In less than two weeks, one of South Florida's most exciting food events, the 6th annual Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, will be upon us -- a time when the country's most famous chefs come to cook at Palm Beach's most prestigious resorts and restaurants.
The food fun starts Friday, December 7 with a food truck competition, and continues with a series of events ending with one of the most popular: the 6th annual Grand Tasting, where more than 30 chefs from New York to Los Angeles will showcase their skills.
But what about an event for local chefs only? In the past three years the Grand Tasting has also featured the Grand Chef Throwdown, where three local chefs go head-to-head for a $10,000 grand prize and the honor of being named the "Grand Chef Master" by a panel of celebrity judges including Norman Van Aken, owner of Norman's in Coral Gables.
However, before the show begins, two contestants must be chosen to compete against reigning champion and local chef Roy Villacrusis, the only chef to have won the Grand Chef Throwdown since the contest's inception in 2010, having taken home the title two years running.
Contestants are chosen via Facebook voting, which is open to the public. Each chef interested in competing must post to the Grand Chef Throwdown Facebook page, where voters (you, me -- whoever) "like" their status in an attempt to rack up votes for their favorite competitor.
According to Palm Beach Food and Wine Fest Organizer David Sabin, the Grand Chef Throwdown began as a partnership with Creekstone Farms Premium Black Angus Beef, which sponsors the event. The competition was an "innovative way to connect with the culinary professionals," Sabin told Clean Plate Charlie during a recent interview.
The first Grand Chef Throwdown started with a general Facebook competition. The goal was to encourage local chefs to participate, while also giving the South Florida community a chance to actively select their favorite chef. While anyone can join the competition, professional chefs from Palm Beach and Broward County have been selected to compete the past two years.
As with previous years, the 2012 Grand Chef Throwdown will include the two chefs with the highest number of votes, who will compete with Villacrusis by making a dish using an unknown cut of Creekstone beef. Contestants are given use of a full pantry of spices and ingredients, and are allowed to bring one "special" secret ingredient with them to the competition. The winner will receive a $10,000 grand prize, half of which was once donated to the James Beard Foundation.
To make the competition even more exciting, this year the festival has a few firsts: the winning chef is now given the chance to select a charity of his or her choice, and Market 17 executive chef Lauren DeShields will be the first woman to compete for a spot.
Lastly, this year rumors of false Facebook accounts set up for the purpose of voting surfaced, and one contestant -- Delray Beach and Dada executive chef Bruce Feingold -- decided to drop out of the running because of it, frustrated with the seemingly mismanaged voting process. According to Sabin, using Facebook and it's "systematic procedure for voting" has worked well for the competition over the years, and there are no plans to change it or penalize competitors for racking up votes -- no matter how they get them.
Want to get in on the action to support your favorite chef? Simply go to the Grand Chef Throwdown Facebook page and vote before the final tally at 5 p.m. this Friday, November 30. But before you do, get to know all the chefs who want the chance to compete for the 2012 title:
Chef Eric Grutka
Born and raised in Ithica, New York, Grutka moved to Stuart in 1983, where he quickly learned to love the sights and sounds of the kitchen.
"My best friend growing up, his mother did a lot baking and cooking, and as a young child I was just around that all the time," Grutka told Clean Plate Charlie. "I think that, somewhere, it made me appreciate cooking on a different level."
Since that time, Grutka began working in the restaurant industry long before he owned his own establishment. Like most self-made chefs, he did it all: dishwashing, bussing, serving.
"I started working when I was 14, but I remember my first day in the kitchen. One day, one of our chefs didn't show up, and they asked me to help out," said Grutka. The rest is history.
Since that time Grutka has bounced back and forth from back of house to front, working in both kitchen and managerial positions. High-volume experience came as a corporate trainer for Ruby Tuesday, opening restaurants and assisting staff with the routine of day-to-day operations.
A string of high-end establishments in the Port St. Lucie area followed, including Guytano's in Stuart, 11 Maple Street in Jensen Beach, Islands Fish Grill in Melbourne, Pearl's Bistro in Vero Beach, and The Mango Tree Restaurant in Cocoa Beach.
Today, Grutka is owner of Crush Wine Bar in downtown Stuart, a place that highlights everything craft -- mostly small vintner wines to micro brews. The real cooking happens at his other establishment, Ian's Tropical Grill, which he opened in Stuart in 2001. As both owner and executive chef of the small eatery, Grutka experiments daily, rotating an ever-changing menu of 15 or so appetizers and about a dozen entrees covering his preference for modern American cuisine. Fresh meats, fish and local, organic produce are delivered daily, he said, making Ian's a touch of farm to table fare.
"Before I bought Ian's, a lot of my influence revolved around Florida flavors -- tropical dishes," said Grutka. "Since then, I've really evolved as a chef, and my flavor profiles have moved away from fruity to create a more balanced dish. I'm also staying away from too many ingredients, and trying to let the ingredients speak for themselves."Take the more savory appetizer of locally sourced rabbit, highlighted with a housemade ricotta cheese and Meyer lemon crème fraîche.
Still, Grutka's fans can't let go of their favorite dish: Ian's Day Boat Scallops. Although he's tried several times to reinvent the popular panko-crusted, jerk-spiced scallops, the dish has remained on the menu for the past several years at the request of regulars and locals. Served with a garlic beurre blanc, raspberry coulis and homemade mango salsa, it's become one of Ian's signature dishes.
Why does he want to compete in the Grand Chef Throwdown?
"I haven't competed in this event before, but I have participated in [the recent Port St. Lucie] Icon Chef competition, and I won that event," said Grutka. "It was fun competing, and I really enjoyed the experience. Plus, cooking wise, I think I have what it takes. I've been cooking in my own kitchens for a long time."
As for a charity: Grutka said he's like to split a portion of the proceeds between a local holiday toy drive and the Humane Society.
Chef Philip Anthony (Licausi)
Growing up in an Italian family, cooking was in Licausi's blood.
"My father and grandparents owned very successful restaurants in New York and Florida. At a young age I was exposed to cooking, like helping my grandmother pick fresh basil or bake cookies, stuff other kids weren't really that into."
From the age of 13, Licausi was making salads and prepping dough with his father at the family restaurant, the House of Dough in New York and Joseph's Bistro in Palm Coast, Florida. He later enrolled in Johnson and Wales to earn his bachelor's degree -- but it wasn't enough. He wanted to learn more.
"I have a strong drive to be the best at everything I do -- to do better every day," said Lucaisi. How to improve his cooking? Licaisi called the best chefs in the area and asked if he could work for free to learn. It landed him externships with top-name chefs including Todd English at Wild Olives in West Palm Beach, Michelle Bernstein at Sra. Martinez in Miami Beach, Shari Almodovar at Cafe 1451 in West Palm Beach, and Anthony Pizzo at Cut 432 in Delray Beach.
Now a Boca Raton resident, Licausi is currently working alongside Aaron Black at PB Catch on the Island in Palm Beach. When asked about his personal style of cooking, he said he prefers a mix of classical French, American and molecular gastronomy. "My real passion is for everything I make to marry well. Some chefs throw random things together on a dish, but it doesnt mesh with your pallet. I want to make all the ingredients blend together perfectly."
So why does Licausi deserve your vote to participate in the Grand Chef Throwdown? "Cooking keeps me sane, and competition is in my blood. I'm 26, and feel I have just as much knowledge -- if not more -- than the average chef. From molecular gastronomy to French, Asian and Italian cuisine -- I have what it takes to compete. I will bring food to the table that is mind blowing."
If Licausi competes and wins, he said he would like to support a mental health charity that works to help those suffering from anxiety disorders.
Chef Fritz Cassel
Like many chefs, Fritz Cassel's first cooking lessons started in the family kitchen. Originally from Oklahoma, his parents were always cooking and "very into food."
"We had a huge kitchen, and we always had a garden where we grew our own vegetables," Cassel told Clean Plate Charlie during a recent interview.
Cassel later worked for a local restaurant, Vito's Italian Kitchen, where the wood-burning stove and creative menu helped to foster a love of creativity in the kitchen.
When it came time for Cassel to decide what he wanted to do for a living, he opted for sunny South Florida, and the Lincoln Culinary Institute of West Palm Beach.
He later began his career as sous chef -- and later executive chef -- of Spoto's Oyster Bar in Palm Beach Gardens. He also spent time as the chef at Spoto's Oakwood Grill.
Most recently, Cassel helmed the kitchen as executive chef for Gratify American Gastropub in West Palm Beach, which closed its doors in July. "Gratify is where I really had the chance to come into my own," said Cassel. "We weren't pigeon-holed into one kind of food, or one type of cuisine, so I was able to develop my own personal style and tastes."
While he began cooking at home tackling the usual family-style dinners, what Cassel does today is far from ordinary. He most enjoys cooking over an open flame, and was well known for making Gratify's own house-cured bacon -- a skill reminiscent of the time he spent working with the family-owned meat distributor, Bush Brothers, of West Palm Beach, perhaps?
Currently, Cassel has a penchant for roasting vegetables, which he says imparts an intense amount of flavor into the foods he cooks. It's something you will be able to find on the new menu he is working on for his most recent gig as executive chef for a new Italian and Spanish-themed gastropub off Clematis St., which is slated to open mid-December. There, Cassel said he hopes to erect a roof-top garden where he will be able to grow his own spices, herbs and vegetables.
When asked what charity he would like to work with, Cassel said he was most interested in donating money in support of an Alzheimer's research foundation.
Chef Justin Basta
Chef Justin Basta began working in the industry when he was just a teenager. A New Jersey native, his parents were caterers, and have prepared food served at events put on by the likes of celebrities Winona Ryder and Bruce Springsteen.
"When I was younger, and got into trouble, working the family business was a sort of punishment," admits Basta, who was manning the grill for his parents' catering company, serving anywhere from 70 to 100 people at just 13-years-old.
It was a punishment that became a passion, however. After graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and Lincoln's Culinary Institute, Basta is currently working on becoming a certified executive chef. Today, he mainly works as a private chef based in Boca Raton, cooking for as many as 15 clients in the height of season.
"Most of my work involves helping people with food allergies, people with certain dietary restrictions, and -- of course -- people who just want to eat something new and different every day," Basta told Clean Plate Charlie during a recent interview.
Basta said he gravitates toward Southeastern and Asian cuisine, and also has a passion for molecular gastronomy. He loves to make his own noodles, and can't live without Thai chili paste. "It goes into almost everything I make -- I've even put it in ice cream." Right now, pine needles are on his radar -- something special for the holiday season, but really "anything new and different."
Before striking out on his own, Basta held several stints at Boca Raton restaurants including Ovenella and -- most notably -- as the sous chef at Mariposa in Neiman Marcus. However, his favorite partnership so far has been working alongside chef Roy Villacrusis during his time at Kapow! Noodle Bar. "He's such a creative and supportive person -- just very inspirational -- and he really encouraged you to experiment. It would be an honor to compete against him." If he gets the chance to compete and wins, Basta said he would like to donate a portion of his winnings to the Deborah Heart and Lung Foundation, as well as the NYU Medical Center.
Chef Lauren DeShields
Lake Worth resident and chef Lauren DeShields found out about the Grand Chef Throwdown from a friend -- none other than fellow chef Roy Villacrusis, who posted a comment on his Facebook page urging fellow foodies and chefs to give the competition a try.
"I thought it would be fun," DeShields told Clean Plate Charlie during a recent interview.
A South Florida native, DeShields career is marked by her adventurous spirit, which led her to San Francisco after she graduated from Johnson and Wales Miami. She fell in love with the city, which she describes as her own "culinary mecca" with a unique culinary atmosphere.
"I was interested in everything they had going on there, especially their use of produce and the whole philosophy of using the entire plant from leaves to roots. Just the idea of respecting the whole plant [or animal] you are cooking with," said DeShields. "It's simply the best city in the country for food -- in my opinion -- even better than New York or Chicago."
During her stay in San Francisco, DeShields worked for a number of well-known restaurants -- including the urban wine bar known as RN74 -- while also garnering influences from her time at the 18-seat, high-end dining establishment Saison, as well as the techniques she learned cooking for the small, family-owned Korean restaurant, Namu Gaji.
DeShileds later returned to Florida several years ago for an opportunity to open 3030 Ocean at the Marriott resort on Singer Island with modern American seafood phenom, chef Dean James Max. When the restaurant changed hands, she was given an opportunity to run the kitchen at Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale, where she has worked as executive chef for close to a year.
What makes her style so unique? "I think my technique is a little bit more modern. By going to San Francisco, my style is not as classical as you will find in a lot of restaurants in South Florida," said DeShields.
With an Asian and Middle Eastern influence, DeShields added her cooking is emblematic of an American style, but often fuses a unique twist -- her love of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine -- into dishes that highlight Moroccan or Japanese ingredients, spices, oils or vinegars. Her favorite dish right now: a French-style curry that uses a special spice she may take with her as her "secret" ingredient if she is selected to compete.
If she is able to compete and wins, DeShields added she would like to choose a charity that will benefit cats.
For more information about the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, visit the event website.
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