Chef Jon Emanuel is just back from a sabbatical on his family's farm in Missouri, refreshed and ready for the challenges of his job as executive chef of Project Angel Heart, the organization that delivers meals to people living with life-threatening illnesses. In addition to planning menus, cooking specialized dishes for those with specific dietary needs and serving more than 900 clients every week, the organization also maintains an on-site garden and accepts produce donations from home gardeners, all of which needs to be coordinated. Because of this, the chef has decided to end his side project, the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club. As a final farewell for the club, chef-owner Mary Nguyen of P17 in Uptown will be hosting a dinner at 6 p.m. Sunday, October 19, that will showcase offal, insects and other unusual proteins that, while strange in the U.S., are often called nothing more than "food" in other parts of the world.
Emanuel started the club several years ago to introduce unusual foods of the world to curious Denver eaters. Lutefisk dinners with the Sons of Norway, balut eggs (complete with duck embryos) and pig uterus in tom yum soup (one of chef Nguyen's creations based on traditional Southeast Asian ingredients) have been some of the highlights over the years.
Nguyen says she's enjoyed working with Emanuel and the club to help open the eyes - and palates -- of Denver diners. "It gave me a chance to show that there are other proteins -- bugs, intestines -- that are palatable, not strange or shocking," she notes, adding that much of what we throw away is considered everyday food in other parts of the world.
Emanuel defines adventurous food as "anything that might be considered common in other cultures that puts an eater outside her or his comfort zone," he says. "I look at it in terms of your typical American palate -- which is generally, in my opinion, boring, picky and, in many ways, wasteful. Many people around the world think nothing of eating blood, insects, offal, etc. I think it has a lot to do with Americans' disconnect of where their food actually comes from. I don't think a club like this could have existed in, say, China, Africa or many other parts of the world where if things are edible, they are eaten."
But even Emanuel has his limits. "Marzipan is repulsive to me--even the smell," he says. "And candied fruit-- barf. There is no such thing, nor should there be, as a green cherry."
Otherwise, he adds, "Over the past twenty years or so I've actually overcome the rest of the short list of foods I used to hate, and now completely love: beets, grapefruit, melons and olives."
Nguyen says that putting together a menu for an eating adventure "is definitely a process." She initially met with Emanuel in July so they could bounce ideas off each other before she began to construct the dishes on paper. Sourcing is one of the more difficult aspects; the chef gets many of her ingredients from a local Vietnamese market, but also has to keep in mind what is USDA-approved. For example, she would not be able to serve a traditional Vietnamese dish that combines cooked duck or chicken with raw blood.
Although Emanuel is sad to let DAEC go, he says Denver has progressed to the point where the club is not as needed as it was years ago, before local chefs were adding head cheese, tongue, sweetbreads and other offal to their menus.
He hopes the members "have become more educated in terms of what a culture's eating habits say about that culture," he says. "I hope they've been challenged in terms of trying something new; and even if they didn't like it can appreciate it as another's cuisine. And I hope they had fun and made friends." He certainly did.
Nguyen also feels that Denver has grown to accept food of other cultures and says she respects "all of the chefs out there doing these great things." Things like the chicken feet at Super Star Asian: "Go with a group so you don't get stuck eating a big bowl of chicken feet yourself," she advises.
As of this morning there were still several openings for the dinner, so call P17 at 303- 399-0988 if you're interested. The meal is $75 per person, not including beverages.
Keep reading to see the full menu of this last Denver Adventurous Eaters Club dinner.
The dinner will consist of seven courses, which Nguyen says will have a more international flair than the previous dinner, which focused on Asian ingredients and preparations. Beverage pairings will also be available for each dish, including a Sazerac made with snake and scorpion whiskey (yes, there are actual snakes and scorpions in the bottle), a smoked-wine sangria and a sparkling cocktail with juiced vegetables and herbs.
Huitlacoche sopes. Mexican-style corn masa cakes with the corn fungus known as "Mexican truffle."
Andouillette (French pig colon sausage) with green lentils. Nguyen says the star ingredient in the sausage is ground super coarse and has a distinct aroma.
Kangaroo sliders, served with a quail egg sunny-side up. Expect a lean meat just shy of venison for gaminess.
Slow roasted ear and snout of pig with red wine sauce and polenta. Nguyen notes that this will be a Spanish-style dish where the ear and snout will be cooked until almost melting before being crisped.
Bun bo Hue with congealed pigs blood, boiled intestines, pork knuckles, banana blossom, Vietnamese coriander and saw tooth herbs. There are a few restaurants on Federal that serve bun bo Hue in the traditional manner; the chef mentions Pho Le as her favorite for the soup.
Braised heart of lamb. The 12-ounce hearts will be stuffed and served whole, "so that people understand they are eating an organ," she says.
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Blood panna cotta with aloe vera granita and cricket biscuit. Nguyen's market of choice no longer carries crickets, so these were mail-ordered.