It is the ‘Monday morning after’ now. The Cuban coffee swirls in my blood as the Ocean gently rocks the shore of ‘The Southernmost Point’ I passed not an hour ago. We arrived in Key West Saturday to make the final preparations for our “battle” at The Hog’s Breath Saloon. Instead of a wet t-shirt contest or tequila throw down that might have taken place at the popular, raffish bar on Duval spreading around the corner to Front Streets we were going “mano a mano” with a barbeque guy named “Bulldog”. It pretty much started last year when we were guests of this overall event called “Key West Bacchanalia”. The organizers asked me to be a Guest Celebrity Chef-Judge at a dinner cook off and one thing led to another. But the real reason this match up got legs to run was due to the efforts of my son, Justin who was born on this Island 32 years ago. He conceived of the dish that he wanted us to render to take on a time-honored winner the other guy would do called Barbecued Brisket of Beef. We had “Bulldog’s” BBQ last year and we knew it was a pretty formidable plate of smoky tastiness. Yet when Justin gets a certain look in his eye the best thing to do is watch him put thoughts into actions. I even got to join in some from time to time when my other duties allowed.
It began a year ago but the pace ramped up measurably when 250 pounds of short ribs of beef, (courtesy of Certified Angus Beef Company) got rolled into the Miami Culinary Institute kitchen I run. That was 7 days ago. In the meantime Justin worked almost solely on turning that wagon of meat into a tender, savory mixture of potent savoriness to serve 300. And the short ribs were only part of his vision…turned prep plan…turned work load. He also cooked off about 30 pounds of tripe. (I did help grill that before he simmered it and made a resulting ‘sauce’ we joking refer now to “cojone magic”). The tripe meat itself was left behind for Tuyo Chef-de-Cuisine Jeffrey Brana to then take and make into another dish altogether. Justin felt that it would risk our chances of winning in that a lot of folks draw the line at the texture of cow’s stomach. Not me, but I am a bit more an adventurer than many when it comes to food. Besides we made this with love. But Justin wanted the resulting sauce created from the cooking of said tripe to go in with the reduction made by braising those short ribs in red wine and Coca Cola. Yes. That is right. “The Real Thing”. He had his entire reasonings down as to the long term ‘flavor profiles’ this sandwich would, “By God!” have. And so we were not done. Nope. He, (working with his mother on this part), also made 3 gallons of Salsa Verde, (Tomatillo Salsa is how we described it to the crowd at Hog’s Breath). The final two notes were Extra Virgin Olive Oil brushed and Grilled Bread we had made to his specs in Miami as well as a sweet, creamy, tangy note of Sour Cream to put a ‘corsage’ on this Open-Faced Beauty of a Sandwich.
It took days and nights to make, carefully pack up and then we drove it down there and the crowd devoured it in 2 hours. Don’t ask as to who won. The organizers gave up the vote process and kept eating along with everyone else! Justin’s beautiful, (and very pregnant) wife Lourdes joined my wife Janet serving up the crowd. It is a family affair with the Van Aken’s.
The week of work is over. We now can rest and enjoy the day. But the look on his face after we finished our work is one that will be with me forever. It is the look of contentment one earns after a job well done. And it was my Son. Proud of You.