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Chef vs. Chef 2016 Final Round: Clay Carnes Slays Lionfish

Chef vs. Chef is a 16-week competition at Max's Harvest hosted by chef Eric Baker that pits local chefs against one another, cooking up surprise ingredients for a panel of judges — and our tasting pleasure.

In the midst of opening his solo venture, Cholo Soy Cocina, Clay Carnes slayed it on Wednesday night to become this year's Chef vs. Chef champion. He's now eligible to compete in the 2016 Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival Grand Tasting on December 11. His opponent, Eric Grutka of Ian's Tropical Grill, won't be there, having already won three times in a row. 

Although this year's winner was chosen, there's still one more battle to watch. Next Wednesday, during Grove Week, Carnes will battle last year's champ, Jimmy Strine (new executive chef of Grato), amidst live music and an outdoor barbecue, beginning at 8 p.m.

Judges for Wednesday night's battle were:
  • John “Fitzy” Fitzpatrick, legendary Delray Beach barman with a silky smooth baritone
  • Jeremy Hanlon, executive chef of Benny's on the Beach in Lake Worth
  • George Patti, chef and co-owner of M.E.A.T. Eatery & Tap Room in Boca Raton
Sunshine Provisions provided three secret ingredients for the battle:
  • Black Angus grass fed New York strip steaks from cattle fed twelve types of grass over 27 months at Fort McCoy Ranch in Ocala, Florida
  • Lionfish, an invasive species with (non-deadly to humans) poisonous spikes, caught by Delray Beach spearfisherman, Eric Finn. Native to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, these pests can eat 90 percent of its body weight every day.  You can eat them, or just blast them execution style at point-blank range with a specially modified Glock 9mm like a true #floridaman
  • Beets, butternut and acorn squashes, turnips, honeycrisp apples, and muscadyne grape jelly, just in time for the Autumnal Equinox on September 23rd.
Carnes and Grutka began the battle breaking down the lionfish, while avoiding the potentially painful spikes. Grutka got started on a dashi broth with kombu (dried, salted sea kelp) and bonito flakes.  Clay’s dish was first: grass fed New York strip, sliced and served with a muscadine vinaigrette and jalapeño gremolata. Muscadine grapes, also known as scuppernongs, grow in Florida and are used mostly in jellies. “I liked the focus on one ingredient, the seasoning and acidity were perfect, and I liked the earthiness of the microgreens and scallions,” Patti said.

Lionfish was the focus of Carnes’ next dish, dipped in a buttermilk-sriracha batter, deep-fried, and served with a quick pickled cabbage slaw.

Grutka’s Fall Harvest salad was a composed plate of crispy kale, roasted root vegetables, vanilla and turmeric poached pears, and goat cheese. Orange zest brightened it up. “I’m already feeling the health benefits from that turmeric,” said Fitzpatrick. “I liked the textural differences in the dish, but it needed more acidity,” said Hanlon.

Grutka’s second dish, lionfish aguachile with carrot ginger puree, was the most entrancing of the evening. Aguachile, literally meaning “chili water,” is a type of Mexican ceviche made with jalapeños and lime juice. The colors were vibrant, the flavors, clean and assertive. “It woke me up…it was so fresh, I couldn’t stop eating it…put this on your menu,” said Hanlon. Risotto de zucca was Carnes’ third dish, a bit restrained, but perfect executed in technique. Risotto was a good vehicle for the autumn squash, but it the ingredient could have been more prominent.

Carnes always includes a cocktail. This time he served a muscadine and whiskey drink with an orange twist. It went over well with the judges, but Baker thought it tasted like “really good Manischewitz.” “Hey, I gotta open a restaurant tomorrow, buddy,” said Carnes.

Grutka's third dish was roasted lionfish with fennel, apple, and parsnip puree, lionfish dashi, and fried lionfish skin ("fisharron," in Grutka-speak).

Grutka's finished the night with a seared New York strip, black garlic mashed potatoes, a five-minute egg, and burnt miso butterscotch sauce. "Good char on the steak," said Patti."I'm a sucker for steak and eggs, but I like less on the plate versus more," said Hanlon. Baker and the judging panel agonized over the decision, choosing Carnes in the end. 

Aaron Michaels of Culinary Convenience, who has supported the Chef vs. Chef competition for the second year by donating tools for the battles, such as immersion circulators and pressure cookers, presented Carnes with a beautiful Dragon chef's knife as the grand prize. Throughout the competition, raffle tickets and artwork were sold to benefit The Milagro Center, whose mission is "providing superior arts education, academic enrichment, living values education, and mentoring for at-risk children, youth, and families living at or below the federal poverty level in South Florida." 

Chef vs. Chef 2016 will conclude this Wednesday, October 5th, at Max's Harvest, beginning at 8 p.m. 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.

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Claudia Dawson