But because Falk, who is very passionate about food, likes to talk while he works.

He explained how to cook the asparagus so it stays bright green. He explained why he added so much salt to the pasta-cooking water. He explained he never uses creminis, but would treat the little brown mushrooms like his favorites, fresh porcini.

Standing a few feet away, sipping chilled sparkling water, the observers took it all in, much like a live cooking show without those annoying commercials. They marveled at the chef's rapid knife strokes and cooed at the seductive smells of garlic, fresh thyme and anchovies sizzling in olive oil.

Yes, anchovies. Fuller wrinkled her nose a little when she saw the tiny, hairy fishes, but then promised she'd try a bite when everything was done.

Dish rates a 10

And 49 minutes after he began (just one minute before losing a penalty point), Falk dabbed his forehead with his white sleeve and presented the dish: Grilled Salmon with Cremini-Spinach-Asparagus "Risotto di Penne" and Anchovy-Wine-Garlic Emulsion.

Quite a mouthful, and a tasty one, too. Guests served themselves samples and rated the chef's creation on a 1 to 10 scale using secret ballots. They all gave him a 10. It was far from a simple pasta dish.

Between bites, Goldman asked if she could give the chef extra credit for creativity.

His experiment with penne "risotto" worked, but Falk admitted being worried that a customer will order it at the restaurant.

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