Maybe it's time to step up to the plate. If you’re feeling like the force is with you and have a few good dishes dancing in your head, it may be time to put the roulade to the range. Chef Tom Puskarich of Z Food & Drink is offering the opportunity to become chef for a day at his newly expanded downtown Manchester restaurant.Who takes up the challenge? Tom says it’s everyone from serious foodies to hospitality professionals to portly politicians.Recently, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas donned an apron to showcase his culinary background. Whether he actually chopped the salad is somewhat in contention, but regardless, the crowd on hand on May 3 had a good taste of Greek cuisine.The tasty galumpkis was his wife’s recipe and, yes, Mr. Mayor did blend up the hummus. Additional starters included grilled loukaniko sausage flamed with Metaxa and fried olives stuffed with kasseri cheese. He told Tom where to buy the sausage and cheese.The entrée choice was a barbecued lamb with orzo pilaf or a Tuna Pea Wiggle. Seems the latter is an old standard Gatsas family recipe. You may have heard of it — canned tuna fish enrobed in Campbell’s mushroom soup with a can of Le Sueur peas thrown in for color. You can envision Tom’s face as the mayor offered up this recipe for his night in the limelight.I am sure Tom just heard the words “tuna,” “mushrooms” and “peas.” He de-constructed this classic dish from the ’50s and brought it up to Z standards and the 21st century. The Tuna Pea Wiggle was presented as pan-seared sushi-grade tuna with fresh English peas, shiitake mushrooms in a decadent sherry-butter sauce atop receptive pappardelle pasta. OK, Mr. Mayor, Tom’s got your back.And that is the bottom line. Amateur chefs sign up for these Monday night gigs, but they are not left alone in the kitchen to self-destruct. They bring to the table their heart and soul, their food passions and their recipes. Tom is there to offer up a professional kitchen, great culinary tools and advice where needed. Tom has hosted about 12 Amateur Chef Nights since March of 2009. It all started with a Facebook comment, he admits. One of his Fans described the dish she was preparing for dinner and Tom commented back that the roasted chicken dish sounded interesting. He jested … “It might appear on my specials menu” … she commented back … “I’ve got my eye on you.” And then the light bulb went off. “Why not let her cook the dish in this kitchen?” he thought to himself. And it just snowballed from there.“Friends tell their friends and the word has really gotten out,” says Tom. Dental hygenist Cara Theos heard about the dinners from … let’s see … her hairdresser’s boyfriend and brought her own raw food obsessions to Z last July. Together Tom and Cara worked out a menu, without meat and without heat. One of her big successes was a “spaghetti bolognese.” No pasta here, just summer squash forced through a spiral food processer. Cara blended fresh tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes together with herbs and olive oil for a delightful sauce — all of it at room temperature.Springing from the surprisingly good reception for the raw food experience, Tom has asked Cara to cook in his kitchen for Raw Nights on the fourth Sunday of the month. The first one will be June 27 and Cara is actually getting paid for the gig. The dinners have been a learning experience for all — even Tom. Bill Petersen, former dean of hospitality at Southern New Hampshire University, worked a bit of Tuscan magic in the Z kitchen, and a former executive chef from an upscale California restaurant got back to business and took complete control of the kitchen. But most amateur chefs are just that, amateurs with an idea or a few recipes.Basically, the Amateur Chef helps to bring in a crowd on a Monday night. What is valued at $40 for a prix-fixe menu is raised to $50, with the difference being donated to the New Hampshire Food Bank or other worthy charity. So far Tom and friends have raised $6,000 for the Food Bank.If that is not enough of a win-win, there is another win. Student chefs from the Food Bank’s apprentice cooking program, Recipe for Success, are invited to help prepare the Amateur Night meal. They get real world experience and Tom gets a few more working hands. If you are interested in displaying your particular flavor of magic on an Amateur Chef Night, the challenge is on. Tom usually starts with a questionnaire — What are you famous for? What do you like to eat? — and it goes from there. Like the Gatsas affair, part of the proceeds can go to the non-profit of your choice. Grab your apron, recipes and passions and be part of the serious fun at Z.
This article appears in the June 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine