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Reflections on Blue Rooster's Summer Guest Chef Series

Piccolo and Blue Rooster Food Co. co-owners Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez reflect on their ambitious thirteen-week guest chef series, which wrapped up at the end of August.

Proceeds from the series benefited Good Shepherd Food Bank; each week a hot dog design from a different chef was featured. In discussing the success of the project, Ilma made sure to give major credit to Blue Rooster partners Dan McCarthy and Randy Cruse, as well as the entire kitchen staff, who she said "work until the early morning and make everything so easy."

Up next for the chefs: Piccolo, which just celebrated its one year anniversary, will team with Rosemont for a five-part series called "Just a Little Bit Off: Cooking Classes That Focus on the Less Familiar." Lopez said each class will feature hands-on work, a lot of demonstration, and a lunch with wine afterward. "It's worth it just for the lunch!" she promised. The first class is Saturday, October 11, and tickets for any or all of the classes are available online.

How do you feel about the guest chef series now that it's behind you?
Damian: I think what was cool was that you really saw the personality of all the chefs come through in the hot dogs. Each was a little bit different. Some were a little more tight, buckled-up; some were more free form.... It's like Ricky [Penatzer of The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club]'s hot dog, the Sloppy Penatzer. That's like Ricky, that's just him. It was big, meaty, a little sloppy at times when you were eating it, but that was Ricky, and it was great. Or Andrew [Taylor]'s Eventide dog, it just spoke right away to his style. That was one of the biggest dogs. Rob [Evans of Duckfat]'s dog was big, Steve [Corry of 555]'s dog was big, Ricky's, and the Eventide one; those were the four bigger ones.

Ilma: What we like about everyone, was.... Well, Fred [Eliot of Petite Jacqueline], he came down, and he had all the mise en place for his dog. The only thing we needed for his dog was the bread. It was funny because we were like, "Just give us the recipe or the guidelines and we'll do it." No, he came down with everything. Steve, same thing. He showed up...

D: He made the cheese sauce, he had specifications for how he wanted it. And that was great, because that way we knew what he wanted, what he liked.

I: We'd call him, like, "Hey, we ran out of cheese sauce," or whatever we needed, and it would be right here. It was never a doubt. From the day we asked these chefs to participate, we didn't have to think of a second option, because they said, "Sure, we'll do it."

That was a big question: How'd you pull this off?
I: No, literally, we just asked.

D: And it was great because a lot of the guys were right in the middle of summer, so for them to take time out of their busy schedule - because we all know how busy it gets in the summer time - they took the time. Pretty much everybody did come down to the shop the day before, go through it with us for an hour or so, hang out with us, tell us how they thought of the dog, chitchat, BS...it was cool. That they would take time out of their day to do that.

I: Like Eric [Desjarlais of Weft and Warp Seamster]: Eric hasn't cooked with anyone in town lately. I just called him, and said, "Hey Eric, we're doing this, blah blah blah..." and he's like, "Okay, cool." And then he sent me his idea right away. Joe Ricchio, same thing.

Fred Eliot Blue Rooster

Fred Eliot

D: Yeah, Joe was one of the first, the first one to say, "I want my hot dog named this, that's it, boom."

I: It was super cool.

D: He had in mind already what he likes, what his was going to be, and Joe's hot dog was kind of like him, it was a lot like...

I: Bold.

D: ...big bun, bold, lot of flavors going into it, lot of those umami condiments all in there at one time.

I: The guys at Eventide, too, they actually did steamed buns for Andrew's dog. They had everything, we just had to go pick them up.

D: They made the steamed buns they make regularly, but they made them bigger.

I: Andrew and Mike [Wiley], they took time. Mike had to go down to Blue Rooster twice. This one guy came to order 14 of Mike's hot dog. We had a brand new cook, she's like, "Oh my God, how are we going to do this?" Funny enough, Mike was behind the 14 hot dogs. Mike said, "I got this. Let me show you." He went behind the line and helped her cook. How cool is that? How humble?

And Rob, hilarious.

D: He's like, "Okay, okay, so when do I gotta come down to make the actual hot dogs?" We let him go for a little bit, like, "Oh, yeah, yeah, whenever you wanna come down and make the dogs...." He was gonna make the hot dogs himself!

I: He wanted to do everything.

D: He was going to do everything from scratch.

I: We went to Duckfat, and everyone there knew: This is the hot dog we're doing, this is the week that Rob goes. Just by walking in there you could tell they were in sync. Everyone knew what was up.

Cheryl [Lewis] at El Rayo, she found nopales, fresh nopales, she was peeling nopales!

D: She made a marigold-habenero mustard...

I: That was pretty cool.

Time for the tough one: What was your favorite hot dog?
I: We can't say.

D: I don't know, I kind of liked...

I: Every hot dog was good for its own reasons.

D: Each dog was good in its own respect. It was fun to eat every single dog. We're looking forward to next season.

I: But we do have to change some things. Obviously we want to have them all again, but we also got some people around town saying, "How come you didn't ask me?"

D: Maybe we just put a little thing out, "Hey, we're going to start it up again, contact us!" [Laughs.]

Will you do different chefs every season?
D: That's what we want to do. We had a lot of people we didn't ask because we thought they might be busy.

I: Rosemont. Joe [Appel] and the guys at Rosemont, it was funny. We didn't ask them first of all because we didn't think about it, second of all because the guys are super packed all the time. They run multiple markets. They're doing a whole thing, but they were like, "Why didn't you ask us?" And we're like, "Dude, you guys are busy!"

It was kind of a Who's Who list of Portland area chefs. Obviously people want in on that.
I: We called friends, people we respect and like a ton...

D: People we know personally, pretty much.

I: We had people ask, "So do you have a second list in case someone doesn't want to do it?" No, we never thought about a second list, never thought about anyone more than the 13 there.

D: But it'll be a whole new list for next time.

I: Plus more restaurants are opening. Obviously we want Central Provisions involved, for example.

D: Even restaurants outside the Portland area. The only one we included was Cara [Stadler of Tao Yuan] because we know her really well. But Melissa [Kelly of Primo] was hard to get a hold of. We thought about her, but we knew in the summer time, that's her season.

I: Cara was awesome. She came after service, so she came at 1 a.m. just to go over her hot dog. It was neat. That week, between her closing Tao and going to Aspen for Food & Wine['s Classic], she had from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to show us the dog. It was hilarious. That was the time all the drunks were leaving the bar, so the Rooster was full, and she's trying to show us the dog. She was super patient, like, "Yeah, whatever, let's do it!"

Erik Desjarlais Blue Rooster dog

Erik Desjarlais' Choucroute Dog

Did anyone complete the punch card?
D: Yeah.

I: Yes. We had a lot of people complete the card but they haven't redeemed it yet.

No one?
D: Nobody's come back in with it yet. What are we doing, a t-shirt with it?

I: T-shirts and gift cards.

I bet people will come in now.
D: [Laughs.]

I: We didn't push the punch card, it's our fault.

D: But for a lot of people, I think it was going to check out what the new thing was. Most of the dogs were pretty different from what we offer too, which was cool. I was waiting for one of the chefs to be kind of an ass, like, "I'm just gonna put ketchup and mustard on it." [Laughs.] I was really waiting for somebody to be really anti...like, "No, I'm not gonna do this," or, "No, this is how I do it." Just put, not even homemade ketchup and mustard, just regular stuff. But nobody did anything like that. It was great, all the homemade condiments, all the additions, the ideas, the thought process behind them. People definitely went for it. It was fun to work with everyone.

So up next are the Piccolo cooking classes?
D: Yeah. But we might be doing a customer appreciation month, where customers will submit ideas for hot dogs. Then we name a dog after someone for the winter, or we pick the top three we like that are funky or cool or different. We thought about doing something like that, with customers who've been there and eaten, asking them, "If you were a hot dog what would you be?" Then have each for a month or so.

Will any of this summer's hot dogs reappear?
D: No, they're all pretty unique, individualistic. I know Fred served his hot dog at Bastille Day, and I think Andrew might pop that thing out over at Eventide. I think they had a fun time making it too. I could see Mike whipping out a little Hugo's dog in an obscure middle course at Hugo's for some reason. Just to have fun. I could see Mike doing that. A little mini one, deconstructed or something. But I think some of the dogs are so unique to the guys, it's their thing, it's their deal.

We do have some new menu changes we're working on, coming up with new sandwiches. We're going to Star Chefs at the end of this month to cook at the International Chefs Conference for the Rooster, so we're bringing back the Cuban Reuben.

It's house-brined and -smoked brisket: We brine it for a week then slow smoke it for about ten hours or so. Then house-made sauerkraut, fermented in-house. Braised, pulled pork shoulder with Swiss cheese and Ray's creamy mustard, on a griddled marble rye bread. It was quite popular. We took it off toward the end of last winter because we'd had it on for almost a year, but people have been asking for it and asking for it. So we're making it at Star Chefs then bringing it back on. It's a nice, satisfying sandwich.

Blue Rooster Food Co.

5 Dana Street, Portland, ME 207 747 4157 Visit Website

Piccolo

111 Middle Street, , ME 04101 (207) 747-5307 Visit Website