This week’s competitors were Eric Grutka, chef and owner of Ian’s Tropical Grill in Stuart, and Jarod Higgins of Cut 432 in Delray.
What did they bring to the battle? Grutka brought an ISI charger (in case he wanted to make a foam), a tiny cold smoker, and his green snakeskin cowboy boots. Cut 432 chef Jarod Higgins brought his “A-game and skill.”
Burgundy escargots, flown in fresh, were the first secret ingredient. Sweet, earthy, and slightly briny with a firm, mushroom-like texture, they were ready to take on any flavor the chefs decided to apply. Fresh rabbits from Ocala, courtesy of the Florida Fresh Meat Co, were the second ingredient, and three distinct brews from Saltwater Brewery in Delray — Screaming Reels IPA, Wheat Wave American Wheat, and Sea Cow Milk Stout — rounded out the list.
The evening’s judges were Nita Summers, real estate broker, animal rescuer, and fan of all things spicy; Caryn Pomeranz, 23-year Sysco rep and culinary jet-setter; and Rey de la Osa, resident chef at the Boca Raton Publix Aprons Cooking School.
The battle commenced with both chefs breaking down the rabbits. The escargots’ simple needs (minimal cooking and clean, assertive flavors) allowed Grutka to quickly serve up the night’s first dish, something he called “Miscargot” (escargots sautéed in miso butter). Pomeranz called it “salty and addictive.” Higgins’ first dish of blanched escargots with crispy pancetta and vibrant parsley purée used classic ingredients. The judges agreed that the dish was lighter and more seasonal than Grutka’s. Dish number two from Grutka was paired with a signature cocktail — the first of the Chef vs. Chef competition. His rabbit quesadilla with peaches, kimchee, smoked soy crème fraîche, and sriracha was a twist on a sports bar classic, washed down with a “Dark and Stouty,” using the Sea Cow Milk Stout. Higgins’ second dish was a braised rabbit cacciatore with Sicilian Castelveltrano olives.
But, as is far too often the case in this competition, some of the judges were tight-lipped. Baker pleaded with de la Osa for a description, who had just experienced escargots for the very first time, “Just reach into your subconscious and let it go!” Easier said than done, perhaps.
The chefs’ final dishes were vastly different. Higgins crafted an impressive rabbit ballantine and served slices of it over fresh avocado and forbidden rice “crispies.” Grutka brought out a simultaneously hot and cold dish, an “amalgamation” of sashimi of escargots topped with a “country fried” rabbit leg. “What’s an amalgamation?” Baker joked. After witnessing the ballantine, most thought the win belonged to Higgins. After all, it required a hefty dose of skill and finesse. “Delicate, balanced. An exquisite plate,” Pomeranz stated. Summers said it was “phenomenal.” However, Grutka emerged the night’s winner.
Baker wrapped up the evening with a heartfelt expression of gratitude to Dennis Max, the godfather of the event, who presided, reserved and humble, at the judges' table. After all, this is the House That Max Built.
Tune in next week to see newcomer Kelley Randall of the Office take on veteran Bruce Feingold of Dada.
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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
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.