Epcot's 2008 International
Food & Wine Festival

Kitchen Conversations

Festival Center

October 2, 2008

Chef Tory McPhail
Commander's Palace
New Orleans, Louisiana


Abita Brewing Company
Speaker: Dave Blossman

Pecan-Roasted Duck with Cherry Glaze
Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding Souffle

Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®

Pam Smith and Tory McPhail

Tory McPhail,
executive chef of the prestigious New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace, kicked off the Kitchen Conversations series on Thursday, October 2, at the 13th Annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

The event was held in the Festival Center (formerly the Wonders of Life Pavilion), the first time I've attended a ticketed Festival program in this location. Up until last year, most paid events were held in the Odyssey, the former counter service restaurant that sits between the Mexico pavilion and Future World. Last year, though, the festival began staging its free wine and cooking demonstrations in the Festival Center. This year, nearly all events, both complimentary and ticketed, are behing held in the Festival Center location.

The space reserved for this event was rather unusual. The festival events and activities all ring the perimeter of the pavilion, with the center of the pavilion occupied by the remnants of the old Wonders of Life. The area Kitchen Conversations occupied was just one small arc of this circle, with only about 15 tables, arranged three tables across. Each table was set for just six attendees. I was surprised to note that there were only about seven tables occupied -- and one of those seemed to be populated with Disney Food and Wine Festival staff.

Why am I telling you all this? Mostly for comparison. If you've attended these events in the past, this will be a significantly different setting for you. For one thing, unless you're in the front two rows, you're pretty far away from the cooking demo stage, but crammed close to the other tables. (Of course there are big screens televising the action for those further back.) For another, the space is open, so that you can hear all the noises from around the pavilion -- the cooking demonstration going on in the next section, the murmur of the crowds milling around in the pavilion, the loud rumble and clatter of a cart of dirty dishes being wheeled backstage. This may be fine for the complimentary demos, but when you're paying $75 and up for an event, you might be expecting a more sedate or elegant atmosphere. I'm just saying...

The program was hosted, as most Food and Wine Festival events have been for the last several years, by cookbook author and registered dietician Pam Smith. Calling herself "Oprah for the day," Smith began the event by introducing both McPhail and Dave Blossman, president of the Abita Brewing Company. What? I can hear you thinking. What does she mean -- a BREWING COMPANY? Yes, that was my question, too. But in an unusual twist, the dish being prepared for the event that day (Duck Breast in a Pecan Butter with Leek Mushroom Bread Pudding) was paired with beer, instead of wine.

After introducing his Louisiana-based brewery and its products, Blossman spent some time talking about the merits of coupling beer with the Cajun-style dish that the chef was about to prepare. Something about how the CO2 in the beer acted almost like "scrubbing bubbles, scrubbing the oils off the tongue, replenishing the palate for the next taste." Huh. As a non-beer drinker, I wasn't convinced, but was willing to give the Abita Amber Beer a try.

After this opening, it was McPhail's turn in the "hot seat." Seated casually on two chairs in front of the audience, Smith chatted with McPhail about his background and journey to becoming executive chef at Commander's Palace, the 128-year old New Orleans institution that has also been helmed by such culinary legends as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. A native of Washington state, the ambitious 30-something is actually in his second stint at the restaurant. His first was as a young chef straight out of school. After flitting around for several years -- London, Florida, Las Vegas, among other locations -- McPhail returned to New Orleans to take charge of the Commander's Palace kitchen.

Tory McPhail

McPhail's enthusiasm and engaging manner were well-suited to the casual format of the program. Calling his restaurant a nice little "neighborhood joint," with a staff of about 50 in the kitchen and 120 servers, McPhail spoke earnestly about the importance of not resting on anyone's laurels and how he feels that although it's challenging, it's his job to reinvent the classic food, and make it fresh, new and bright. He then put his words into action, jumping up to the stage -- the cooking stage, that is. He started first by preparing the fresh duck, neatly separating the breast from the rest of the bird. Watching someone who so clearly is expert at kitchen techniques always leaves this wannabe chef impressed, and is one of the best reasons to attend these paid events. Another is being able to collect a few shortcuts or pearls of wisdom that the chefs may let drop as they work. McPhail shared several little tips, from the best way to trim up a leek to the advantages of using shallots over onions (they're smaller, so they are ideal for one-time use, rather than leaving half of a leftover onion in your fridge). McPhail moved quickly through the steps to prepare the duck and the accompanying bread pudding (which was basically a stuffing, but that's not a complaint!). Before he was quite finished servers brought the prepared dish around to the tables.

The dish was heavenly -- a very generous portion of duck breast (we benefited from the low attendance, I'm guessing) with a sweet/tart cherry sauce. The accompanying bread pudding was rich and savory, clearly evidencing the depth of flavor Chef Tory had described when he prepared it with a broad variety of ingredients. The crunchy toasted, chopped pecans not only imparted their wonderful nutty flavor, but added great texture to the dish, especially in contrast to the soft chewiness of the dried cherries that topped the duck.

I'm reluctant to admit that the beer did actually compliment the dish -- the almost caramel-like maltiness cut the sweetness of the sauce, while blending with the rich flavor of the pecans. As I said earlier, I'm not a beer drinker, but I could definitely appreciate the combination of food and beer pairing. Guess you could say my horizon was slightly broadened!

Chef Tory McPhail

Attendees were given a pre-autographed copy of the restaurant's latest book, Commander's Wild Side, whose 110 recipes McPhail stressed had been tested on his own home stove. In fact, it was revealed that the book actually has not been released yet (next week, I think they said), so we were actually treated to a special preview of the upcoming publication.

After taking numerous questions from the audience (among them, "Can we have more beer?"), Pam Smith closed the program, directing attendees to Chef Tory's book signing in another section of the pavilion immediately afterward. Despite this, McPhail hung around for several minutes as people dispersed, answering questions and posing for photos.

At the end of these special, ticketed Food and Wine Festival programs I always ask myself, "Do I feel like I got my money's worth?" Obviously, the subject, chef and/or winemaker/brewery featured in the program heavily influence the answer to that question. In this particular case, Tory McPhail was well-worth seeing -- he was approachable, personable and enthusiastic, plus the dish he prepared was exceptional. It's almost a shame that Disney holds this program on Thursdays, historically a less busy day of the week. That only 40 or so people had the chance to witness Chef Tory in action is a shame -- but fortunately many more got to sample his talents at Saturday night's Party for the Senses.

Kitchen Conversations costs $75 and lasts about 90 minutes. In spite of the rather unorthodox setting, the beer instead of wine pairing, and only receiving one course, the chance to talk with and watch such a chef as he practiced his craft in a fairly intimate setting was quite enjoyable. That, along with the chance to chat with the brewery representative, and the autographed cookbook, made Kitchen Conversations definitely worth the price of admission, and a program I would consider signing up for in the future.