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Smoke Gets in His Eyes

Nelson Starr and crew report from Taste of Buffalo, sodden and sated

The crew: Nelson Starr, John Paget, and Nate Peracciny.

“Welcome to the 26th annual Taste of Buffalo,” or so the line was supposed to read. If only the rain would let us shoot! When you are hired to capture the essence of Western New York and its food scene, you really don’t want clouds, rain, and lightning bolts in the shot.

On Saturday, July 11, 2009 the crew, and the rest of the Buffalo culinary crowd, was engaged in a battle the likes of which Iron Chef Morimoto has never had to contend—a battle with the natural elements (of the meteorological, rather than metallic, kind). I was to be a judge for the Taste of Buffalo. As well, I was to trudge my ever-so-talented film crew around to capture the event: its diverse epicurean delights, the people, and the entire scene in and around Niagara Square. On top of all that, the big mission was to shoot the opening sequence for a flagship food tourism video for the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.

If the sky was a harbinger of anything, it was looking as if that mission might need to be aborted.

With cameras in tow, the team marched forward anyway—I had judging to do, after all. Facilitating my endeavor was Denise Drews, who loaned me an umbrella (which we predictably lost) and helped to point my mega-confused self in the right direction. My assignment was to select six (or more if I wanted) restaurants and to taste all their offerings. I then would give them a grade, 1-10. I would also review some wines if I could—and, again, film the whole thing for our network, as well as for Artvoice TV.

Chewing up the scenery

When Buffalo Music Hall of Famer Nelson Starr saw that Anthony Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel’s popular adventure-eating show No Reservations, was soliciting pitches from around the world to visit and take a tour of exotic locales and cuisine, he naturally thought the show should visit Ted’s Hot Dogs.

“I’d been working with this filmmaker, John Paget,” Starr recalls. “He’s a really talented guy. So I just had this strange idea…they’re having a video contest for one of my favorite shows, No Reservations. So I said, ‘Why don’t we go out to some classic Buffalo food places…film it in one day, take a couple hours to edit it, and send it in. See what happens.”

Paget was hesitant at first, but he went along with the lark. It didn’t take long before things started happening.

“We got a call back like a day or two later, saying that we were in the top 20, and asking questions—like what are my views on food, what are my views on the show—just trying to see if I was a nut-case.” He laughs. “Before you know it, it wound up being the most played video on the Travel Channel for this contest…and then I was being considered among the final four people to appear on the show.”

Starr subsequently made an appearance on the show in early 2008, which was part of the contest to see who would be Bourdain’s sidekick in a future episode. Although he wasn’t selected then—being passed over in favor of a woman from Saudi Arabia—Bourdain then told some of the runners-up that he’d come and film shows in their towns anyway, “just because he felt it was a cool idea.”

The resulting program, being called the Rust Belt episode, was filmed in Buffalo, Baltimore, and Detroit. “We spent a couple days doing the shoot, and that was kind of exciting,” Starr says. “Finally got to do a show with Tony. The first one I was there with him, but I was just basically grilled in an interview room, and they filmed that like an interrogation, which was kind of weird. But this show was like…taking him around Buffalo.”

The show will have its premiere at 10pm, Monday, July 27, on the Travel Channel.

In the meantime, Starr and Paget launched a Web site in January, 2009, buoyed by the momentum of their sudden success with No Reservations. That site,, features video segments focusing on local food (All Access Pass with Nelson Starr) and architecture (Adventures in Buffaloland with Tim Tielman). They were recently selected to produce a video for the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, featuring food as one of the area’s main attractions.

In celebration of the premiere of the Buffalo No Reservations episode featuring Starr with Bourdain, is hosting a screening party at the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery (76 Pearl Street) on July 27 at 8pm. Accompanying the long-anticipated premiere will be past episodes of All Access Pass, along with a new show focusing on Dyngus Day, the Broadway Market, and Spar’s European Sausage Shop.

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Things started out just fine with some excellent ribs and other smoky selections (including excellent smoke-infused red potatoes) at Donnie’s Smokehouse. I’d have to say that ’09 was a great year for barbecue and grilled meats—everything from smoked pulled pork to turkey legs—featuring 10 or more places with smokers on-site. It was a great fit for the festival, considering it’s summer, and grilled and smoked meats are a seasonal must-have! Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the best breakfast but, hey, isn’t that what a rock-and-roll food critic should eat for breakfast? That and a beer and cigarette!

Being a judge at the Taste of Buffalo is not as easy as it sounds. You have to eat like the Man vs. Food guy (Adam Richman) and fill out endless paperwork—in the rain, in this case. Luckily, our associate producer, Nate, was there to hold the umbrella during a soaking downpour or three. Ducking into a bus stop also provided good cover for our cameras.

I’m a lover of Asian food, from Indian to Chinese and everything—geographically and culinarily—in between. Since I was lucky enough to score a free pass to judge any establishment my mouth desired, I went thusly for the curries, the dumplings, etc. Standouts included the too often maligned Tandoori, whose chicken curry was perfectly aromatic and easily the best on premises; Palace of Dosas for their dosa, which is like an well-done crepe filled with curried potatoes and veggies, and their brilliantly spiced biryani; Kabob and Curry for their friendly staff and their malai tikka (grilled chicken skewers); and the not so perfectly executed but lovingly conceived Singapore noodles (one of those “healthy choice” options bandied about).

Finally, waddling ’round the bend of Niagara Square, I discovered what was easily the coolest food find at the event: deep-fried turkey legs. Curiously, they were being cooked on a grill in what appeared to be a mobile smoker—so I’m confused about the deep-fried part. They were superb. Admittedly, I was way too full to eat more than a small percentage of this leggy leviathan. But it was smokey and succulent and, above all else, a downright perverse spectacle of food porn if I ever saw one. Appropriately, we videoed me ogling then penetrating the goods (with my teeth).

Ever since J.J. Richert made his way onto the Buffalo food scene, his reputation as one of Buffalo’s finest chefs has been growing, seemingly without bound. (As a matter of disclosure, I’ll be judging his skills at the upcoming Nickel City Chef competition. You can be sure that I’ll bring a healthy dose of snarky skepticism, no matter what my comments here might reflect.) His culinary prowess was certainly on display Saturday.

For starters, I slurped down a refreshing gazpacho that was more accurately a lime-based ceviche with baby prawn, grilled tomatillo, onion, and cilantro. A blue cheese mac-and-cheese with sundried tomatoes topped with pulverized goldfish crackers was certainly inventive and satisfying. Triple-cooked jerked chicken wings were meltingly tender, with an amped-up smoke and sweet pineapple salsa.

The piece de resistance had to be the Cubano smoked pork over steamed rice with cilantro. Was it a revelation? Yes, it was! The pork was apparently slow-cooked for umpteen hours in, you guessed it, a smoker. It was hog heaven in all its finest, highest, lipid glory. The brown whole seed mustard, and whatever else topped this sheer delight, brought the whole endeavor to a rich and intoxicating climax. Subjectivity being what it is, I surmised that I might have been under some sort of spell, but, according to the final tally, this dish won the hearts of the entire cadre of Taste of Buffalo judges.

Revelations being what they are, the clouds did in fact part, making way for the sun for much of the day. That’s a providential thing—for the crew and yours truly were then able to stroll around and film, much to the amusement (and often annoyance) of the public. So the story goes: The 26th annual Taste of Buffalo made it through a little hell and high water. I was glad to capture these travails and emerge plump, sated, and unscathed.

Check out the Food Channel at Artvoice TV to watch Nelson Starr and the crew navigate the Taste of Buffalo.

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