Wirt Cook isn’t interested in stardom. Sure, he was Alex Guarnaschelli’s sous-chef on this season’s Iron Chef America, but he did that just to help his former boss. What Cook loves to do is cook in the kitchen at the Redding Roadhouse.
He and his wife Karen, sister Colleen and her husband Ted Stonebly had just bought the Roadhouse last July when Guarnaschelli reached the last round of the Next Iron Chef competition. She chose two sous chefs for the final battle. Cook was joined by Ashley Merriman, who also had cheffed at Guarnaschelli’s restaurants Butter and The Darby in New York City.
Cook says the team was shocked when they won. In the stress of creating more than five courses, each using the secret ingredient, within the one-hour limit, they’d made mistakes. They thought they hadn’t had such a great day. But Guarnaschelli won. She was the Next Iron Chef. And Cook suddenly had an extra job he didn’t have time for.
Shooting for Iron Chef America 2013 started the next day. Guarnaschelli’s team was back on the set at 5 a.m. and, over the next eight days, filmed five shows. The episodes have already airied on TV Food Network.
“It’s a blur,” Cook says of the shooting days. He was working at the Roadhouse until 11:30, sleeping two hours, driving to the city for the 5 a.m. call time, taping until 4 p.m., driving back to Redding and cooking in the kitchen until closing. It was chaos. “I was so tired and burned out, there wasn’t enough time to be in the moment,” he says.
Having worked together so long, team Guaranschelli barely needs to talk to one another to communicate. “It was good that we’d all worked together for so long and are so close,” he said. They know each other’s strengths. He makes all the sauces and vinaigrettes. Ashley is “a prep machine and amazing butcher.” Guarnaschelli does pastries and desserts. This year, Iron Chef has raised the stakes. The first dish has to be presented in 20 minutes, with a cocktail. The cocktail was Cook’s job too.
Only recently, when he watched Battle Mortadella on t.v. , was he able to see what Ashley Merriman had been making. And because the sous-chefs are so far away from the judges, Cook didn’t hear their comments until he watched the program on t.v.
Cook met Gaurnaschelli about 11 years ago when he was a student at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and she was an instructor. They had an instant rapport. After graduating he did an externship at Butter, where Guarnaschelli was the executive chef. Then she hired him. He worked his way up from garde-manger, making salads and cold foods, to working the hot line, and then becoming sous chef. He left New York City for a few years to work in New Orleans and Maine.
When Guarnaschelli called to say she was opening The Darby, and asked him to return to New York to be her sous chef, he said yes.
Cook says that Guarnaschelli’s harsh, critical persona on T.V. Food Network’s “Chopped” is all in the editing. “She’s hilarious and totally brilliant,” he says, “She’s the best chef I’ve ever worked with. She’s so well versed.”
He tested recipes for her recently released book “Old School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook.” Now that’s she’s doing book signings, “I think people are seeing the unedited side of her,” Cook says, “her real personality is coming out.”
And what is Cook doing these days? The opposite of Iron Chef’s hectic madness. He likes it “low and slow.” “I make things that take days and months,” he says of the seasonal regional American cuisine (New England and touches of New Orleans) he’s cooking at the Roadhouse. Sustainability is important to him, and many of his vegetables come from Holbrook Farm in Bethel, as well as two beds that Gilbertie’s Herb Garden grows in Easton for the restaurant.
Cook smokes his own bacon, makes pancetta, ricotta and mozzarella. He cooks duck confit in the smoker (without smoke) at a low temperature for 11 hours to create a moist, plump meat covered by crisp, well-seasoned skin. He serves it with grilled radicchio, fresh arugula, roasted almonds and soft peels of Arethusa Farm’s Crybaby Cheese.
On one visit, the fish special was local sole, caught that morning. The delicate sautéed filet was laid over tiny black lentils enriched in garlic cream. Beneath a ruffled collar of crisp kale, smoky from being dry roasted, was scallion pesto. This fish-and-greens special changes daily depending on what’s growing and being caught.
The Roadhouse collaborated on a beer pairing dinner with Two Roads Brewery of Stratford this spring, and is planning more events, pig roasts, clam bakes, and wine dinners. Chef Cook’s wife Karen, who also received her culinary education at ICE, is the resident wine expert.
The Roadhouse recently hosted a wine pairing dinner for the press. Karen Cook introduced each wine and food pairing, and was a charming and knowledgeable guide. The evening started with a raw oyster from Ninigret Pond in Rhode Island, topped with lemon-lime granita. It was cold, clean, bright and briny. The glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve, from Épernay, France, was golden straw in color, with fruity, toasty flavors. “It has some citrus,” Karen Cook said.
Next, a fragrant, sweet corn soup, drizzled with vivid green oil made with ramps from Holbrook Farm, and dusted with porcini mushroom powder. It was paired with a glass of dry riesling (2009) from Hermann J. Wiener in the Finger Lakes in Seneca, New York. The wine’s crispness and bright acidity was a foil for the rich, sweet soup.
The pasta was transporting. An artful twirl of capellini that had absorbed its sauce of sea-urchin cream. Beneath it was a bed of tender, sliced diver scallops. A dollop of salmon roe heightened the sea essence, salinity and gave a popping texture. The wine was a Puligny-Montrachet (2009) from Henry Darnat in Côte de Beaune, France. Karen Cook described the pairing of this white burgundy with shellfish and cream as being “so classic you can find it on Wikipedia.” In her own words, it “does a nice little dance.”
Next, Wirt Cook’s house-made bacon, purple mustard and ramp vinaigrette. The sweet-sour mustard, and the sharp onion and acid flavors helped cut the richness of the salty, smoky slab of bacon. And the pinot noir (2009) from Goldeneye in Anderson Valley, CA, showed the necessity of drinking wine with rich food. The tannins cleansed the palate. Among the fruity, berry and toasty oak notes, Karen Cook discerned “hints of earthiness.”
The final savory course was a lamb chop from Pine Hill Farm in Sharon, CT. Seared on the outside, it was pink, tender inside, with a mild lamb flavor. It came with sweet pea puree, and baby carrots and onions from Holbrook Farm. The glass of Nero D’avola (2009) “Lamuri” from Tasca D’Almerita in Sicily was smooth and fruity, with notes of lavender and spice.
Karen Cook created the dessert, panna cotta made with Greek yogurt from Hastings Farm in Suffield, CT. The slightly tart, clean flavors and light texture was highlighted by plump apricots, local honey and lemon zest. The wine pairing– orange muscat (2010) from Quady Winery in Madera, CA. – produced a burst of floral and apricot flavors.
At the end of the meal when Chef Wirt appeared from the kitchen, he seemed embarrassed by the applause from our table, and ill-at-ease speaking and taking questions from a table of 10. “We pay him by the word,” Karen Cook quipped. And, with that, Chef Cook stepped out of the limelight and back to the comfort of his Redding Roadhouse kitchen.
Redding Roadhouse Kitchen 406 Redding Rd Redding, CT 06896 (203) 938-3388
[Photography Courtesy of Tom McGovern]