A Night in Argentina with Chef Jason Cunningham

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I arrived at the Washington Duke Inn at 5:20pm to cover the Taste of Argentina Wine Dinner that was being held with German Bistue of Wine Bridge Imports. The dinner would be a five-course meal pairing  Argentinean cuisine with featured wines. Chef de Cuisine Murray Healy explained that “the crew loves doing these dinners (which take place about once a month) because it gives them a chance to venture outside the Fairview Dining Room’s regular menu and push their creative boundaries.”

Chef Jason Empanadas

First I met with Executive Chef Jason Cunningham who has been at the helm of Washington Duke Inn’s AAA Four Diamond restaurant The Fairview Dinning Room for over a decade. We took a brief tour of the kitchen that would not only prepare the dinner for 75 people but also provide meals for the bar, regular Fairview Dining Room patrons and room service. The kitchen was full of action with orders being shouted out and people quickly moving back and forth, I realized at that moment my biggest job of the evening would be to try to stay out of the way. The plating for the Taste of Argentina Dinner would take place in the far corner of the kitchen with its own team of chefs and waiters.

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Preparations were already underway for the dinner and once given the go ahead from Chef Jason, I jumped in and started snapping pictures beginning with Jason Tseng who was searing salmon in a hot oiled cast iron skillet. As Chef Cunningham breezed by he chirped, “JT make sure you get a nice sear on that Salmon” Jason answered back a quick “Yes Chef” and turned up the heat a notch raising the blue flame that was licking the skillet.

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Directly adjacent to Mr. Tseng, Chef De Cuisine Murray Healy was adding hickory chips over hot charcoals to a makeshift grill that was made over a flattop. This is where the smoke flavor would be infused into the lamb rib eye and grilling of the NY Strip Asado would take place.

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On the other side of the kitchen the bakers were diligently rolling out dough for the empanadas and other final preparations were taking place as the 7:05 service of the 1st course time approached. Minutes before the 1st dish would be sent out, a team of 7 waiters in black pants and aprons, white long sleeved collared shirts and navy blue ties with white stripes gathered at the prepping area for a final pep talk. Once Chef Cunningham received word that the dining room was ready for the first course the action began.

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It was interesting to watch the action and teamwork-taking place in a high-energy kitchen like the Fairview. It wasn’t what I imagined from watching reality cooking shows with a head chef reigning terror and shouting expletives, but more like how one of my former coaches described the game of football “organized chaos”.  The kitchen functioned like a well-seasoned NFL offense with Chef Cunningham as the head coach, at the end of the line overlooking and putting his hand on each dish before it left the kitchen. There was a serious attention to detail and a sense of urgency about his actions without looking panicked or flustered. Assistant restaurant manager Patrick Greene was like an offense coordinator, referring to a picture on the wall with the dining room layout like a playbook, he ensured each table received all of the food at one time. We can all relate to how annoying it is having to be polite and wait for everyone at the table to receive a plate before jumping in. Patrick would also advise the Chef of any dietary restrictions at the table and tell the waiter that the dish in the chefs left hand was for a specific diner, it became very clear that a lack of communication between the Chef, Waiter and Patrick could make or break one of these dinners.

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Chef de Cuisine Murray Healy the quarterback, managed quality control on the line advising the chef at the start of the line that too much or too little sauce was being applied to the dish. Chefs on the line are like the offensive line of the operation, not receiving a great deal of recognition but their skill and work is critical to the whole operation. The team of servers were like running backs and wide receivers carrying the final product to the waiting diner and getting to see their reactions and fielding compliments or complaints of the final product. The comparison may sound hokey but throughout the evening watching the team churn out 75 dishes per course with such a level of efficiency and perfection made it very evident how important each person is in making sure each diner leaves the table feeling that their hard earned $69 ($59 for Executive Members) was well spent and as I didn’t witness anything come back to the kitchen, I believe that goal was achieved. The menu for the dinner was as follows.

1st Course

Empanadas – blue crab, goat lady chevre, quinoa, avocado lime crème fraiche

Wine: 2012 Barricas Torrontes

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2nd Course

Iron Skillet Seared Salmon – frisee, corn, butternut squash, chorizo, white bean puree, grilled tomato

Wine: 2011 Catalpa Chardonnay

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3rd Course

Hickory Smoked Lamb Ribeye – chimichurri, grilled artichoke, fava bean puree, grilled tomato

Wine: 2011 Catalpa Old Vines Malbec

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4th Course

Angus NY Strip Asado – paprika gaucho potatoes, roasted chili and red onion aioli

Wine: 2011 Catalpa Cabernet Sauvignon

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5th Course

Dulcet de Batata – chocolate sweet potato bar, brie cheese, orange coriander cake

Royal Cup Rainforest Alliance Blend Coffee

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At the beginning of each course, Chef Jason made a plate that acts as a model for how every single plate that leaves the kitchen should look. He would show the team, he would then snap a few pictures of his dish to keep his Twitter and Facebook fans drooling and then I was free to have may way with it. Each dish was amazing and left a specific impression on me in either the way it tasted or getting to watch the technique of how it was prepared.

Depending on how you look at it, these dinners can be considered culinary theater or sport.  Regardless of how you look at it, each diner has paid to be fed and entertained and each course, act or play does that in its presentation and taste. I look forward to another visit to the Fairview Dining Room and maybe from the view of those being entertained and how the final product is received in the dining room itself. To find out information on Fairview Dining Room and any upcoming dinners visit their website at here.

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Fairview Dining Room on Urbanspoon

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Categories: Durham


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2 Comments on “A Night in Argentina with Chef Jason Cunningham”

  1. December 10, 2013 at 9:14 am #

    I have tasted several of Chef Healy’s dishes….only wish I could have attended the event.


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