Chef vs. Chef is a 16-week competition at Max's Harvest hosted by chef Eric Baker that pits local chefs against one another, cooking up surprise ingredients for a panel of judges — and our tasting pleasure.
This week, executive chef/owner of Ian's Tropical Grill Eric Grutka faced off against "young gun" Jordan Lerman of Jardin.
Two chefs and a tattoo artist made up the judging panel:
- Chef Chuck Gittleman, a 25-year veteran of south Florida kitchens and Max’s Grille executive chef
- Chef Jason Smith, executive chef of Steak 954 at the W Hotel in Fort Lauderdale
- Jeff Kozan, owner/operator of Vatican Tattoo Studio in Fort Lauderdale (with another studio and gallery opening soon in Delray Beach)
Three secret ingredients, the backbone of each battle, have run the gamut throughout the competition. As always, they are donated by local purveyor Sunshine Provisions. Two weeks ago, we saw an all-vegan lineup of doughnut peaches, miso, and vegan cheese.
This week, Baker went in the opposite direction, choosing three products that all came from a pig: its collar (from the neck of the animal), sausage casings made from its intestines, and finally, its blood. Yes, blood was an ingredient.
Often overlooked, blood has historically been a widely used culinary ingredient, from blood sausage, black pudding, and Finnish blodplättar, or blood pancakes, made with whipped blood and other ingredients. (After learning this, I had to scream “blodplättar” in my best death metal voice.) In Taiwan, pig’s blood cake is a popular street food. It’s made with pork blood, sticky rice, and soy broth, fried and coated in peanut flour, and served on a stick.
We didn’t see any blood cake on a stick on Wednesday night, but Lerman and Grutka definitely used the blood in some interesting ways. “It’s like going to a really good Goth party,” said Baker.
The ingredients set the slower-than-usual pace for the battle. None were the type of ingredients that could be quickly seared and served or made into a salad or quick amuse-bouche. Pork collar takes time to cook (pressure cookers were on hand to speed up the process). Sausage casings are difficult to work with and tear easily, and the blood required some thinking and planning ahead in order to use it correctly. Grutka, who has won two showdowns in this year’s competition so far, strayed from his usual rapid-fire succession of dishes.
Lerman brought out the first dish of the night: a ciabatta crostini topped with thinly sliced baby eggplant, grilled red onion, pork blood vinaigrette, and smoked trout roe. “The richness of the blood is cut by the fish eggs,” said Smith. “It doesn’t suck,” said Gittleman, “but the vinaigrette could use more acid.”
A second dish by Lerman was a well-balanced plate of pork blood gnocchi with pork collar ragu and fresh ricotta. Chef vs. Chef veteran Blake Malatesta, sneaking to the judges table for a bite, approved of the texture of the gnocchi.
Finally, Grutka presented his first dish: shrimp and grits, made with Anson Mills grits cooked with pig’s blood in place of stock and topped with a fried egg. “Insanely good,” said Gittleman.
Grutka utilized the pressure cooker in his second dish, Asian-style pork collar with wild black rice. Grutka fortified the braising liquid with ginger, star anise, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, and jalapeno. He brushed the pork with a sweet glaze made with soy sauce, red wine, and pig’s blood. “Good caramelization on the meat, and the glaze is really flavorful,” said Gittleman. “Yum, this is really good,” said Smith.
Pork collar schnitzel, fried capers, parsley, and lemon was Grutka’s third and final dish. The pork was tender, the breading flavorful and light.
Lerman’s third dish was pork collar and apple sausage with fennel and whole grain mustard. It’s very difficult — almost impossible — to make good sausage in an hour. The judges gave kudos to Lerman for his technique.
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Lerman finished off with a dessert: blood and chocolate fondue with fresh berries. Surprisingly, the fondue tasted mostly like delicious chocolate, maybe with a slightly earthier flavor. Pork blood actually tastes clean, for lack of a better term, "although we wouldn't necessarily drink it chilled, like George Hamilton did in Love at First Bite," said Baker.
Although Lerman put out four dishes to Grutka's three, Grutka took the win. The judges based their criteria on flavor, and Grutka punched it up, especially with the braised pork dish.
Stop by Max's Harvest next week as the semifinals continue in Week 14, featuring chefs Kevin Darr of City Cellar and Clayton Carnes of Cholo Soy Cocina.
Chef vs. Chef takes place at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach at 10 p.m. every Wednesday through September. The 16-week event series is open to the public for a $5 donation, which benefits the Milagro Center, a Delray Beach-based nonprofit that works to enrich children’s lives through the cultural arts and academic support. Your admission gets you one glass of wine, beer, or cocktail and a seat for the culinary action.