Food & Drink

The sweet art of pulling sugar

On his first attempt on “The Food Network Challenge” series, Matthew Ratliff won first place and a check for $10,000 for making a green alien, complete with a rotating head and snapping jaws.

Ratliff, a native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was in town last week, vising his aunt, April Howell of Columbus.

Ratliff, 29, the assistant pastry chef at the Everglades Country Club in Palm Beach, Fla., did a pulled sugar demonstration for the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) last Monday at the RiverMill Event Centre. Later in the week, he did another demonstration for a dinner demo with Chef Jamie Keating, the owner and executive chef of the RiverMill Cafe.

Ratliff said while he was a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., he took a class in pulled sugar. He graduated in 2001.

Later, he said he started experimenting with sugar art at home.

It wasn’t until 2005 that Ratliff began competing in the art.

Five years later, he’s on national television competing for the top honors in “Sugar Impossible.”

He’s up for another challenge that will be taping in October, he said. It will air some time next year.

What local chefs learned

John Chapiewski, the co-owner and executive chef of His Place, is the president of the local chapter of the ACF.

Ratliff’s aunt had called Keating, asking if he could host her nephew. Keating knew that the ACF meeting was coming up and asked Chapiewski to change the meeting day. Chapiewski was delighted.

“I give him (Keating) credit for that one,” Chapiewski said. The demonstration is important because it gives local chefs a chance to see something different.

“Honestly, I learned the basics of pulled sugar techniques,” Chapiewski said. “I learned that he used basic cooks’ ingredients that we wouldn’t normally use.”

About 30 people were at the demo, Chapiewski said. “I think the rain scared people away. Otherwise, I think we would have had about 60 people.”

Rose Wiggins, the manager of Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant, was at the Monday demo as a guest.

“It was absolutely awesome,” she said. “That guy is so talented. It’s unbelievable.”

Wiggins laughed as she said “nah” when asked if she’d try to make a pulled sugar piece for her restaurant.

“Me, personally? No.,” was Tyler Mock’s answer. Mock is the sous chef at the RiverMill Cafe. “I don’t have the patience” to make the sugar sculptures.

“I learned how to use a new aspect of sugar. Not a lot of people around here get to see that kind of work. But if we have to do it, we will.”’

Like Ratliff, Ron Kuralt went to the CIA. But it was years before Ratliff. Kuralt is currently taking a hiatus from the executive chef business, as he recovers from foot surgery. He remembers taking the pulled sugar class.

What he learned from the demonstration was “they don’t use sugar anymore. I didn’t really know they changed over to isomalt.”

Kuralt also was surprised at the simple tools Ratliff used. “I guess they save a lot of money doing it that way.”

Working with pulled sugar

Ratliff said humidity is your enemy when creating sugar sculptures.

The taping for “The Food Network Challenge” was in a warehouse in Denver. He said it was very cold outside, but the temperature in the warehouse quickly became too hot with the ovens going, the lights and all the people involved.

“We had to open the doors,” he said with a laugh.

But he had the heads-up because he’s used to working in the Florida humidity.

Accompanying Ratliff was his wife, Madalina, who documented his demo with a still camera and a video camera.

His goal: To have his own television show featuring his pastry work. Ratliff doesn’t want to do another cake show (“Ace of Cakes,” “Cake Boss” and the cupcake shows), but to do a real pastry show.

He’s starting a new business, CM Sweets & Confections, in Philadelphia, with his “The Food Network Challenge” assistant, Chad Durkin.