The ZAP Iron Chef Event

This is the first of our periodic postings to “The Evolving Palate”. This particular event seem fitting for the inaugural post in that it includes many of the themes we hope to cover- cooking, eating, and fine wines. Even if these articles are never read, it gives us an excuse to indulge in these pastimes.


20130202_135954_resizedThe story of the ZAP Iron Chef event starts, for us, nine months previous at the 2013 ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) Festival ( This is an outstanding set of 4 separate events annually held in San Francisco that include a zinfandel and food pairing (The Epicuria), a zinfandel flights tasting (2013 focused on contrasting and comparing the several of the major zin growing areas in California), a semi- formal Winemakers dinner, and a massive “Grand Tasting” featuring roughly 200 wineries most pouring several different zins. This event has, amazingly, managed to continually improve over the 10 years that I have been attending. Anyone with even a modicum of interest in zinfandel wines, food, wine information, and just plain fun should seriously consider attending this end-of-January festival at least once.

On Friday evening, following the zinfandel flight event and a pre-Wine maker Dinner tasting of zins from several dozen outstanding producers, the annual live auction took place. Although the auction items are compelling, the placement of this activity following the supply of copious amounts of great zinfandel wine was marketing genius. Among the items was an item:

“Iron Chefs- 2 Chefs, 2 Wineries, 2 Teams- The Ultimate Zinfandel Experience for 6. The enthralling saga of friendly rivalry continues at our fourth annual ZAP Iron Chefs Competition where you and 5 friends heat up the kitchen, assisting your chef and winemaker team to victory”.

After some heavy bidding, I ended up as the second highest bidder which secured a position in the event.  This proved to be the perfect excuse for the various team members to try, create, and tweak a variety of recipes incorporating zinfandel wine ranging from zin sauces to chocolate cake (actually very good) over the next 8 months.

The Event

The actual event was held in the culinary kitchens at the City College of San Francisco ( The facility is brand new with this event being the second time the kitchen has been used.  The format of the event was changed from an “Iron Chef” style competition to more of a “master class” based on comments from previous events.  A phalanx of students was recruited to assist in the kitchen, set-up of the dining room, serving, and clean-up. Chefs were informed of the “secret ingredients” the day before, had developed their menus, and began prep work well before the other participants arrived. The two ingredients that had to be incorporated into each of the three dishes were pork and fresh corn. Obviously, giving that this was a ZAP festival, the dishes had to pair with zinfandel. The teams were given 1½ hours to complete the cooking.

As the highest bidder, “Team Lobato” selected Chef Matt Gandin, the Executive Chef at Comal Restaurant ( ) and Matt Cline, the owner and winemaker at Three Wine Company ( to round out their team.

Our Team

Team Straube: (right to left) Chef Jossel, Cathy Gannett, 2 students, Luke Gannett, David Straube (hidden), Winemaker Dashe

Team Straube: ( left to right) Chef Jossel, Cathy Gannett, 2 students, Luke Gannett, David Straube (hidden), Winemaker Dashe

“Team Straube” consisted of Rick, Sandy, and David Straube, Luke and Cathy Gannett, and William Zielski (Sandy’s culinary school trained nephew) and his wife Sandra (originally planned to be an observer but drafted to work). Although the other team selected first, we were thrilled with our winemaker and chef.

The Chef

The celebrity chef for our team was Chef Laurence Jossel, the Executive Chef/ Owner of the Nopa restaurant ( He describes his cooking style as “simple preparation of local ingredients”.  He lies. His dishes are composed of a sophisticated layering of exceptional ingredients prepared such that their identity remains clear while melding beautifully with the other elements of the dish. He is passionate (maybe even obsessed) with the freshness and quality of his ingredients. He obtains meats from suppliers that, in most cases, he has personally inspected the entire operation from raising and feeding to butchering. Produce comes from trusted farmers and is as fresh as possible. It is shame that such sourcing considerations remain the exception rather the norm since it encourages a higher quality, more sustainable and humane food supply chain and, when expertly done produces exceptional  meals.

Although we were surprised by the change in focus of the evening from an “Iron Chef”-styled competition to a “master class”, it turned out to be an exceptional experience due in huge part to our chef. It was a joy to assist and observe a professional who, despite his experience and success, remains so passionate about cooking. He was an excellent teacher who was generous in sharing both his practical techniques for food preparation as well as his conceptual approach to the entire meal creation.  Everyone on our team left feeling that they were a better cook because of the experience.

Although San Francisco is a classic foodie destination, I have not focused on its restaurant scene because while there, I usually am either eating in the city at prearranged business dinners or traveling to the nearby wine areas. I did not know of “Nopa” prior to this event but after sampling this chef’s cuisine, this restaurant has become an “absolutely must try” on the next West Coast visit.

The Winemaker

The winemaker for Team Straube was Mike Dashe, the co-owner and winemaker along with his wife of Dashe Cellars ( Mike holds a Master’s Degree in Enology from UC Davis and worked at Schramsberg Wine Cellars, Far Niente, Cloudy Bay (New Zealand), Chateau Lafite-Rothchild (Bordeaux) and Ridge before opening Dashe Cellars in 1998 with his Bordeaux trained wife. Mike makes wine from a variety of grapes. He believes that zinfandel can be made in a broader range of styles than is typically done. In particular, he makes wines with higher than usual acid levels to enhance their ability to pair with food.

Cooking The Chef’s Menu

When we arrived at the kitchen we found that much of the prep work for the evening had been done by the chefs, Lindsey (the intern from Nopa) and the College of San Francisco culinary students. We were treated to plates of cheese, sausage and breadsticks that accompanied a Dasche 2012 dry Riesling from the McFadden Farm in Potter Valley and a Three Wine Company 2011 Albariňo from Sweetwater Ranch in Monterey County. Obviously this was a “gentlemanly” approach to cooking.

Corn and fennel sausage chowder

The soup began by browning the bulk sausage that Chef Jossel had made the previous day using pork shoulder, garlic, and fennel. To that was added small diced onion and red Bell peppers. The kernels were removed from fresh super-sweet corn cobs (using a great gadget from William Sonoma) and added to the pot. The corn cobs were then scrapped for the remaining corn milk that was added to the sausage mixture. The cobs were added to a stock pot with onions, fennel fronds, and water to make a quick corn stock.  The fennel bulbs were peeled, diced, and added to the mixture. Russet potatoes were peeled, large diced, and boiled in a small amount of the corn stock and, when tender, added to the sausage mixture. The stock was strained and all of the components added together and simmered. A combination of milk and half-and-half was added. The soup was seasoned with thyme and salt to taste. All of the ingredients used were added to taste rather than using strict measurements. Celery was finely sliced on the bias and used to garnish the final dish.

Grilled Pork “Ribeye”

The meat used in this dish was pork chops from the first 4 ribs of the pig. These pigs were sourced from an Iowa farm that chef had visited to inspect their rearing, feeding, and slaughtering procedures. Although technically a chop, the label rib-eye probably better describes these 3 inch slabs. The ribs had been brined overnight in a solution of molasses and salt. The meat was grilled and then finished in the oven to medium rare to medium. The meat was thinly sliced and simply topped with a compound butter composed of unsalted butter, basil, and garlic.


The vegetable dish started with blanching and shocking fresh green beans and green flat beans. Small fresh zucchini squash were halved, coated in olive oil, grilled and finished in the oven. The beans, squash, and corn kernels were mixed, simmered, and salted

Corn pudding cake with bacon brittle

Unfortunately, the dessert was being prepared by the Nopa intern from a recipe created by the restaurant’s pastry chef while we were busy with the entrée so we only had snapshots of its preparation. The dish was made in ramekins with a layer of corn pudding covered by a cake layer. The pudding was cooked in a water bath while the bacon brittle was being made.  For presentation, the ramekins were topped with a piece of bacon brittle.

The meal

The soup course


Team Straube: The corn and fennel sausage chowder (seen on the right in the picture)  was clean and light without the heavy gluey texture that frequently defines chowders. The flavor of the various vegetables were clear and the sausage imparted a depth of flavor to the dish.

The soup Dashe les enfanteswas paired with the Dashe 2012 Heart Arrow Vineyard “Les Enfants Terribles” from the Redwood valley. This is an organic wine that is grown using biodynamic techniques.  Without knowing that this was a zinfandel, I would not have guessed it. The wine was very light with a nose of strawberry and cherry. It was bright and had nice acid. It pair beautifully with the soup. Interestingly, this light wine also paired well with the heavier highly spiced sweet corn soup from the other team.

Team Lobato: The sweet corn-huitlacoche crema soup was made with smut-infected corn- a delicacy in Mexico that adds a sweet, earthy flavor. It was topped with crumbled chicharrones made of fried pork rinds. The soup was thick, earthy and quite spicy.2011_CCC_Zinfandel

This was paired with the Three Wine Company’s 2011 “Old Vines” from Contra Costa County.  The wine is a field blend of grapes sourced from Contra Costa County vineyards planted in 1880’s that includes 16% petite sirah. The wine has a predominated blackberry nose with moderate fruit but very nice spice overtones. Despite the moderate spice of the wine, the spice of soup may have overpowered it. The wine paired well with corn and fennel soup.

The entrée course

Team Straube: While cooking, we questioned whether the pork ribeye would benefit from a sauce. Chef was adamant that the meat would stand on its own and needed only a topping of basil/garlic infused compound butter. He was right. The thinly sliced meat was flavorful, juicy and seasoned to perfection. Even the “pork skeptics” in the team were wowed by the dish.  The succotash was a great accompaniment to the pork but several of the members of the team thought that the elegant green beans in Balsamic vinegar that was madeDsshe Florence as a “nibble” while cooking would also have worked well.

The wine for the course was the Dashe 2010 Florence Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. This wine is made from relatively young vines that were heavily pruned and grown in very rocky soil. The resulting wine has a concentration and intensity more reminiscent of an old vine wine than a young vineyard one. The result is a wine with a nice raspberry nose with some cherry. It maintains a nice acid level that made it pair well with the food.

Team Lobato: The other team prepared a roasted pork loin with pipian verde, a pumpkin seed sauce from central and Southern Mexico. The pork was nicely roasted and juicy but the sauce was clearly the star. Accompanying the roast was grilled Oaxacan-style street corn. This was a delight that could have made a whole meal.2010_LiveOak_Zinfandel

The roast was paired with the 2011 “Live Oak” Contra Costa County zinfandel wine. This field blend comes from vines planted in 1885. The wine was bright with pronounced black raspberries and hints of flowers. The wine is big and concentrated with a mouth feel that was almost chewy. It stood up well to the main course and the flavorful grilled corn.

The dessert course


Team Straube: Dessert was a corn pudding cake with bacon brittle. This dish managed to combine both savory “secret ingredients” into a surprisingly good and sweet dessert. The bacon britLate Harvest Dashetle was good by itself but, like most great pairings, when eaten with the rest of the pudding it became incredible.

The dessert wine was the Dasche 2009 Late Harvest Lily Hill Vineyard from Dry Creek Valley which was perhaps the find of the evening. Unlike many of the dessert wines, this was sweet without being cloying. The dark fruit was concentrated with spicy overtones and the crisp acid made it pair well with both team’s offerings.

Team Lobato: The other team prepared a nectarine-blackberry crumble with corn-piloncillo (the Mexican unrefined sugar) topping and cinnamon whipped cream. The dessert was light, fresh end to the dinner.12080_zinfandel_10EV_750F

The dessert was paired with the Three Wine Company 2010 “Evangelho” from Contra Costa County. This dry-framed vineyard is over 150 years old. It is composed of Zin (85%), Petite Sirah (11%), and small amounts of Carignane (2%), Mataro (1%), and Alicante Bouchet (1%). The predominate bouquet was blackberries and nutmeg-type spice with mild pepper.


All in all, the evening was superb.  The time spent in the kitchen with Chef Jossel was educational, fun, and inspiring. Chef Jossel’s menu was a masterpiece of sophisticated but straight forward food celebrating the basic ingredients that define the best aspects of “California cuisine” for me. Chef Gandin produced a menu of beautiful Mexican styled dishes that work nicely together. The Three Wine Company wines were great Costa Contra zinfandels that hit many of the notes I love in a zin- berries, spice, and pepper. The Dashe wines were a great find. They maintained an acidity that made them pair extremely well with food.  The late harvest wine was fantastic (we purchased a half-case). Although this was not a competition, clearly participating in this event left us all winners.

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