'Whether it's the sourcing of food products, or the cultural cooking differences from chefs located globally, I've always been fascinated by the shear adventure of cooking," says Michigan chef Keith Famie. "This was an adventure, minus the simplicity," he says speaking of an event that took place last fall in Shanghai.
The plan seemed straightforward enough: a feast in Shanghai to celebrate the opening of a Michigan trade office in China. A Chinese customs curve ball couldn't have been foreseen. After months of planning and packing the best of the state's products, Chef Famie was in Shanghai to organize and coordinate the event.
Then came the glitch: China's customs office wouldn't allow the products to enter their country.
With the clock ticking and a rented portable phone glued to his ear, Mr. Famie tried for three days to untie the Gordian knot, only to become more entangled.
He spent three hours on a Shanghai street corner trying to enter the carefully guarded American embassy and nine long hours at the customs office at the airport trying to release his treasured Michigan dried cherries and blueberries, frozen pickerel, pumpkin butter, dried morel mushrooms, black walnuts and cherry-pecan sausage..
As President Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Famie didn't need to get out of the kitchen. He had to create a new one.
"I'm used to living on the edge. I don't plan it that way, it's just what usually happens," he says.
The proverbial "edge" was an understatement. Ninety plus dignitaries and business people were there anticipating a meal laden with Michigan products, and national sponsors back in the US were expecting their level of commitment to be recognized in China. The determined Famie was there to make it happen. Not just for them, but for himself and the Wisne family who owns Fort, a Birmingham, Mich., restaurant where Famie, is chef.
Toni Wisne Young was to arrive in Shanghai from the States on Friday night, and Famie was still without products and behind schedule.
A new menu was quickly drafted (just in case the food wasn't released), jobs were assigned, production schedule completed, and minds were reassured and redirected.
With his sous chef Donna Brown, Famie knew that on Saturday when he was still struggling with customs, Ms. Brown and her crew, pastry chef Ralph Macioce, and waiter Mathias McGuire would be feverishly working in the kitchen of the Portman Shangri-La Hotel, prepping whatever they could.
All Saturday, they kept in touch with Famie by portable phone, waiting for their leader to call with good news. But the good news never came. Plan B was now in effect - a new, revised menu; one utilizing the talents of Michigan chefs, rather than their state's products.
Out of adversity, not only came great opportunity, but great irony - the Shangri-La's new executive chef, Richard Ney, happened to be a native of Michigan. Chef Ney was willing to pitch in with every aspect of the dinner.
Ney supplied the Fort staff with the necessary ingredients, a few additional sets of hands, and all the equipment necessary to pull the dinner together.
A customs call at 11 p.m. came that night, as they were dining at a local restaurant: finally, some good news - the nonfood and display items were to be released. So, after a multitude of foreign and local phone calls, and some high-powered maneuvering, Famie's persistence had saved the day - or most of it..
What was this Michigan-Shanghai dinner about anyway? It was to be the bridging of relationships, the flavor of friendship, the commitment to excellence. And that was certainly delivered on Sunday - along with the nonfood, display items.
Michigan and China worked together to make this thing happen, and splendidly, with a long buffet table beautifully decorated by Mathias, a revised menu directed by Famie, and a lot of sweating and chopping.
A long row of chaffing dishes and platters adorned with delectable delights were presented.
American business executives and associates living in Shanghai, and honored Chinese guests sampled the flavorful and unusual delicacies including Whitefish Wonton (using local Asian smoked fish), Duck Breast with Blackberry, Shiitake, and Molasses Sauce, Chicken-Chutney- Mushroom Terrine.
But most of all, relationships were formed, friendships were kindled, and a commitment between the state of Michigan and China, was certainly enhanced.
Duck Breast With Blackberry- Shiitake-Molasses Sauce
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
1 cup diced shiitake mushrooms
1 cup fresh or frozen blackberries
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken, duck, or veal stock
1 small sprig fresh thyme, chopped
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan; add carrots, celery, and shiitakes. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes stirring constantly.
Add blackberries. Cook for another 3 minutes while stirring. Add molasses, pepper, and stock. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes on low heat. Press ingredients through a fine stainer. Pour juices back in saucepan and cook on medium heat; whisk in 1 tablespoon of butter. Set aside.
FOR THE DUCK:
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 6-ounce duck breasts with the skin on
(Large head of steamed Chinese cabbage)
In a hot saut pan, add olive oil. Saut duck breasts, skin side down, until thoroughly browned. Turn duck and brown the meat side. Place duck on an oven-proof dish; bake in pre-heated 400 degree F. oven until medium rare (8-10 minutes). Let rest 10 minutes before slicing.
Slice duck and arrange on a bed of steamed Napa (Chinese) cabbage; top with sauce.