Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sneak Peek: Tasting the Food of Just Desserts’ Chef Megan Ketover!

When you live in a medium-sized city in the middle of the country, it is a rarity to be able to taste the food of any of Top Chef’s contestants. But I am in luck that one of the chefs on the new season of Top Chef: Just Desserts cooks, er, bakes in my hometown!

Megan Ketover is the pastry chef at Orchids, in Cincinnati’s historic art-deco Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel. I hadn’t been there since Executive Chef Todd Kelly came on board, garnering Orchids “Best Restaurant in Cincinnati” designation from Cincinnati Magazine for the last two years and consistently glowing praise from other media sources. I was already looking forward to trying Chef Kelly’s food during Downtown Restaurant Week when the new Just Desserts cast was announced and I found Megan’s name on the roster.

I enjoyed one of the most memorable dining experiences of my life there a couple of weeks ago (you can read more about it here). But the icing on the proverbial cake was that Megan was kind enough to come out into the dining room and chat with me for a few moments, and I got to taste her food!

I’m always on the lookout for news to bring you here on ATC, and one of the best sources I’ve found is to friend/fan contestants on Facebook, where many share news about special events and new ventures. When I asked on fb if the desserts on the Orchids Restaurant Week menu would be her creations, Megan confirmed they would be. I made my reservation and eventually screwed up my nerve to ask if I might possibly be able to meet her while I was there, promising I wouldn’t ask anything prohibited by the famous Bravo non-disclosure agreement, violation of which carries a $1 million penalty. She said she would “pop out” out of the kitchen if she could, and I kept my fingers crossed.

I had an early reservation, and my guess was that chances of meeting Chef Ketover would improve if I let her know I was there before the dinner and dessert rush hit. So I asked the server who cleared my (second!) amuse-bouche plate to let Megan know I was there. The server came back with word Megan would stop by shortly, and she did!

I was immediately charmed. Megan is warm, genuine, down-to-earth, and clearly loves what she does. She spied my bread plate and gave me a baker’s tour of her breads that evening (in addition to desserts, she is responsible for all of the hotel’s breads): this thin, crisp grissini, an airy sesame-seed-topped roll, and her new favorite, she told me, a wheat roll made with herbs grown on the 17th floor of the hotel.

This trio of stellar accompaniments rounded out bread service: Paquillo pepper pesto made with garlic and almonds; an herb and garlic infused olive oil, and a thick European butter with topped with Maldon salt.

In addition to growing hyper-local herbs, Chefs Kelly and Ketover recently started bee-keeping on the hotel’s rooftop. I’d read this article with fascination and asked Megan how the bees were doing. She said she goes up and checks on them every day, and that she and Chef Kelly were looking forward to their first honey harvest last Friday (an unusually short time to get to harvest, she informed me). From the gleam in her eyes, I could tell she was looking forward to exploring what she could do with it.

Trying to keep my questions in the here and now rather than inquiring about details of Megan’s experience on Just Desserts, I asked about the possibility of local viewing parties. She told me her Bravo contract prohibits her from attending any, although there is talk the show will be shown in the Orchids bar, where guests could sample desserts she would create appropriate to different episodes. And she’s heard the same rumors I have that the show might be shown on the giant screen TV overlooking Cincinnati’s outdoor Fountain Square (especially if she makes it to the finals, how awesome would that be!).

Megan asked if I’ve watched the show. “Oh, yes.” I laughed. “Every episode of every season.” I asked if she had watched it prior to competing, and was glad to hear she had. I’m always surprised when contestants say they went on Top Chef without having watched it. “It must be hard enough to have any idea what you’re getting into even if you have watched, but if you haven’t – ??!!??” Megan nodded in agreement.

I was so smitten by meeting Megan Ketover that I completely forgot to ask if I could snap a pic of her and had to chuckle when I pulled up this promo photo of her on the Bravo site. She seemed much more at home in her chef’s jacket and pants that night, her hair pulled up under a short chef’s cap. Based on appearance alone, I would have guessed Megan to be younger than her 31 years. But her warm, confident smile and quiet self-assurance suggest a maturity that belies her looks. She has also competed on television before, on Food Network’s Food Challenge: Cereal Bridges 2, in which she built an edible version of Cincinnati’s Roebling Suspension Bridge. (Here’s a great interview she did with the American Culinary Federation about that experience.)

Megan came across as even-keeled – one of those traits we prize here in the Midwest, and a good quality for a Top Chef contestant to possess. Whatever stresses she may have encountered as she faced the challenges scooped out by Just Desserts, I can’t imagine Megan receiving a “villainess” or “drama queen” edit. In fact, I’d be surprised if she were caught on camera uttering the infamous reality TV line “I’m not here to make friends.” My guess is Megan probably made lots of friends during the competition, and will make many more once it airs.

Not wanting to keep her too long during service, and going with another question I thought would be “safe,” I asked Megan which of the two dessert offerings on the evening’s Restaurant Week menu she would recommend – “unless that’s like asking you to pick your favorite child.” She described both the “chocolate option” and the “non-chocolate option” in detail, saying when she plans desserts for set-menu events like this, she usually finds about two-thirds of customers opt for chocolate, while her own personal preferences veer to the non-chocolate side. But she seemed pleased her non-chocolate offering for RW was faring better than usual, a Brown Butter Cake with Cinnamon Toast Ice Cream, Bourbon Blackberries, and Vanilla Bean Tuille. She talked about playing with the flavor of cinnamon toast, making it with brioche, and turning it into a streusel she incorporated with the ice cream. Oh, my, I had still had decisions ahead of me.

Positive experiences always make food taste better, don’t they? Meeting Megan fulfilled the highest hopes I’d walked in the door with that night. But the Orchids team continued to unfold more surprises, tastes, and extra courses than I would ever have imagined.

After two amuses, two first courses, and a high-end comfort food entree of Pork Cheeks with Chanterelles and Roasted Garlic Gnudi (when, for goodness sake, I had come to the “best restaurant in the city” for the budget-friendly three courses for $35 Downtown Restaurant Week special), my server cleared my bread plate, and it was time to choose between Megan’s two dessert options. I often go the chocolate route, but decided to go with Chef Megan’s personal favorite, the Brown Butter Cake.

Another surprise was in store when this stunning plate was placed in front of me instead: Megan’s Malted Chocolate Bavarian with Roasted Bananas, Peanut Streusel and Dolce de Leche.

The Orchids team had done a fine job of managing my expectations – and the surprises sent my way! – all evening. As my server set the “chocolate option” before me, he assured me: “Megan wanted you to try both and thought the other would travel better.”

I’d had thoughts of ordering both when I walked in that evening, but was too full to try for more than one when it came time to order dessert. I did, however, find room to sample Megan's exquisite mignardises: Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Truffles, Caramel Hazelnut French Macarons and Blackberry Pate de Fruit.

Local blogger Cati from Crave and Create apparently found room to do an entire tasting menu of Megan’s desserts. You can find Cati’s photos of more of Megan’s masterpieces here.

My to-go dessert, with the ice cream thoughtfully packaged separately, was delivered in a bag bearing the hotel’s logo, and I savored it the next evening.

The cinnamon toast in the ice cream immediately took me back to childhood and matched perfectly with Megan’s homey brown butter cake and bourbon blueberries. I hadn’t heard of brown butter cake before, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her make some version of it on Just Desserts. Megan's Bravo bio mentions that her favorite fall dessert is “warm brown butter apple cake with crème fraiche sorbet, bourbon caramel and spicy glazed pecans,” and I’m guessing variations on brown butter cake are one of the non-chocolate desserts she loves to experiment with. I couldn’t quite pick out all the flavors in this cake, but the dish just made me smile, a sophisticated turn on classic comfort food.

I would have been rooting for Megan Ketover on season 2 of Top Chef: Just Desserts (premiering this Wednesday at 10:00 Eastern on Bravo) if only because she’s a hometown girl. But after tasting her food, I’m a fan for life. However she fares on Just Desserts, Megan is an enormous talent with a bright future!

For more about my spectacular dinner at Orchids, click here.

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1 comment:

Laura K said...

I'm officially on "Team Megan." Thanks for the scoop.