Acenette “Ace” Gonzalez is Almost Famous.
That’s because the chef in training at the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America recently won the national S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition in Napa, Calif.
Winning the event was “so life changing,” said Gonzalez, who received $3,000 for her efforts. Most of the money is going toward the cost of her education, but she’s also got her eye on a new set of knives from either Shun Cutlery or Global Knives.
Gonzalez advanced to the finals after winning the South Central Regional Competition, which was held in Houston this year. In California, she faced the winners of the nine other regional competitions that make up the annual contest. In the end, she was crowned victorious because of two dishes she made. One was her signature dish, Pork Belly with Mole Pipian (recipe follows), and the other was for a caldo de mariscos that came out of a mystery basket competition.
Both of Gonzalez’s winning dishes were inspired by the food she grew up eating. Though she is from Dallas, her parents are from Mexico City, and the caldo was a taste of home with its chipotle, tomatoes, onions and garlic as well as the four mystery box ingredients, mussels, clams, cod and shrimp.
Even though the caldo from her childhood provided inspiration, it didn’t make the competition any less intense.
“They were all great cooks,” she said of the other nine cooks. “It was just awesome having the chance to compete with them.”
Now that the contest is over, Gonzalez is focusing on finishing her associate’s degree at the CIA. “I graduate in April,” she said. “Then I think I’ll work for a year or so.”
Becoming the latest Almost Famous Chef should help Gonzalez find a good position after she graduates. Winning “means a lot,” she said. “It gets my name out there.”
Her mentor in the Houston competition, chef Philip Speer of Uchi Houston, said that taking the top spot is “something that can take you to another level in your career.”
Pork Belly with Mole Pipian
This recipe involves several parts, each of which appears separately below. At the end are the instructions of how to plate the dish.
Huitlacoche Polenta Fries
10 cups pork stock
3 cups polenta
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1 pound cojita cheese
20 ounces huitlacoche
Oil for frying
Bring pork stock to a simmer; add in polenta.
Season with salt and pepper. In a Robo Coupe food processor, process cheese until it’s fine.
Cook polenta until it’s done. Add in huitlacoche and cheese until melted in.
Cool in a small sheet pan that has been covered in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool.
Cut polenta in 1 inch by 2 1/2 inch sticks. Deep fry until crispy. Drain. Reserve until assembling.
Pickled Onions, Watermelon Radishes and Raw Chayote
5 cups white vinegar
2 cups honey
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
4 red onions
15 watermelon radishes
2 cups micro cilantro
Place vinegar in pot, add honey and spices. Bring to a boil.
Julienne onions and thinly slice radishes on mandolin.
Place onions and radishes in vacuum-seal bag and pour hot vinegar solution into bag ¼ full and vacuum seal the bag. Let compressed radishes and onions sit in solution for 30 to 45 minutes.
On mandolin, slice chayote in thin strips.
At service, add chayote strips to the solution with the onion and radishes.
7 pounds pork belly
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
8 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
7 cloves garlic, peeled
3 ounces sesame seeds
4 ounces peanuts, skinned
9 ounces pumpkin seeds
13 ounces tomatillos
2 medium white onions
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
14 green romaine lettuce leaves
4 hoja santa leaves
1 cup brown lard
3 quarts pork stock
Cumin powder, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Cut pork belly into 2 1/2-ounce cubes.
In a Vitamix or powerful blender, mix salt, pepper and cumin and peeled garlic cloves. Rub over pork belly and bake for 1 hour with foil on top and a little water on the bottom.
Take out of oven and when ready to serve, deep fry until crispy.
Toast sesame seeds until golden; transfer into a bowl. Repeat that process with peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
On a comal, roast onion, jalapeño, and unpeeled garlic cloves. Set aside.
Boil tomatillos in water until they change color.
In Vitamix, mix onion, jalapeño, garlic, tomatillos, lettuce, and hoja santa until smooth. Fry in brown lard, set aside.
In Vitamix, mix all the nuts and seeds until smooth. Add pork stock as needed.
Combine the two purées together and thin out with pork stock. Simmer for 30 minutes.
To serve: On a wooden plate, make a straight line with mole. Place 3 polenta fries along the mole. Place 3 pork belly pieces next to the polenta. Add pickled onions on top of pork belly and spread 5 radish slices along the plate. Stand the chayote pieces along the pork belly and garnish with micro cilantro.
From Acenette Gonzalez