By Virginia Monaco
It’s no secret that food is a more present and powerful part of popular culture than ever before, and the culinary industry is booming in turn. Since the days of Julia Child, food television has played an increasing role in our growing interest in food, with the Food Network leading the charge in more recent years.
Yet while many aspiring chefs grew up on the cooking shows of Mario Batali, Ina Garten, Alton Brown and Giada De Laurentiis, the path to a career in food television still seems murky. Last week, ICE students were treated to the behind-the-scenes insights of Chef Rob Bleifer, Executive Chef of Food Network, in our own demonstration kitchen.
Bleifer has been with Food Network for 18 years and wears a variety of hats, from testing recipes for their magazine to picking the Chopped mystery basket ingredients. Given his influential role on the show, we decided to mix things up and challenge Chef Bleifer to not only share a signature seasonal recipe, but also to cook a mystery basket himself.
While prepping his signature corn soup, Chef Bleifer explained that he barely knew what Food Network was when he first accepted his position. The hours seemed more manageable than those he’d experienced in restaurants and included other corporate perks, so he decided he’d work there for a few years, networking with various famous chefs, and then move on. As time went on and the network grew, Bleifer’s role began to evolve rapidly. So while most entry-level chefs can barely imagine spending more than a few years at a single restaurant, Bleifer has committed his career to a single employer—experiencing more variety and challenges in his role than many chefs will ever come to know.
From a culinary perspective, it was interesting to hear Bleifer share how he adapts his recipes over time. For example, when he first penned the corn soup recipe, he swears corn was less sweet. Nearly a decade later, the sugary kernels we currently use have no need for extra sugar. And yet, the recipe’s original corn cob stock remains timelessly on trend with the sustainable cooking movement.
Chef Bleifer then moved on to his Chopped challenge, a basket of natto (a fermented bean paste), fresh sardines, turkey franks and nopales (cactus paddles), which he was charged with incorporating into a cohesive dish. As he brainstormed (on mic), it became apparent that Bleifer’s versatility in the kitchen and wide-ranging knowledge of obscure ingredients have served him well in (and are likely the product of) his unusual and dynamic career.
Recalling his first, somewhat off-putting experience tasting natto, Bleifer blended the fermented beans into a bright and acidic herb pesto, toning down their strong flavor. He then blanched the cactus twice to remove some of its natural mucosity. The diced franks were crisped in a pan, and all three ingredients were tossed with pasta, pequillo peppers, onions and garlic. Topping the unique pasta dish was a seared sardine.
Students were treated to a taste of Chef Bleifer’s creation, which made bringing all those bizarre ingredients together look easy. While it may take years to master the execution of a dish with such varied ingredients, it was a great lesson for ICE culinary students, many of whom are gearing up for a market basket cooking challenge of their own in Module 5!