Several weeks ago, Max’s Harvest executive chef Eric Baker said, “It’s been a long, long, long, long road.” At week 12 of the competition, the end of the road is finally in sight.
Since June 17th, we’ve seen so much. Clever wordsmithing: “Fried-ness” (describes the fried, crispy component of a dish). Eric Grutka's Shakespearean creations “miscargots” (escargots in miso butter) and “fisharron” (fried lionfish skin). We’ve witnessed some crazy exclamations, such as Mama Gizzi’s ode to Scent of a Woman. Table-dancing judges, chefs in assless chaps, and “three finger” sauces were highlights. We've seen some great ingredients, too: pig’s ears, frog’s legs, sea sperm, corn smut, a deadly fish, and countless tequila shots to keep the chefs' and judges’ minds limber.
It all started off pretty tame, but after the first couple of weeks, things started to get rowdier than a mob of clown-painted juggalos after too much cotton candy-flavored Faygo. "Whoop, whoop!" How much rowdier can things get? Well, on Sept. 30th, a new spawn of The Max Group will be birthed: Bar Brawls. It’ll be like Chef vs. Chef, except take away all of the food and replace it with booze. Yep, sounds like a great idea. Before that can happen, however, a winning chef must be crowned.
Battling for his place among the gods in this battle was Chris Miracolo from S3 in Fort Lauderdale. His foe was Garlic Fest slayer Bruce Feingold of Dada in Delray.
If you thought the table-dancing, booty-dancing judges in weeks past were something, we’d like to introduce you to Loïc Autret, the craziest Frenchman in Delray. Trained in Paris, his eponymous bakery provided the first of the secret ingredients of the night: fresh artisan breads (baguette, brioche, olive bread and walnut raisin bread). Photographer/journalist Libby Volgyes, owner of food photography biz LibbyVision; and Anthony Fiorini, executive chef at 13 American Table in Boca Raton, completed the judging junta.
Chanterelles, bluefoots, and abalone (also called elf) mushrooms, all from the Pacific Northwest, comprised the second secret ingredient. For the third, three kinds of tongue (beef, lamb, and pork) were flopped onto the counter like gigantic, flaccid phalluses . The beef tongues were the largest by far. In honor of the tongue, DJ Len played Khia’s “My Neck, My Back.” (You know the rest.)
From the start, Baker figured Feingold would have more experience with the tongue. “We Jews know how to use the beef tongue,” he said. With that, Feingold split a beef tongue down the middle and threw it into his pressure cooker.
The first dish to make it to the eagerly-awaiting judges was Miracolo’s tongue tartare with pickled mushrooms and avocado on toasted raisin bread. The skillful brunoise of tongue, apple, celery and onion was visually appealing. The judges agreed that it was a good dish, but Volgyes thought that the vinegar component in the vinaigrette was overpowering.
Feingold countered with a pig tongue carpaccio (thinly sliced raw meat). The pig’s tongue looked a lot like a small pork tenderloin, actually. Feingold paired it with grilled peaches and grilled abalone mushrooms on buttered, toasted brioche with a “quick slaw” on the side. Fiorini said, “the tongue was a bit chewy, maybe it could be sliced thinner. It’s a tough ingredient though, when you only have a little bit of time.” Volgyes said, “the flavors were great, there was just a texture issue.”
Minutes ticked by as the judges awaited follow-up dishes, giving judge Autret time to do an impromptu striptease to Michael Jackson's “Billie Jean." He slithered down into his chair, profanely pumping his hips to the beat. It was fabulous. The next song-and-dance number was to Eddie Murphy’s 1985 hit(?), “Party All The Time.” “This one’s an all-skate,” joked DJ Len. “It’s a brilliant song,” said Baker.
Feingold’s second dish was a mushroom ragout/fricassee with fried, cured lamb tongue over soft scrambled eggs and pickled green tomatoes. Autret said, “The mushrooms are missing salt.” Volgyes said, “The execution worked really well and I liked the explosion of flavors in my mouth.” Fiorini agreed: “The flavors went well together. A poached egg may have moistened the dish a little bit better, though. The mushrooms were under-salted, but everything worked well together.”
Another dish by Feingold was “sweet and sour tongue toast,” sliced steamed tongue with a golden raisin and pistachio chutney over toasted raisin bread. Heads nodding in agreement as the judges ate eliminated the need for words to express that this dish was a good one.
Miracolo next brought out a composed plate of braised lamb’s tongue, fregula (a Sardinian pasta similar to Israeli couscous), wild mushrooms and arugula. In the judges’ collective estimation, this was the best dish of the night. Baker reached for Autret’s plate for a taste, but not before he asked, “Where’s your tongue been the last few days, Loïc?”
The lamb's tongue was cooked to the judges' approval. "This was the first time someone has used the pressure cooker and it has actually worked!” said Baker.
Another dish from Miracolo was a truffled pork tongue with pickled mushroom vinaigrette and savory wild mushroom bread pudding. This time, Autret and Baker literally fought over the dish. “This is my show!” said Baker. “When I go to the bakery, it’ll be your show, ok?”
Volgyes said, “It’s a really creative, well-done dish.”
Feingold reappeared with a beef tongue, goat cheese and wild mushroom flatbread. “This is exactly what we’d want to serve at Tucci’s (13 American Table's sister restaurant, also in Boca Raton),” said Fiorini. Autret said, “This dish has lots of flavor. It reminded me of my mother’s cooking. Thank you very much; I know it was not easy. Great job.”
The pressure cooker sealed the deal for the judges. Miracolo was able to consistently make it work in his favor to put out creative, well-executed dishes, earning him the win and sending him off on a blazing chariot of fire to his next battle.
Tune in next week to see El Camino's Victor Meneses face off against Cafe Boulud's Jimmy Strine.
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.