Week three of Delray’s Chef vs. Chef competition was a no-holds-barred battle between Victor Meneses of El Camino in Delray Beach and Victor Franco of Oceans 234 in Deerfield Beach.
With each week, the crowd at Max’s Harvest seems to be a bit rowdier — one of the night’s judges was caught dancing on a table mid-battle (we won’t name names). Said judges included Donna Molinaro of Elite Travel Concierge, veteran wine and spirits rep Danielle Linscott, and the Godfather of burgers, Jamie Frankel of burgersbythebeach.com.
Week two judge Farmer Jay’s produce made another appearance, this week as malanga, a member of the tuber family similar to taro root. The other two secret ingredients were locally made assorted Asian noodles by Happy Noodle Co. and beef cheeks from Ocala.
Each chef was armed with a pressure cooker — a necessity for getting tender beef cheeks in a minimum amount of time. Immediately, both chefs got down to seasoning and searing the cheeks over a plancha to intensify their flavor via the Maillard reaction (caramelization of proteins) and transfer them as quickly as possible to the pressure cookers.
This was a fierce and fast battle, both chefs promising three dishes in an hour’s time.
Reductions boiled away while both Victors feverishly chopped vegetables and Asian aromatics like ginger and lemongrass and seared plump scallops on the planchas.
Final minutes elapsing, the meaty aroma of steaming cheeks filled the air as the chefs removed them from their respective pressure cookers — gingerly avoiding nasty steam burns — and scrambled to plate their dishes. With 35 seconds left on the clock, Meneses signaled the end of his sweaty toiling with a decisive swig of Pabst.
Franco presented the night’s first dish: light and crispy malanga and scallop fritters with spicy mango sauce — a savory representation of the “Floribbean” cuisine for which he’s known.
Next, Meneses brought on a malanga “dumpling” filled with shredded beef cheek, seared diced Granny Smith apples, and pancetta. An accompanying salad of shaved fennel, ginger, and herbs lightened up what could have been a heavy dish.
Franco’s next presentation of braised beef cheeks, malanga puree, port wine reduction, and taro root was straightforward, yet the flavors were deepened by cinnamon and herbs in the braise.
Meneses’ remaining dishes scored him the win: beef cheek pad Thai garnished with toasted hazelnuts, pine nuts, and crispy malanga chips, and beef cheek ramen topped with grilled scallions and poached quail eggs, nestled in an intensely flavored broth fortified with smoked soy. Words failed the judges as they tucked into the ramen, sending Meneses on to battle again.
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Who will be the victor in week four's battle between Danielle Herring of Rebel House and Che Frey of Henry’s? Drop by Max's Harvest to find out.
Chef vs. Chef will be held Wednesday nights at 9:30 at Max’s Harvest from June 17 through September 30. Admission is $10. Max's Harvest is located at 69 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. $10 entry fee benefits the Naoma Donnelley Haggin Boys and Girls Club and gets you one complimentary libation. Visit the Facebook event page.