Miracle of miracles, it was Brooklyn's Third Latke Festival & Cook Off, on December 19, 2011. It's a quintessential New York City event. Well, a quintessential New York latke event, anyway.
Latkes Are the Stars of this BAM PerformanceThe latkes! It’s all about the latkes!
Here, latkes topped with oxtail bits. There, latkes crowned with crème fresh and smoked salmon. Sweet potato latkes. Latkes with cheese melting atop. Latkes of grated potato and zucchini. Brooklyn's Gold Coast Delicatessen was offering "latke with brisket and applesauce." and "latke with nova tartar and salmon caviar." Manhattan's Almond served "latkes with house smoked bluefish and goat yogurt."
Fat and thin, very fried and less so.
The rules of New York's Latke Festival are simpler than playing dreidel: Each of 16 participating chefs and restaurants are required to start with the same basic ingredients for potato pancakes, and then elaborate with other ingredients to his or her heart's content. (See below, Basic Ingredients for the Latke Festival.)
Participating restaurants each have small stands where they turn out freshly fried latkes. For chefs, the marathon of serving over 500 people just-cooked potato pancakes in the course of a few hours is a challenge that could fry even the staunchest pro.
"Oxtail Marmalade and Pickled Chili Latkes" & Fifty Seven Other Varieties
For guests, the sheer inventiveness deployed to reinvent the latke is overwhelming. Sixty recipes are represented.
Toward the back of the second floor, with a portable stove set up against one of BAM’s signature windows, Chef Saul Bolton, a successful serial Brooklyn restaurant entrepreneur who recently opened The Vanderbilt in nearby Prospect Heights, calmly manages a crowd of about 35 people waiting to try his fare. He’s offering "savory sweet potato and kale latkes," "oxtail marmalade and pickled chili latkes," and "apple and potato latkes with Prarie Breeze cheddar and creme fraiche."
“If you want the sweet potato one, you’ll have to wait a minute,” he explains, carefully placing one freshly fried white-potato potato pancake on each of twelve plates, adding a dollop on top. “The sweet potatoes are still cooking.”
A petite young woman jumps the twenty-minute line; a food writer, she’s a judge and needs to taste each latke submission before the eight-o’clock official judging begins. One wonders how she will survive the tasting of dozens of different kinds of latkes, and whether the chefs will ever look at a latke again.
A Locavore Brooklyn Food Festival Draws New York CrowdsOther than VIPs, however, there’s no line-cutting. These latke lovers, it turns out, also love being at a New York food party. They’re overheard happily schmoozing about latkes (“Have you tried the cheddar cheese topped one? Awesome!”) while waiting in line; in the background contemporary Israeli rock music plays.
Brooklyn’s new food elite is out in full force. It’s a diverse crowd. Among them are celebrants of Hanukkah as well as professional food writers, food makers, food entrepreneurs. Some are folks who say they prefer Jewish festival foods to the actual festivals. Not all, of course, are Jewish. Or from Brooklyn; New York City has discovered the Borough of Kings.
A gaggle of octogenarians gives the event a certain intergenerational authenticity although the average age of attendees is probably mid-30s. The workday young folk are offset by a handful of millionaires from Manhattan, spied despite their dress-down, latke-eating, blue jean-wearing camouflage.
The $30 per head tickets for the three-hour event were sold out in advance.
There’s a festive, indoor-food truck rally feel at this event. As the evening wears on, the air thickens with the perfume of freshly frying potatoes, which cling to one's clothes, too. By nine o'clock, guests will be wearing the smell of latkes home.
BAM Transformed: Where The No Longer Humble Latke Makes A SizzleThe Latke Festival fills both the downstairs BAM lobby, and the cavernous upstairs BAMcafe. Guests check in at a long desk, decorated only by displays of silver forks arrayed in cloth napkins. Visitors receive a little postcard-sized map identifying where each chef's stand is located, and select their fork for the evening. This is a latke fest with grown-up latkes, eaten with real utensils, not old-fashioned latkes served with plastic forks. Classy.
A spokesperson for the event credited the Brooklyn Latke Festival to Liz Neumark, CEO of Great Performances, of Brooklyn. And what better place than Brooklyn to launch the latke into New York's foodie-osphere.
Participating Chefs in Latke Festival 2011Gold Coast Delicatessen, Mile End Deli, The Vanderbilt, along with the BAM Café, represented Brooklyn in the annual latke cook off.
Manhattan restaurateurs included Almond, El Café, Kutshers Tribeca, La Vera, Mae Mae Café, The Plaza, Toloache, Telepan, Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, Veselka Bowery, and others.
One "talented home chef," as the hosts put it, was included in the contest.
Winner of Brooklyn Latke Festival 2011Guests, who are allowed only one trip to each station and receive one latke on a plastic plate, are encouraged to vote their fave latke, too. (Veterans of food and beer tasting festivals will recognize the drill: visitors are handed a card with the name of each vendor, on a map marking its location. When you get your food from that vendor, they mark your card, so you cannot return. At the end of the event, visitors are asked to vote by dropping the card into a marked ballot box.)
However, professional judges take the responsibility for deciding the winner. And the winner of New York City'sLatke Festival and Cook Off 2011 was....? It was Almond, followed by co-sponsor Great Performance and Telepan, and with honorable mentions of La Vara and BAMcafé.
Locavore Ingredients for a Latke FestivalThe Third Annual Latke Festival organizers delivered the following to participating chefs and restaurants:
- 150 pounds of Norwis potatoes from Foster Farm (est. 1958, listed under the category of “Irish Potatoes”) in Sagaponack Long Island.
- Garlic and onions from S&SO Produce Farms in Goshen, NY, identified on Facebook as “Growers of Quality Greens.”
- Chicken eggs from Tello Green Farms in Red Hook, NY, a 25-acre farm run by Columbians Alejandra and Nestor Tello, specializing in eggs, vegetables, and honey. Sold in Brooklyn at farmers markets at Grand Army, Fort Greene and Carroll Gardens Sundays.
- Flour from Cayuga Pure Organics