Delray's Chef vs. Chef Week 11: Cocktails and Smut, Anyone?

Huitlacoche, aka corn smut puts the fun in fungus.
Huitlacoche, aka corn smut puts the fun in fungus.
Photos by Kelly Coulson Photography

This week, John Thomas of Tryst faced off against Eric Grutka of Ian’s Tropical Grill. Thomas entered kitchen stadium to “Time to Get Tough” by the Aggrolites, and Grutka to “Collard Greens” by Schoolboy Q as the unveiling of the night’s secret ingredients was anticipated.

The judging trifecta consisted of Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farms, who holds a PhD. in horticulture from the University of Florida; Jason “Farmer Jay” McCobb, an expert in sustainable agriculture; and Max’s Social House general manager Bob Higginbotham.

Huckleberries from Mount Adams, Washington, were provided by Foods in Season. As huckleberries are extremely susceptible to invading plant species, they’re not allowed to be picked by any mechanical means. Slightly tart, not too sweet and kind of licorice-y, the berries have a texture like overcooked peas.

Huitlacoche (weet-la-coh-chay), from Burns Farm in Groveland, Florida, also known as “corn smut” or “the Mexican truffle” is actually a fungus, Ustilago maydis, that attacks corn. The fungus replaces the normal corn kernels with large “tumors” that resemble blue-black mushrooms. Huitlacoche has an extremely earthy flavor and tastes like if you peeled off some really old wallpaper off a really old wall and then scraped the mildewed wallpaper paste off the wall and ate it. But much, much better. In Mexico, you’ll find it crammed inside quesadillas or added to soups and sauces.

John Thomas isn't afraid of a lionfish.
John Thomas isn't afraid of a lionfish.

Lionfish brought by Eric Finn of Finn-Tastic Fish Co. is a predatory reef fish with 18 venomous spines. If one weren’t aware of lionfish being dangerous, one look at these things would provide a clue. They’re red-hued, striped, spotted, spiky and seem to say, “Don’t mess with this.”

This week, the contestants got smart by bringing their bartenders to concoct some libations. It was a little preview of Bar Brawls, hosted at Max’s Harvest’s sister restaurant, Max’s Social House, beginning September 30.

The battle commenced with Grutka and Thomas gingerly snipping the spines off the lionfish with shears. “If one of you gets stabbed, so be it,” said Baker. Everyone lived.

Grutka's "fisharron"
Grutka's "fisharron"

Both chefs went raw for the first dish. Grutka jazzed his lionfish crudo up with orange, lemon and lime juices and zests, a huckleberry reduction and some fried lionfish skin, which he dubbed “fisharron” (like chicharron). Remember his “miscargots"?

Thomas presented a lionfish ceviche in a yuzu ponzu marinade and paired it with a “huckleberry vin and gin martini” that was a definite hit.

Grutka’s second dish was “fish ribs,” or lionfish on the bone. “Sorry judges, but you’re gonna have to work a little bit,” he said. Thankfully, Chef Eric Baker was there to do some tableside deboning. (Discard any romantic notions of an elegant Dover sole being skillfully and delicately deboned by an attentive waiter at Le Bernardin. Baker basically ripped the fish apart and ate half of it before the judges could get a bite.)

Grutka’s third dish was coriander-dredged deep-fried whole lionfish with a huckleberry soy ginger huitlacoche sauce. McCobb went straight for the succulent lionfish cheek meat. “I had to sneak it outta there,” he said.

Next, it was Grutka’s turn to present a cocktail. His “huckleberry bramble” featured bourbon, huckleberry juice, lemon, and mint.
A third dish from Grutka further jacked up the “friedness” – country-fried lionfish with “smut sauce.” (This competition couldn’t have been more smutty with Larry Flynt on the judging panel.)

Thomas presented lionfish tacos with “refried smut” and huckleberry salsa. “This is one fucking good taco,” said Higginbotham. “Very authentic,” said McCobb, “but the citrus was a bit overpowering.” McCobb liked that, for the first time, he got his own plate and didn’t have to share with the other judges. 

We like our smut refried.
We like our smut refried.

Grutka’s fourth dish was pan-seared lionfish filets seasoned with cumin and coriander with huitlacoche aioli, huckleberry sauce, and crème fraiche. “Share it, love each other,” said Baker. Grutka’s lionfish breakdown may have been a bit rushed, because Roe innocently asked, “Is that a chef’s thing to leave the scales on it?”

Delray's Chef vs. Chef Week 11: Cocktails and Smut, Anyone? (2)

Thomas’ third dish was a coriander-spiced pan-seared lionfish with a corn and smut succotash and huckleberry brown butter, the favorite dish among the judges. “We both may be a bit prejudiced because we grow vegetables for a living,” Roe said.

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After careful consideration, the judges decided that Thomas’ smut was victorious, moving him on to round three of the competition.
Tune in next week for Week 12 of the competition, featuring Chef Bruce Feingold from Dada and Chris Miracolo from S3.

Week One: Chef vs. Chef: Local Chefs Battle for Culinary Supremacy Wednesdays at Max's Harvest 

Week Two: Delray’s Chef vs. Chef Picks Up Speed in Week Two With Chefs Paul Neidermann and James Strine 

Week Three: Delray’s Chef vs. Chef Week Three: Victor Franco, Oceans 234, and Victor Meneses of El Camino 

Week Four: Max's Harvest's Chef v. Chef Week Four: Danielle Herring, The Rebel House and Billy Estis, Kapow! Noodle Bar

Week Five: Delray’s Chef vs. Chef Competition Week Five: The Best Ways to Cook Pig Ears 

Week Six:  Delray’s Chef vs. Chef Competition Week Six: Eric Grutka of Ian’s Tropical Grill and Jarod Higgins of Cut 432

Week Seven: Delray's Chef vs. Chef Competition Week Seven: Sea Sperm Never Tasted So Good!

Week Eight: Delray's Chef vs. Chef Gets Swampy with Frog Legs, Okra

Week Nine: Delray's Chef vs. Chef Week Nine: "Can I Get A Mofongo Already?"

Week 10: Black Truffle Ice Cream is the New Shake Weight"

Chef vs. Chef will be held Wednesday nights at 9:30 at Max’s Harvest from June 17 through September 23. Admission is $10. Max's Harvest is located at 169 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.

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Max's Harvest

169 NE Second Ave.
Delray Beach, FL 33444

561-381-9970

www.maxsharvest.com


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