Miro Uskovic, Executive Pastry Chef of Gramercy Tavern, invited us for the third time to be judges for the annual Tavern's pie baking challenge. This is a fun and potentially career-advancing contest for the staff. Two of the previous best pie winners not only had their pies featured on the menu for months but also were promoted to sous chefs. As we walked in the door, my dear friend Ron Ben-Israel, internationally known wedding cake baker/decorator extraordinaire, greeted me with a hug. Susan Ungaro, another early arriving judge, joined us for a tour of the kitchens. Miro also showed us this beautiful array of Christmas cookies for the upcoming holidays. The familiar meeting room, with its room length table adorned only with nine place settings of score sheets and pencils, forks, and glasses of water, but not a pie in sight. This year, Miro and Executive Chef Michael Anthony, also a judge, decided to "amp things up a bit" with the judging. Along with several staff members, the prestigious group of judges included Ron Ben Israel, host of Food Network's "Serious Sweets," Susan Ungaro, President of the James Beard Foundation, and Ghaya Oliveira, Executive Pastry Chef at Restaurant Daniel (and one of my favs). Then, to my utter joy, in walked Alex Guarnaschelli, Chef/Owner of "Butter" in New York, one of the judges of Food Network's "Chopped," and one of my long-time friends. Miro had a hard time getting us all seated because we wanted to hug and catch up, but there were 19 pies to evaluate so we finally took our seats. Miro announced that this year each contestant would bring out and talk about his or her pie, as we tasted it. We were then able to give our critiques and comments. Unsurprisingly, Alex was in her delightful 'A game' judging mode, amazingly able to give a stream of articulate commentary without needing to take a breath. Also, unsurprisingly to me, in almost all cases we shared the same opinion, exchanging expressive looks as she and I at times changed our top choices, as a sea of pie plates filled the table.
There were many different types of pie crusts including one made with black sesame seeds. One of our favorite flaky pie crusts adorned the walnut pie, baked by one of the pastry chefs who had worked at Tartine in San Francisco. After pie #19, was tasted, judged, and happily the last, Miro took a quick consensus of everyones' choices for the most creative and the best pie. The family dinner for the staff, designed to familiarize them with what was on the night's dinner menu, was next. It included all of the pies, which were quickly devoured. I was pleased that one of the contestants had baked his pie in my Rose's Perfect Pie Plate. It was now time to announce the winners. Jumping up from her seat and waving her hands as if she were on "The Price is Right," a jubilant Shante Dorsett, pastry cook, came forward for The Most Creative Pie with her "Ant Hill" pie. She explained that it was inspired from a childhood savory treat. The cookie crust contained an unusual and delicious filling of cranberry compote, celery root, and white chocolate mousse. I've never before had celery root in a sweet expression and it worked brilliantly, its presence staying in the background but still identifiable. I was pleased to give a Pie and Pastry Bible to this year's Best Pie winner: Maya Ferrante. As a fish cook, her sensibilities called out for less sweetness which was appreciated by all of the judges. Her "Buttermilk Coconut Pie," in all its deceptive simplicity, was the one that most of us ate the most of. A pecan and crushed lady finger crumb crust was filled with a coconut buttermilk custard, and topped with a dreamy coconut cream which was lightly sweetened with an infusion of dates, then topped with large flakes of toasted coconut. When asked if she now planned to move over to the pastry kitchen she smilingly shook her head and softly said: No! Our Gramercy pie-filled tummies were then refreshed and balanced by an exquisite Fall salad and charcuterie plate, and an even more delicious chat with Miro.