When you walk with Gary Davis, you walk a little faster because this executive chef at Horseshoe Casino does not slow down.
Davis leads a staff of 155 to sustain the daily operation of multiple on-premise restaurants – Jack Binion's Steak, The Spread Buffet and Café Italia – and the round-the-clock meals for more than 1,500 employees. He does all of this on top of running banquets and keeping the top-tier players fed and happy in the Diamond Lounge.
"I get semis coming in every day," he said, referring to the food delivery.
If you think this kind of daily grind might wilt someone, you don’t know Davis. He moves with enviable alacrity and still manages to keep his chef “whites” starched and pressed.
A Cincinnati native, Davis has come a long way from his teenage bussing days at The Grand Finale in Glendale, and certainly from the day he departed for culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. He recounted how his dad sent him off: “He bought a standby ticket, dropped me off, gave me a high five, and said, ‘Don’t get any girls pregnant. See you in four years.’ ”
Four years later, Davis joined the kitchen crew at Hilton Netherland Plaza, Downtown, and in December 2012, he came onboard Horseshoe Casino as the banquet chef.
I visited Davis recently to watch him prepare a winter-themed dish of pheasant. The back-of-the-house is a cavernous space with multiple state-of-the-art kitchens, spanning three floors. We (finally) arrived at the banquet kitchen, where he would prepare the dish.
“What you're going to taste is my ACF dish that I compete with in two weeks,” he said. Davis is competing in this year’s American Culinary Federation Northeast Regional Chef of the Year competition.
He showed me his recipe packet with a cover page that read: Honey-brined seared pheasant with bacon-wrapped stuffed pheasant roulade, vanilla parsnip puree, chardonnay pickled cherries, green bean Marcona amandine, and a spiced red wine reduction. Amandine is a quick sauce of brown butter and almonds, and in this case, the sweeter, softer Marcona almonds from Spain.
Davis explained, “I have 15 minutes to set up, one hour to fabricate (the pheasant) and cook, and 10 minutes to plate.” For the kind of complexity involved in the dish, it’s a tall order.
His mise en place (organization of tools and equipment) was done, complete with three bain maries (containers): one for holding tools, another for usable waste (like odds and ends of vegetables that could be used for stock), and, lastly, one for unusable waste (like peelings and pith).
Davis started to brown the pheasant roulade in a sizzling hot pan. Earlier, he had rolled finely ground pheasant meat into a log with an inlay of blanched collard greens, and wrapped the log with strips of bacon. He also had poached the roulade at 180 degrees for 25 minutes in preparation for the final step of browning.
In another hot pan, he threw in butter, minced shallots and Marcona almonds to start the amandine sauce for the green beans. Two-inch segments of green beans went in next, and a few flicks of the pan later, the green bean amandine was done.
After cutting the now-rested roulade into medallions, Davis started plating. He sat a generous dollop of parsnip puree on the center of the plate and stroked it with the back of the spoon to create a cradling base. The puree had been made with parsnips, simmered in butter, cream, water and vanilla, and then pureed in the blender.
The roulade medallions went on next, together with the roasted pheasant breast. The pheasant had been brined in a solution of salt, honey, cinnamon, clove and pepper, then pan-seared and finished in the oven.
The green bean amandine was next, followed by the pickled cherries and spiced red wine reduction. As he manicured the plate, Davis explained that the Bing cherries were a 10-minute pickle, in a hot liquid of chardonnay vinegar, water, sugar and cinnamon stick.
When Davis finished plating, we paused to admire the dish. The jewel colors popped against the white plate. The green beans and Marcona almonds skittered across the row of protein, splashing it with color.
It was time to dig in. The smell of honey pleasantly hovered over the caramelized pheasant skin. The briny meatiness of the pheasant contrasted deliciously with the gentle, creamy parsnip puree. On the second bite, the pickled cherries rushed in with a wave of tampered sweetness, and then pulled back with a subtle tang. The delicate flavor of the roulade revealed itself after the initial smokiness of the bacon, and the wine reduction made friends out of everything on the plate.
Folks, this was just Davis’ “practice plate.” And he’s no stranger to competition: Davis is a repeat winner (most recently Feb. 1) of “Food Fight,” a fast-paced cooking contest at Maribelle’s eat + drink, popular with local chefs.
I have a feeling he’s going to give his fellow ACF competitors a run for their money.
“How Chefs Roll” takes you inside the kitchens of local chefs to see how they roll with seasonal flavors, their favorite ingredients and how they prepare them for their restaurants. Grace Yek is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek