In the winter of 2009 chef Jimmy Carbone launched a new community event – the Cassoulet Cook Off – from his bar, Jimmy’s #43, on the Lower East Side of New York City. Over the years, he would see some of his other events – Brisket King, Ciderfeast and Pig Island – draw some of the largest festival-bound crowds in New York City. But it was his annual celebration of Cassoulet that would be most fondly remembered and attended by his closest friends and supporters. “Ten years ago, when we had our first cook-off, it was people over 50 who were nostalgic for the days when French bistros were all the rage,” he says. “But with hot gastro-teques like Dirty French popping up, the crowd has gotten considerably younger. Cassoulet is trendy,” says Carbone. Since its launch in 2009, the Cassoulet Cook Off has yearly continued to sell out venues, large and small, despite consistently being held during the coldest winter month in New York.
Perhaps it is the promise of a hearty helping of the hot delicious French stew that draws curious city dwellers from the warm comfort of their homes in January. “It’s cheap, it’s great comfort food, and the weather just got cold, so it’s the perfect time of year for it,” says Cathy Erway, author of the popular blog Not Eating Out in New York. Others are captivated by the mystique and reverence with which the French peasant dish is regarded by its enthusiasts. After all, it’s brown sugar-laden American cousin – pork and beans – is quite one dimensional by comparison, featuring none of the bold rich flavors that come from simmering smoked meats and artisanal sausages with beans in a rich meat broth for several hours.
Cassoulet, at its finest, is an amalgamation of meat and beans. “Its beans cooked in fat,” says Carbone. Traditionally the Tarbais white bean is used for the classic French bean stew, but any dried bean can be used. The beans are simmered in a rich broth with various meats and sausages, then slow baked in a hot oven for several hours. Duck confit, pork, lamb, and garlic sausage are traditional contenders in the classic preparation, but the stew is versatile, always adaptable to new ingredients and deviations from the most basic preparation of the dish. “That’s the beauty of cassoulet,” Erway says. “It’s so easy to adapt.”. Erway has even made vegetarian cassoulet, substituting a chestnut roux for the duck fat.
Over the years, the Cassoulet Cook Off has seen classic renditions of the French dish presented by competing chefs, but also nontraditional interpretations that feature offbeat flavors.
“The first year I competed in this competition I made an all local cassoulet that featured locally grown black beans and venison sausage, and last year I made a Southwestern variation that was laced with a delicious mole sauce. But this year I decided to make a classic cassoulet. I’ve noticed the more traditional versions seem to be the most popular. Maybe it’s like a ‘if its not broke don’t fix it kind of thing‘.” Says Chefs’ Consortium director Noah Sheetz.
While many chefs apply a radical approach to deconstructing and recreating the recipe, others have honored the classic preparation by adapting it to the flavors of their culture’s cuisine. In 2016, Haitian chef and Consortium member Tahisha Solages won peoples’ choice with her cassoulet variation that was inspired by the Haitian recipe Sos Pwa Blan.
This year’s Cassoulet Cook Off was held at Biba of Williamsburg and saw more than 200 attendees who sampled cassoulet prepared by fifteen competing chefs, each of whom prepared and presented their own version of the traditional French dish. The judges’ top prize went to chefs Eric Howard and Dallas Carlson whose foie gras infused bread crumbs sprinkled across their cassoulet samples stole the judges’ hearts. Chef Noah Sheetz claimed first place of the peoples’ choice and was awarded second place by the judges for his version of a traditional cassoulet. The judges’ third pick went to two-time winner chef Alana Szemer who also prepared classic cassoulet. Chef Jesse Jones’ signature black eyed pea cassoulet won top nontraditional honors while second place went to The East Village Meat Market for their Ukranian soul food take which included mounds of tender, juicy pork and tangy sauerkraut. Honorable mentions went to chef Benjamin Osh and his Szechuan style cassoulet, chef Alain’s Harlem Brewery team, and Author Cathy Erway and the Ragu.
This year’s event was co-hosted by writer Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey, who curated whiskeys and spirits during the event. City council member Rafael L. Espinal Jr. was on hand to help judge samples, as was photographer Jane Feldman who photographed the event. Musician Dusty Wright played back to back sets of his signature indie alt-country music.
Photography by Jane Feldman