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Chef vs. Chef Week 12: Clay Carnes Beats Kemar Griffiths With the Perfect Taco

Chef vs. Chef is a 16-week competition at Max's Harvest hosted by chef Eric Baker that has become like therapy for culinarians. Each Wednesday, two local chefs cook up surprise ingredients for a panel of judges as their peers and the public come together to support a charity (the Milagro Center of Delray Beach). It's a beautiful thing.

The doors of Clay Carnes' Cholo Soy Cocina are almost open, and the chef brought an infectious buzz of positive energy to the competition. His opponent, Kemar Griffiths of the Rusty Hook Tavern, wore a zen-like calm, as usual.

"Is there any way to rattle Kemar?" asked Baker. "There must be something beyond that beautiful white-toothed smile."

This week's judging panel was comprised of three chefs: Nunzio Billante, the executive chef at Burger Bar Palm Beach Gardens; John Noble Masi, culinary educator at three universities and the education chair for the local American Culinary Federation chapter; and Jim Furci, COO of Florida Food & Farm and managing partner and resident chef for Culinary Performance Media. 

Three secret ingredients were donated by Sunshine Provisions:
  • Sorghum syrup is made from a grass (sorghum) whose stalks have a very high sugar content. Once widely cultivated in the U.S., today less than one million gallons are produced annually. 
  • Sunshine Blue cheese from family-owned and operated Winter Park Dairy is a 100 percent natural raw milk cheese. It has a nutty taste and creamy texture. 
  • Lamb belly, cut from the forequarters just above the shank, is somewhat leaner than pork belly, with an unmistakable "lamby" or musky flavor. 
Carnes was first up, serving a cocktail made with sorghum. Called a Sorghum Jack Rattlesnake, it used Jack Daniels and had a frothed egg-white topper. Billante called it "frothy goodness" but said, "For a first course, I usually like to eat."

Heard: give this man some food on the double.

A second offering from Carnes was a composed salad of lamb belly lardons, blue cheese, Spanish radish, tomatoes, passionfruit-honey vinaigrette, and smoked sea salt. The judges remarked that the dish, on the whole, needed more seasoning and that the radishes were overpowering, having been cut into very large pieces. Baker thought the passionfruit vinaigrette was a keeper.

Griffiths' first dish was a ciabatta crostini with warm blue cheese coulis, pickled beet and red onion marmalade (made with sorghum), and micro mustard greens. It was simple but well composed. "The warm blue cheese offset the sweetness of the marmalade," Masi said.Griffiths' next course was a simple plate of pan-roasted brussels sprouts with sorghum syrup, blue cheese, golden raisins, and pine nuts — a beautiful vegetarian side dish, but a bit underwhelming. Additionally, some sprouts were crispy and caramelized while others were not.

Carnes' lamb-belly-wrapped Gulf redfish was a hit. It was topped with grilled corn and jalapeño succotash. The fish was buttery soft and perfectly cooked. "Simple, clean, nice presentation," Masi added.Griffiths used the pressure cooker (donated to the battle by Culinary Convenience) for his main course, braised lamb belly with polenta and pepperonade. "Smell this! I just got hard!" said Billante, his comment reminiscent of the inappropriate yet wonderful words of Mama Gizzi from last year.

A simple taco by Carnes came out next, filled with achiote-braised lamb belly, green papaya from the chef's own garden, spicy mayo, jalapeño, and cilantro. The handmade tortillas were the stars of the dish. "These are better than the ones I had in Tulum," said Baker. "Thank you for delivering the perfect fucking taco," Billante said.

The battle could have ended there because both chefs finished with bad desserts. Carnes' buñuelos de miel, Latin American doughnuts drizzled with honey (in this case, sorghum syrup), were crispy on the outside but slightly raw in the middle. "Carnes' thinking was definitely out of the box, though," Furci said. Griffiths' deconstructed blue cheesecake with sorghum-candied pistachios was a miss.

In the closest Chef vs. Chef battle to date, Carnes took the win, moving up to the semifinals.

Head to Max's Harvest next week to see "young gun" Jordan Lerman of Jardin battle "Mr. Delicious," Eric Grutka, of Ian's Tropical Grill.

Side note: Last month, we lost Michel Richard. A decade ago, he spoke at my culinary school graduation and made light of the fact that his wife raised their six children all by herself because he was always at work. He said that his work, the things he created in the kitchen, were also his children. He wasn't complaining; he had accepted it as the sacrifice he had to make in order to do something great.

The life of a chef is one of self-imposed isolation, single-mindedness, and passion. For a chef to open his own restaurant and serve the type of food he's passionate about — especially in these shaky economic times — is risky. To reject the pressure to please the masses and craft a menu that makes sense and is respectful of the ingredients and their sourcing is brave. To pack one's bags and leave everything (and everyone) behind to work for the best is dedication.

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.