Later this month, chef Alex Martin hopes to crush the competition.
Martin, owner of Crush Catering in Atascadero, is one of three chefs competing Sept. 23 in the sixth annual Top Chef Competition and Fundraiser, which benefits The Wellness Kitchen and Resource Kitchen in Templeton.
Among the aims of the non-profit organization is to provide food programs and dietary education for individuals in critical health.
Martin became acquainted with The Wellness Kitchen while renting their commissary kitchen, and is a three-time winner of the Top Chef Competition. He volunteers at The Wellness Kitchen once a month for food prep work and donating private dinner experiences for auction fundraisers.
“I really enjoy supporting (the Wellness Kitchen)” Martin said. “Their mission is to bring better eating habits to people, especially those suffering from disease or problems in diet. … They also have classes that teach you better ways to thrive with your diet.”
Martin began his career in high school at the Paso Robles Culinary Arts Academy, and continued his study at the California School of Culinary Arts, Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena.
After returning home to the Central Coast, he worked as a sous chef, pastry chef and executive chef at several local restaurants, including Artisan and Panolivo Family Bistro in Paso Robles.
He launched Crush Catering in 2011, and specializes in special events and private dinners.
Q: What is your favorite local ingredient that you’re currently using in your menus?
A: I really like bacon, so that’s what I’ve chosen to showcase. Often, I make my own, but here I’m using some from J&R Natural Meats in Templeton (and Paso Robles).
Q: How have you used bacon?
A: I’ve made a puffed pastry empanada filled with bacon, caramelized onion and peach jam made with fruit from my mother’s tree. It’s topped with some cilantro sprouts from my garden, and some pickled jicama and radish. Then, it’s drizzled with a syrah gastrique (a slightly thickened syrup) and some rosemary olive oil.
Empanadas are great because you can make them either sweet or savory, and they provide a way to give a lot of flavors in just a couple of bites.
Q: How do these empanadas represent your culinary style?
A: The puff pastry shows a bit of French influence from my training, and the dish has a good balance of textures, of salt and sweet, and of colors. I like using food fresh from the garden whenever I can, and also using wine in my dishes because it brings in some different flavors and some color.
Q: How would home cooks approach this dish in their own kitchens?
A: They can buy the puff pastry; just make sure to work with it quickly so that it doesn’t get too warm.
As for the bacon, chop it coarsely and cook it down in a pan with some diced onion, minced garlic and thyme. Just before it’s done — not too crispy — pull it off the heat, carefully pour off some of the bacon fat and add some syrah. Return the pan to the heat, stirring and scraping the bottom. You want to deglaze the pan with the wine, to pull off those bits — called le fond — and get them incorporated.
Q: What is your favorite dish to cook at home and why?
A: I don’t really have a favorite dish; that’s like asking which one is your favorite child! I just love food. Often I’m cooking at home with leftovers from a catering job – maybe just making something simple like tacos. I also like to do dishes that take a long time, something braised like lamb, beef short ribs or duck legs. And paella is a favorite.
Q: What is your favorite food and wine pairing, and why?
A: That’s a hard question too. Let’s go with these empanadas with some syrah from Adelaida Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles.
Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.