Tonight marked the start of the quarterfinals and reminded us that we’re nearing ever closer to finding out which chef will rule them all. At Max’s Harvest, fans were reunited with two faces they haven’t seen in several weeks — Adam Brown of the Cooper in Palm Beach Gardens (week one winner) and Jimmy Strine of Café Boulud in Palm Beach (week two winner).
Max’s Harvest chef Eric Baker unveiled the battle’s secret ingredients: green plantains (a cultivar called the blue rhino plantain from Big John Farm in Delray), black garlic, and Florida spiny lobster.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:
“Commonly referred to as the Florida spiny lobster, the Caribbean spiny lobster inhabits tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. Spiny lobsters get their name from the forward-pointing spines that cover their bodies to help protect them from predators. The recreational fishery for the spiny lobster begins in July with a two-day sport season. This season is the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July each year. Regular spiny lobster season is August 6 through March 31.”
Black garlic is one of those things that gets chefs really jazzed. It’s made in a monthlong process wherein whole heads of garlic are very, very slowly heated in their skins, reacting with naturally occurring sugars and amino acids in the garlic to produce melanoidin, a substance that gives black garlic its blackness. It’s then cooled and dried, resulting in an intense, complex flavor, almost like a mushroom- and balsamic reduction-flavored jelly candy with a slight roasted garlic undertone. It also packs a ton of antioxidants.
Judging the competition were Jaene Miranda, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Delray Beach; Ashley Mileschkowsky, in charge of marketing and social media for Crane’s Beach House; and Dave Ortiz, chef at the Dubliner Irish Pub in Boca Raton.
In the spirit of the upcoming biopic, the DJ played NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” while the chefs got to work on their dishes, which would be many over the course of the night. Strine, up first, plated a lobster crudo with orange supremes, fennel fronds, and a garnish of brunoised, deep-fried fennel and sorghum “popped” like popcorn in a hot cast iron skillet. (Interestingly, Brown also used sorghum — albeit in a different way — in his preliminary battle.) “The lobster is so sweet and so fresh," said Ortiz. “The flavors are clean… I love the fennel because it highlights the lobster,” Mileschkowsky said.
Brown’s first dish was a lobster fritter with a black garlic gastrique. “The fried-ness is on point!” bellowed Baker, echoing a comment from last week that should soon be a part of every chef’s vernacular the world over: fried-ness. How could Escoffier have overlooked this one?
Strine’s second dish: beer-battered lobster with dried buttermilk in a black garlic/brown butter emulsion.
“I used beer, cuz I was drinkin’ it!” explained Strine.
“Powdered buttermilk? Beer? He’s a genius!” said chef Ortiz.
Mister 305 (sorry: Mister Worldwide) was there in spirit as his hits were played, encouraging judge Miranda to show off her dancing chops, courtesy of her half-Cuban lineage. Many others joined in, as usual.
“Can I get a mofongo already?” asked Baker. (Mofongo is a fried plantain “cake” mashed together with garlic, olive oil, and pork cracklings or bits of bacon.) Ortiz echoed Baker’s request. Brown’s second dish — mofongo with pork belly, sriracha, and jalapeño — delivered.
“I ask for mofongo and I get mofongo!” Baker said. However, Ortiz — of Puerto Rican descent and therefore able to speak authoritatively on the Puerto Rican specialty — felt that this particular mofongo was ”just ordinary.”
Brown’s fourth dish was lobster and plantain hash with bell peppers. Although two lonely cloves of black garlic sat neglected on the edge of the plate, the flavors won Ortiz over. The chef was so smitten with the flavors, in fact, he jumped up and gave Brown a high-five.
“Break open some effin' egg yolks and make me an aioli outta that," said Ortiz.
Strine’s next dish was grilled lobster and tostones (slices of fried plantain) on a black garlic and grilled fingerling potato purée. Baker was so enamored with the purée that he told an impromptu story of a German chef he worked for who customarily used not one but three fingers to taste sauces, much to Baker’s horror. He said the purée was worthy of “a second three fingers.”
Strine wowed the crowd with a dessert next: a “banana split” made with fried plantains, vanilla ice cream, and a jalapeño-chocolate ganache. It was a hit among all of the judges. “Spicy and sweet in one dish? That’s skill!” said Mileschkowsky.
Brown’s next dish: grilled lobster stuffed with black garlic and lemon in a Magic Hat “nage” with black garlic jasmine rice. “The rice was under. The lobster was over. But the sauce was tits,” said Ortiz.
Strine countered with a cast-iron cocotte filled with lobster, black beans, pork belly, and plantains. Pork belly and plantains of course have a natural affinity for each other, but the dish was decidedly lackluster.
“You know what’s great about Chef vs. Chef?” Baker asked, “I make the rules!” He decided to allow the chefs to make one “bonus dish” each after the hour mark had passed. Strine served up sort of a “chilequiles” dish with eggs, black beans, plantains, and tortillas. It was timely, given the hour and the level of inebriation in the room — the kind of dish you’d thoroughly enjoy downing after too many Tecates. In “screw the Everyman” spirit, Brown got fancy and made a pecan-smoked lobster francese with plantains and veal jus, getting a round of applause from Mileschkowsky.
Alas, there must be a winner every week during Chef vs. Chef. And that winner was… Jimmy Strine. As usual, a great time was had by all, including this writer.
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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 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.