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From ant eggs to caviar, surprises abound at James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour dinner

Text by Sarah Rufca
Photo by Sarah Rufca
09.30.12 | 2:23 pm

For the second year in a row, the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour gathered a handful of talented, award-winning chefs and sold out the second floor space at Brennan's. This year the dinner focused on the varied talents in the Houston food scene, including Philippe Schmit, Chris Shepherd, Hugo Ortega, Justin Yu and Danny Trace.

They may look like dessert, but the mini-cones of Louisiana blue crab, blue crab mousse and Petrossian caviar were one of the most poopular passed appetizers.

´╗┐´╗┐With guests arriving for cocktail hour, chefs Justin Yu and Philippe Schmit share a laugh as they work on trays of appetizers.


Yu's savory shortbread cookie sandwiches of summer squash and curry-like vadouvan spices.


Schmit led off the dinner with a trio of cold foie gras, including a torchon marinated in armagnac with a black pepper crust and a terrine filled with red wine-pached smoked duck magret. Introducing his dish, Schmit declared that he went first because he had to get back to his restaurant, Philippe.


Yu painstakingly adds components to his soup plates. As he introduced his dish, Yu told the guests that the experience had been different for him because the crowd of 140 people would equal three seatings in his restaurant, Oxheart.


Yu created a sunflower seed broth with really interesting flavors of burnt onion and black tea, poured over a gravelly beach of crunchy puffed grains.


"It's good to be back in this house, it's been a long time," said Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, who started at Brennan's as a line cook before working his way up to sommelier and executive sous chef from 1998 to 2006.


Shepherd's house-cured mangalitsa pork coppa, with whipped goat cheese, green tomato pickle and garlic chips.


Chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo's explains how to serve his appetizer, mini sweet potato masa cake topped with rabbit stew.


Though he didn't mention it to the crowd, Ortega's lemon fish served over a bed of rich, smoky huitlacoche, or sesame seed mole, was a last minute menu change and contained an unexpected ingredient: ant eggs.


Brennan's executive chef Danny Trace served a mustard-crusted Virginia lamb chop and stunning black pepper lamb sausage that was accompanied by a shot of sweet mint julep in addition to a full-bodied syrah.

For dessert, a traditional carrot cake gets an upgrade from Trace, including an infusion of Pecan Street Rum, butterscotch caramel popcorn on top and a spicy cayenne almond brittle square.